Manitoba History: Review: The Trials of Lord Selkirk

by Robert Coutts
Parks Canada

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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CBC’s The Trials of Lord Selkirk purports to be an examination of the motives which led Thomas Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, to establish his colony at Red River in 1811. The director, Neil Sutherland, employs a rarely used cinematic technique, “resurrecting” Selkirk from the past so as to allow him to pass comment upon his place in history. Patrick Watson, in his show The Titans, examined history by just such means—subjecting controversial historical figures to the “objective” arguments of modern historians. This reincarnation approach can be fraught with difficulty. Where Watson generally succeeded, The Trials of Lord Selkirk does not. It seems more a novelty than a serious approach to an historical problem.

John Neville as Lord Selkirk.
Source: Fred Phipps, CBC

At the opening of the show we are presented with two historians debating the honesty of Selkirk’s motives. Was he, as one argues, “a great benefactor,” a man sincerely concerned with the plight of the disenfranchised highlanders, or, as the other believes, an “aristo snob,” a Scottish nobleman intent on lining his own pockets. To solve their dilemma the protagonists agree that they will resurrect Selkirk in order to “present the evidence and let the audience make up its own mind.”

The film maker’s intent is to establish a debate which the viewer is asked to adjudicate. On the one hand we have the “radical” historian, as he is called in the show’s credits, and on the other, the “conservative” historian. Each attempts to muster arguments in support of his particular point of view. Lord and Lady Selkirk, meanwhile, speak both to the audience and to the historians in order to defend their position. The attempt at debate, however, is the program’s major weakness. The radical historian is so obviously set up as the straw man of the piece that the credibility of the whole film evaporates. Rather than present thoughtful arguments which would defend the point of view that Selkirk was an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company and interested only in profit, the radical historian resorts instead to sneaky name calling, sophomoric generalizations and rolling eyes, intended, I suppose, to demonstrate to the audience that he for one is not being taken in by the Earl’s liberal remarks about individual rights and the suffering of his fellow men. The radical historian continually mouths inappropriate platitudes. To label Selkirk a “fascist” is to engage in the worst kind of presentism. When he is informed that Selkirk was such a free thinker as to support the ideals of the French Revolution, the radical historian replies, “damn right.” Perhaps, as Selkirk intones early in the film, “radicals [do] make poor historians.”

In the end, of course, we are left with a biased approach. Selkirk’s view is accepted by the audience simply because no legitimate alternative is given. The conflict between Selkirk and the North West Company, which culminated in the Battle of Seven Oaks, is particularly susceptible to this bias. The Nor’Westers, labelled the “dregs of Scotland whose gods are money and power,” are seen talking about “wee drams” while exchanging knowing glances about how giving beads to Indian women “helps to speed up the preliminaries.”

For the film maker, the fur trade is the antithesis of civilization. During the trial scenes we see Selkirk, surrounded by chortling and guffawing Nor’Westers, wearing a pained expression of almost saintly dimension. When trying to defend himself he is heckled into submission. This type of film making is too easy. There appears no room for subtlety, no attempt to explore history beyond “good guys” and “bad guys.” It simply repeats much of whig history: the fur trade wasted the resources of the country and blocked the introduction of agriculture and all its civilizing benefits. The conservative historian, when remarking that fifty years after Selkirk’s death there were still only 250 colonists in Red River, naively concludes, “you can thank the fur trade for that.”

Throughout the film the modern city of Winnipeg is portrayed as the realization of Selkirk’s dream. He is given sole credit for building this wonderful metropolis where once only wigwams stood. No mention is made of the development of a multi-layered Red River society, or the contribution of such groups as the French and English speaking mixedbloods, or later the Ontarian settlers and immigrants from over-seas. Moreover, the Hudson’s Bay Company and its impact at Red River is almost never mentioned. One gets the impression from this film that the North West Company was a huge, evil conglomerate while the HBC was a small, unimportant and naive group of traders I who “waited for the furs to be brought to them.” The truth is, of course, that the two companies engaged in brutal competition as each sought a monopoly over the fur trade in Rupert’s Land. One year after Selkirk’s death in 1820 the North West Company was no longer in existence. Weakened by competition, it merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821.

On the positive side The Trials of Lord Selkirk exhibits credible cinematography and solid acting, with respected actor John Neville playing Selkirk and with Donna White, as Lady Selkirk. At times the writing is crisp (particularly the trial scenes) and the film manages to avoid glaring factual inaccuracies. By not attempting the dramatization of historical events such as the Battle of Seven Oaks, the film eludes the pitfalls of such CBC productions as Riel and The National Dream. While the story is often overly sentimental, it does possess a definite non-Hollywood quality. This alone is refreshing.

Although we should be glad that CBC has turned its attentions to historical figures like Selkirk, it would have been gratifying to see less time spent examining his motives and more on the composition and evolution of the society he helped to create. At one point in the film the radical historian remarks, “I object to how history books, like Hollywood elevate one guy to stardom and forget about the guys who have done all the work.” His plea for social history sounds vaguely hollow in a film that is without sincere critical analysis and unabashedly elevates Selkirk to a position of “stardom” in Canadian history.