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 Riel vs. Rizal

Last month, many lucky Manitobans had the pleasure of sleeping in on a Monday “Louis Riel Day” morning. In my own extended sleep, I couldn’t help but compare our own Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal, and his special day of commemoration in December. So, in this article I figured I would share who I think is more deserving of their day of commemoration. How did their day of commemorations first come about? Is there any significance to why they are celebrated on a certain day of the year? To answer these questions let’s get to know them first.

Let’s start with “The Father of Manitoba”. Louis Riel was born in 1844 from a fairly wealthy, devoutly religious, and well-respected French-Canadian family. Highly educated, he has been said to have excelled in science, philosophy and languages. He trained to become a priest in Montreal, but later pursued a career as a lawyer instead. However, he failed to graduate in both. Nonetheless, Riel is well noted for his major accomplishments as a leader in the Red River Rebellion, the North West Rebellion, and the provisional government which helped form our province, Manitoba. He fought for the rights of the Metis and Indian people to preserve their culture and way of life. Yet, some regarded Riel as a murderer for the execution of Tomas Scott (an anti-French anti-Catholic, Canadian Government surveyor). Tried for treason by the ruling government, he repeatedly rejected a guilty plea on the count of insanity. He became a martyr to preserve the culture and right of the Metis and Indian peoples in Manitoba. Some say that Riel’s execution in 1885 further divided French-Canadians and Indians from English-Canadians. Today, Riel is remembered as a teacher, poet, political and spiritual leader, heroic freedom fighter, and (by some) a traitor and a murderer.

In comparison, Jose Rizal, born in 1861, was also from a well-off, distinguished, educated family. At age 16, he obtained his Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy and Letters while obtaining a land surveyor and assessor’s degree in the same year. He later studied medicine in Europe, specializing in the eye, which he would later use to repair his mother’s sight. Rizal wrote 2 novels, both of which were banned by the ruling Spanish government out of fears it inspired Philippine nationalism, and condemnation against the Catholic Church and Spanish Colonialism. The Spanish officials eventually exiled Rizal to the southern part of the Philippines where he became a businessman, operated and maintained a hospital, and conducted classes (languages, self-defense, arts, agriculture, and surveying). However, it would be his role as a co-founder of “La Liga Filipina” (an organization that promotes nationalism and equality for Filipinos through non-violent means) that he would be remembered for playing a part in the Philippine Revolution. Rizal was arrested and tried for rebellion and conspiracy by the Spanish. Rizal was executed in 1896. He is said to have died for the Philippines, a country he truly loved. Rizal was a novelist, poet, sculpture, doctor, Illustrado, scientist, architect, and teacher just to name a few.

Both men led very similar lives, lived at about the same time, on the opposite sides of the word. Who would have thought that we would have murals, sculptures, street names, and buildings for both martyrs in one great city, Winnipeg, centuries later! Now, how did the holidays that bear their names come to exist?

Louis Riel Day” was the result of the Manitoba Government caving into the pressure of a local radio station. Listeners pressed for a holiday in the middle of a long, cold Manitoba winter. The name “Louis Riel Day” was nominated in a Province-wide contest for schoolchildren. The only tie between “Louis Riel Day” and Riel himself is that it coincidentally happens to fall in the middle of a French Canadian winter festival (Le Festival du Voyageur) held each February. On the other hand, “Jose Rizal Day” is held on December 30 (or the Monday nearest to) to mark the anniversary of his execution and death. Now who would I declare the winner? I would choose Rizal because he has accomplished more in his 35 years than almost anyone in their lifetime. I see Rizal more of a lover than a fighter (maybe due to his ties with nine women) and his peaceful pursuit to gain Philippine independence and equality. That is why Jose Rizal is my hero.

Contact the author at DEADLINE for ANAK Liwayway scholarships is 31 March 2009.