Now that we’ve established some basic facts about Louis Riel and the ‘Riel Rebellions’ we can take a proper look at how Douglas Bland characterizes this complex man in Uprising. In my last deconstruction post Molly Grace was about to launch into her own mini-dissertation on the subject of Louis Riel. Meanwhile, one chapter earlier, Alex Gabriel had an encounter with the man in statue form during his Winnipeg map Recce as he scouted out the Legislature way back in…September?!
Damn. It’s been a while.
So today I figured we could take a look at both their takes, and contrast them with a few other opinions as well.
Starting one chapter back, Alex Gabriel runs into Louis Riel’s statue at the end of his recce of down town Winnipeg, after having completed his walkthrough of the Provincial Legislature. As he emerges into the chilly night, he finds himself at the foot of the statue, and takes a moment to (sort of) contemplate his place in the Movement.
Here’s Alex Gabriel contemplating the statue:
…And there, suddenly, stood Louis Riel. Alex put his notes away, ran a hand through his hair, and stepped up to look respectfully at Riel. The great leader, mystic, politician, untutored soldier, rebel, and traitor, symbol of his people, in life, now in bronze, he stood facing the Assiniboine River, back to the legislature, a political man yet apart from politics.
Even today, he was too politically costly for white leaders to ignore, but too powerful a symbol of native rights for them to allow him a place inside the legislature, so they put his statue here. Riel in life and death, the rebel and the ironic symbol of white power and white guilt, hanged on a rope by a distant Sir John A. MacDonald. Three times elected to the House of Commons but never able to take his seat, thanks to the white man’s democracy. Alex stood for a while, contemplating the man. Riel the victim, symbol of the victims, the outsider, standing darkly shrouded, separate – forever outside.
Hmmm…okay so far, so good. Although Alex Gabriel is making a bit too much of a deal over the statue being outside. Here in Ottawa, all the statues of former Prime Ministers (as well as Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II) are outside as well.
It’s also nice to see the words white guilt without scare quotes around them. Although that opens up some more questions. Like I mentioned in our historical look at Louis Riel, how the man was viewed by the rest of Canada (particularly ‘white’ Canada) depended heavily on the language you spoke and the church you attended. While English Canada (especially the ultra-Protestant Orange Order Canadians) largely vilified the man, much of French Canada saw him as a hero, or at the very least a deeply misunderstood figure. In response to his execution, future Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier spoke passionately in his defence, and held him up as a hero of French Catholic rights in the nation. French Canadians at the time (and to an extent, today as well) don’t feel guilty for Riel’s execution since they tend to see him as one of their own.
This is another hint of Bland’s anti-French bias, where references to ‘white’ Canada seem to stop at the eastern Ontario border, only to pick up again in New Brunswick. Are French Canadians ‘white?’ Because they don’t see themselves as sharing guilt in Louis Riel’s death.
Alex studied the statue. It was a revised Riel, he knew, unveiled in 1996 and meant to be respectful, unlike the tormented nude 1971 version now safely tucked away at the College Universitaire de St Boniface. But the conventional style of the new one – moustache, neat city clothes, long wind-blown coat – made him look more like a Washington senator of Lincoln’s time than a prairie catholic evangelist….
I remember this controversy from my late High School years. I’m not exactly an art aficionado, so I can’t really judge the value of the original (abstract) statue, versus the more recent (faithful to life) portrayal. The nude one is pretty damned impressive, although it seems to me to be portraying the birth of a tragic Marvel villain rather than a real-life human being. On a personal level I tend to feel that ‘the official’ statue of a real life person should be true to that person’s appearance in real life. That having been said, McKenzie-King felt that the best way to honour his friend Bert Harper was to put up a statue of Sir Galahad, so what do I know?
The original ‘tormented’ version does speak to the truth of the man’s conflicted nature. While Louis Riel’s primary contribution to both rebellions was in the form of organizing and writing (he drafted most of the official declarations and communiques both in Red River and Batoche), he was a man caught between two worlds. In 1885 especially he exhibited behaviour that has led some historians to speculate he was schizophrenic, and on at least one occasion during the fighting at Batoche he had to be physically restrained from running out onto the battle field brandishing a cross and calling for both sides to stop fighting.
