So now we know that Capt Alex Gabriel is a full-blooded (?) Algonquin and rising star in the CF who got the mystical blessings from ‘The Elders’ telling him that he would one day lead an Indigenous rebellion. This didn’t lead him to immediately quit the army and start training this as yet unseen Native People’s Army (which would have made sense given that ‘The Elders’ explicitly said that they had no professional leadership), but at the same time he didn’t run to his superiors in the CF to warn them about the threat (which would have made sense if he saw the whole plan as a destructive mistake that could needlessly kill a lot of people). So what changes?
This brings us to the next glaring issue in Alex Gabriel’s backstory:
“…That day rushed at Alex after what the government called “an unfortunate incident,” a sloppily violent police reaction to the June Days of Protest across the country.
An incident involving pushing and shoving along some train tracks in souther Manitoba turned nasty, and caused a riot between enraged natives and an outnumbered, frightened, and poorly trained RCMP detachment. Constables Thomas Scott and Susan Lachapelle had panicked, and in a flash four native “warriors” and two teenagers they were using as shields were dead. When on-site CBC reports, inaccurately as it turned out, suggested government complicity in the police shooting, riots and violent incidents erupted elsewhere. In several locations in the East and West, informal native leaders, who elected officials of the aboriginal community described as “hot-headed radicals,” used the events as an excuse to attack transportation and infrastructure facilities across the country. Thus began the spontaneous, and now infamous August Week of Protests, the worst civil unrest in Canadian history1.”
Six people are dead at the hands of police. Six Canadians killed by their government’s Federal police force. And Bland thinks the resulting civil unrest is using this event as ‘an excuse.’
This is where world building fails.
This is a picture from what is now known as “Bloody Sunday” in the UK. On 30 January 1972 a group of Irish protestors in the city of Derry who’d strayed from their planned route found themselves attacked by British paratroopers who had been deployed into Northern Ireland as part of a stabilization mission to counteract the presence of the resurgent IRA. In a short but brutal series of confrontations, fourteen people were killed and over a dozen more were wounded.
Much like the fictional Canadian government in Uprising, the British Government tried to excuse the behaviour of the soldiers and their commanders, as well as the overall intent of the military mission in Derry. A hastily convened investigation (the Widgery Inquiry) exonerated the British Paras of all wrongdoing, claiming that the crowd had fired upon the soldiers. It wasn’t until years later that a second series of hearings (the Saville Inquiry) confirmed that of the fourteen men killed, only one had actually been an IRA member and there had been no weapons present in the crowd at the scene of the attack.2 Not only did the first Inquiry fail to defuse an already tense situation, but the end result was a poisoning of relations with the Irish Catholic population of Northern Ireland. Bloody Sunday would be one of the major aggravating factors that would lead to decades of violence and brutality throughout Ireland and the UK.
Just to emphasize the degree to which the events of 30 Jan 72 were taken personally, consider this:
This is a belt belonging to a man named Patrick Doherty, who was on the streets during the Bloody Sunday massacre and was shot and killed by the British Paras. In the Widgery Inquiry, it was determined that he had been brandishing a gun and threatening to fire upon the paratrooper who shot him in self-defence. The Saville Inquiry would determine that not only had Patrick Doherty been unarmed, but he’d been shot while lying down on the ground, trying to crawl away to safety. This was confirmed not only by eye-witnesses and forensic evidence (of which this belt was included) but also through a series of photographs by French journalist Gilles Peress which captured Doherty in his doomed escape both before and after he had been shot. This belt is on display in the Museum of Free Derrya and the notch you can see was made by one of the fatal bullets, which struck the lower left side of his back, travelling at an upward angle.
This is how people in the real world respond to massacres. The crimes are remembered, even if the criminals escape justice. The dead are venerated. And random items like a cheap belt with a hole in it become artifacts and relics.
In Bland’s novel, the ‘June Days of Protest’ culminate in a shoving match that turns violent, leading to six Natives getting shot. Right away the description is problematic. Bland skims over the events but there’s no getting around the fact that this ‘incident’ over which he spares so little time left six people dead!
Six people dead. No mention about wounded, so either the panicking mounties managed to open fire with pinpoint accuracy, or else Bland simply didn’t consider the possibility that bullets fired into a crowd could cause injuries as well as death.
