Wilkins’ Riel sculpture joins Highway 11 series

From left, Thomas Quiring, Elizabeth Quiring and Jim Beebe play during an Aug. 30 ceremony to dedicate a sculpture of Louis Riel, called "The Invitation."
From left, Thomas Quiring, Elizabeth Quiring and Jim Beebe play during an Aug. 30 ceremony to dedicate a sculpture of Louis Riel, called “The Invitation.”

By Joel van der Veen

BLADWORTH — As Don Wilkins planned his latest sculpture, he faced a daunting question: how best to depict one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history.

The subject: Métis leader Louis Riel, a prime mover behind two major rebellions in the 19th century, a man variously seen as either a father of his people or a traitor to his country.

“How do you handle something like that?” said Wilkins, an artist and retired farmer based near Girvin. “I didn’t know how I could really represent him.”

For inspiration, Wilkins turned to a specific moment in time: the summer of 1884, when a delegation visited Riel in Montana, where he was then living in exile, to ask him to return to act as their representative in negotiating with the Canadian government.

While Riel’s name is typically associated with the rebellions he led and his execution for treason in 1885, Wilkins said he wanted to take a different approach: “In this instance, he’s a peacemaker.”

This formed the basis of his latest project, “The Invitation,” which was officially dedicated at its site along Highway 11 just outside of Bladworth on Aug. 30.

A crowd of around 100 people gathered for the ceremony, which included a musical performance, a brief speech by Wilkins and the unveiling of a plaque.

Performing at the site were bagpiper Jim Beebe, of the North Saskatchewan Regiment Pipes and Drums; bagpiper Thomas Quiring and of the 96th Highlanders Pipes and Drums; and Elizabeth Quiring, of the same band, on the tenor drum.

Wilkins read a speech outlining the context of the sculpture, aided by a small portable PA system. He also answered several questions from the audience, while his daughter, Cindy Jordison of Tisdale, unveiled the plaque.

This latest sculpture is the eighth in a series along Highway 11. Wilkins was part of the committee that successfully campaigned to have the route named the “Louis Riel Trail” in 2001.

“This highway provides a great venue to showcase our region and our province,” Wilkins told the Leader last week.

The main part of the steel sculpture depicts Riel himself, 13 feet tall, posed in a peaceful stance with a crucifix held in his outstretched left hand, reflecting his Catholic faith.

Behind him are four pillars, representing the four delegates who travelled to meet with Riel: Gabriel Dumont, Moïse Ouellette, Michel Dumas and James Isbister.

Each one is adorned at the top with a small image of a rider on horseback, while a small building marked with a cross represents the St. Peter’s Jesuit mission where Riel was teaching at the time of the delegates’ visit. Also on the site is a Red River cart, the 16th such cart crafted by Wilkins.

For the full story, please see the Sept. 7 edition of The Davidson Leader.