Monday, August 02, 2004

Part Two – The Irascible History

Before the first issue of Louis Riel was released, way back in the last millenium, I knew as much about the life and times of Riel as the average American: that is, nothing.

I consider myself a reasonably educated person. I’ve studied history extensively, in college and in general. I like to think that at the very least I have an above-average understanding of the history of our country and of our world, enough to give me a layman’s grasp of most anything I come across. But there are always blind spots, and until I began thinking about Louis Riel, it did not occur to me just how much of a blind spot Canada represented.

In most American history classes, the importance of Canada is usually undersold. The development of the colonial system in North America is usually covered up to the point where the initial thirteen colonies revolt and the Canadian territories do not. Considering the fact that we share our largest border with Canada, this seems somewhat foolish, but no one ever said that America couldn’t be chauvinistic on occasion.

So I came to Louis Riel with no expectations or preconceived notions. Not knowing anything about the story, I had no set notions in regard to the historical disputes. Not knowing anything about the man, I had the envious privilege of seeing Chester Brown’s story unfold independent of any expectations whatsoever.

Louis Riel was born October 22, 1844 in the area that would later be called Winnipeg, in Manitoba. The settlements along the Red River were populated by a mixture of English and Metis settlers. The Metis were a primarily French-speaking group composed of mixed-race descendents of the area’s original native American population and French settlers who originally explored the region. Naturally, they were also predominantly Catholic.

Whereas the late 1800s saw the United States already well ensconced as a national power and fighting a bloody civil war between two factions of rival states, the same period saw Canada struggling to cohere on a national level. The events which conspired to create Riel’s unusual career were the outcome of a particularly strange series of historical anomalies. At the same time that Britain was fighting across the globe to conquer and keep multiple colonial properties, her holdings in Canada were only loosely overseen. In July of 1861, the British North American Act created the confederation of Canada, a self-governed subject of the British crown composed of four colonies: Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. (Quebec and Ontario had previously been joined, in 1840, into a single Dominion of Canada, before being split again in 1867, into majority English and French speaking areas [Ontario and Quebec, respectively]).

The land to the west of the newly consolidated Canada was called Rupert’s Land, named for Price Rupert, the first chairman of the Hudson Bay company. The Hudson Bay company had been granted exclusive economic dominion over the region during the reign of King Charles II. By the late 1800s the growing trend towards Canadian nationalism made the prospect of an unconglomerated Rupert’s Land untenable, so the Hudson Bay company negotiated an extremely lucrative contract with the newly formed Canadian government in 1869, ceding the territory to Canada. The Hudson Bay company relinquished their previous economic monopoly in the region in exchange for 7,045,000 plum acres and unrestricted trade therein.

John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, was a canny operator. He knew that the tumultuous ethnic composition of the Rupert’s Land settlements would make it difficult to install the kind of English-majority government he desired. The example of Quebec still sat uneasily in the minds of the Canadian government, and Macdonald had no desire to create another province dominated by the notoriously fractious French-speaking Catholics. So territorial elections were postponed and William McDougall was appointed territorial governor. It was believed that McDougall, a Protestant and member of the notorious anti-Catholic Orange Order, would be able to successfully accomplish the dual goals of restraining the Metis population and deterring Quebecois emigration to the new territory.

(As an aside, I find it especially chilling that Macdonald was so ready to tempt the fates by summoning the exact same confluence of forces that had created ethnic and religious turmoil in occupied Ireland for hundreds of years – with repressive Orangemen set against loyal Catholics. I’m over a hundred years removed from Ireland but there’s still a strong racial memory there. Of course, the eventual civil rebellion would take a decidedly different tone than the Irish uprisings, and considering the deadly and persistent nature of the Irish conflicts, the people of modern-day Manitoba have much to be grateful for.)

Of course, Macdonald was all too eager to lay claim to Canada’s new territory. Accordingly, the Metis along the Red River settlements were not eager to cede their territorial autonomy on the whims of the Hudson Bay company. Some of them wondered as to how legitimate the company’s claim stood in reference to land which had been inhabited by the Metis and their ancestors for - in some cases - hundreds of years prior to the Hudson Bay company’s incorporation.

The Metis, led by Riel, organized in order to repulse the Canadian government’s premature survey teams. Further, McDougall was denied access to the territory by the new Metis authority. Riel’s position of primary authority in the rebellion was almost accidental: he was the only person in the nearby settlement who spoke enough English to communicate with the survey teams and the subsequent Canadian government representatives.

Riel’s youth presents an inauspicious foundation for his career in politics. He learned English while attending seminary in Montreal. A youthful love affair led him away from the priesthood. After a period spent as a clerk in a law office, Riel returned to the Red River area. He was all of twenty-five when the rebellion began.

In the history of armed uprisings, the initial Red River rebellion was remarkably successful. McDougall was effectively barred from entering the territory, and he returned to Ottawa in disgust. A provisional government was formed, with Riel as the titular and eventual literal figurehead. Despite persistent trouble from a committed group of English loyalists (spurred in places by McDougall), the provisional government is formed with an even split of Metis and English representatives. The legitimacy of the government is thereby easily established. It was decided that the provisional government would enter into negotiations with the Canadian government to allow the region a fair and equitable entrance into Canada.

Despite an instance of vote rigging by the Hudson Bay company that almost resulted in bloodshed, the entire affair was remarkably bloodless. If the story had ended here, Manitoba would have successfully engineered their entrance into the Canadian body politic without any taint of violence, and Riel’s reputation would have remained intact. If this had occurred, perhaps the Metis would have been better able to negotiate the circumstances springing from the Canadian government’s inevitable betrayals. But of course, events soon escalated beyond the ability of Riel to control, and a series of unfortunate lapses in judgement eventually led him down the path of no return, and into a moral, political and psychological no-man’s-land.

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