This is a follow on to my examination of The Break, which becomes a better and better novel the more I think of it. There’s a couple of other aspects of the novel that I wanted to raise that I’m going to want to reference as we go on with Uprising. Since they didn’t really fit in with the flow of what I was writing in the other day’s post, I’ll be bringing them up in mini follow-on posts.
The Break is a predominantly a story about women, which is why I didn’t want to clutter my post about it by talking about the two male cops. But these two Winnipeg police officers are fascinatingly portrayed, and given the sorry figure of Bob Ignace in Uprising I want to take a look at them.
It starts off simple enough. There’s an older one, and a rookie. The older one is white and racist, the younger one is Metis and insecure. The older racist, Officer Christie, is crude, cynical, and blatant in his racism but he’s a convincing crude cynical racist who, despite an ugly demeanour still has some hard won wisdom to dispense along with the insults:

“First of all, you don’t fucking ask questions with the whole family there,” Christie starts in, his mouth overflowing with fries. “That is not going to get you anywhere. They’re all going to defend themselves and protect their own. It’s just a can of worms you’d rather not open, my friend.” He points a greasy finger at Tommy.

“And you were so fucking busy trying to be sympathetic to the mom, you didn’t even notice the big fucking Nate fucker sulking and staring at her in the corner.” Christie points with his cheeseburger this time.
“Yeah I did,” Tommy snaps back but it sounds desperate.
“Well, you didn’t take a good look. He was shifty as fuck.” Christie takes two big bites of his burger and chews in huffs.

Yeah it’s gross and racist. But Christie’s got a point. In a case of possible domestic violence, the most likely culprit is going to be someone in or close to the family. While his theory is based on some very ugly assumptions, zeroing in on the new boyfriend attached to the family is a good first guess. At the very least, Peter is someone they should actively working to eliminate from their list of suspects.
This is one of the more disturbing things about real-life racists. Racism may be wrong and based on false assumptions, but the racist himself can be right about other things. They can still have valid insights into human behaviour – indeed the veracity of these other insights will often serve to reinforce that person’s racism.
It’s become a common trope to make the racist character conventionally attractive, so that their beliefs come as that much more of a shock to the reader/viewer. Katherena Vermette doesn’t bother with that here. Christie is uncouth and gluttonous as he makes his point, literally gesturing with greasy fast food as he talks. We instinctively recoil from this gross man even as we have to grit our teeth and acknowledge that the fucker has a point.
Now the standard trope for the rookie cop from a minority group would make the younger Winnipeg cop (named Tommy Scott!!!) a paragon of virtue, if hamstrung by his junior status. Vermette goes for a different angle with him too, and sheds light on a different aspect of racism in modern Canada. In the novel, Tommy is a Metis who has largely been raised in his white father’s culture rather than the Ojibway culture of his mother’s. As far as he’s concerned, he’s white but his wife convinced him to apply for his Status Card to help speed up his acceptance into the Winnipeg police force. Much in the way that an outdoorsman might embrace a long-ignored native heritage to ease the acquisition of deer tags, Tommy’s Metis identity is something he donned by choice as a means to an end.[1]
This leads to some interesting contrast between how he views the women of the story versus how they view him. They instinctively recognize him as a literal friendly face, while his concern for them seems as much about solving a case that Christie is perfectly happy to disregard as it is about helping ‘his people’ get some well-deserved if rarely seen justice. Among other things, he eventually tries to stand up for himself with Christie, protesting the latter’s regular racist nick-naming while never once speaking out about a similar running commentary aimed at every woman character they meet.
We meet Tommy’s mother just once in the novel. An old woman who grew up in hard times with little family of her own, she nevertheless seems to be well aware of her heritage yet she chose to set it aside for the sake of her marriage. As the case comes to a close[2] he visits her and finally puts into words the tension he’s been dealing with throughout the novel:

“When I was growing up, I didn’t pretend I was only white, but it was easier not to say anything, right? I mean, I always looked different. Kids would always guess I was Greek or Asian or something, and I would just laugh it off but not say anything. I mean when I did, I said I was Scottish like dad, but that’s it. It was easier. It was always a big long story if I told them I was Native, so I just avoided it. I mean, I took some classes in school, that Ojibway class, but never really felt like I belonged there or anything. And then when I got this job, I put Metis on the application only ‘cause Hannah [Tommy’s wife] said to, but then everyone knew. It was the first time everyone knew what I was, and I felt so different. They treated me so different. So I’ve been feeling more…Indian. But Christie thinks I’m different from them, them, he says – all those people out there. I’m not a real Indian. So what then? I’m just in between? I’m not like anybody?”
[Tommy’s mother] nods. “I always thought it was good that you could pass. People treated you normal most of the time. I could never pass.”
“I know. I saw how you got treated. Hell, I saw how my father treated you. Thing is, though, I don’t feel different from them. Not any of them, any of you. I see them and they remind me of you, of your sisters, or me. They’re the people who look like me. They’re the only people that look like you.”
“They’re your people, that’s why.” She smiles her shy smile.
“I never thought of it like that.”
“I know. That’s my fault. I’m sorry for that. I just wanted to protect you. I wanted you to have the best of everything. And in those days, that meant being white, so we were as white as we could be.”

The novel ends on an uncertain note for pretty much all the characters[3]. Some healing is done, some connections are made or re-affirmed. There’s a possibility of future trouble on the horizon, but at least some stability has been achieved. For the moment. It’s not the most satisfying ending, but then life is complex and rarely very satisfying.
So this is main reason I wanted to come back to ‘The Break.’ Part of the reason I’m including other works of art here is to literally offer a better alternative for Douglas Bland. Obviously it’s not going to be me that offers Canada the great contemporary Indigenous novel, but I don’t need to since there are much better pieces of work being written every year. And they’re not just enjoyable works of literature either, they can actually educate as well as entertain.

Just like Douglas Bland claims he can.

Finally, there’s the fact that this depth and complexity of supporting characters leaves me thinking that Katherena Vermette probably put some serious thought into it before naming her Metis cop after Thomas Scott.[4] Which is grimly satisfying as I work on this project.

[1] Just to make my position completely clear, at the end of the day embracing a cultural heritage is the choice of the individual. If Tommy wants to reject his Metis background, that’s entirely as legitimate as it would be for him to embrace it. The thing that makes this unpalatable is that he is officially declaring a heritage to gain an advantage that was originally meant to offset generations of prejudice which he has largely not had to deal with himself. This makes the fact that his entry into the Winnipeg police force has paired him up with an openly racist partner, forcing him to bear the brunt of the prejudice that his newly adopted identity comes with darkly amusing.
[2] With more than fifty pages left, since the healing and recovery is treated as just as important as the ‘whodunnit’ part of the story.
[3] Only one character has a definite, clear cut ending and that’s only because it’s an awful one.
[4] I’m definitely going to have to revisit this novel for its portrayal of racism, not to mention probably do a separate post on the real life of the historical Thomas Scott himself.

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