The man was legitimately tormented. Any honest portrayal of his life will have to acknowledge this.
Where was the man? Maybe the sculptor meant to be polite, but by denying his essence, he had only made him respectable. There wasn’t even a plaque, Alex noticed. It was as if Riel didn’t need to be explained. As if Riel couldn’t be explained. What would a plaque say? “The true spirit of the people and their Metis brethren, he died for liberty”; or “Mad traitor, threat to the settlers’ gold”; or “Patriot who died to save the power of the Rome church.” Why not all three, stamped in brass in three languages?
No plaque. Just his name ‘RIEL’ in huge all-caps letters. But yeah, definitely no plaque.
If Alex Gabriel was a more fleshed out character, I would put this down as an honest depiction of a character holding some common historical misunderstandings. Since he is not, I’m more inclined to put this down to Bland’s own ignorance.
- True spirit of the people and their Métis brethren? Louis Riel’s people were the Métis. While there were some close ties between the Metis and various First Nations, there were some major differences as well. The Métis saw themselves as different and distinct from others. Their correspondence with Ottawa was phrased in a manner that suggested equality with Anglo-Protestants, and that they should be treated accordingly.
- Mad traitor, threat to the settlers’ gold? Whether Riel should have been seen as a ‘traitor’ to a nation he was actively trying to join, is something that continues to be debated. However, in Red River the Métis were the settlers, as they were in Batoche. They owned land and had rights which they expected would be honoured. Furthermore, a large number of the original dissidents were Anglo-Protestant farmers concerned about their treatment by their government. Up until 1884 these guys were onside with the Métis. There’s also the fact that Riel actively resisted being characterized as insane at his trial.
- Patriot who died to save the power of the Rome church? Except that Riel’s beliefs were a radical departure from conventional Catholic belief, what with that whole declaring Monsignor Ignace Bourget the Bishop of Montreal the new Pope of the church. It’s not that there hadn’t been previous occasions of simultaneous Popes in the history of the Church…just that it’s seldom gone over well.
Alex turned uneasily away. Riel, the romance of a lost cause left behind. But were the Metis and aboriginals better off for what he did? A zealot, arguably half-mad, incapable of compromise, he led his followers and his people into disaster, twice! Is that what you’re doing? Alex asked himself as he boarded the Main Street bus heading back to the Aboriginal Centre. How was Molly Grace different from Riel?
The yellow-and-orange bus coughed to a sudden stop at Main Street and Higgins Avenue on the outskirts of the rundown Point Douglas community. Alex stared out the grimy bus window. He could see nothing clearly.
Yeah, historians aren’t supposed to play ‘What if?’ but in the case of the Red River Rebellion we can say with a fair bit of certainty that he actually succeeded in his efforts. Manitoba became a Province with a fair bit of autonomy right off the bat, and an actual violent rebellion (with attendant consequences for defeat) was avoided. I’m not trying to underplay the violence perpetrated by Wolsley’s expedition, but given the history of the British Empire, fighting and losing a war would have likely been worse. Besides which, the turn in public opinion against the Provisional Government of Assiniboia came about only after the execution of Thomas Scott. Until then Riel may not have been liked by English Canada, but he wasn’t outright despised.
Hard to blame a leader for failing to anticipate one of Canada’s greatest assholes.
As for the North West Rebellion, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here by suggesting Louis Riel was just one factor out of dozens that led the government in Ottawa to intervene. The Cree Nations (and other Indigenous Bands on the Prairies) was already deep into a confrontation with Ottawa over Treaty terms and obligations. The Métis had been facing the end of their livelihood for years before Gabriel Dumont invited Riel to come join them at Batoche. Even the Anglo-Protestant farmers could trace their grievances back years before 1884. Conflict of some kind had become inevitable with the expansion of the railway and the extermination of the buffalo.
Riel may have been in the driver’s seat when the Métis’ car went off the cliff, but that car was rolling long before he grabbed the wheel.
