Part of the problem with Douglas Bland’s writing is that he’ll break up the action to dump a ton of information onto the reader. These moments, typically referred to in writing as ‘an exposition dump’ are possibly a holdover from Bland’s time in the military, where a great deal of his work likely would have consisted of delivering briefing that were, in effect, real world exposition dumps.
I’m not just pulling this hypothesis out of thin air, either. Later on in the novel, the action will come largely from one headquarters after another, delivering briefings on the action taking place elsewhere. Dramatic human stories will be delivered to the reader with PowerPoint blandness that leaves the reader (or this reader, at least) frothing with frustration.
I imagine at some point that some grand visionary author will find a way to create a genuinely thrilling and complex story, and find a way to deliver this story through the medium of PowerPoint. I suspect this sublime work would be the most controversial award in the history of the Nobel Prize. Douglas Bland is no such visionary.
Our first example of a Douglas Bland exposition dump comes mid way into the raid when the protagonist of his Native rebellion, one Alex Gabriel, pauses in mid action to contemplate his life history and the recent events that led to his becoming a native rebel.
Awkward though it may be to the flow of the story, a scene like this is pretty much mandatory at some point in a story about revolutions. At some point, we need to go inside the rebel’s head and find out what makes him tick, why he has decided to fight against the world that he knows, the world that he has grown up in. On a personal note, as much as I like to complain about politics and the government, I can’t imagine ever trying to blow it all up. There are politicians in recent memory that made me feel physically ill just to look at, but I’d never consider shooting them in the face.
So if you want to tell me a story about Canadian soldiers deciding to fight, overthrow and destroy their society, I’m going to need some background details and explanations.
Right off the bat though, one of the key problems with Uprising is that the main character: (former) Capt Alex Gabriel is a villain, but he isn’t presented like one. Now I’m not saying that any man who choses his people over his government is automatically bad, but the overriding arc of the novel Uprising is that of a native rebellion that destroys Canada. The lesson Bland seeks to deliver is that we were all fools to trust the natives in our midst. Personally I find repulsive, but okay if that’s what he wants to write about, let’s follow him to his conclusion. Technically that makes Alex Gabriel the bad guy, even though from the POV way in which he is portrayed he is probably the author’s favourite.
There’s nothing wrong with making the bad guy your protagonist, and nothing wrong with making him a likeable bad guy at that. Nor is there anything wrong with this likeable bastard being a native person in the story of a race war. Now personally (and I’m going to return to this point over and over because I think it’s crucial) I believe that no subject in the world should be forbidden to explore, but when that subject involves real pain and real suffering for real people here in the modern era, it is the writer’s obligation to take their job seriously.
You want to write a story about a race war? Fine. You want to make your protagonist a First Nations CF officer who has betrayed his oath in favour of his people? Fair enough. You want to make him a likeable and admirable figure overall? Okay then, but now that you’ve racked up all this credibility debt I’m going to need to see a down payment.
That’s the price for writing something like this. At some point, you have to explain it all in a plausible manner. You have to make it make sense.
So who is Alex Gabriel?
“…Alexander Gabriel, full-blood Algonquin (so his grandfather insisted), was born on the Golden Lake Reserve near Eganville, Ontario. Other kids on the reserve had made fun of him because he did well in school. When he turned eighteen, he enlisted in the army as an infantry officer cadet, partly for the adventure, partly to get away from the life the other reserve kids were heading for, and partly because he was in awe of his Uncle Simon’s heroic and much-honoured service in Korea. Alex was sent to Royal Military College at Kingston to serve Canada; however, he promised his grandfather he would remain true to his people’s traditions…”
I’m not sure what to make of the bracketed text which seems to cast doubt on Alex Gabriel’s Algonquin status. Is this Alex’s PoV? Does he have doubts about his heritage? Is he fondly remembering a grandfather who was a bit of a purist kook and refused to acknowledge a proud bloodline that was nevertheless a little less than perfect? Was there a question of Status within his family? For that matter, is Alex Gabriel a ‘Status Indian’ himself? What’s his opinion on ‘Status’ anyways?
