When Louis Riel Went Crazy

Summer, 2017 / No. 39


after the Red River Rebellion of 1869
Louis Riel went crazy, he ran off and hid
in a bush along the Seine, a land that jutted
out into the stream, a place
everyone called Vermette’s Point, a thick
mass of thin trees, next to a narrow
slot of ploughed land, and a meek
farmhouse, a brief place, nondescript
but the prideful home of my great-
great uncle and aunt
Riel stayed there a month, a long
month when the spring
spread out slowly
separating him from his “crimes”
and my aunt left food at the bush’s edge
for him, bannock lard and meat on an old tin plate
a meal for a dog, or
a “rebel,”
something he would have to hurry to
so the foxes didn’t get there first
some say that’s where Louis took
the name David, where in
his cold, hungry penitence
God spoke to him, gave him
his divine purpose
and a middle name
when Louis Riel was hanged in 1885
my great-great uncle had no land, Manitoba
had become a province, and Canadian
surveyors came in, Métis
farms were dissected,
bisected, halved, quartered,
over and over again until
nothing was left, only
a square to balance one foot on
for only one second
before they all fell over
Ottawa took it all by then, all
those half-breed homesteads, ribbon lots not
“properly bought” were sold, and my
ancestral uncle’s home was pulled
up from under him like a rug, a rug
rolled up from the river’s edge all the way
to the road, tucked under
Canada’s collective arm
and chucked on an eastbound train
with all the other rugs, all the other
rolled-up land that became tidy
cylindrical tokens, conquered
presents to be presented
to John A., nothing more than
rolled-up grass like pressed cigars
he lit up and smoked
’til they were spent
only white
ash brushed off
red coats
and made


there is still a place called Vermette, just
southeast of Winnipeg, landlocked but
not far from the river Seine, it has
a postal code, a store and a sign because
they let us use the names of our dead
as if that means
we’re allowed to honour them
we do not forget our dead, we know
where they are, and sometimes we pull
them out of the ground like relics
we brush them off and wonder
at their possibility, like rotting bulbs of some
rare and fragile orchid, we tend to them
all winter and put them back
into the earth come spring with nothing
more tangible than hope to
make them flower
our names are scattered
seeds all over this
mother land, fathers’ names
sons’ names
just words long lost of meaning
south side street signs, markers
this city is a graveyard
my conquered people, these
children of bereft sons who
once thought themselves so grand
they had the nerve to create
a province
dead names breathing
thin dusty life
and Riel
everywhere Riel
we are intertwined within
this city, as if we belong
as if we are honoured
Katherena Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory, living in Winnipeg. Her first book, North End Love Songs, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. Her latest book is the novel The Break. Last updated summer, 2017.