By now Alex Gabriel has been walked from one end of the super-secret command post to the other, something we’re told the people who work here don’t get to do thanks to an army of security guards who themselves have the run of the compound. He has passed through several of the colour-coded work areas, caught a glimpse of senior civilian band leadership through a door left carelessly open, and probably seen enough of the equipment being used to be able to make some educated guesses as to how communications are being run. Now he is ushered into a conference room where he will meet the Movement’s true leadership. Because, you know, the Movement is big on security like that:
Alex stopped uncertainly in side the doorway. Instead of hushed darkness and a dozen people hunched over flickering screens, the space was bright, nearly empty, and very ordinary-looking, like an unimportant conference room. A thirty-something man in practical outdoor clothes stood at the front of the room behind a two-meter-long folding table, with papers and a map spread out before him. He put his steaming coffee mug on the makeshift desk and waved Alex to a chair in front.
“Morning Alex. I’m Bill Whitefish, chief of staff to the First Nations Movement.” He extended his hand and then sat down. “Take a seat. Hope you got some rest. Coffee?”
Alex Gabriel’s introduction to Bill Whitefish sets the scene for our first real look at the actual organization of the Native People’s Movement and the Native People’s Army. A scene like this is pretty typical in most films and novels: The new arrival protagonist is essentially the reader’s surrogate, and as they learn about the world the author has created, the reader can as well.
When done properly, the amount of information is kept to a minimum. A good author will drip feed tantalizing details a bit at a time, just enough to keep the reader satisfied that they know what’s happening, while leaving them hungry for more. Think about the opening crawl of text in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. In just a few lines we are given the basics of this far away galaxy from long ago: There’s a civil war, rebels vs the Evil Galactic Empire. The Empire has a secret weapon called the Death Star, while the rebels have a hidden base. The rebels have stolen the plans to the Death Star and Princess Leia is fleeing with them with the Empire in hot pursuit. We don’t know anything yet about who the Rebels or the Empire are. We know nothing about the long term history or the planets we’re about to visit. But it’s enough to get us started.
From there, the details are fed to us a bit at a time, but with skill and speed to keep the excitement going. Even before we first hear the word ‘stormtroopers’ we quickly learn that the Empire is big and powerful, while the Rebels (despite their courage) are badly outmatched. Before we even hear his name, we know the sinister figure of Darth Vader is their ruthless commander who doesn’t think twice about murdering the Rebel ship’s captain when he doesn’t get the answers he wants. Princess Leia is established not only as smart and resourceful when she gives the plans to the droids, but personally courageous when she shoots a stormtrooper, then openly defies Darth Vader to his face.
This is generally the best way to run exposition in a story. Give some basic facts, then let the story provide the rest as it becomes necessary. (In Star Wars, we don’t get another exposition scene until Luke meets Obi-Wan and gets ‘told’ about his father.) With barely a hundred words of text, five minutes of action and a few lines of spoken dialogue a viewer with no background whatsoever can still understand pretty clearly what is going on and is ready for more.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, information that is delivered all at once is what’s called ‘an exposition dump.’ In novel form, this means delivering a wall of text that leaves the reader bewildered by the level of information. Given that the reader’s likely to forget many of the details being presented, it often necessitates revisiting what has been said later on, giving the work a repetitive quality. Since Bland seems to generally prefer writing in briefing format, it’s not particularly surprising that he opts for the latter technique.
Whitefish turned, uncovered a whiteboard behind his table, and pointed to a sparse organization chart. “Later today we’ll talk to you about another mission we have for you. But first, it’s time you got to know the details of the organization that’s directing this campaign…
…Alex, just call me Bill. Anyway, we began to organize the [Movement] in detail once we understood that a serious conflict with the government was inevitable, since the government had repudiated the land settlement and national sovereignty deals we thought were cast in stone. We understood that a nationalist movement needed to be created. The NPM and its tactics are modelled on other successful ‘people’s revolts,’ such as those in Algeria, Vietnam, and the ANC in South Africa, for instance…”
Later in the novel, we will see that the NPA is actually technologically advanced enough to handle their briefings in Power Point (gasp!), so I think it’s quaint that Bill Whitefish is not only relying on a hand-drawn org chart on a whiteboard, but actually had it covered when Alex Gabriel entered, so that he could reveal it dramatically once his guest was seated.
