***In the interest of dividing this deconstruction up logically by themes, I’m going to dedicate this post to Alex Gabriel’s trip to Winnipeg, and his first meeting with Sam Stevenson, the NPA commander. The next couple of parts will then deal with another briefing (_sigh_) followed by Alex’s reconnaissance of Winnipeg.  For anyone following along, this will involve a fair bit of jumping back and forth in the story line to maintain a continuous narrative in the deconstruction.***

The next several segments cover Alex Gabriel’s trip to Winnipeg, where he meets up with Sam Stevenson, the NPA commander of the Winnipeg theatre. A good part of this is basic travel minutia and (I guess) basic cloak and dagger stuff. Unlike Will Boucanier’s arrival at Chisasibi, Alex Gabriel’s is meant to be genuinely undercover, but tell me if this sounds subtle to you:

‘When his cab came, he got the door himself, settled into the backseat, and told the scarlet-turbaned Sikh driver, “The Occidental Hotel, Main Street, please.”
The cabbie hesitated. “The Occidental? Are you sure, sir? Have you been here before? It’s not a very fancy place – kind of a beat-up area for a hotel, really.”
“Yeah, well, business is tough in Ottawa these days,” Alex replied, deliberately lying about where he was coming from, as he’d been instructed to, in order to cover his tracks. “We’re saving money this month.”
The cabbie shrugged, pulled away from the airport, and cut out on to Wellington Street. “Most of our visitors from Ottawa go to the best places.” He paused for the traffic and grinned at Alex in his rearview mirror. “Can you still tip?”
Alex smiled back. “Oh, sure – special rates, though.”
[…]
…As Alex reached for the hotel door he saw the cabbie through the taxis’ grimy side window shaking his head as the car eased away from the curb. The old Sikh would have a story for the guys tonight.

He is the wind!

So Alex Gabriel travels in a business suite, but takes up residence in the Occidental Hotel, a famously sketchy hotel/bar of Winnipeg’s down town where his presence will immediately stand out. He there receives instructions to change into shabbier clothing, leave the hotel by fire escape, and wander the neighbourhood before heading to a church where his contact will be waiting.

Now we, the readers, know that Alex Gabriel will be perfectly safe in doing this. Two days into the uprising and the only response from the government and military has been a lot of high ranking people talking in rooms far away. The alarm has not been raised throughout the Canadian security establishment, and warnings certainly haven’t been pushed down to the level of local police forces. Except for local assholes like Bob Ignace up in Chisasibi who are taking the initiative themselves, there is no street level awareness that something seriously dangerous is about to go down. Even though Alex Gabriel is a known Indigenous CF officer who is now AWOL (and potentially a suspect in the Petawawa raid) he could walk past a veritable parade of Winnipeg police officers without being recognized.[1]

‘Alex followed his instructions, moving along Disraeli, dodging across the Main Street’s several lanes, and up Alexander. Despite the clothes, he felt conspicuous, too upright in these beaten-down surroundings. He forced himself to discard his habitual upright, parade-ground posture, pace, and presence. Loser, he told himself. Think loser. Act loser. Look loser. Shuffle. Head down. Drift. He checked himself in the store windows as he walked along, trying to look as if he was stopping to ponder a smash-and-grab.

Well, nice to know what Bland thinks of all those native folks wandering around on the streets of down town Winnipeg.[2] To be fair, Alex is right in recognizing that someone with years of army experience is going to stand and walk very differently from the average civilian. If there was an all points bulletin to be on the lookout for him, this realization might actually keep Alex safe as he searches for his contact.

Alex visits a church where he meets his contact (a native woman named Deanne) who leads him from the church to the NPA headquarters. Two pages of text that doesn’t accomplish a whole lot but doesn’t waste too much time either. But one point does leap out at me, even though it only comes up in passing:

“…Does the priest know about this setup?” Alex teased.
“The priests here are liberation priests, just like those fighting for justice in other oppressed countries,” the woman replied tersely.

