The story of
Keepin' it Riel
Brendon Ehinger knew he had something special when he wore his creation around Winnipeg nearly 15 years ago.
It wasn't every day the leader of the Red River and North-West Resistances, Louis Riel, was seen on a T-shirt.
"I made one shirt and wore it around the Fringe Festival grounds that summer and came home with about a dozen phone numbers of random people who wanted me to make them a shirt," Ehinger says.
The classic slogan "Keepin' it Riel," was added under Riel's mug a short time later, after Ehinger's friend Lee White (of improv group CRUMBS) made the suggestion.
"I immediately latched on to that and he gave me his blessing to use it for the shirt," Ehinger says. "The rest is history, so they say."
The idea came about after Ehinger decided he wanted a shirt like the Che Guevara ones that were popping up everywhere — but there had to be a local twist. The idea to immortalize Riel came from exploring his Métis roots. Ehinger says he always knew he had Indigenous blood but it was something his family rarely spoke about.
Ehinger's introduction to Riel was through Chester Brown's award-winning graphic novel, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. The story traces the life of the founder of Manitoba — from the time Rupert's Land was sold to the Canadian government in 1869, to the subsequent Métis uprising, to Riel's surrender to the North-West Mounted Police. He was then tried in Regina on charges of treason.
During a speech made to jurors before their deliberations on July 31, 1885, Riel spoke about his legacy and dream for the future:
"I am glad that the Crown have proved that I am the leader of the half-breeds in the North-West. I will perhaps be one day acknowledged as more than a leader of the half-breeds, and if I am, I will have an opportunity of being acknowledged as a leader of good in this great country."
Riel was found guilty of treason. Judge Hugh Richardson, despite pleas from the six-man jury for leniency, sentenced him to death. Riel was hanged in Regina on Nov. 16, 1885.
Ehinger says he began identifying as Métis around the time he made the first Riel shirts in 2005. He initiated research on his family history, "starting with awkward conversations with my grandparents."
It wasn't until 2013 that Ehinger got some real answers. Armed with names, and birth and death dates of his great grandparents, he sought the help of the St. Boniface Centre du patrimoine.
"The search came back to me with affidavits on my grandmother's side going back a few generations," Ehinger says. "Charles Bottineau, a trapper, married a Chippewa woman named Techomehgood — my great great great grandmother."
After Ehinger came home with a dozen pieces of paper in his pocket from people wanting a Riel shirt, he had a feeling he might be on to something. At first, it was his peers who were most interested — people in the music and arts communities.
"But as word got out, it became pretty much everyone — not just Métis, not just young people, not just musicians. Kind of anybody and everybody. People love Louis."
In the fall of 2007, the provincial government announced a new February holiday would be named in honour of the Métis leader.
"I had already been making the shirt for three years, and some people have suggested that my shirt may have been partially responsible for the surge in public interest leading to the holiday designation," says Ehinger.
Besides selling to Winnipeggers, the Original Riel Tee has shipped to every province and territory in Canada. There have also been sales to the U.S. and the odd one makes it off the continent.
As for Ehinger's thoughts on the controversial leader who'd become a part of his life:
"I think he is more of a hero than a traitor. I also think he may have been a bit crazy. I guess you'd have to be to lead a rebellion though, no?"