As I’ve said before, this deconstruction started originally as a project for National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is an online challenge where you sign up to write a novel (50,000 words or more) in one month. I’d completed the challenge before writing pure fiction, but a few years back, as I was battling a serious bout of what turned out to be undiagnosed depression, I had no ideas and a whole lot of anxiety to work out, so I made this deconstruction my project for the year.
Now one of the things I’ve learned doing NaNoWriMo is that the human subconscious is a pretty impressive thing. If you can get yourself going, all kinds of amazing and strange things can flow from your mind onto a page without you ever realizing it. On the other hand, you can also get a lot of crap. I’m not sure who it was that said ’90% of writing is editing’ but one look at my previous NaNoWriMo entries proves the point perfectly. Yeah, once in a while inspiration strikes and a river of pure gold flows onto the page. Other times, it’s a river of something else that’s yellow…
This is basically my way of saying that editing is your friend. Your first draft is going to full of errors and unconscious bias, and if you want to write something that’s legitimately authentic, you’re probably going to have to re-work things so that what’s on the page matches your intentions.
I know that sounds kind of weird, but if you want your story to be authentic, you do need to edit the shit out of it. The problem is that we have all sorts of unconscious assumptions and biases that will slip through if we don’t adjust our work accordingly. Case in point, Douglas Bland is a retired CAF staff officer who (I suspect) gave lots of briefings. As a result, the novel Uprising is full of briefings. The characters speak in briefing formats, even when they aren’t giving briefings. Whether this would be a natural way for such characters to speak does not seem to have been considered.
With this in mind, let’s take a look this next scene in which Bland introduces the two principle leaders of his NPA who are here to, you guessed it, deliver a briefing.
Bill Whitefish is basically Molly Grace’s right hand man, her chief operations officer, henchman, and negotiator who speaks (mostly) on her behalf. Also, since almost nothing in the novel is portrayed through Molly Grace’s Point of View, he becomes a necessary surrogate for who she is and how she thinks. He is a NPA patriot who is utterly committed to the cause and personally devoted to Molly Grace. Strangely though, as we hear him speak it’s impossible not to image that his movie role would be played by Douglas Bland himself, perhaps wearing a black haired wig. What I’m saying is, I would expect Alex Gabriel to talk at least somewhat like a junior version of our retired LtCol author, but in Billy’s case it sounds all wrong.
“We understood that a nationalist movement needed to be created. The [Movement] and its tactics are modelled on other successful ‘people’s revolts,’ such as those in Algeria, Vietname, and the ANC in South Africa, for instance. In think you’re more than familiar with these histories?”
“I am, certainly – a major topic in my degree program and a long-time interest in any case. I assume T.E. Lawrence and his revolt in the desert is a major source of ideas too?”
“He is the central source,” said a voice from the back of the room. “Go on, Bill.”
Because an Ex-Lawyer/Social Worker (yes, that’s what Bill Whitefish is) turned rebel fanatic will talk exactly like an armchair general trying to impress a younger historian by name dropping.
Incidentally, it’s odd that a native liberation movement would look to someone like T. E. Lawrence (the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) as an example. In today’s modern-day Arab world the Revolt in the Desert is widely seen today as an Imperial play by the British to enthrone a pro-western monarchy in the oil-rich remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
Consider this story that was front-paged for days on Al Jazeera to mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Treaty. While the average westerner might only remember the movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and the armchair historian might recall the strategies and tactics employed to bring down the Ottoman Empire, in the Arab world, the end of the First World War saw the substitution of Ottoman rule for that of the European powers. It was the moment that established western (that is, to say Christian) dominance in the region and set the stage for much of the drama that would fill the rest of the 20th Century.
In simple terms, Lawrence of Arabia was seen as a traitor to the Arab people, who kicked out one tyrant to establish another. It was a betrayal plain and simple regardless of the tactics employed, or the number of Oscars won by the film.2
But this goes back to the central problem of Uprising. Douglas Bland seems to have a problem with envisioning a character who disagrees with him. He is personally impressed by T.E. Lawrence therefore he assumes everyone else should be as well. That someone else might read ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and reject it? That a military mind might reject it? He can’t seem to wrap his head around it.