I’m not going to go too far into it here, but the Liberation Church is a sort of unofficial movement within the Catholic Church of Latin America (and other parts of the world) that embrace a philosophy known as Liberation Theology. First articulated in the 1960s, it combines the Latin American revolutionary version of Marxism with the more economically revolutionary aspects of the Bible (you know, all that stuff Jesus talked about). The end result was a kind of revolutionary church within the Catholic church that reached out and advocated for the poor and downtrodden, while often standing in opposition to the predominantly right wing governments.[3]

It’s later revealed that the Liberation Church had a formative role in the political development of Molly Grace, so it’s odd that they should barely get two mentions in 497 pages. It’s not surprising that Bland would naturally see the Liberation Church as an enemy, as this has been a common theme amongst the more conservative right wing governments where they have been active.[4]

What surprises me here is that Bland seems to have inadvertently hit upon one of the more likely scenarios for the creation of a pan-Canadian First Nations revolutionary movement: What if the NPA were recruiting from poor and dispossessed, whom they had rescued from poverty?

As weird as it may initially sound, I think there’s something here that could meet the requirements that Bland has established here in his novel. Molly Grace’s Native People’s Movement is committed not only to the overthrow of settler-colonial society, but the existing First Nations power structure itself. Any Chief or Elder who refuses to join is to be left by the wayside if not actually deposed or killed. On top of that the Movement must achieve a truly stunning level of discipline and secrecy.  It’s members, without professional training or vetting, must maintain an impenetrable wall of silence to outside infiltration. So how do you achieve this kind of movement?

Imagine you’re a homeless native man. Maybe you came to the city from your reserve (as Bland says) ‘in search of the life [you’d] watched on TV’ but all you found was discrimination, unemployment, violence and drugs. Maybe you tried to return home only to be turned away by your community who feared the damage and addiction you brought with you. Maybe going home was never an option in the first place and the misery you’re living with now is still better than what awaits you back on the Rez. But then, just when you thought you’ve hit rock bottom, just when you thought there was no one who cared, Molly Grace and her Native Peoples Movement appears in your life and offers salvation.

Professional security clearance has nothing on the loyalty of a broken person who’s been pulled back from the edge.

If Molly Grace was recruiting from among the homeless and the desperate, and more importantly if she was offering these people genuine help and security, she could probably build a pretty strong power base for herself.  The depressing fact is that there is Indigenous poverty across Canada and in every major city.  A recovering drug addict might have a host of medical and emotional problems, but they would likely be devoted to the person or group who rescued them, and such devotion is a powerful weapon in the hands of an unscrupulous leader.

My theory isn’t without historical precedence either. One of the forgotten chapters in the life of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh was the story of his brother Tenskwatawa, who became known as the Prophet. Back in 1808 the Prophet began preaching a kind of pan-First Nations philosophy that drew hundred of refugees fleeing the expansion of the newly established United States of America. Founding a settlement that came to be known as Prophetstown[5], Tecumseh and the Prophet actually stood a genuine chance of building a functional nation that could have resisted American expansion into what is now Ohio and Michigan.

For a more Canadian example, we can flash forward three quarters of a century and two thousand kilometres away, to when Louis Riel would return to Canada after a decade lying low in the United States. Where previously he had lead the Red River Rebellion as a legal expert and organizer, he had been reborn during his exile as a kind of Catholic mystic preaching a kind of ethno-religious resistance by the Metis nations against the encroachment by the Canadian government[6].

So reaching out to the marginalized people with a message of redemption and (presumably) revenge could potentially serve as a kind catalyst to build a movement that could equally oppose both the settler-colonial government and ‘white Indian’ traitors. But this option does come with a few baked in problems. One, such a movement would instantly attract attention, particularly from the existing power structures. Prophetstown quickly caught the attention of the Americans who (correctly) guessed that if they didn’t stamp it out quickly, they might never be able to.  This would result in an invasion by William Henry Harrison who would defeat the Prophet’s forces at Tippecanoe, scatter the people of Prophetstown and burn their settlement to the ground.

Meanwhile Louis Riel, while serving as a powerful unifying figure for the French-speaking Catholic Metis of the prairies, ended up alienating potential allies in the region leading to the North-West Rebellion becoming divided and fractious.  Among those turned off by his message were the English-speaking Protestant Metis, as well as several of the major Indigenous nations of the region, some of whom went so far as to try and stay neutral during the conflict.

While recruiting from the bottom rung of society may yield considerable results, it is going to be a time consuming process that will attract attention.  If the addicts and homeless are cleaning up and getting organized, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Winnipeg Police will quickly notice.

The other major drawback to embracing this option is that it would be a stinging indictment of Canadian society. It would point out that there are real needs within various native communities and that Canada is doing a very bad job at addressing them. I’ve pointed out already how problematic it is to write a hypothetical story about a race war, well this would be the kind of thing that could serve as a redeeming factor.  If your action-packed thriller about a Canadian ethnic conflict serves as a vehicle to present and discuss real world problems and maybe even shame a few people in the dominant society?  Well, that would go a long way towards shifting your work from a work of open racism to more of a B-movie shlock piece with some positive qualities.

