Volume 13, Number 18  May 19, 2006

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Original Riel poem added to collection

By David Shield

…O, Robert, Let us be fond
Of virtue! Virtues abound
In every sort of good,
Let virtue be our soul’s food.
- from “Robert Gordon!...”
by Louis “David” Riel
Linda Fritz, head of Research Services in the Library, with the Louis Riel poem.

Linda Fritz, head of Research Services in the Library, with the Louis Riel poem.

Photo by Liam Richards

Thanks to a Hamilton-based philanthropist, an original copy of one of Métis leader Louis Riel’s poems has found its way into the University of Saskatchewan’s collection of historic documents.

Dated October 27, 1885 – just two weeks before Riel was hanged in Regina – the poem is prefaced with a dedication to Robert Gordon, one of Riel’s jailers. Riel begins with an apology to Gordon for keeping him waiting for the poem which deals with themes of spiritual redemption and virtue.

Linda Fritz, head of the Research Services Division of the U of S Library says the poem’s acquisition is a major coup for the University.

“Next to Tommy Douglas, Louis Riel is right up there when it comes to famous Saskatchewanians. He led a resistance, he led a people, and it took a long time to get there, but (many people) now recognize him as a founding father,” she says.

The poem was given to the University in the will of Edna Robinson, the daughter of a former editor of the Hamilton Spectator.  It apparently traveled to Hamilton in 1885 where it was reprinted in a paper called the Hamilton Times, and eventually in the Daily Manitoban. Fritz says Robinson did an admirable job of preserving the document.

“It’s been looked after. It’s old paper. I have no idea how she kept it, but obviously she, and her father before her, understood that this was something pretty special.”

While Fritz would love to put the poem on public display, she says the University wants to consult with the Native Studies department to make sure exhibiting it would be culturally sensitive. As well, she wants to make sure she can find a safe, secure environment for the valuable document.

“When we display it, we’ll have to keep it in a case that’s covered, so you’ll have to lift the cover to look at the actual thing, with low lighting. You have to be very, very careful with these documents. You need to keep them well covered, well away from bright light, the heat and the humidity has to be at a reasonable level, those sorts of things.”

Fritz says the University is trying to have the poem declared a piece of cultural property thereby ensuring it stays in the collection permanently.

“Once you’ve done that, and have gone through the hoops and had it declared a piece of cultural property by the government, then you can’t sell it. However, we wouldn’t dream of selling it. It’s too exciting.”

While Fritz is reluctant to reveal the appraised value of the letter, she says it has been independently confirmed as authentic. While Riel was a prolific writer, and many original copies of his work still exist, Fritz says much of his writing has been scattered across North America.

“The University of Alberta has a piece (written by Riel), the Saskatchewan Archives Board has a letter that I saw some years ago that was written in French. He was in exile for some time, and he was a leader, so he was writing to many people.”

David Shield is a Saskatoon freelance writer

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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