All crucial questions that go unanswered in the text, and I suspect there is little more here than the voice of an inexperienced fiction writer inserting himself into a narrative where he doesn’t belong. Yes, famous authors like C.S. Lewis could interrupt the story to tell us what he really thought about particular characters or events, but that was the structure of how he wrote. Bland is telling his story entirely from the third-person omniscient perspective, only to forget himself and inject his own opinions along the way.
It’s also worth noting that the grandfather (who we will learn in a moment was absolutely crucial to Alex’s radical awakening) is never given a name, but Uncle Simon, the revered Korean War veteran is. Remember this omission, we’ll see it again as we go on.
“…Unfortunately, he had quickly come to realize that there was little room for his native traditions in the army or anywhere else outside the reserve. When his classmates at “the zoo,” as cadets refer to RMC, called him “chief” and “moccasin,” they said they meant nothing by it. Yeah right. They didn’t single out other guys with racially based kinds of nicknames.
Even so, Alex liked military life and found he was good at it. After graduation, he advanced quickly from lieutenant to captain. Captain Alex Gabriel was marked by his superiors and peers as “a bright star” and a “streamer,” a fast-rising infantry officer. His outstanding record won him a position in the new Special Service Regiment when it was established as part of the elite Canadian Special Operations Force Command…”
First off, I think it’s absolutely adorable that Douglas Bland thinks the only people who could ever be discriminated against at RMC (Royal Military College, Canada’s version of West Point or Sandhurst) would be his fictional native officer cadet. I also think it’s cute that the cruelest thing he can imagine these fictional racists calling him is ‘chief’ and ‘moccasin.’
Maybe using ‘jam-stealer’ twice in one chapter would have seen repetitive?
Sadly, in the real world, racism is infinitely flexible and can find all sort of ways to discriminate. Bland probably left the military before anti-muslim sentiment evolved from cartoon parody to a more toxically sinister tone, but he would have been front and centre for the Sikh turban controversy of the late 80s. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, there was an internal ‘controversy’ about whether Sikh soldiers joining the CAF could be allowed to wear turbans (as well as some other religious apparel) instead of the more traditional berets.
So there’s no use in his pretending that he hasn’t seen how ugly things can get. Of course, if he approved of the racism, then it probably wouldn’t have seemed that ugly.
In the real world race, religion, immigration status, and family pedigree are just some of the excuses that can be used to divide us. One of my more recent Facebook un-friendings came when a 20-something idiot actually had the nerve to post about how his grandfather died to protect the freedoms that Syrian refugees were now threatening to steal. Somehow. I think. He never really specified how a Syrian refugee could steal a freedom from himself or his grandfather. He was military (served a few years in the reserves and never deployed) but the fact that his grandfather(s) had served was all he needed to justify looking down on terrified refugees fleeing ISIS.
Now lest you think these attitudes are a recent construct, let me quote for you an example of a real-life RMC cadet. Retired General (and now Senator) Romeo Dallaire:
“I arrived at the mess a little late and found a place not far from the door in the TV room. The supper-hour news came on. The top story of the day was Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, saluting massive crowds from the balcony of the Montreal city hall with “Vive le Quebec. Vive le Quebec libre!” The crowd on TV roared with obvious delight while the mess went dead silent-except for muffled scraping as people shifted in their seats to stare at the only Quebecker in the room. It seemed to me that the clip was repeated twenty times during that newscast, and each time I could feel more daggers coming at me. When the newscast was over, the room emptied slowly. Nobody came up to me, nobody talked to me. I was part of the evil empire that was threatening to tear the country apart. The silence lasted for about two days. I was shunned not for who I was but for who I was assumed to be, ad that experience remains burnt into my memory.”
The fact is, we’re a tribal people and no matter what the venue, we’ll find a way to subdivide ourselves between star-bellied Sneetches and plain ones. In my own personal experience the Protestant/Catholic divide may have (finally) fallen by the wayside, but the English/French conflict is still going strong. On the other hand, when your background is so mainline that your family name is literally Bland, I suppose it could be hard to imagine getting picked on and bullied for the fact that you were born.
