New documentary sheds light on the story of one Métis sniper in the First World War

Many people learn about history and Canada’s involvement with the First and Second World War and the many soldiers that never came home.

But often those individual stories are lost. 

One more story is brought back out of the shadows in a new documentary, The Sniper, which explores the life of a Métis sniper named Patrick Riel, who was listed as being from Port Arthur, Ont., which became Thunder Bay — and rumoured to be related to Métis leader Louis Riel.

Ron Harpelle teaches history at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, and is a director of the film. He said Patrick Riel and Louis Riel were related, but only distantly.

“It’s in the newspapers, he comes up as this relative of Louis Riel. He is related but they’re really, really far apart. But they’re not that much different from one another,” said Harpelle.

In 2018, Harpelle was working on a project called Where the Poppies Grow to commemorate the end of the First World War in November 1918, and it required a lot of research of people from Lakehead who fought overseas. 

One of the tombstones he came across was Patrick Riel, which intrigued Harpelle.

A plaque sating Patrick Riel was Louis Riel’s nephew. Harpelle found that they were indeed related, but only distantly. (Supplied by Ron Harpelle and Kelly Saxberg)

“I grew up in Manitoba in a small, historically Métis community. I knew all about Louis Riel probably long before most other Canadians would have heard of [him] because it was sort of part of our history and our community,” Harpelle said.

Through his research, Harpelle learned Patrick Riel had joined the Winnipeg Rifles, nicknamed the ‘Little Black Devils, and had a key connection to the story of Louis Riel. They’re the militia that fought the Métis, and are the people who escorted Louis Riel to Regina where he was tried for treason and hanged in November of 1885.

“It was really interesting to me that there would be a Riel that would join the Rifles,” Harpelle said. “I dug a little deeper, and it didn’t take very much to uncover a little bit of information, and what I came across immediately were newspaper articles after [Patrick] had died.” 

Who is Patrick Riel?

Patrick Riel went to Europe in 1914 and was killed in action in January 1916. But during his year of service, Harpelle found out that Patrick Riel was, and still is, considered one of Canada’s top snipers for the First World War.

Patrick Riel was born in Quebec and had three daughters with his wife who died in childbirth, and left them in the care of his community and came to Thunder Bay to work in Shabaqua, Ont. When the war broke out the Winnipeg Rifles were one of the first units to be called to serve.

Harpelle said because Patrick Riel enlisted in Thunder Bay, he was ultimately recorded as a casualty from Thunder Bay.

“I went to the National Archives. There he was mentioned in dispatches, you know, he was a famous person on the frontline and more famous maybe after death,” said Harpelle. 

Harpelle then came across a self published book from a man named Frank Iriam in Kenora, which was a memoir from the First World War called In the Trenches, which outlined his experience in Europe.

Through that book, Harpelle found Iriam was the commander of the group of snipers and scouts which Patrick Riel was part of. 

“He was a commander and he sort of laid out the course of Patrick Riel’s time in the war where they fought, and he spoke specifically about Patrick Riel several times in his book and also in his letters home,” said Harpelle.

“So we pieced all of that together and along the way while I was doing this I managed to track down his descendants in Quebec.”

Patrick Riel’s relatives

Sandy Commanda is from Kitigan Zibi First Nation and is the great granddaughter of Patrick Riel. 

Commanda said her involvement with this documentary started with a letter sent to her community’s cultural centre.

It was from Harpelle and his film partner Kelly Saxberg, which included some photos and ended up with the cultural centre reaching out to her and asking if she knew where the photos were located or if she had seen them before.

“It was quite ironic because the picture was of my grandparents, my mom’s parents, and that’s a picture that was on her living room wall,” said Commanda.

Patrick Riel’s tombstone. (Supplied by Ron Harpelle and Kelly Saxberg)

She said they left an email address in the letter and she reached out and from there they started talking, and eventually Harpelle and Saxberg made their way to the community to look through Commanda’s mother Bernice’s boxes of photos, and were able to spend some time with Bernice and have her on film before she passed away.

They were also able to look through Kate Riel’s things, who was Patrick Riel’s daughter and Bernice Commanda’s mother.

Commanda said being involved with the documentary and meeting Harpelle and Saxberg was very natural, and said it was almost like meeting extended family where she felt at home being around them.

She said learning about her great grandfather was very interesting, as there were things she knew about him but there were other things Harpelle and Saxberg knew through their research. Commanda said having that information pushed her along to do more research in her family.

Sandy Commanda, left, and Bernice Commanda look at past photos in the documentary ‘The Sniper’ (Supplied by Ron Harpelle and Kelly Saxberg)

“I’m not a research person. I work in finance, so research isn’t my strong point anyways. And so Ron and Kelly were actually a really big help. And it was great to hear the history of our family,” said Commanda.

It was such an experience for Commanda and her family that next year, a number of her family members will be going overseas in July to visit Patrick Riel’s grave and other family members’ graves.

“And it all started with a letter,” said Commanda.

The Sniper premiers on Remembrance Day in Kitigan Zibi First Nation where the community will be holding a screening.

It’s also available to watch on researchtv.ca in both English and French.

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