Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Red River Rebellion Retold

Sep 28, 2018

My initiation into political campaigning came in the 1969 BC election when I canvassed door-to-door on behalf of Tom Berger, then the new leader of the provincial NDP. He lost, his party lost, and I left town (for unrelated reasons). But politics' loss was the legal world's gain and Berger went on to have a distinguished career as a lawyer and judge. I still own a well-thumbed copy of his landmark report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1977). I am not going to run through his many accomplishments; you can find them here.

I mention all this because earlier in the week I had the opportunity to hear Justice Berger, still going strong in his mid-80s, deliver a very impressive after-dinner speech. His topic was the Red River Rebellion of 1869/70, Manitoba's entry into Confederation and the swindling (his word) of the Metis out of their land. The relevance was that just a few days earlier the Manitoba Metis had reached an agreement with the federal government that built on a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in 2013 that Ottawa had failed to live up to the agreement it signed with the Metis back in 1870. The Manitoba Metis had been promised land; the federal government failed in its responsibility to see that they got it.

Justice Berger, who was involved in much of the litigation leading up to the recent agreement, walked us through the 19th-century events, then movingly connected them to modern attempts to right an historical wrong. I've seldom been in a room full of people so attentive to a story from Canadian history. It was the best after dinner speech I've ever heard.