This Louis Riel Day, a Manitoba museum wants you to remember that he’s not the only name in Metis history.
“People do not realize that Cuthbert Grant was the first Metis leader — in the 1800s,” says Nancy Sluto, president of Grant’s Old Mill, a museum at the site of Grant’s St. James-area business. “Everything in Winnipeg and Manitoba revolves around Louis Riel,” said Sluto.
Grant led the Battle of Seven Oaks and other skirmishes in 1812-14, before his more-famous nephew Riel was even born in 1844, she notes.
The warden, magistrate, sheriff, farmer, councillor and eventually got the nickname “Warden of the Plains,” compared to Riel’s “Father of Manitoba” moniker.
He and his family were instrumental in forming the Northwest Company and establishing Manitoba’s fur trade.
“We have a hard time communicating with anyone from the French-speaking Metis population … because they want to focus on Louis Riel,” Sluto said.
She says she was “shocked” to find out about the disconnect when she started working with the St. James-Assiniboia Pioneer Association — running a museum at the site of the province’s first-ever water mill, which Grant founded — 15 years ago.
Niece Sandra Horyski has stepped up to promote Grant’s legacy, as the Sept Steward of Clan Grant — the family’s official representative here.
“I think a lot with Louis Riel was sensationalized … he was a traitor, he was hung — so people cling to that little bit of sensationalism,” Horyski said. “Cuthbert Grant has not been given proper recognition as the leader of the Metis people. Louis Riel has his place in time — after.”
Grant’s life also had a bit of drama: After Seven Oaks he was sent to Montreal to attend trial for murder, theft and arson, and escaped on bail in a canoe paddled northwest — although the charges were eventually dropped.
That’s why Horyski is making a movie about Grant’s life, set to begin filming in Winnipeg and Scotland in July.
There used to be a lot of shame, she says, especially because the Scottish Metis didn’t feel accepted by any of the local communities.
Now Horyski is helping to boost the “viral” amount of pride Metis are feeling.
There’s even a petition to rename Highway 26 in Grant’s honour.
She summed it up with a quote from another descendant, whom she met recently at a historical festival: “Back in the day, us Metis were ‘it.’ And it’s about bloody time that us Metis were ‘it’ again.”
The Festival du Voyageur doesn’t offer a Grant interpretation, even though he briefly worked there in the mid-1810s, because their their focus is more on “The guys doing the heavy lifting in the fur trade,” said Colin Mackie, director of heritage programs.
“We interpret the year 1815. There’s no reason (why not), but we haven’t focused a lot on him. Certainly a very important character, in the development in the fur trade and the development of Manitoba.”
Since 2008, Manitoba has celebrated Louis Riel Day on the third Monday of February.
"To gain the support of the Métis, the Nor’Westers proceeded to cultivate, and in fact were the first to voice, the idea of a Métis nation with aboriginal rights to the land and special interests as hunters, at variance with the claims of the HBC colony," states the Canadian Dictionary of Biography entry on Grant.
By March 1816 he was singled out as “Captain-General of all the Half-Breeds.”
But Grant was a local Northwest Company man, having been "virtually born" into the traders company, the biography notes — even though the official title of Warden of the Prairies came from the Hudson's Bay company in 1835, before leadership shifted to Riel in the 1870s.