This is the first of many conversations we’re going to encounter in ‘Uprising’ that sound more like the introduction of a corporate vision statement than the true beliefs of a revolutionary fanatic. Again we have no reference to the Railway Massacre, or any other recent grievances. When we later get the details of Bill Whitefish’s backstory we’ll learn that he has, allegedly, some very good reasons to have joined the movement.1 When we get to his backstory, be sure to remember this part here. A man who should be filled with anger and betrayal meeting with a man who’s going to be one of their prime field commanders explains how “we understood that a nationalist movement needed to be created.”
Also, Bill Whitefish seems to be saying that the Canadian Government has abandoned the Treaty system altogether (“repudiated the land settlement and national sovereignty deals”). Huh? What does this mean? Has the Canadian Government actually rescinded their obligations under the Treaty System? All of the Treaties? What about the original Indian Act and its later revision? What about the Treaties that were actively in the process of being negotiated (such as with the Nisga’a people of Northern B.C.) when this book was being written?
Has all of that been thrown out the door, by Bland’s stereotypical liberal government? Because that’s a hard-core position even the most aggressive Conservative governments have never taken in real life. Even the recent government of Stephen Harper, who was seen by many Indigenous groups and activists as being unnecessarily harsh and confrontational, never came close to just throwing out the Treaties or the Indian Act.2
While Bill Whitefish does most of the talking in the scene, the real authority in the room is a native woman who sits silently at the opposite side of the conference room.
[Behind where Alex is invited to sit] a woman sat silently in an armchair, legs crossed, her lap filled with files, looking him over with unsettling intensity. She wasn’t much older than Alex. Dressed in cords and a rose-patterned shirt, she was slim, conventionally attractive, and, judging by her brown complexion, high cheekbones, and long, silky, braided hair hanging over her left should, obviously native-probably Cree, Alex thought.
This is our first glimpse of the NPA’s mastermind: Molly Grace. It’s worth giving credit to Bland for having created a reasonably striking portrait of a character (and it’s worth one and a half cheers that he choses to make his rebel leader a woman). Molly Grace is apparently here to evaluate the NPA’s latest recruitment prospect. It’s pretty standard scene and one that you’d expect, given the more general circumstances of an armed native rebellion.
“Bill Whitefish didn’t introduce her. Instead, without preamble, he said, “That was good work at Petawawa, just as we expected when you were assigned to the mission.”
Alex mumbled, “Thanks…my young people did well…I hope they’re being treated properly…” He resisted the urge to turn to the woman in the corner…..
…”Don’t worry about them. They’ll be fine, and thanks to your training, useful in the future as well. Amazing what a bit of pride and purpose can do to these supposedly wild kids, don’t you think?”
Well there you have it, he mumbled a few words about his troops and their wellbeing, and this obvious civilian reassured him that everything would be okay. Clearly now the welfare of his troops has been secured.
What doesn’t make sense is why this scene is happening now, and not, say two weeks ago before the rebellion itself has started. Keep in mind, the Uprising is on. Bases have been attacked, people have been killed, and a non-sensical manifesto has been broadcast. Given that Alex Gabriel was holding a key role in one of these raids, it makes little sense to only now begin the vetting process of whether he is worthy of serving in further missions for the NPA’s inner circle.
A point to keep in mind is throughout the next portion of the text is one of security.
One of the conflicts that Bill will mention during his briefing is the revolution in French Algeria. If they had studied that, then it’s pretty much inevitable that they would have examined the 1966 film ‘The Battle of Algiers’ which is considered an early classic work illustrating insurgency and counter-insurgency strategy.
Even if the characters haven’t studied the film (which I find hard to believe because they will soon be waxing poetically about T.E. Lawrence’s ‘Revolt in the Desert’) I find it impossible to believe that Bland himself hasn’t seen the film. Yet surprisingly that seems to be the case, for two reasons: One is that ‘The Battle of Algiers’ is one of the first films (that I know of) to depict the cell system of organizing a revolution, and the other is the chilling and ruthless methods used by the rebels to vet their recruits.
Although the movie’s plot line is multi-faceted and complex, the bulk of the story revolves around the protagonist Ali La Pointe. An illiterate day-labourer and small time hustler, he is recruited by the nascent Front Liberation Nationale (FLN) for his street smarts and acute hatred for the French colonial occupation.
