BOOKS

Revisionist Riel

A biographer shows another side of the rebel

John Bemrose November 28 1994
BOOKS

Revisionist Riel

A biographer shows another side of the rebel

John Bemrose November 28 1994

Revisionist Riel

A biographer shows another side of the rebel

RIEL: A LIFE OF REVOLUTION By Maggie Siggins (HarperCollins, 507 pages, $29)

Some countries boast of their successful revolutionaries. But in Canada, it is the failures who have passed into legend. William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau saw their anti-British

rebellions of 1837 crushed, yet both men achieved immortality and became rallying symbols for the nationalists who succeeded them. Another failure, prairie Métis leader Louis Riel, led two revolts against the government in Ottawa, in 1869-70 and 1885. He was hanged for his trouble and, ever since, his name has been a battleground for conflicting views of Canada’s past. Historians have viewed him as both a misguided (if not completely mad) visionary and as a regional hero—a sort of early provincial-rights activist and multiculturalist. In all these accounts,

Riel as a human being has been curiously absent. Now in Riel: A Life of Revolution, Regina author Maggie Siggins, whose previous works include A Canadian Tragedy (1985), about the murder of JoAnn Thatcher, has emphasized the private Riel as never before. By fleshing out his family life and quoting extensively from Riel’s own diaries and letters, she has given the revolutionary a poignancy and liveliness no other biography can touch.

Siggins makes no secret of her biases. Her sympathies lie entirely with the mixed-blood people of the the old Red River settlement (in the area of present-day Winnipeg)

where Riel was bom in 1844. They were buffalo hunters, mostly Catholic and Frenchspeaking (though with a large Englishspeaking minority), who lived by supplying the Hudson’s Bay Co. with buffalo meat and furs. As Riel grew up, the fate of those people became increasingly precarious. The buffalo were disappearing. And as the new Dominion of Canada prepared to take control of the area from the HBC in 1869, it was by no means certain that the new government would guarantee the Métis rights to the small riverside farms that were, increasingly, their main source of livelihood.

Led by Riel, the Métis formed a provisional government to negotiate their entry into Canada on favorable terms. Siggins suggests

that they might have succeeded if Riel’s officials had not executed a Canadian surveyor, Thomas Scott, for treasonous behavior. (He had, among other things, threatened to murder Riel.) Scott’s death provoked a huge antiCatholic backlash in Protestant Ontario, and a Canadian expeditionary force headed west to punish the Métis. Riel fled to the United States. He returned in 1885 to lead the sec-

ond Métis rebellion along the South Saskatchewan River. (Once again, the main issue was land ownership.) At Batoche, the Métis forces were beaten by a much larger federal force. The Canadian militia, Siggins writes, massed “huge manpower and artillery, including a machine-gun, against native people who wanted nothing more than for the government to live up to the treaties they had signed, or hand over deeds to the land they had lived on for years. It was not a war to be proud of.”

Siggins is often tiresomely partisan. She

sees the Métis as rugged, honest and flamboyant free spirits, while the Canadian officials and adventurers who arrived to make their fortunes in the West are inevitably described as foolish, dishonest, bigoted and greedy. No doubt many of them were, but it would have been far more effective if Siggins had let the actions of these men speak for themselves.

Yet, Siggins does manage to avoid caricature where it matters most: in her portrait of Riel. The man was so mercurial, so multifaceted, that he flashes through her pages almost like a succession of different men. Riel was probably one of the best-educated and most gifted leaders in Canadian history. He was fluent in French, English and Cree, and could read and write Latin. He was a gen-

uinely devoted family man, a charismatic speaker and—for the most part, Siggins shows—he led the Métis with more moderation and skill than he is usually given credit for. His poetry is third-rate (it was never intended for publication), but it reveals deep reserves of moral sensitivity and feeling that make Riel seem superior, as a man, to his great opponent, that crafty practitioner of realpolitik, Sir John A. Macdonald.

Riel, however, had a tendency to crack under extreme pressure, and there can be no doubt that some of his heavenly visions during the second Rebellion got in the way of practical action. But rather than the raving madman of some accounts, Siggins creates a picture of a basically sane man with shamanistic gifts that sometimes got out of control. To argue otherwise, she claims, “is to say that a unique spirituality is beyond the

pale, that conformity must smother all alternatives.”

Siggins’s writing has a compelling momentum, but it descends too frequently to hackneyed descriptions. Her prisoners inevitably “languish” in jail, tables “groan” under the weight of feasts, while the Métis are, of course, “crack shots” and “know

the prairie like the back of their hand.” But she also cre-

ates scenes of great force—particularly in evoking Riel’s trial and death. Mounting the scaffold in Regina in November, 1885, he conducted himself with a dignity and calm worthy of the tragic hero that, in many eyes, he had become. He had failed as a revolutionary, but as Siggins makes clear, there was more of greatness in his failure than in many a so-called political success.

JOHN BEMROSE