This is a Bloody Sunday level of violence. This is a massacre. Even months later this event should be looming large over the collective Canadian consciousness. Are the Mounties involved in this shooting under arrest? Are they being investigated? Has anyone else been killed or wounded? The next few paragraphs confirm that there is a tremendous backlash from First Nations groups, but have there been any protests by non-native groups over the violence? Are there lawsuits or calls for an inquiry? For that matter, have the more craven facets of society tried to discredit the victims?
It’s typical to give events like this a name. Ipperwash and Oka still resonate despite the passage of years. South of the border you can find similar names: Wounded Knee, Rosewood, Kent State, sometimes even the names of individuals like Rodney King become a synonym for an event or a time. But this will be one of the only times that Bland even mentions the shootings, and while Manitoba is given as a location, little more is offered in terms of how this event is viewed by the public. For want of an actual location, I’m going to go ahead and call this ‘The Railway Massacre’ as a useful shorthand for future references (and we will be coming back to this).
Bland insists that the RCMP constables (whom he deigns to give names even though he doesn’t extend this courtesy to the shooting victims, The Elders, or Alex Gabriel’s grandfather) panic in a tense situation. This would seem to indicate (despite the horrendous body count) that Bland wants to portray the Uprising as being triggered by a tragic accident rather than by legitimately outrageous ‘Bloody Sunday’ type situation. This seems to be implying that the NPA are illegitimate in their grievances against Canadian society. I mean, what’s a half a dozen bodies in the grand scheme of things, right?
But the very same passage seems to place a more sinister light on the encounter. The victims of the shooting are described as ‘four native “warriors” and two teenagers they were using as shields.’ So this would seem to suggest that the entire incident that the entire event was fabricated, and that our named RCMP constables (despite their panic) were innocent victims manipulated into manufacturing a reason for dissent.
I’ve gone and mentioned Ipperwash a couple of times now and it’s one of the key events in recent Canadian history that has to be understood if you want to understand the current state of Indigenous affairs in this country. It’s one of the subjects I intend to examine in detail further down the line, but for now, here’s the Coles Notes version:
In 1995, with the memory of the Oka crisis still looming large in the public imagination, a group of Ojibwe protestors occupied Ipperwash National Park, a patch of land that had been appropriated from the Stony Point Ojibwe band during World War II to use as a military base. The occupation was mostly peaceful at first, but as time went on, the protestors began to spill out of the park and into the surrounding area. A series of incidents (some of which were later confirmed to either be exaggerated or made up) led to a decision for the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) to clear the protestors out. A riot ensued and as other protestors in the original camp raced to the scene, a police sniper team open fired, wounding two men and killing a third named Dudley George.
There’s a lot that can be said about the chain of events that led to Dudley George’s death. The lack of clear information on the ground about what was happening, who was responsible, and where everyone was. Hasty decisions were being made by political leaders far removed from the scene and the resulting inquiry saw serious disagreements over who said what to whom. One of the nastier assertions is that the more militant protestors had been egging Dudley George on throughout the day leading up to his death, urging him to get out there and prove himself. Regardless of any of this, nothing changes the fact that Dudley George had been unarmed when he was shot. The sniper who fired the fatal bullet was eventually convicted of criminal negligence causing death.
So getting back to Uprising, we have six people dead in a shooting by the police, but the implication is that four of them (‘warriors’) were using a couple of teenagers as shields. Much in the same way that many people were claiming Dudley George had been used as a human shield by more violent protestors.
I can’t begin to explain just how ugly an assertion this is. This novel was written long before the idea of ‘Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ became a central fixture in the public discourse, but the abuse and neglect suffered by Indigenous people at the hands of various branches of law enforcement was a very real thing that was very much on the public radar. Bland has no excuse for being unaware that being native could easily make you a target for law enforcement.
Issues like serial killer Robert Picton murdering dozens of prostitutes (many of them Indigenous) without so much as a glance from local law enforcement is a national scandals and rightly so. Events such as the infamous ‘Starlight Tours’ continue to be remembered today.3 The portrayal of a Railway Massacre as a cynical ploy by dishonest actors trying to manipulate the public is an ugly one indeed.
To put it in simple terms, Bland has created a Canadian Bloody Sunday, and he is trying to dismiss his own creation by invoking one of the nastier excuses proffered at another, real life shooting.
Now to be….absolutely fair…there’s no literary law that says all native characters must be noble and heroic, just as there’s no literary law saying all white people must be grasping, racist greed heads. If Bland wants to portray a native uprising as an illegitimate play by cynical manipulators, that’s his prerogative. But Bland promptly undercuts his own narrative by portraying Alex Gabriel’s reaction. The Special Service Regiment gets put on standby, and an unnamed superior officer seems gleefully anticipating a final showdown with the protestors, regardless of whether they were armed.