Now notice the quotation marks around the phrase ‘People’s revolts.’ That’s in both the original text and the later e-book version. Normally the inclusion of scare quotes denotes sarcasm and a lack of legitimacy. As this is dialogue being spoken by the NPA’s second in command, this would seem to imply that Billy doesn’t think that any of these revolutions were actually legitimate people’s revolts. And he’s clearly not saying this in some ultra-woke, purity pony kind of way where no revolution is ever great enough to meet the standards of being a true people’s revolt. No. He seems to mean this in a deeply contemptuous way. Silly proletariat! You thought you had real grievances and were fighting for your rights? Ha!
The idea that the leaders of a popular movement might in fact be a bunch of cynical operators who don’t care about the people they lead isn’t necessarily a bad one. But for leaders like this to be successful, you’d expect that they could maintain the facade in front of outsiders and new prospects. Bland cannot seem to imagine a rebellion of either true believers or effective liars, so he has his cynical operators wear their (and his) prejudices on their sleeves. In a film version, I would almost expect Bill Whitefish to make Dr Evil-style air quotes when he speaks.
So now, let’s get into the briefing:
This ends up reading more like a corporate org chart than a fanatic describing how they will overthrow the man. What follows is a department by department walk through of the Movement’s various departments. There’s several problems with how they are supposed to be operating, and we’ll spend plenty of time over the next few parts of this deconstruction examining them. But for now, what I want to focus on is the jarring tone at the beginning of the passage.
Bill Whitefish is supposed to be a true believer (this is implied now and will be confirmed in text later), and in this scene he’s trying to secure the conversion of a bright new prospect who already knows too much. Alex Gabriel has just carried out a vital and dangerous mission for the NPA, and they need to send him out on another, even more dangerous mission in the next few days. But he clearly has issues with killing his former comrades (such as Cpl Newman) and he may waver as the rebellion begins and more bodies start hitting the floor. This seems like the sort of moment when they lay out their plans as a way of reassuring him that their organization is solid, that their cause is righteous and that they will win.
(Oh yeah, pay attention to those quotation marks! They will become more and more telling as the presentation goes on!)
“Early on, we adopted organizational structures taken from modern militant organizations and created as well a sophisticated, secret, business-like organization. We are very careful, and successful so far as we know, in cloaking our operations behind groups and governing agencies legitimately associated with the aboriginal community.”
“On the reserves and so on?”
“Indeed, a member of a legitimate organization or a reserve might be at the same time a leader of a local revolutionary cell, and a band chief might be a member of the NPC, and on or both might be part of some federal negotiations task force, especially if we can convince, by whatever means, federal politicians to let us join or run such task forces and inquiries.”
“These crossovers make it difficult for the government and law enforcement agencies to take any sort of action against us without risking trouble. It’s a situation we exploit with some skill…and ruthlessness, if I might say so.
Note the use of the word legitimate. It’s not in quotation marks implying that it’s usage is sincere. Regardless of the fact that the Movement comprises of the NPC (Native People’s Council) which is meant to serve as a shadow government supplanting the recognized band councils, they still see those organizations as the real thing. Despite the fact that the very purpose of the Movement is to undermine the rotted out structure of First Nations government and replace it with the true believers of the Movement. In their propaganda broadcast Molly Grace denounced these leaders as white indians and traitors. But here the implication is that the First Nations government is the only real government and that matters.
If you think I’m making too much out of mere punctuation we’re going to skip ahead to this passage where Billy talks about the IIA (Information & Intelligence Authority), the Movement’s information and propaganda wing:
“The Council is supported by three main offices. The Information and Intelligence Authority, or IIA, provides clandestine control over the First Nations Radio and Television Network, the First Nations’ Internet Service, and the Aboriginal Media Relations Association. Its job is to bolster native self-awareness and the community’s sense of grievance and to deflect any criticisms of any native initiative or organization by playing on ‘white guilt’ and so on.
“We also send delegates to academic meetings and public events to beat the guilt drum and castigate anyone, especially politicians or academics, who dares criticize or raise doubts about native claims, rights, or activities.”
Okay so here it is: White guilt is written with quotation marks, while legitimate (when referring to the people they called white indian traitors) is not. White guilt is apparently a fabrication by nefarious minorities trying to manipulate innocent white people. It’s certainly not the result of a legitimate perception of imbalance and injustice by a dominant population who’s seeing the underclass for the first time.
