Louis Riel Day

3rd Monday in February

Manitoba flag

Lunatic or a Patriot? The Voice of God or an Enemy of the People?

Nope, not George Bush, we’re talking about another controversial figure, whose life is celebrated today in Manitoba.

Louis Riel was a leader of the Metis people of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and of French-Canadian Catholics.

Riel studied to become a priest and then a lawyer, but did not complete either training. Still, his education and his powerful speaking abilities allowed him to become the mouthpiece of the Metis people.

The Metis were the descendants of the native peoples of Manitoba and early French-Canadian settlers.

In the 1860s the Canadian government was preparing to absorb a large territory ‘owned’ by the Hudson Bay Company. Riel’s homeland, the Red River Colony, was within the territory’s bounds, and the Metis people feared they would lose autonomy over the their own land.

“As tensions mounted among the Metis it was clear that strong leadership was needed. Riel’s experiences during the past ten years had produced a life-style very different from that of the buffalo-hunting Metis, but it was these people he now aspired to lead…Riel — ambitious, well-educated, bilingual, young and energetic, eloquent, deeply religious, and the bearer of a famous name — was more than willing to provide what the times required.”

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

The term “Red River Rebellion” is used to describe the events of 1869-1870, when Riel led a provisional government that opposed the surveying of their land by the Canadian government and occupied the Canadian Upper Fort Garry.

The rebellion was mostly bloodless, but during this time Riel ordered the controversial execution of Thomas Scott, a Protestant Orangeman from Ontario, originally from Northern Ireland. Scott had taken part in an action against Riel’s men and had been taken prisoner in an attempt to rescue a local Canadian leader named JC Schultz.

After the Rebellion Sir John A. MacDonald, concerned about the possibility of the land being annexed by Minnesota, placated the Metis with the creation of the provence of Manitoba. But the Protestant outcry over the Thomas Scott killing was strong. MacDonald refused to grant clemency to Louis Riel for his role in the execution.

(left) Louis Riel, circa 1875; (right) His children Jean-Louis and Angelique, 1880

Riel spent the next 14 years in exile, in Quebec, New England and the American Midwest. He was elected twice to parliament by Quebec, but could not take his seat in Ottawa on account of the warrant for his arrest.

In 1884 Riel was teaching school in Montana when he was approached by some Metis representatives from Saskatchewan who asked for his help in negotiating for their land rights with Canada.

What they may not have known was that during the intervening years Riel had spent time in mental institutions and became increasingly convinced that he had been chosen by God to lead his people.

The second Rebellion was not as bloodless as the first. In the end Riel was placed on trial for treason. Riel refused his lawyers pleas to declare himself not guilty by reason of insanity. He was found guilty, and though the jury recommended mercy on his behalf, the judge ordered his execution. It has been said that Riel was found guilty of treason, but was executed for the murder of Thomas Scott.

Riel testifies at his trial, 1885

In those years and the decades following his death Riel was painted as an insane megalomaniac traitor by the mostly Protestant Canadian media. However he remained a hero and symbol of nationalism to the Metis people and many French-Canadians

Also today, the third Monday in February, Alberta residents celebrate “We’re not Saskatchewan Day.”

OK, not really, but..

Presidents’ Day

3rd Monday in February

“A federal statute officially designates the holiday  as ‘Washington’s Birthday,’ reflecting the desire of Congress specially to honor the first president of the United States.” — 5 U.S. Code, Section 6103

The United States government honors three individuals’ birthdays with their own federal holiday. Who are they?

george_washington martin_luther_king_jr_with_ abraham_lincoln_cracked_portrait





  • George Washington (3rd Monday in February)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr (3rd Monday in January)
  • and Jesus Christ (Christmas, December 25th).

Yes, the picture above was just to fool you. Lincoln didn’t make the cut. [And Columbus Day remembers the date Columbus landed in North America, not Columbus’s birthday.]

The third Monday in February is official Washington’s Birthday Observed, not Presidents’ Day. The confusion came in 1968 with the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill, in which the federal government moved Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February…

…even though the third Monday in February can never fall on February 22.

The first year the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect was 1971. That year “Washington’s Birthday” holiday fell on February 15, closer to Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12) than Washington’s. Henceforth, many states, cities and companies which formerly recognized Lincoln’s Birthday on a local level decided to forego it in favor of a joint “Presidents’ Day” honoring both.

On the national level, “During the 1998 restyling of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, references to ‘Washington’s Birthday’ were mistakenly changed to ‘Presidents’ Day,'” according to the U.S. Code.