So Alexander Gabriel is portrayed as rising star in the CF, on a career fast track to promotion and prestige who grew disillusioned with the treatment of Indigenous people and finally opted to turn away from his chosen trade in order to join the rebellion. It’s potentially a workable motivation, one that could be used to raise many relevant questions. At what point does loyalty break down? Would an individual soldier’s professionalism delay the betrayal of his country, or hasten it? Would it be a case of ‘the best lack all conviction/while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity’ or would it be a case of his idealism leading him to reject a cynical status quo and tie his fortunes to a mad gamble that is the Native Peoples Movement?
None of these questions are examined properly. What we get instead is this bewildering passage on page 5 where Gabriel pauses to ponder his conversion to Native radicalism.
“These elders would like to speak with you, Alex,” said his grandfather. “I’m going fishing, so you can talk and I’ll see you for supper. You’re a good boy, Alex. You do what you think is best for the people.” He turned and walked out the door before Alex could answer.
Without introduction, the chief beckoned Alex to a chair at the table. “Alex,” he began, “I’ll be brief. We represent a nation-wide first nations organization which I am sure you’ve never heard of before today. We’re not from those guys who sit around Ottawa talking and not acting. Alex, we believe that the aboriginal people in Canada are a nation, not many nations, but one nation. We’re not Canadians and we don’t want to be Canadians. We don’t want to be partners with people who stole our land and broke every treaty our ancestors made with them.
“If we want to be a nation, Alex, we have to start acting like a nation. That means we have to build the parts, the structure, of a real, modern nation. Otherwise, we’ll remain a simple gathering, an ineffective assembly of nations. One of the most important parts of this new nation is its army.”
So these First Nations patriots don’t think the First Nations are actual nations? Does the chief there feel this way too?
“I won’t go into detail this afternoon, Alex, but we wanted to let you know that we have been reaching out to our brothers and sisters in the Canadian Army, and will continue to do so, to let them know that there is another way, a way to serve the people.” He pushed a small envelope across the table to Alex. “Inside the envelope you’ll find a contact number, and the address for a website. If you want to talk, just follow the signs.”
“We don’t expect any commitment from you now or even soon, but we may be in touch someday in the future. You’re a proven leader, Alex, and a trained officer. The people are going to need you some day. Things can’t continue as they are-a disorganized leadership without any long-term aims and our young folk falling under the influence of gangs and criminals. Only independence, real independence, not BS rhetoric from the Ottawa Indians, will get the people their land and rightful inheritance. You think about it, Alex. Think hard about who you are and who you should be. Then, when the day comes, Alex, you’ll know what to do, and your choice will be clear and obvious.”
Without another word, the men stood up, walked out the door to their truck, and drove away…”
So a Strong, Proud, Canadian soldier is ushered into a meeting with an unspecified group of elders (sorry, one of them is “a chief” from across the Ottawa river; no names though). He, Alex, is told that a widespread Native rebellion is in the works in which he is expected to be a leader. He, Alex, asks no questions, raises no objections, and makes no mention of this meeting to his military colleagues (even any Indigenous ones). Then when a series of protests escalates into bloodshed, and the army starts gearing up for a fight, he, Alex, decides to answer the call of blood, and goes AWOL, “taking his kit and weapons (!) with him.”
So much to unpack in such a brief passage. The weird overuse of Alex’s given name in the speech being the least of them.
First things first, who the fuck are these elders? They’re introduced by Gabriel’s grandfather, so presumably they’re members of his Algonquin nation. Perhaps some of them are part of his Band’s council? But they seem to be highly knowledgable of the Movement, and it’s established later that the Movement have subverted a great deal of the traditional First Nations authority structures, so it’s just as possible that these Elders are Movement radicals and that the Band council has no idea what’s happening.
In the next few chapters we meet the hardcore leadership of the Movement, most of them (including their leader Molly Grace) are young, aggressive rebels outside of the traditional leadership structure of Canada’s First Nations. While the larger movement seems to include Band and Nation reps, most of these appear young as well. A scene late in the novel has a column of NPA fighters basically hijacking a senile Band Chief and using him (almost literally) as a figurehead. The Grand Chief of the First Nations Federation (the in-story version of the Assembly of First Nations) Al Onanole is portrayed as aging, weak, utterly clueless and out of touch, fumbling his way along to tragedy by the path of least resistance.