So…just in case you’ve been some vague feelings of guilt you might have with regard to the plight of Indigenous people in Canada…don’t worry! Those feelings are only there because those dastardly native people have been playing you for a fool all this time! They know you’re really a good person and they’ve been playing to your better nature all this time! All for their own selfish reasons! The only way you can resist them is by cutting out that hint of sympathy you’ve been feeling, to excise that sense of empathy you might naturally have for fellow human beings and respond to them the way a lawyer might in a personal injury case: with language that is careful to maintain your position without admitting guilt.
Now consider the following:
Alright so if you come from Ottawa and are of a certain age, you’ll probably recognize these right away. The woman on the left is Ardeth Wood, and back in August of 2003 she was found murdered along a bike path by a person of whom a vague description by eye witnesses produced the sketch shown on the right. Back during that summer this was a big deal that genuinely gripped a city that didn’t normally see this kind of violence. Just to drive home the point, I was going to school at the time, and these pictures were taped to a wall at the local Tim Hortons’ where I went to get my morning coffee. Not an actual poster, just printouts from the internet. So deep seated was the alarm that someone at the Timmy’s had printed the pictures off on their printer and taped it to the wall in hopes that it would do some good.
Two years later (in Sept of 2005) when another young woman, Jennifer Teague was found murdered as well, a lot of people genuinely freaked out. And we were right to do so. Two innocent people met with violent deaths and although that same year would see Ardeth’s killer finally arrested, there was a briefly a real fear that a serial killer was on the loose.3 People were right to be scared. It was only natural to see these events and fear for one’s own safety.
Now consider this:
Those are photos of (from left to right) Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morriseau, Jordan Wabasse, Tammy Keeash, and Josiah Begg. They are seven Indigenous children who, over the last two decades have been found dead in the McIntyre river in Thunder Bay (a city of 100,000 at the western tip of Lake Superior). Seven kids, all found dead in the same place under disturbingly similar circumstances over seventeen years. Concurrent to their deaths, there have been two more children (Paul Panacheese and Robyn Harper) who were in some form of foster care who died allegedly from drug overdoses.
Now when I say, ‘found dead’ and ‘allegedly from drug overdoses’ it’s because, in several of these cases, the cause of death was unknown when the cases were closed. In 2015 when the number of drowned children only numbered five, a coroner’s inquest determined that the police had acted irresponsibly in closing the case of at least four of the children (Anderson, Morriseau, and Wabassse who drowned, Panacheese who overdosed) when they failed to even perform autopsies before attributing cause of death to accidents.
The last two children (Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg) were found in the river both disappeared on the same night. Neither death was initially considered suspicious.
Concurrent to this, a parallel inquest was looking into the handling of the case of an adult Indigenous man named Stace Debungee. Found drowned in the same river his death had been ruled an accident and the case closed within 48 hours despite no medical examination to determine to establish a cause of death, and the fact that his debit card was found to have been used four times after his death.
Stories reported to journalists by a Indigenous homeless person about being assaulted by two white men and being thrown into the river are considered unrelated. So is the death of Barb Kentner who died from injuries sustained when she was hit by a trailer hitch thrown from a passing truck.
A man was eventually charged with aggravated assault. This charge was later upgraded to second degree murder. The fact that Barb Kentner’s murder is similar to other attacks upon Indigenous people who have been hit by objects thrown from passing vehicles is apparently considered coincidental.
The deaths of these Indigenous adults is, in turn, considered a separate issue from the deaths of these Indigenous children.
Thunder Bay’s Mayor Hobbs has blamed the outrage on ‘high priced Toronto lawyers’ aggravating the situation…
“White Guilt?” With quotation marks? A decade and a half after the fact, I can remember the facts of the Ardeth Woods and Jennifer Teague case, while I actually had to do research into an ongoing investigation and scandal in order to track down the names of all the people involved.4 I would expect the phrase ‘white guilt’ to be in quotation marks when being written by an angry white conservative with no recent knowledge of history. To see them in the dialogue of a native revolutionary is jarring to say the least.
I’m not saying that you, a white person, need to feel personally guilty as though you have done something terrible. I don’t feel personally guilty because native children are dying under mysterious circumstances because I didn’t have anything to do with their deaths or with the lack of investigation.
