An Unlikely Hero
- Albert Braz (Author)
The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Clint Evans
As Albert Braz argues in The False Traitor, it is difficult to fathom how Louis Riel has emerged as an “Anglo-Canadian hero.” Riel was, after all, first and foremost a Métis nationalist. His sense of nationalism was broad enough to accommodate an association with Quebec, the “Mother Colony,” and he was enough of a political realist to see the need for protective alliances with countries such as the United States and France. Canada, however, was basically an anathema to Riel and he consistently rejected the notion of forging an alliance with a British-dominated country that seemed to threaten all that he held dear.
The delicious irony of Riel the anti-Canadian Métis patriot and condemned “traitor” being transformed into the ultimate Canadian hero provides the main theme of Braz’s study. He skilfully develops the theme through an analysis of Canadian literary texts, beginning with the writings of Riel himself. Most of these texts can be described as “historical fiction,” and as Braz observes in his introduction, they often have less to say about Riel “than about their authors and their specific social reality.” Braz explores this thesis through the use of discourse analysis. His approach is distinctly postmodern, but apart from some opening references to Michel Foucault and Edward Said, he eschews theory in favour of application and his focus never deviates from the story of Riel’s century-long literary transformation from traitor to hero.
Braz sets the stage for his analysis of literary trends with a chapter on Riel, his writings, and the historical context. He then moves on to discuss the predominantly Anglo-Canadian view of Riel as a traitor—a view that was popular in the decades immediately following Riel’s 1885 execution. Chapter three explores Riel’s contemporaneous face in Quebec: Riel the French-Canadian martyr. Reflections of the heated ethnic and religious rivalries that dominated Canadian politics at the time, both views gradually lost favour as social conditions changed and Riel’s actions lost their immediacy. By the early 1900s, Riel had been all but forgotten by Canadian writers, and he languished in obscurity until being resurrected as a cultural mediator in the aftermath of World War II.
In chapter four, Braz credits John Coulter’s 1950 play, Riel, with having rekindled interest in the Métis nationalist and initiating what has since become the “Riel industry.” Primarily an Anglo-Canadian phenomenon, the Riel industry began by transforming Riel into a transitional character or a “go-between” who successfully bridged the gap between indigenous and Euro-Canadian culture. This positive construction of Riel and his activities remained popular until the 1970s, by which time writers were finding it increasingly difficult to celebrate Canadian history through a person that was “either the country’s sworn enemy or a constant reminder of its racism toward the First Nations.” As Braz explains in his final two chapters, Canadian poets, playwrights, and novelists have since chosen to focus more on Riel as a sociopolitical victim of Confederation or, as exemplified by the work of Rudy Wiebe, as a western Canadian “protest leader” and visionary who exhibited characteristics of both the mystic and the madman.
After exploring the many faces of Louis Riel, Braz concludes that “Euro-Canadians” have embraced Riel in an effort to “indiginize themselves”; to forge a connection between themselves, the land, and its original inhabitants. In doing so, however, they have been forced to downplay Riel’s essential “Métisness” and spirited opposition to the Confederation exercise. Braz closes his study by restating his thesis that the “most significant aspects of representations of Riel. . . . are important not so much because of what they tell us about Riel but because of what they reveal about Euro-Canada, the dominant sector of Canadian society that for over a century has been able to create essentially the Riel it wishes—or needs—to see.”
While Braz’s thesis is compelling, his rigid adherence to discourse analysis means that he does little to connect the changing literary faces of Riel to specific changes in the authors’ “social reality.” Readers, in other words, are largely left in the dark as to the nature of external social factors that prompted reappraisals of Riel. Braz also could have done more to alert readers to the fact that his thesis is neither new nor particularly original. Historians, for example, have long been conscious of the way in which a writer’s social reality shapes their representation of historical characters and events. This is true for historians in general as well as for Riel specialists such as George Stanley. Nearly twenty years ago, Stanley described Riel as “the patriotic myth of Canada” and asked: “In our efforts to reconcile the past with the present, do we reveal the truth or create more illusions?” Stanley also anticipated most of Riel’s “faces” as identified by Braz.
These criticisms aside, Braz’s book is a first-rate piece of work that explores literary representations of Riel in far greater depth than any previous study. His book is clearly and carefully crafted, and a “must read” for anyone interested in the almost bizarre process by which Euro-Canadians obtained a most unlikely hero.
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MLA: Evans, Clint. An Unlikely Hero. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 115 - 117)
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