So who are these elders? The more I look at this passage, the more I can’t help but think that they aren’t elders as much as they are The Elders. A collection of stock characters and stereotypes who’s use in a work of fiction is lazy at best, and racist at worst. What we have here is the trope ‘you have a destiny scene.’ The child sits wild-eyed by the fire as The Elder speaks of the prophecy, or the chosen one, or delivers some other profound sermon that the child absorbs in silence, to digest for later when ‘The Time Comes’ and he must step up and ‘Become the Man He Was Destined to Be.’
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but think about it. Gabriel is a CF officer, and by Bland’s accounts, a good one. At this point in his life he would have deployed into operational theatres. He would have seen things. Successes and disasters. He would have realized at this point (especially given the fact that he is a young man and a rising star) that age hardly equals competence and given the high stakes positions he’s occupied at this point, he probably wouldn’t have a lot of patience for bad ideas, even if they come from prestigious sources.
So why no argument? Yeah, these are Elders but he’s not a child. He’s a combat veteran and a leader of men who has (presumably) seen how badly things can go wrong. He would have seen people die. Even if he completely agreed with the ideals behind the movement (which the text makes clear, hasn’t happened yet), shouldn’t he be asking what on earth they hope to accomplish against a nation of 30 million with (as far as he can tell) no army, weapons, or political power. In the next chapter, he will learn that the Movement improbably has all three of these things in spades, but right now all he’s got is The Elders.
Even more ludicrous is the insistence that ‘only he’ can be the leader that the First Nations. So here’s a CF Captain, being told that his family, his Band, his Nation and all the other First Nations across Canada are committed to the historically bad course of killing whitey, and would he mind being the leader in this war? There’s no actual military talent in this whole military endeavour and now with the balloon about to go up we could really use a leader who knows what he’s doing…mmmkay?
And the fact that he doesn’t ask any questions is seen as a good thing.
A few years back when I was in university, I got into an argument with one of my more activist classmates over whether throwing a brick through a McDonald’s window constituted a valid form of protest (this was for a pre-9/11 anti-globalism protest). She was of the opinion that such actions helped draw attention to the cause and the issues. I took the position that all the broken window did was distract the media with pointless talk about ‘protestor violence’ and gave a lot of extra work to a bunch of minimum wage schlubs who didn’t deserve it.
It was a purely academic debate. The young lady had no intention of personally throwing a brick (she was into civil disobedience with an emphasis on the word civil), and I wasn’t even involved with the protest in question or her overall movement. But the argument got surprisingly heated. Even though I’d never worked in a McDonald’s, I knew what it was like to work minimum wage and the idea of lost work hours coupled with a lot of damage to clean up bothered me on a personal level. She personally cared about the cause she was protesting, and furious that the mainstream media mostly spent their time whining about road closures and the spoiled state of young people today. The idea of finally grabbing the world by the lapels and shaking them until they paid attention was personal for her too.
Neither of us threw a brick, and as far as I recall the protest went down and nobody threw any bricks at anyone (although I do remember that the McDonald’s down town took down its sign and boarded up its windows that day). But the idea of this hypothetical brick got us both surprisingly worked up and angry.
So where’s this anger with Alex Gabriel? Where’s the objections of his highly analytical mind? Does he even ask who The Elders are and why he should be listening to them? More importantly, did Bland ever ask these questions himself?
***Image of sneetches found at http://www.drseussart.com/illustration-art/star-belly-friends, quote from Romeo Dallaire from his 2003 memoire ‘Shake Hands with the Devil.’***
 For those not familiar with the concept, in Canada, we have millions of people who can claim Indigenous heritage, but only some of them are officially ‘Status Indian,’ an actual legal category. This means that they are officially recognized by the government as an Indigenous person of a particular nation, band and/or Treaty territory. They actually get an ID card to prove this which, depending on the treaty they may fall under, may give the individual certain benefits and rights ranging from increased hunting privileges to the right to live on reserve.
 Elders in Indigenous communities are a kind of unofficial title (in that you’re not formally promoted into it or anything) used to describe older members of the nation who are recognized as having age, experience and wisdom. It is a big deal in most Indigenous communities. This is important to understand now since it’s going to come up again throughout the novel. Elders generally are very respected members of their community.