So that was our author’s take on Louis Riel, via Alex Gabriel. A bit overly simplified, and containing some popular misconceptions, but not too bad. Now let’s take a look at how Molly Grace sees the man!
So here’s where we left off last week:
In the hallway after they left [the] room, Molly whispered to Bill, “Put someone on Selkirk. He can’t be trusted.”
Bill hesitated. “Is that really necessary, Molly? You can’t bring them all along without giving them a chance to contribute to the operation. Perhaps you should delegate some authority to the brighter chiefs – especially those from the bigger nations. We’re leaders of a federated movement, aren’t we?”
Given the fact that Molly Grace’s activities seem to be limited largely to making speeches, I would think that having local leaders front and centre would be a good idea. Someone who has handled the street-level confrontations and earned the resulting credibility. That’s just me though. Bland could be trying to portray Molly Grace as insecure in her power. Such an individual might feel threatened by bringing on more leadership, but that would require a well rounded character that’s been fleshed out by a more capable author.
Molly stopped, turned, stepped in front of him, and locked her eyes onto his. Bill shuffled awkwardly a half-step backwards. He tried, but couldn’t look away. He saw only the captivating face he remembered from the first night in Winnipeg when she clasped his hands in hers – a “laying on of the hands,” some would suggest later – and drew him into the Movement.
Show, don’t tell? LOL! What’s that?
“Look, Bill,” she said softly, “our people on the Prairies lost most everything in the last uprising in 1885 because the leadership was divided. But I don’t mean the defeat was caused by the divisions of clans or between the Métis and the Indians or between them and the Red River French elites. Even if these groups had formed some kind of alliances, it wouldn’t have had a spiritual centre to hold the people together at the critical points of the war. Anyway, the whites would have broken such an alliance with brute force that the people could never have matched physically. But John A and his government would never have defeated the people if they had been joined together under the Great Spirit. What the people didn’t have and needed was a leader, a messiah, an emissary from the Great Spirit to bring the fighters and the chiefs inseparable together.
Uh…so yeah…I was talking earlier about treading very carefully when it comes to First Nations spirituality? I don’t think I’m seriously out of line by pointing out there’s a world of difference between any First Nations beliefs and Catholicism. Riel practiced a radical version of Roman Catholicism. I don’t know to what extent there were any ‘French elites’ in Red River, but they likely would have been more conventional Catholics. The wheat farmers were predominantly Protestants, and the various First Nations Bands and Nations would have had the usual spectrum of beliefs from traditional to recent converts to Christianity.
You’d think that someone with ties to the Liberation Church would grasp subtle nuances like this.
Molly Grace also seems to be implying that a military victory was possible, and that the Métis and Cree confederation could have held off Canadian (and possibly even American) encroachment. There’s definitely a possibility that they could have achieved a short term victory, especially given Middleton’s hesitant prosecution of the campaign, but this in no way guaranteed long term victory. The British Empire at this point was well-used to colonial adventures that began with a disaster and ended with an overwhelming victory. Just six years earlier a similar dynamic had marked the beginning of the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa. Being spiritually united doesn’t actually confer a lot in terms of military advantage. And being spiritually committed to a fight doesn’t guarantee a win.
Just ask Louis Riel.
“The divide that did them in was the divide between the messiah figure, Riel, and the fighter, Gabriel Dumont, and, the lonely unifier of the people, Chief Great Bear. They failed because they never coalesced into one being. They were just individuals. None could fulfil that role for all the people, none could be the Spirit of the rebellion. That’s where they failed the people, Bill.
“We mustn’t be too hard on them, though. They were, after all, just men. But we need to remember the lesson – unity under the Great Spirit will terrify and defeat the whites because it is something their violence and weapons can’t reach. With the help of the Spirit, a strong fighter, and a clever unifier, we will win back the land for the people.” Molly turned and walked away slowly, content in the moment.
I’m not sure why Molly Grace is calling Chief Mistahimaskwa Great Bear instead of Big Bear, which appears to be the accepted translation in the history books. If you want authenticity, use Mistahimaskwa instead.
