Letters and diary from Métis leader Louis Riel on display in Calgary

An exhibit featuring private letters and a journal written by Louis Riel is currently on display at the University of Calgary.

Devotion, Louis Riel Writes Home features correspondence from Riel to his family while in exile after the Red River resistance from the 1870s to 1880s while he spent time in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Annie Murray, the rare books and special collections librarian at the university, bought the collection from a bookstore – who in turn – bought it from people who said they were decedents of Riel.

Murray said she included writings that showed Riel’s life outside his very public profile.

“What I included was his more personal writings, which was often imbued with spirituality,” she said. “And that’s why I chose the name Devotion for the show. Louis Riel was profoundly devoted to his family. He was devoted to God. And he was devoted to the Métis people.”

Riel is most famous for his political life in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. He led the resistance against the government and was eventually hanged for it in 1885.

These letters to his family, written mostly in French, detail his life across the many other parts of America before settling down in Montana and raising a family and coming back to Canada.

“It takes us from this young man who was involved in the Red River Resistance, in ‘69 and ‘70, to these years in the ‘70s where he is living down in the states, visiting various friends trying out various jobs, eventually moving west to Montana,” Murray said.

“So it was this what was Riel up to in the interlude years between these big moments in his life. That is what is what a lot of these letters capture.”

Murray says the letters show a unique insight into how Riel loved his family.

“I chose these because they give some insight into what was some of the things going on in Louis Riel’s mind and who was he the most connected to,” she says. “He was very close to his sister Octavie and when Octavie got married to Louis Lavallee, Louis Lavallee was basically his brother. They became so close. So it taught me who was Louis Riel’s trusted inner circle. There was his sister Octavie, his brother in law, Louis Lavallee.

“When his younger brother Joseph grew up, eventually Joseph became someone he wrote to much more.”

Louis Riel
A shot of Louis Riel’s diary at the University of Calgary. Photo: Chris Stewart/APTN.

One of Riel’s diaries is also on display with notes at the back written by others.

“Following Louis Riel’s execution, in the back of the diary, there are all these contributions from others about what happened to Louis Riel. What does Louis Riel mean? Why is he so significant? What was this terrible injustice that occurred?

“So I hope that community members, descendants, scholars, people who kind of know the figures from this time in history. Maybe eventually they can figure out who wrote all these other things in the notebook.”

The exhibit runs until the beginning of September.

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