In one of the more harrowing early scenes of the film, Ali is ordered to prove his loyalty by shooting a French police officer who is receiving information from a traitor. He wants to know why he can’t just shoot the traitor but the rebel leaders are insistent; it must be the police officer. It is only after the scene’s heart-stopping conclusion that he learns the real reason for the target: If he were a government spy, his handlers might have allowed him to shoot a random Algerian, but would never have tolerated the death of a French police officer. By pulling the trigger on the cop, Ali proves to the revolution that he is a true believer.3
As for the cell system described in the movie, it receives only the barest lip service in ‘Uprising,’ and then only for the purposes of name dropping. This despite the fact that it remains one of the cheapest and most dependable methods available to maintain security for a small, rag-tag band of rebels.
The idea is that the entire rebel organization consists of ‘cells’ consisting of one leader, and two people that this leader recruits. Each of those recruits in turn is required to recruit a cell of their own, but not reveal the details of these new recruits to their leader or fellow cell members. As a result, while the organization can potentially consist of dozens of people, each individual member only knows the names of the person who recruited them, and the two people they themselves recruited.
By limiting the information a captured rebel can give up, the damage that can result by the capture of even a high ranking prisoner is reduced, and the overall organization has far more time to protect itself, isolate the compromised members, re-organize and learn from their mistakes.
Consider Alex Gabriel’s position: As a recent recruit, he has personally trained and led twenty men (perhaps?) on a raid that would mean a very hefty prison sentence if caught. These warriors have been taken away for another mission, presumably one on some front lines of the developing rebellion.
What happens when one of them is caught? How many names can they give up? Bland only gives the barest outline of the training they received, and none of it seemed to deal with conduct after capture. So it’s a fair bet that if any of these young warriors found themselves in a police interrogation room, the name Alex Gabriel would be quick to come up.
Now if Alex were working in isolation (as a true cell system would require) then the damage would be contained. He could finger his grandfather and some elders, and probably give a description of the Mystery Man who received the stolen weapons. Bad. Very bad, in fact. But not fatal.
So why is Bill Whitefish marching him straight into their top secret headquarters, letting him see all sorts of ‘classified’ people and things, then sitting him down in the room with the supreme leader of the movement so they can explain the inner workings of their entire organization?
It’s not a huge spoiler to reveal that Gabriel is about to be sent on another mission, one that will put him on the immediate front lines of the rebellion. What if he is captured? We know he likes to ‘lead from the front,’ so the risk is high that he will be. What will happen when (they would have to assume when, not if) he starts talking.
Yes, I know that Alex Gabriel has been vetted by his grandfather and The Elders (who have spoken of the legend of the chosen one…). But would a truly ‘ruthless’ organization be willing to accept that? Remember, he explicitly stopped his men from killing Cpl Newman at the Menin Rd Ammo Compound(!) whereas the raid into Halifax saw a Commissionaire5 casually run over with a truck. How do Billy and Molly know they haven’t just shown their secret fort to a government spy?
Have these guys even watched ‘The Battle of Algiers?’
***Image from ‘The Battle of Algiers’ Criterion collection DVD.***
1 My reasons for using the word ‘allegedly’ here will become obvious later when we get Bill Whitefish’s backstory. Short version, Bland gives him some fairly realistic motivations that are quickly belied by his later actions in the Movement.
2 It’s also possible that Bland wrote this sentence without considering the implications of its meaning. That’s not entirely out of the question, as we will see in the next chapter when we get a detailed introduction to General Bishop, but it speaks very poorly of the author’s research and editing when a slip this blatant is allowed to get through.
3 Another interesting aspect about Ali La Pointe is that he is considered a prime candidate because he is uneducated. Although quick thinking and intelligent, he must rely on the street children who carry messages to read those messages to him. But it’s this lack of higher learning gives him the single-mindedness that ultimately leads to him becoming one of the most ruthless cell leaders in the FLN.
4 In the movie, women have numerous key roles within the FLN. This is because it takes place in the quaint old days when most muslim insurgencies embraced various forms of Marxism as their central philosophy, rather than the more apocalyptic brands of Islamic fundamentalism.
5 Fred McTavish. Never forget.
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