This is the first review from our new Books Editor, Anabelle Bernard Fournier. Welcome our newest Cryptospherian, a freelance writer who hails from Victoria, British Columbia.
Even though we think of ourselves as a relatively peaceful nation, there’s a lot of struggle, underpinned by violence, in Canada’s history.
For the non-Canadians among you, here’s a history crash course.
In 1867, four provinces (Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) became the country known as Canada. This process, known up here as the Confederation, was led by politician John A. MacDonald (who was elected our first Prime Minister). The other provinces remained separate British colonies until they joined later–the last one to do so was Newfoundland, in 1949.
But a lot of the country-making process did not go peacefully. Québec was mostly French-speaking, leading to cultural and linguistic struggles, while the territory west of Ontario was mostly inhabited by an Indian and Métis population, interspersed with a few British or French colonies along rivers.
One of the main obstacles to John A. MacDonald’s project to expand Canada from coast to coast through a railroad were two rebellions in Manitoba, called the Red River and the North-West Rebellions, both led by intellectual, politician and exile Louis Riel, a French-speaking Métis.
Having been born east of the Manitoba border, I’d only really learned the basics about Louis Riel’s rebellion. He rebelled, he got caught, he was hanged. That’s about it.
But the history of Riel’s resistance and rebellion is more complex and interesting than a simple uprising.
Chester Brown’s 2006 Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography covers the life of this historically important Métis rebel and/or, depending on your point of view, traitor to Canada.
The graphic format
Brown admits up front that the graphic novel format didn’t leave him free to deal with the story in all its complexity. He compressed some events, changed the people involved in some cases and made up some bits and pieces for the sake of the story. (Extensive notes at the end of the book provide corrections for such inaccuracies.)
But these liberties Brown takes with history do not diminish the strength of the narrative. Louis Riel is the story of a Montréal-educated Métis young man who returns to his home to find out that the Canadian government has been eyeing his people’s territory. Intent on protecting the rights and land of his people, the French-speaking Métis of the Red River colony (now Winnipeg), he begins his work in the most peaceful way possible: a democratically elected government to represent his people.
But things, as history shows, don’t go as planned.
This could be a dry, complicated history book. But the graphic format makes it easy to follow and understand, despite the above-mentioned issues with historical truth and continuity. Brown translates the complex social-political context of the Riel rebellion into a riveting historical narrative using dialogue and visuals rather than the content you would expect in a historical volume.
Making history come alive
Brown’s Louis Riel makes history come alive. It wasn’t just dates and treatises and letters. It was people will real stakes–their land, their way of life, their language–against a political and colonization machine with its own will and stakes.
The book is definitely sympathetic to Riel, even though he still is a human being with flaws. The author seems to sympathize with the Red River settlements’ plight and Riel’s ultimate goal to secure land and freedom for his people. Brown does his best to highlight the unfairness of Canada’s treatment of Riel’s people and avoids an uncritical celebration of the Confederation. Our country came together at a cost.
But that doesn’t mean that the book is completely blind to the controversy around Riel’s leadership. The most contentious issue is, of course, his claim to messianic knowledge. After a time in Washington, DC, Riel climbs a mountain and claims to receive a message from God. Whether or not Riel was insane is still in question today, and we’ll probably never know–but his religious calling definitely drove his mission for the latter part of his life.
Resistance and the meaning of Canadian citizenship
The book reflects on the role and meaning of resistance in Canadian history and for Canadian citizenship. Riel, after all, helped negotiate the entrance of Manitoba in the country, despite the fact that the federal government basically reneged on all its promises–or at least stalled long enough for them to mean nothing anymore. He was also elected several times to the House of Commons, only to never be able to take his seat because of the threats against his life.
There’s this idea that Canadian history is peaceful and without strife, but our country became what it is through a lot of struggle. Struggle against the British (or the French, depending on where you’re from). Struggle against the Americans. Struggle against ourselves, in an already incredibly diverse country spanning thousands of kilometres of territory.
Resistance and dissent is an essential virtue of Canadian citizenship. The Canada many of us conceive is tolerant of dissenting opinions, of disagreement with the government, of the right to protest.
Unfortunately, this Canada is dying right before our eyes, as protests are quashed by militarized police forces (nowhere more than in my native Montréal) and disagreement with the government puts you on CSIS’ watch list (or one of the ministries’ “enemy list”, who knows).
Although I don’t condone armed rebellion, we must, like Riel tried in his time, hold on to our values and our democratic process through dissent and resistance. It’s never more important than when these very things are under threat.
Louis Riel is a riveting lesson in history that illuminates a sometimes clouded part of our history. Amidst the 200th anniversary celebrations of John A. Macdonald’s birthday, we should look critically at the legacy of colonialism, exploitation and racism that this era left us with.
Chester Brown’s majestic graphic biography is a great place to start.