- The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture
If 'Canadian culture' can be said to have produced, and reproduced, just one heroic figure - a leader/martyr, say, of the stature of Joan of Arc - that figure would have to be Louis Riel. But that statement is inevitably followed by a question: 'hero or villain?' Major Canadian historians and writers have addressed both the statement and question, and the resulting roll call is impressive: historians George F.G. Stanley and Desmond Morton; novelists Margaret Laurence, Jules Richard, and Rudy Wiebe; dramatists John Coulter and Jean-Louis Roux; poets Dorothy Livesay and Don Gutteridge, among many others. Add to that list an opera, a major film for television supplemented by its novelistic 'realization,' works of art including a number of statues, and even a comic, and a catalogue/guide is clearly required. In The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture Albert Braz has provided just that, in a study that misses very few items, though Chester Bown's 'comic-strip biography' (2003) obviously appeared too late for consideration.
Braz's work is invaluable for its comprehensiveness. The study addresses works from both English and French Canada, and by several Metis writers, while raising the question of why there have been so few Metis responses to Riel. It deals with both contemporaneous romance-mode works such as the anonymously published The Story of Louis Riel the Rebel Chief (1885) and the exponentially increasing body of writing that began to appear in the 1960s. And - particularly valuable - it places significant works in the context of their controversial receptions. One particularly interesting aspect of Braz's work is his account of the major statues (Regina and Winnipeg) and the heated debates they have attracted to the point of an amazing series of replacements and site-shifts. Braz - pace George Woodcock and Rudy Wiebe - also measures Louis Riel against his foil Gabriel Dumont, for some the better hero of 1885. [End Page 832]
'The rights and wrongs of that / will be argued for many a year,' Dorothy Livesay wrote in her verse-drama Prophet of the New World. The that refers to Riel's execution of the Orangeman Thomas Scott, but the statement so obviously applies to the entire 'issue' that Riel has constituted. Braz's handling of the most significant creative engagements with the issue is judicious. He pays attention to where commentary is coming from, noting the problems facing Coulter, an Ulster born-and-raised writer attempting a major Canadian play, and Wiebe, a Mennonite, producing our most ambitious novel about Riel. But Braz refuses to position 'Riel' solely in the cultural field of production and reception: throughout, he raises questions of historical adequacy, about the 'rights and wrongs.' Thus, John Coulter has a 'determination to accentuate his protagonist's positive qualities even at the price of reversing the historical record' (99); while 'Gutteridge's identification with Riel appears to be a most positive development, it is actually quite problematic' (139); and 'Wiebe is not above using the mystique of historical fiction to invest his novel with truthfulness, even attempting to naturalize his narrative by relating it through a historical native figure' (177). Braz is better at articulating such judgements than at theorizing the complex relation between history and fiction; he puts 'Canadian culture' to the test of the historical record, and often finds it wanting. However, his own book clearly depends upon the web of appropriations, misrecognitions, and partisanships that produce and sustain cultural myth. The 'reinvention' of Louis Riel that was largely inspired by Joseph Howard's (fictional?) biography Strange Empire (1952) - both irritant and inspiration - continues to haunt and sustain what might be called the Riel culture industry, within which False Traitor is certainly an item.
Louis Riel was a contradictory, incredibly inconsistent character. A very faithful, even Ultamontane Catholic at one time, at another he would appear as an Anabaptist or an ecumenist. At one moment he could appear to cleave to his roots in French Canada - Montreal in particular - while at another he...