10/31/2017 12:32 EDT | Updated 11/01/2017 08:42 EDT

Call for return of Louis Riel walking stick donated by military to museum

WINNIPEG — A walking stick that belonged to Northwest Rebellion leader Louis Riel has been donated to the Manitoba Museum, but there is a call for it to be returned to the Metis people.

The Royal Winnipeg Rifles Regimental Museum initially loaned the walking stick to the Manitoba Museum, where it has been on display since January.

In a statement Tuesday, the Manitoba Museum said the artifact was permanently donated to the museum in the hope that the widest possible audience would have an opportunity to appreciate its significance.

"We thought it was a really important piece of Manitoba history in order to interpret Manitoba's founding father, and (we) wanted to ensure that, as the provincial museum, we're telling the whole provincial story," Claudette Leclerc, the museum's executive director, told The Canadian Press in a phone interview.

Riel was convicted of treason in 1885 for his role in the Metis rebellion against the Canadian government and was hanged.

The walking stick is currently featured in the Canada 150 exhibit "Legacies of Confederation: A New Look at Manitoba History."

Jesse Donovan, a former reservist, said the Riel walking stick should be returned to the Metis people.

Donovan had started a petition calling for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles to return it. "It is fundamentally unjust for Canada's military to claim ownership of Riel's possession as war loot," it read.

It's not clear how the Rifles got the stick, but it had been in their possession since the 1970s.

It wasn't until Monday that the Manitoba Museum contacted Donovan to say that the Riel stick had been permanently donated, he said.

"It doesn't seem like there's any public information about this loan becoming permanent and that is what is so troubling to me," Donovan told The Canadian Press.

"These are items which are immensely culturally important to the Metis. We deserve to know where they are and what is happening with them."

Donovan said Canada could have given the Riel walking stick to the Metis or sent it to a Canadian museum.

"I was baffled when I learned this because Canada has been pledging for the past year to engage in reconciliation with the Metis and, as a part of that, to return our culturally significant artifacts."

Donovan said his push to have the walking stick returned will continue. He hopes it will be transferred to a Metis heritage centre in Winnipeg once one is built.

Leclerc said the Manitoba Museum has been supporting groups, including the Manitoba Metis Federation, in the creation of such a centre for more than a decade.

Leclerc said the museum is open to hearing repatriation requests, but she wouldn't commit to giving the Riel walking stick to any one group.

"I would expect that there would be many individuals, regionally and nationally, interested in this particular artifact. That is why museums are guided through ethical practice and repatriation policies to ensure that when artifacts are returned, they are returned to the appropriate party."

The Mounties and the Manitoba Metis Federation signed an agreement in September that three items held by the RCMP for decades — including a crucifix that belonged to Riel — are to be transferred to a future Metis heritage centre.

The items, which also include a knife and a book of Riel's poetry, are now on display at the RCMP Heritage Centre in Regina.

It is believed that before his execution, Riel handed the crucifix to a member of the North West Mounted Police. The poetry book was donated to the RCMP in 1943 and the hunting knife was given to them in 1947.

— By Jennifer Graham in Regina