I love my country.  That’s why I think it’s important to learn about our faults, so that we can become better as a people.  As much as it makes me squirm to read about things like poverty, residential schools and police racism, facing these things is the first step to changing things.  The thing is, I don’t think Bland wants to face up to these realities.  Although it’s never explicitly stated in the text, the frequent mentions of “we send them billions” acts to frame this poverty as an indictment of Indigenous people, rather than a disastrous reality that could provide very understandable motivation.

Worse, under a liberation model of recruitment, Molly Grace would be transformed from a political opportunist taking advantage of a weak-willed liberal government into a kind of messianic figure who’s power base came from providing real help to real people.  And that’s not the story that Bland’s trying to tell here.  The whole idea behind Uprising is that liberalism equals weakness and if we show too much weakness, ‘those people’ (who were always savages, no matter what you might think) will seize their opportunity and attack.  As a result, there can’t even be a hint of the uprising being something we could have avoided by being nicer.

Then again, it’s entirely possible that Bland mentioned the Liberation church without even considering the implications.  Based on what we’ve seen so far he doesn’t seem like the kind of person to be deterred by a world-building plot hole.

So Deanne leads Alex Gabriel to the ‘Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg Inc’ located near the ‘once-majestic CPR [railway] station,’ and points him towards a nondescript door. It’s the door to the secret NPA headquarters!

‘Even a stranger would have seen that the older man was in charge. But Alex wasn’t exactly a stranger. Though a few years had passed since he was under his command, Alex recognized Colonel Sam Stevenson at once.
“Okay, everyone, take a break for ten minutes while I speak with the hero from the Petawawa raid,” the colonel said. Suspicion turned to admiration on five young faces as they filed out, leaving Alex and Sam alone. The colonel closed the door.
Habit made Alex straighten up, almost to attention, but a tiny motion of Stevenson’s left hand said, “Stand at ease.” His right hand gave Alex a firm, welcoming handshake.
[….]
“Colonel Steele,” as his regular force soldiers called him, was hardly a Hollywood Rambo-style soldier. His hair, slightly greying, was trimmed short and neat. He was Docker-dressed, as the saying went: matching shirt and trousers, both pressed and creased. But the colonel was short for an action hero, at most five-seven, slight, physically unassuming, his posture concealing rather than emphasizing his exceptional fitness for a man in his mid-fifties. He wore thin-framed reading glasses hung around his next, librarian-style.
“Do you know why you’re here, Alex?” Stevenson asked, dispensing as usual with small talk.
“Not exactly, sir. I was only told to come here to help you command the operation in this sector. Beyond which, Molly Grace told me you would fill me in. I must say, sir, that I am honoured to be with you, and I hope I can be helpful.” Alex blushed. Damn, he said to himself, that sounded trite – like I’m some ass-kiss, first day on the job in NDHQ.

Colonel Sam ‘Steele’ Stevenson not only has a european name, but a badass nickname with strong historical, (that is, ’white’) significance. So we know he’s going to one of the strong, manly men. It’s also interesting that we’re getting a pretty detailed physical description, but there will be no historical background for the character. Alex gets his meeting with The Elders, Will Boucanier gets his stolen valour battle at Medak Pocket, and Gen Bishop gets his improbable seven-day war in Africa. We will later hear the background of Bill Whitefish and eventually Molly Grace, but with Sam Steele here, we get a detailed physical description but nothing about his background.

Well, at least we know what he looks like. Which…

douglas_l_bland
Douglas L. Bland  (Image found at Dundurn Press)

…Okay, there’s no librarian glasses, but tell me I’m not the only one seeing this…

…For fuck’s sake…

Okay, you know what?  This is starting to drag out.  Time to wrap this up.  As is natural in the presence of a greater male, Gabriel is immediately deferential, unconsciously snapping to attention the first time he is addressed. Then, because he’s pretty alpha himself, he immediately chastises himself for having felt honoured to be in this greater man’s presence.  Speaking as a life-long non-commissioned member who’s had to salute every officer from a 2Lt on up…Uh…Fuck you?

Okay one last digression…

Alex thinks he’s somehow demeaning himself by paying basic compliments to a superior?  Seriously?  I’ll tell him (and Bland) the same thing I tell every new recruit who puts on a uniform for the first time: You salute the rank, not the man, and your salute is more about you then about them.

