Arts Theatre

Canadian hero or villian?

Cast of Hey, Riel! / Supplied
Cast of Hey, Riel! / Supplied

Musicalmania’s Hey, Riel! tells the story of Louis Riel through intricate songs and dance numbers

Since the late 1970s, Canadians have been fascinated by the enigmatic Louis Riel. And you can hardly blame us—he is undoubtedly one of our most interesting historical figures, whose plight for civil rights (and subsequent execution) have secured him a spot as a national legend. 

Now, as old wounds uncovered via Truth and Reconciliation begin to heal, and Canada nears the end of its contentious 150 celebration, Musicalmanias production of Hey, Reil! couldn’t be more timely.

“I think it’s prudent that [Canadians] analyze our history—I mean really look at it,” says lead Ken Mastel. “We should start looking at these figures like Louis Riel or John A. [MacDonald] as humans rather than just characters in a story.”

In his estimation, Canadians have a habit of simplifying our historical figures as “good” or “evil”. And according to Mastel, that kind of thinking misses the point of historical analysis.

“Here’s the thing: Louis Riel was not always a good person. He made some very bad choices to get the things he wanted. But so did John A. MacDonald. Both are icons,” he says.

Like confederate general Robert E. Lee, MacDonald’s legacy came under heavy scrutiny this year when his reputation as a bigot had some members of Ontario’s teachers federation calling for his name to be removed from schools, favouring more benevolent Canadian icons.

Mastel explains, “The truth is, none of us live saintly lives. None of us. But that’s what makes Hey, Riel! so interesting—it’s just such a human story.”

Indeed, Riel’s is a very human story (if not a very depressing one): a would-be priest-turned rebel led the charge for Métis and Indigenous rights. His passion and vitriol, however, made him  somewhat a erratic and violent individual. His steadfast belief that he was chosen to lead the Métis by some divine intervention earned him a reputation as a religious fanatic. Two rebellions, and the murder of a European prisoner later, Louis Riel was executed for treason.

This is the basic story that Hey, Riel! promises to tell, complete with some intricate song and dance numbers. For those concerned with this being some Canadian Hamilton knockoff, consider that Hey, Riel! made its debut in 2000—if anything, Hamilton is an American Hey Riel!.

However, the question remains—will Albertans be able to relate to the controversial figure? After all, Alberta is home to some of the country’s most troubling alt-right and white nationalist groups. And abject racism aside, (these groups certainly don’t reflect the majority of Albertans), there exists a pervasive reluctance to accept responsibility. You haven’t really lived in Alberta until you’ve heard someone remark, “I’m not apologizing/paying for something my ancestors did!”

Julien Constantin, who doubles as director and villain, acknowledges that this is a problem for some audiences, but offers up some sage advice for prospective audiences:

“It’s not important to agree; it’s important to understand.”

Here’s hoping it has the desired effect.

Thu., Nov. 16 (1 pm)
Hey, Riel!
Jubilee Auditorium
$15 at ticketmaster.ca

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