What we all need to do is recognize is that the system has got some very serious problems in it. Terrible things happen all the time and when it happens we all deserve justice and empathy equally. But for some of us that justice comes automatically while others have to scream and shout just to get noticed. You and I didn’t create this system. But if we ignore the people that the system is failing, then we don’t have any right to complain when those victims lump us in with the racists. No one is saying you can’t care about Ardeth Wood when she is killed, but you need to also care about Tammy Keeash when she dies as well. That if the discovery of two murdered white women makes you frightened of the idea of a serial killer, so should the deaths of seven (…nine?…plus at least two adults?…) Indigenous children.
There is a tendency among racists is to view human rights as a kind of zero sum game, where any gain made by one group is a loss for another. When in reality it’s less a question of losing your protection but drawing others into the same safe space that you’ve been enjoying (often unconsciously) for yourself.
We’ve already seen how Bland’s conception of a native rebellion – the Movement – has gone as far back as Samuel de Champlain to find grievances despite the fact that there was a Canadian Bloody Sunday during the Railway Massacre just two months ago. The fact that they’re putting things like white guilt in quotation marks, and talking about it like it was something other than a deeply personal grievance suggests this is another case of the author projecting his beliefs and prejudices into his Native characters.
Once again, there is theoretically nothing wrong with writing about a race war. But if you’re going to do it, you owe it to the real people involved to do it well, to have something legitimate to say. For Douglas Bland to actually succeed in portraying a Native radical, he’d have to understand what makes that hypothetical native radical tick. Whether he agreed with him or not, an accurate portrayal of this character would have to acknowledge that this person’s grievances were real (at least to the radical) and that engaging with this character would mean acknowledging this grievances.
Portraying Bill Whitefish not only as a cynical manipulator but as a man who views the people he is manipulating as illegitimate is the worst kind of sop to legitimize white supremacy. Whether or not Bland intended it this way, his Native Rebels are openly saying that white guilt is fake and even Indigenous people know this. Not only does this lend credence to their beliefs, but it has the effect of dragging the Indigenous Activist down to the level of the white supremacist by claiming they both know that native grievances/white guilt are false.5.
***Lawrence of Arabia image from IMDB.com. Ardeth Woods images from cbc.ca/news. All others as attributed.***
1 This is actually a good literary device, where a complex character is described through another’s eyes. For what it’s worth, writing a character that is an authentic charismatic rebel leader is going to be a massive challenge, and therefore really hard to write. Describing such a character through the eyes of a devoted follower would be an effective way to do it as well as a lot easier. So in the interest of being fair, this would have been a good literary decision for Bland to make, if it had worked.
2 Much like Nathan Bedford Forrest’s prowess as a cavalry commander, I would expect for a real life NPA, any lessons learned from Lawrence would be heavily coloured by the consequences of the man’s life.
3 As it turned out, the cases proved to be unrelated. Jennifer Teague was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, whose developing mental health issues were aggravated by a serious drug habit. Ardeth Wood, on the other hand, was actually killed by a random stranger she’d met out on a bike path, a man who was later found to be responsible for a series of sexual assaults throughout Ontario.
4 A disturbing fact I discovered in researching this section is that, while there’s quite a few articles on the subject, very few actually list the names of everyone who has died. I initially thought the MacLean’s article would include it (especially since they had pictures of the drowning victims lined up on the cover) but the bulk of their article covers just the last two deaths (Josiah Begg & Tammy Keeash) as well as the deaths of Stace DeBungee and Barb Kentner. Several CBC.ca articles mention single cases, but don’t include a list either. One of the pics accompanying one of the articles, however, feature a pamphlet that included pictures and names of some of the children (out of sequence from the MacLean’s cover) that I was able to transcribe. I don’t know if this was deliberate, but it was kind of creepy.
5 In the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to go ahead and admit that I could pull Adreth Wood and Jennifer Teague’s names from memory (and spell them correctly) while I had to go and look up the names of all the people dead in Thunder Bay, and I’m still not sure how to pronounce some of them. I’ve got nothing against native people, and I want to see every murder victim receive justice. But there’s no getting around the fact that, as a white man, the names of disappeared white women are drilled into my head whereas I had to research the names of seven (nine!) Indigenous children.