So that year Congress reiterated that:

“A federal statute officially designates the holiday  as ‘Washington’s Birthday,’ reflecting the desire of Congress specially to honor the first president of the United States.” — 5 U.S. Code, Section 6103

Is George Washington miffed about sharing his birthday with another Prez? Or about it never being celebrated on his actual birthday?

It’s all a moot point, because George Washington was not born on February 22.

Nope. Despite the fact that the country has celebrated February 22 as Washington’s Birthday since the end of the 19th century, George was in fact born on February 11.

In 1752, when George was 20, Britain and all its colonies transfered from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as much of the rest of Europe had already done.

Part of the switch entailed a one-time chucking of 11 days from the calendar, in order to make up for 11 extra leap days that had piled up over the past 15 or so centuries.

Washington chose to recognize the Gregorian equivalent of his birthday, February 22, instead of February 11, as his legal birthday, just as the anniversaries of many pre-1752 dates had to be adjusted 11 days to reflect the new reality. [Yeah, Y2K had nothing on Y1752.]

Personally, I think we should go back to George’s Julian birthday and celebrate his birthday and Lincoln’s on February 11th and 12th. That’s right, a four-day weekend for the hard-working American people.

My friend who’s a Congressional aide tells me another holiday will never fly at the Capitol. But if countries like Germany and Australia can give workers 6 weeks off for vacation, I think each of our two greatest Presidents deserves a little celebration of their own…

Legal Holidays of the United State of America

5 USC Sec. 6103. Holidays

      (a) The following are legal public holidays:

        New Year's Day, January 1.
        Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the third Monday in
        Washington's Birthday, the third Monday in February.
        Memorial Day, the last Monday in May.
        Independence Day, July 4.
        Labor Day, the first Monday in September.
        Columbus Day, the second Monday in October.
        Veterans Day, November 11.
        Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November.
        Christmas Day, December 25.

By George, it IS Washington’s Birthday! – History of Presidents’ Day

Flag Day in Turkmenistan

February 19

Turkmenistan’s Flag Day was established in 1997 to coincide with the birthday of then-President Saparmurat Niyazov (1940-2006).

Turkmenistan Flag

Niyazov ruled the country for over twenty years. He became Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party (ie. Head Honcho) in 1985 and remained in power after Turkmenistan declared its independence in October 1991.

Turkmenistan prefers stability to change. One of the last of the Soviet Republics to formerly break from Russia, the country remained a one-party Communist state with party leader Niyazov as its President. In 1994 his term was extended to ten years by a vote of the Mejlis, the parliament which he controlled. Before the term was set to expire, a newly ‘elected’ Mejlis, consisting of members groomed by Niyazov, benevolently heaped a new title on their leader: “President for Life.”

Highlights of the Niyazov administration include:

  • Bestowed title upon himself: “Serdar Turkmenbashi.” (Great Leader of all Turkmen.)
  • Renamed the month of April after his mother.
  • Renamed January after himself: Turkmenbashi
  • Wrote the “Ruhnama,” a guide of his views on spiritual living–required reading for all schoolchildren.
  • Named airports, streets and landmarks after himself.

During his reign posters and statues of him were put up on almost every block in the country.

According to a segment from 60 Minutes (aired January 2004):

“He’s not only a brutal dictator, but a dictator who runs his country like it’s his own private Disney World…His face is everywhere, and you can’t walk a block without seeing either a statue or photo of him.”

Said the humble Great Leader in response:

“I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets—but it’s what the people want.”

And as for renaming months after himself and his family, he explained:

“You can’t have a great country without great ancestors—and we had none before. We’re starting new, with a new society, and this new culture will be followed for centuries.”

In defense of his authoritative rule, he explained it from the Turkmenistan perspective:

“You Americans, you should understand one thing—for 74 years under the Soviets we were prohibited from thinking about political opposition parties. Look at America—you had a civil war, you didn’t have instant democracy. Yet now you demand we create democracy in Turkmenistan overnight.

Niyazov died in 2006 without an apparent successor.

International Crisis Group noted, “His two decades in power bequeathed ruined education and public health sectors, a record of human rights abuses, thousands of political prisoners and an economy under strain despite rich energy exports.”

The International Herald Tribune says that change has come to post-Niyazov Turkmenistan:

“For his 63rd birthday, [2003] Niyazov’s ministers proclaimed him God’s prophet on Earth. This year, [2008] according to a law passed last week, Flag Day – a holiday typically observed in conjunction with Niyazov’s birthday – will be celebrated exclusively.”

Though his legacy has begun to fade, Turkmenistan still celebrates Flag Day today, February 19, on what would have been the Turkmenbashi’s 69th birthday.

The Gambia – Independence Day

February 18


Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte.

So begins Alex Haley’s classic Roots: the Saga of an American Family. The book and subsequent mini-series reawakened the American consciousness to the history of slavery and the black experience in America.

