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.