All Purpose Multi-tool

  • Jennifer Reid
    Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada. University of New Mexico Press
Reviewed by Mandy Barbaree

Via a thorough presentation of the historical events surrounding the Métis uprisings of 1869-70 and 1885, Jennifer Reid methodically outlines her case for Louis Riel as the ideal unifying figure for Canadian identity because she believes adamantly that Canada desperately needs one. Reid argues that Canada is so fragmented that describing it as a confederation is more accurate than the use of the term nation-state. She believes that Riel’s multicultural and multiregional background positions him as the ideal figure to bridge Canada’s current postcolonial divisions.

Unlike postmodernists such as Linda Hutcheon, whom Reid sees as advocating the virtues of ’fence sitting’ in the matter of Canadian identity, Reid believes there is “a longstanding need for cultural unity” and that it is possible to create a collective discourse appropriate to the Canadian situation that is equally specific to modernity. She challenges the idea of ˜Canada as a nation’ by working her way down a grocer’s list of past and present customary symbols for Canadian identity, such as the north, the CPR, the RCMP, The British Master Race and the Cultural Mosaic. More importantly though, she works with these familiar cultural gathering points to show their inadequacy and to build an argument that Canada is divided because it “obviously lacks a defining revolutionary moment or heritage.

Reid locates this heritage and missing moment by arguing that the events of 1869-70 and 1885 should be referred to as revolutions instead of rebellions. While this makes sense, it also leads her project into one of its most interesting moments, where she compares these events to the formational European revolutions of 1848. Reid argues that the Canadian revolutions, like those in Europe, constituted a foundational moment of violence in the country’s development into a postcolonial state. This is a bit of a stretch, but not much more than the leap she is making in her overall argument for Riel as the lynchpin of a stronger Canada. Ultimately, Reid’s work digs down to the core of some of the most politically relevant issues in the contemporary discussion of Canadian national identity. Nevertheless, I question whether there is such a desperate need for one single unifying Canadian figure. More importantly, Reid ends up appropriating Riel for her own contemporary political concerns for Canada, without really considering if the concerns of Riel, or today’s Métis population, would merge in any way with her own.

Riel’s persona has been consistently used, and our image of him has been formed, by the various and historically shifting concerns of the authors who choose to write about him, so Reid’s text does not stand alone in this endeavour, and she knows this. However, the extremely bold appropriative steps Reid takes only further mythologize Riel by once again propping him up as a symbolic tool for bridging the political divides of a Canadian confederation. Ultimately, this does Riel a continued disservice; and because of this, Reid’s project loses any potential it might gain by her methodical hard work and obvious admiration of the man.

This review “All Purpose Multi-tool” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 176-177.

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