Spring 1886. A house in mourning. The black cross mounted on the roof signals the family's grief. Louis David Riel, founding father of the province of Manitoba, was father, brother, husband and son to his family and his execution for treason, barely six months earlier, left the inhabitants of this house in deep sadness.
This is the world that you walk into at Riel House National Historic Site; the world of the Riel family and their people, the Métis, after the decisive battle at Batoche where Métis dreams of their own country suffered a severe setback.
In the living room, there are more signs of grief-black crepe draped over a picture of Louis Riel, who lay in state in the home for two days before his burial in the cemetery at St. Boniface Cathedral. But there are also signs of the necessity of day-to-day living and of Métis culture. Store-bought items such as oil lamps and clocks, sit alongside the handmade rawhide-strung chairs and homespun cloth. The blend of European and aboriginal cultures, a hallmark of the Métis, is also evident. A hammock (wewepisoni) for the baby, more aboriginal in custom, is used alternately with the more European-influenced cradle.
On the other side of the room, there is evidence of the reality of prairie winters-the cast iron stove. With reflectors placed all around it, the stove would be the centre of activity in the winter as all 12 of the home's inhabitants sought its warmth. Twelve people may seem a lot for this house, but the Riel family were relatively well off compared to many other settlers, who would fit as many people into a smaller space.
This private bedroom, for example, was an unusual luxury in most homes in Red River. Normally used by Julie Lagimodiere Riel, mother of Louis Riel, the bedroom's occupant in 1886 was Marguerite Monet Riel, Louis's widow. There are other displays of the family's relative wealth – the china, mirrors and store-bought bed posts (the rest of the bed is handmade).
Just off the living room is the summer kitchen. In an almost universal ritual of spring, prairie inhabitants moved their cookstoves from the interior of the house, where they served as both heater and stove, to a smaller room off the main part of the house, known as the summer kitchen. Here, cooking could be done in the summer without heating the house. The Riel family used their summer kitchen to store foodstuffs and firewood in the winter, since its lack of insulation made it a perfect cold room.
The inside of Riel House may have been the focus during winter, but summer was the time to be outside and accomplish the work necessary for the family's survival. The Riel lot was typical of that era-it was a long, thin strip of land, stretching the entire distance from the Red River to the Seine River, but only 150-200 metres (500-650 ft.) wide. This river lot system gave land owners equal access both to the river and to a common grazing and pasture land further back from the bank. The bulk of the Riel lot was taken up with growing the family's food. There were both gardens for vegetables and fields sown with wheat, rye and oats. The gardens are still tended at Riel House National Historic Site, although on a much smaller scale than in the 1880s.
Riel House National Historic Site was occupied by the Riel family until 1969. Parks Canada purchased the property in 1970 and restored it to its 1886 appearance. Today, it commemorates more than just one man and one family; it represents the Métis people who were born of the fur trade, became a united nation behind their leader, Louis Riel, and whose culture remains a significant and vibrant force in Manitoba and throughout Canada.