“…The escalating native protests that followed were brutally attacked by local police and army militia units. But when the Special Service Regiment was called up in mid-July, “in aid of the civil powers,” to maintain good order to maintain good order on the railway system between Toronto and Montreal, it was clear to Alex from his commanding officer’s orders that the army was “headed for a final showdown with native protesters and whether they were armed or unarmed didn’t matter.” Alex knew then that he had no choices left. Reluctantly, he searched through his letters and papers and dug out the envelope the chiefs had left him at the end of the meeting in his grandfather’s cabin. One day soon afterwards, he simply drove out the front gate at Base Petawawa and went home, taking his kit and weapons with him…”
So within the span of a few hundred words, the world building has failed again, and Bland’s ignorance, either of historical events or of the craft of writing is on display for all to see. Later in the novel he will gleefully portray a fictional government of weak-kneed liberals waffling over whether to mobilize the army in aid to civil power, but the first sentence of the paragraph has police and army militia units attacking protestors. The next sentence describes the Special Service Regiment getting mobilized to secure the railway between Toronto and Montreal. So is the army confronting protestors or not? Are these sanctioned actions (which would imply that the government was aware of the threat posed by the NPA and moving to confront them) or random outbreaks of violence by police and soldiers out of control?
To further exacerbate this failure, Bland does not even give specifics to these attacks. What cities did they happen in? Who was hurt? What militia units or police departments were involved? Which nations or bands? Bland’s description of events reads more like a bored Wikipedia article than anything else. These are supposed to be real life incidents that drove a good Canadian Forces officer to go AWOL so they should be weighing heavily on his mind right now in very specific ways.
Except they don’t. None of these events seem to register in any personal way with Alex Gabriel and just a few pages later when we see the response to the Petawawa raid at NDHQ in Ottawa. When we meet our (loyal and white) CF protagonists, none of them appear to be labouring under the cloud of unrest and violence.
To throw one last historical weight onto the scales, contrast Bland’s passage above with a another real-life example from Senator Romeo Dallaire (Gen ret.), writing about his time as a junior officer during the FLQ crisis:
“…By 1969 the mood in Quebec had begun to darken, fuelled by strikes and student protests, some of them pretty violent. A sudden wave of anger ripped through the province, setting hearts and minds on fire. Extremist separatist factions recast the complex struggle for cultural and linguistic identity into a fight against the anglo bosses. It seemed like the province was hovering on the brink of insurrection as Quebeckers-everyone from taxi drivers to medical workers-took to the streets in a series of crippling strikes and mass demonstrations.
Then there were the terrorists. The Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) had been active in the province since 1963, calling for the violent overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of an independent French socialist nation. The FLQ announced itself by conducting a serious bombing campaign, which targeted three Montreal-area armouries and included a thwarted attack on former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s train. Another attack resulted in the maiming of a soldier, working as a bomb expert. The scale and violence of the assaults increased throughout 1969 and into 1970…
…We were called out several times to restore order in prisons when guards walked out on strike, and we helped disperse crowds at some of the bigger demonstrations, including the Murray Hill bus drivers’ strike where shots were fired. When three thousand members of the Montreal police force walked off the job in October 1969, we were called in to keep the peace. The strike lasted five days. Later that month we were put on alert when forty thousand demonstrators marched on the National Assembly in Quebec City. We spend many nights and weekends camped out in our gun sheds standing guard over our weapons. A current of nervous excitement ran through the troops; we felt we would be tested sooner or later.”
Three Montreal-area armouries, Diefenbaker’s train, the Murray Hill bus driver’s strike, the 1969 Montreal Police strike, I’ll bet you, if you sat down with Sen Dallaire, he could tell you all about each one of those events. I’ll be you he’ll remember until the day he dies. Both this passage and Bland’s description above are comparable as short descriptions of complex civil uprisings. They both skim over their events in order to get to the main issues quickly (in Dallaire’s case, a harrowing memoir of the Rwandan genocide and the UN’s failed intervention, in Bland’s case, the hypothetical future history of how uppity natives will wreck our country).