Again this would work better if Molly Grace was deliberately meant to be an ignorant person since what she describes here are fairly common misunderstandings about the North West Rebellion. Riel had the messiah thing going but couldn’t think tactically, Dumont was a tactician but couldn’t lead the people, Big Bear was a unifier but not a radical. In really broad, generalized terms, this isn’t entirely wrong, but as always there is nuance.
For all his unconventional religious mysticism, Louis Riel was the man with the educational background and the experience to conduct formal negotiations. Gabriel Dumont was already a leader of the Métis before 1884 (it was his decision to invite Riel in the first place) and the notion that he would have fought harder without his messianic colleague holding him back is oversimplifying things. War is always a crap shoot, and as a senior leader Gabriel Dumont knew just how high the cost could be.
As for Chief Big Bear (and Chief Poundmaker and Crowfoot, who don’t get mentioned), a huge part of his(their) effort(s) was to hold back the warrior societies within their own ranks. Big Bear himself seemed to accept that he would eventually have to sign a Treaty and lead the Cree onto a Reserve. His goal was to get the best possible deal he could. When the war chief Wandering Spirit touched off the killings at Frog Lake, this would not only sink negotiations but undercut Big Bear’s ability to direct the resulting war.
Bill let out a deep involuntary sigh. His edgy voice call after her, “So which one of the three are you Molly? Tell me that at least.”
With pausing Molly answered quietly over her shoulder. “I’m all of them, Bill. All at once, in one soul. The people won’t come for money, Bill, but they will come for me.”
….okay…so at this point…oh for fuck’s sake…
[Throws up hands.]
Alright I’m closing in on three thousand words now so I’m not going to rant too much here. Louis Riel, Gabriel Dumont, and Chief Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) were all established leaders of their Nations. They were men who had already proven themselves, and were acting to the best of their abilities while facing some of the most tumultuous times of their respective peoples. There’s plenty of fair criticism to be levelled at each of them, but no one can say they weren’t each a formidable man doing the best they could.
Molly Grace, on the other hand, appears to have led nobody as of yet. While she has a bunch of (allegedly) good ideas, she has never had the chance to prove herself in the political or military arena and has no record to stand on. People in real life understand this. That’s why in politics, incumbent leaders tend to last long after they should have lost relevance with their voters. People may be initially attracted to a leader promising big things, but that trust will have to be confirmed or else it will fall away as quickly as it appeared.
You’d think Douglas Bland would understand such a basic leadership concept, and would try to apply it here in his imaginary revolution…
Fuck it. Never mind. It’s an Ork WAAAGH!!! All the way down.
 Up until recently, the Winnipeg Map Recce series was one of the more labour-intensive set of posts I’d written, particularly given the fact that I have never been to Winnipeg and was working off of maps and photos. That coupled with my work load at the time was leaving me pretty damned exhausted.
 One of the few monuments that’s actually inside the Parliament Buildings is the Books of Remembrance, located in the Peace Tower. These seven books record the names of the over 118,000 soldiers, fallen in the service of Canada.
 Just to re-emphasize how strong this belief is, I went to a French-Immersion elementary school. Not a Catholic school, but most of the teachers were French Canadian and Catholic. In history class Louis Riel was largely portrayed as a hero of French Catholic Québec, rather than the Métis people of the West. His Métis identity largely went unmentioned to the point where I was surprised when we revisited the subject in High School and I learned ‘Oh, he’s native too.’
 Sir John A MacDonald in particular seems to have disliked the Metis people, once famously calling them ‘the Pemican eaters,’ implying they were beneath even the ‘savage’ Indigenous nations.
 My main source for the Louis Riel post was the Canadian Encyclopedia, which has recently started using original Indigenous names and keeping the common English translations in brackets.
 Something that gets overlooked in a lot of the histories is that one of the first casualties of the shootout between the Métis and Police at Duck Lake (and therefore one of the first casualties of the war itself) was Gabriel Dumont’s own brother Isidore. Gabriel himself suffered a head wound it that the same action which he was able to treat himself.