It’s actually The Gambia, not Gambia.

Inclusion of the article “The” in the Gambia’s case is because the country is essentially a tiny sliver of land drilled into the west coast of Senegal. It’s made up of the land that hugs the Gambia River as it winds to the Atlantic.

In Roots, Kunta Kinte is captured in The Gambia, transported on a slave ship and sold into slavery in Maryland.

That Haley can trace his ancestral line to what is now Africa’s smallest country (At 10,000 square kilometers, The Gambia is smaller than Connecticut) is not unusual. According to Wikipedia:

As many as 3 million slaves may have been taken from the [Senegambia] region during the three centuries that the transatlantic slave trade operated.

If accurate, that would mean thirty Africans were abducted from Senegambia a day, every day, for three hundred years.

The Gambia Fort

Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first American President to visit Africa when he spent the night in The Gambia en route to the Casablanca Conference in 1943.

The Gambia achieved independence from Great Britain on February 18, 1965.

For the first 15 years of its independence The Gambia enjoyed its reputation as a model multi-party democracy for African nations. An unsuccessful but bloody attempted coup in 1981 dented that reputation. The country’s President Dawda Jawara was in England attending the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana when his government was nearly ousted from power. He maintained control via an agreement with Senegal to back his government with military force.

A second coup, in July 1994 was successful, ending Jawara’s near 30-year reign. The head lieutenant of the coup and Gambia’s future leader, Yahya Jammeh, had not been born when Jawara first became Prime Minister.

Democracy Day – Nepal

February 18

The Nepalese flag, the only non-rectangular national flag in the world, symbolizes the two religions of Nepal---Buddhism and Hinduism---and the peaks of the Himalayas.

For most of the half-century or so since Democracy Day was established in Nepal, the actual practice of democracy has been stifled or totally repressed.

Ironically, Democracy Day marks the return to power of a monarch, King Tribhuvan, in the early 1950s. The country had been run by a succession of despots known as the Rana dictatorship. For generations the Rana allowed the monarchy to remain but used the king as a puppet. In 1950 the pro-democratic King Tribhuvan fled the country with most of his family to India. The Rana declared the king’s 3 year-old great-nephew Gyanendra as the new king, as he was the most senior member of the family left in the country.

For whatever reason foreign powers refused to recognize the new king, and Tribhuvan, with support from India was able to topple the Rana rule.

Soon after, Tribhuvan’s son increased the monarch’s power, virtually taking over Parliament. The power of the monarch waxed and waned over the next half century.

In 2001 the Crown Prince Dipendra went on a shooting rampage, killing the entire royal family and then himself. Gyanendra, the former 3 year-old monarch, was once again the most senior member of the royal family left in the country. He reclaimed the throne, now at age 53.

On Democracy Day in 2004 King Gyanendra encouraged all Nepalese “to unite for making multiparty democracy meaningful through people-oriented politics.” (Democracy Day in Nepal)

The next year King Gyanendra celebrated Democracy Day by dissolving Parliament and seizing control of the entire country, ostensibly to curb Communist factions.  (BBC)

The Parliament regained control in 2007 and voted to abolish the monarchy once and for all. King Gyanendra’s reign, and the two and a half century old monarchy, is set to end in April this year [2008] after national elections are held.

[originally published Feb. 2008]

King Gyanendra’s Democracy Day Speech 2008

Proposal to change Nepal’s flag

Kosovo – Independence?

February 17

Happy Birthday Kosovo!

Although it’s not all that happy. The newborn nation is still in the throes of economic devastation and ethnic violence. Nor do we know yet if February 17 will continue to be celebrated as the young nation’s independence holiday. Or for that matter, if Kosovo actually is independent.

The State Assembly in Kosovo’s capitol of Pristina declared its independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008. Since that time over 50 countries have recognized the world’s youngest nation’s independence. However, Serbia is not one of those countries.

According to Serbian President Boris Tadic, February 17 is “just a date when an illegal act was enacted, when Pristina proclaimed Kosovo a so-called state.

Tensions between the ethnic groups that make up the Balkans and the former Republic of Yugoslavia were subdued under the leadership of Josip Tito, who ruled the amalgamation of states for over 30 years after World War II. The states that made up Yugoslavia were: Bosnia and Herzegovenia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia, of which Kosovo was an autonomous province. Tito’s government stressed “Unity in Brotherhood”, the idea that Yugoslavia’s people were essentially one, but had been divided by foreign occupiers over previous generations.

That idea didn’t fly after Tito’s death in 1980. Ethnic nationalism rose and in 1991 and 1992, most states seceded from Yugoslavia (literally, “South Slavs” land) leaving Serbia and Montenegro the sole members of the former republic.


