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Louis Riel: revolutionary, Métis hero … poet?

Hanged for treason in 1885 as a result of his part in the Northwest Rebellions, Louis Riel has seen an uptick in his reputation in the last 40 years or so. But it’s unlikely that most people would associate him with Canadian poetry, even though Riel was apparently a fairly prolific poet. According to an article entitled “The Political Poetry of Louis Riel: A Semiotic Study” by Glen Campbell (presumably not the singer), Riel “wrote a considerable amount of poetry in the form of fables, love poems, songs, letters in verse as well as political and religious compositions.”

This week, several of the handwritten poems he wrote in prison while awaiting execution will go on the auction block in Toronto.

According to the CBC:

The poems came to light after being held by descendants of North West Mounted Police Const. Robert Hobbs, who gave the Métis leader the writing pad in his jail cell shortly before his execution for treason.

In return, Riel gave the poems to Hobbs as a gift.

The poetry, which is expected to fetch upwards of $5,000, is of interest from an historical perspective, but is not likely to put the reputations of Robert Service or Duncan Campbell Scott into question. One of the poems to be auctioned off reads, in part:

Prophet of the new world, I
Do the work of the Most High.
I assert it with no pride.
I live in humility:
Is there any one to side
With me?

Although these lines could easily be mistaken for lyrics to a Stryper or Creed anthem, the poem is signed “Louis ‘David’ Riel.”