The big problem is that Bland’s passage throws his entire narrative into question, the implication being that someone in the army is planning a violent crackdown on this Native movement, and that this is what finally spurs Gabriel to go AWOL and join the NPA. Again, this would make for one helluva story. A good man-comfortable in his world and cozy with the powers that be-torn between his sheltered life and a righteous cause, finally making the decision after seeing the system he thought he understood turn into something evil. Film versions of this story have been done before in various forms, from Shindler’s List to Hotel Rwanda. But for this to work, for this premise to properly cast Gabriel as the good guy in this story, it would have to cast Canada in the role of the villain.
Personally I’d be okay with that. Not happy, obviously, but if you want to write a novel portraying people like me as the bad guys then I’m going to accept the fact that honest people can disagree, and carry on with life (or maybe snipe from the sidelines with a snarky blog).
But this isn’t a novel where the CF are bad guys. Bland makes that clear throughout. The NPA are the aggressors, and while the barest lip service is paid to their grievances, it is made clear that nothing those people may be mad about could possibly justify the uprising (we’ll see this in the next chapter when the rebels broadcast their ‘manifesto’ on TV). So why is this passage here? Why is Bland dropping hints that Alex Gabriel’s motivations may actually be righteous instead of misguided?
Personally I think it’s something much more simple and trivial. Bland loves his main characters too much to give them any flaws. Make no mistake, while the story of Uprising may be about the dangers of ignoring those fiendish red men and their liberal fellow travellers, Alex Gabriel is not just a protagonist but a hero in this story. And in Band’s world of writing the hero can do no wrong, display no flaws. We’ll see this in a moment (when we return to the action of the raid) when Gabriel overpowers (without killing) an MP while a similar raid on another base kills a commissionaire. Throughout the novel, Gabriel’s motives will be noble and justified, regardless of how much the author may revile the idea of the Native People’s Movement.
I may be assuming too much here, but I think there’s a solid case to be made as the novel progresses that the protagonists are all essentially ‘Mary Sue’ characters, that is, a form of authorial wish-fulfillment. Gabriel and another NPA character Bill the Pirate (no, I’m not kidding) will be spared the truly ugly aspects of revolution, while other native characters will engage in some truly loathsome actions that will fully justify Bland’s accusations of complacency and carelessness which he levels against liberal Canada.
This kind of authorial protection is very common with fanfic writers and other amateur styles. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Having written a lot of fiction that will-rightly-never see the light of day, I know the feeling of loving your main character that much (He’s just so cool, you guys!). But there’s no getting around the fact (and I’m not going to stop harping on this because it’s central to the issue) that this is a published novel about a race war in Canada, written by a man who has every right to be taken seriously by the Canadian public. It is not acceptable to do something like this half-assed, nor is it acceptable to try and protect your favourite character from the ugliness that you’re trying to smear an entire people with.
***Quote from Sen Dallaire taken from his 2003 memoire ‘Shake Hands with the Devil.’***
1 As long as we’re on the subject of white extras being the only ones to have names, I’m not sure what to make of the fact that one of the Mounties is named ‘Thomas Scott’ given that it’s a name with considerable historical significance. In the aftermath of the Metis-led ‘North West Rebellion,’ one of the charges levelled against the Metis leader Louis Riel that eventually served to justify his execution was the ‘murder’ of the Anglo-Protestant dissident Thomas Scott during the earlier Red River Rebellion. I can’t find any references to a Susan Lachapelle, so it’s entirely possible that this is some kind of Freudian slip, but Bland…Seriously?
2 To be completely fair, previous demonstrations in Derry had resulted in violence (mostly stone throwing and fighting) and on the day of the massacre there had been shots fired at British soldiers in a separate event, resulting in no casualties on either side. What I’m saying here is that, while protests in Derry were often a violent business, no one who died that day actually deserved it.
3 A ‘Starlight Tour’ was/is a means by which police dealt with undesirables (drunks and homeless people) without actually having to arrest them. The idea was that, instead they would drive the individual far outside of town, and leave them there to walk back over the course of the night (hence the ‘starlight’ part of the name). Unlawful to begin with, in January of 2000 in Saskatoon Saskatchewan, this practice took on a lethal dimension when an Indigenous man named Darrel Night was picked up by local police and left kilometres outside of town during a freezing cold prairie winter night. Darrel survived by hiking to a nearby power station and in the days that followed, the remains of two other Indigenous men (Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner) were found near the spot where he’d been dropped off. These events mirrored an incident from nearly a decade earlier where another native man, Neil Stonechild was killed in a similar manner in 1990.