Smaller than Connecticut, Kosovo is home to over 2 million people, 90% of them ethnic Albanians, with the remainder mostly Serbs. Kosovo first declared independence in 1991, but the movement was put down by Serbian leaders like Slobodan Milosevic.

War ravaged the Balkans throughout the 1990s. The Kosovo War of 1998-1999 left between 5,000 and 10,000 people dead, and culminated with the controversial NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The state was governed by the UN between 1999 and 2008.

…what Milosevic and his regime tried to do for the Serbian people during their time could not be more wrong. I mean you do not just dispose of people as they thought they could do. You do not fire people en masse, you do not take their housing rights, you do not ignore 2 million people as if they did not exist, and most of all you do not run them away from their homes and their property.

On the other hand what that regime did was not new to Kosovo at all, it had all been done before by the Albanian side…between 1974 and 1988. And let me tell you, it was not easy to be anything but Albanian during those years in Kosovo.

…Having said all of this I can say the place is cursed and will never be peaceful.

— “Srecko”, from Kosovo, “Memories of Kosovo“, BBC

[Published 2009]

Lithuanian Independence Day

February 16

“The Council of Lithuania in its session of February 16, 1918 decided unanimously to address the governments of Russia, Germany, and other states with the following declaration:

“The Council of Lithuania, as the sole representative of the Lithuanian nation, based on the recognized right to national self-determination, and on the Vilnius Conference’s resolution of September 18-23, 1917, proclaims the restoration of the independent state of Lithuania, founded on democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital, and declares the termination of all state ties which formerly bound this State to other nations.

“The Council of Lithuania also declares that the foundation of the Lithuanian State and its relations with other countries will be finally determined by the Constituent Assembly, to be convoked as soon as possible, elected democratically by all its inhabitants.”

These short paragraphs are what the nation of Lithuania celebrates today, February 16, as its independence day. A declaration that declared an end to over a century of Russian occupation.

Lithuania was first united in the thirteenth century by the enigmatic Mindaugas. (No, he was not a Harry Potter character, that’s Mundungus.) Mindaugas was the first and last King of Lithuania. He converted to Christianity to attain the support of the Pope and the Livonian Order, but reverted back to Paganism after. He and his wife Morta were crowned King and Queen in 1253. When she died ten years later Mindaugas made the fatal mistake of taking Morta’s sister as his wife. She was already married to a former ally of Mindaugas, Daumantas. Mindaugas was used to annexing numerous lands, but Daumantas did not take the annexation of his wife so readily, and helped Mindaugas’s nephew assassinate the King along with two of the king’s sons. Never again was there crowned a king of Lithuania.

By the end of the 1300s Lithuania was the largest state in Europe. Its land included parts of what is now Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Russia.

Lithuania on steroids

One gift the Lithuanians bestowed upon Eastern Europe during the 16th century was the codification of its laws in the Three Statutes of Lithuania. The Sobornoye Ulozheniye, the first complete code of Russian law, was based in part on the Lithuanian codes.

A political bond with Poland endured in various manifestations through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries until the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was eaten up piece by piece by the superpowers growing around it: Prussia, Austria, and mainly Russia.

Catherine II of Russia’s attitude was: “Polotsk and Lithuania have been taken and retaken about twenty times, and treaty was ever concluded without one side or the other claiming part or all of it, depending on circumstances.

Lithuania remained under Russian control for over a century. During World War I the Lithuanian government exploited the weakness of the Russian Empire and the animosity between Russia and Germany. A Council of Lithuania passed a series of Acts starting in late 1917 and early 1918 which repudiated Russian rule. Germany, which occupied parts of Western Russia, was happy to see pieces of the Russian Empire break away, thinking they would pick up the crumbs. However, when Germany began losing the war in 1918 their position to negotiate declined. And with the Act of Independence of February 16, 1918, Lithuania achieved independence from both Russia and Germany.

The 20 Signatories of the Act of Independence

The celebration was short lived. During World War II Lithuania was overrun by Soviet tanks on their way to Poland, followed by German tanks on their way to Russia, and again by the Soviets on their way to Berlin.

January 13, 1991, the Soviet Union, fearful of increasing nationalist sentiment in Lithuania invaded the city of Vilnius and attacked the TV tower and other buildings. Images of the attack spread throughout the world, and were influential in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union eight months later.
The short Act of Independence of 1918, with its emphasis on democratic principles, was cited by Lithuanians as the inspiration for and the basis of the rebirth of their sovereign state.

Blogs of note:

EU Newcomer Lithuania celebrates 90 years of Independence