Saluting (or coming to attention when you’re not in full uniform) is a gesture of professionalism that re-affirms your commitment to the military and its chain of command.  You’re telling the superior officer ‘I’m a professional and I have your back.’ Being too cool for school and disregarding basic compliments only serves to make you look like a petulant child.

What’s really strange though, is that Alex Gabriel doesn’t seem to find anything strange about this meeting in the first place. Here he is, meeting his old commander and mentor after years apart, both of them having crossed that dark and deadly line into treason separately and now uniting to fight their former colleagues in the CF. Surely this should be an occasion to pause and reflect, or to muse catch up on old times, or to muse on the strange workings of fate? Instead, they greet each other like they’d just come back from a long weekend and immediately launch into…a briefing!

140529-Red Road8.jpg
The Occidental Hotel today has been re-built as the Red Road Lodge, a transitional housing facility for those dealing with homelessness and addiction issues.

***Featured image for this post is the Occidental Hotel circa 1980.***

Part 24 Here!

[1] In theory, he could actually wear his old CF uniform and be safer on the streets of down town Winnipeg. Being native (and known to the NPA) should keep him safe from being mugged, while the uniform would likely keep the cops off his back.

[2] This is kind of off-topic, but the line about ‘pondering a smash-and grab’ made me suddenly think of George Zimmerman’s stated reasons for confronting Trayvon Martin.

[3] There’s a tendency to dismiss Marxist thought & philosophy by pointing to the carnage of Communist Russia and China and calling any modern day adherents as either dupes or disingenuous. This ignores the fact that the conditions which give rise to Marxist revolutionaries tend to be similarly brutal and violent. Furthermore, most modern western nations have managed to evade Marxist uprisings of their own by embracing socialist ideals such as welfare, health care, and other things that make up what we now call the ‘welfare state.’

[4] Although technically he was not a Liberation priest (since he disagreed with some aspects of the theology) probably the most famous clergyman practicing a liberation-type ministry would be Archbishop Oscar Romero, of El Salvador.  A ferociously articulate advocate for the poor and critic of government and police violence, Archbishop Romero was murdered in 1980 in front of his congregation by an unidentified assassin, and his funeral was machine gunned by government security forces.

[5] This is a place where I got to admit I got a pretty serious blind spot when it comes to Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa’s story.  While I’ve done a fair bit of reading about this time period (particularly as it pertains to the war of 1812) it’s been almost exclusively from a military perspective, meaning that I got to go back a re-study the time period to really understand the nature of the Prophet’s preaching and the multi-nation coalition they were assembling.  But hey, I can tell you that the American forces at Tippecanoe advanced at the trail arms!  So…yay?

[6] There’s an argument that Louis Riel had actually suffered a mental breakdown during  his time in exile, and that he was mentally ill and delusional when he returned to lead the North-West Rebellion.  I’m not getting too far into this argument other than to note it’s a thing that exists, and it’s not completely improbable given his some behaviour during at the time.

4 thoughts on “23-Word on the Street…

  1. Ah! So this is why you asked about going to Winnipeg.
    I had to look up a few of the places mentioned, and as of 2006, the “once-majestic CPR [railway] station” still looked pretty good. (https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=6345&pid=0) This might be because starting in 1992 it was purchased by the Neeginan Centre (http://neeginancentre.com/about-us/), which, according to the website in 2013, was “a gathering place for people and a centre to foster new ideas in education, economic development, social service delivery and training” for Aboriginal people. I’m sure that in 1992 it probably was quite run down, but by the time Bland wrote the book things would have looked quite a bit different. From what I can find on my lunchtime it now appears to be part of the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development Inc.(CAHRD.org), which used to be the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg Inc. Their Facebook page has more recent information.
    Did he say anything more about the building, or was that it? If that was all, he manages to make a good institution sound shabby.

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    1. Nope. Much like the Occidental, this one mention is about all we get. I’m wondering if Bland was working from recollection instead of any recent on-site Recce since most of his references seem date back to the late 80s and early 90s.

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      1. For some reason this little detail stands out to me (from everything you’ve quoted from or talked about the book) as exactly how little he really cares about the Indigenous people, or anything other than bashing bleeding-heart activists, etc. His descriptions of Stony Mountain obviously annoyed me, but I can put that down to how most people don’t know a whole lot about the correctional system (although I need to take another look at that section when I can see the book), but this tiny bit about the ACWI (CAHRD now) has got under my skin.

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