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Manitoba History: Review: Jennifer Reid, Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada: Mythic Discourse and the Postcolonial State

by Diane Payment

Number 64, Fall 2010

This is a powerful narrative that acknowledges that Aboriginal peoples were the real founders of Canada, or Kanata (the more accurate Iroquoian term reported by Jacques Cartier in 1545). Its central thesis is that the Canadian Confederation of 1867 was a political and economic union of disparate regions that failed to foster a strong sense of nationalism. Rather, it was Riel and the Métis who contributed the most to the emergence of a multi-ethnic Canadian identity and a modern Canadian state. More specifically, métissage was foundational in the emergence of the Canadian social and political entity and a pluralistic society (p. 164). Reid is first and foremost a specialist in Religious Studies but she has had a long interest in the history of Aboriginal peoples, more specifically the Mi’kmaq of Acadia (“No Man’s Land”: British and Mi’kmaq in 18th and 19th Century Acadia,” PhD Thesis, University of Ottawa, 1997). Many of her publications focus on the struggles of colonized peoples against Western imperialism and repression.

Using primarily published historical sources (with some factual errors such as identifying Riel’s paternal grand-mother’s origins as Chippewa rather than Dene Chipewyan) the author describes how the Métis “uprisings” of 1869-70 and 1885 fostered the emergence of a Canadian hero, Louis Riel, and a distinct Canadian identity in the twentieth century. It should be noted, however, that the Red River Resistance of 1869-70 was acknowledged as neither an uprising nor a rebellion by Canadian Prime Minister J. A. Macdonald, while for the Métis the 1885 conflict was a war of resistance or “guerre nationale.” Reid effectively describes and debunks some of our most prominent historical myths such as understanding and general support for the Métis and Riel’s cause in Québec (and one could add francophones in Western Canada) and the benevolence of Anglo-Canadian imperialism which dominated Canadian politics and institutions until the mid-twentieth century. Although the author does not specifically discuss the impact of the “uprisings” on the Métis themselves, she describes how “they served to transform imbedded [French-English] dichotomies of ethnicity in the country into explicit and permanent structures of opposition and creative energy within the social and political fabric of Confederation” (p. 124). A colonial state needs a resistance, rebellion or revolution to awaken its population and foster a sense of identity or union. Was the Canadian conquest of Western Canada and its Aboriginal peoples the catalyst that led to the emergence of a modern state?

Conflicting images, values and myths have been ascribed to Riel. Over the years, he has been the subject of biographies and polemic tracts and his writings appropriated to serve numerous causes. Louis Riel, the nineteenth century “rebel chief” and “martyr of the Northwest,” was recognized as a founder of Manitoba by the Canadian government in 1992. Riel the un-Canadian of the nineteenth century has become “prototypically Canadian.” During an address to the jury at his trial in July, 1885 he declared prophetically: “I know that through the grace of God I am the founder of Manitoba.” Riel was the acknowledged leader of the New Nation of the North- West and fought for its rights through political means in the Red River Settlement which became the new province of Manitoba in 1870. In the aftermath, Métis rights were not respected by Canada and the isolated and dispossessed Métis were in Riel’s own words forced to take up arms at Batoche, Saskatchewan in 1885. The battle was lost and Riel was tried for treason and executed by the Canadian government. Canada had found a revolutionary “modern” hero although it would take a hundred years for him to be identified as intrinsically Canadian.

Bi-nationalism and biculturalism, which privileged a northern European culture and ethnicity in Canada in the latter twentieth century, failed to unite Canadians. The concept was also offensive to Aboriginal peoples (both First Nations and Métis) who are now caught up in the current “white” politics of multiculturalism. The Métis Nation was recognized by the government of Canada in 2004, but its inherent rights are still being negotiated through the judicial process. Some Métis would argue that although interpretations such as Reid’s are innovative and complimentary, Riel and his people are being used by modern day politicians and academics to serve current or dominant discourses and agendas. Various “myths” or portrayals of Riel serve interests of Canadian identity and nationalism. His writings suggest a pluralistic and heterogeneous vision of Canada, but he expressed these views in the context of colonialism and marginalization of the Métis. Riel would have rejoiced in the vindication of his mission and the coming of age of his people. But it could also be argued that Riel belongs to the Métis. In the words of Riel descendant and lawyer Jean Teillet, “he is not broken and don’t try to fix him or appropriate him” (Riel Day Speech, 16 November 2002 quoted in Globe and Mail, 26 November 2002).

John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (Penguin, 2008), translated more evocatively as Mon Pays Métis (Boréal, 2008), and Reid’s book both acknowledge the importance of métissage in the emergence of a distinct Canadian identity and culture. Canada is not a typical nation according to the Western model. French and English Canada were never united, so must we now look to our Aboriginal or mixed heritage for core values and culture that makes us Canadian. Unlike the United States for example, Canada is a heterogeneous and pluralistic society. Traditionally homogeneous Western nations, however, are becoming more heterogeneous or multi-ethnic due to immigration and modern technology. If population projections are accurate, “visible minorities” will become the majority in the next decades. Canadians of European origin will be in a minority and in provinces such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan Aboriginal peoples could form the majority.

Canada is a confederation of diverse regions or nations within a Nation. Elements of unity are subtle but strong, as demonstrated at 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. We are still struggling with issues such as respect for two official European languages, Aboriginal rights and Québec sovereignty-association, even while emerging as a new nation of the twenty-first century. “The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”

Page revised: 9 July 2016

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