- Behind the Man: John Laurie, Ruth Gorman and the Indian Vote in Canada
In Alberta, John Lee Laurie is recalled in the name of a mountain, picturesquely situated in the Bow Valley, and in the name of a boulevard in Calgary. In the fall of 2009, he was memorialized at the Annual Fall [End Page 560] Service of the McDougall Stoney Mission Church, on the reserve that is the home of Bearspaw, Chiniki, and Wesley First Nations of the Nakoda people to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his passing. Who was this man? Who was the woman 'behind' him? Through the shared efforts of Ruth Gorman - and after her death, Frits Pannekoek - the story of this man and his work among First Nations peoples in Canada is recalled in Behind the Man.
With this book, Gorman sought recognition for Laurie. As a young married woman with a law degree who practised briefly in her father's Calgary law office of Peacock and Skene before her marriage ended her practice, Gorman collaborated closely with Laurie as a legal advisor for the Indian Association of Alberta during the critical years when Status Indian people in Canada were struggling to have their voices heard in Canada's political system. Gorman and Laurie, together, were instrumental in the amendment of the 1960 Indian Act, which allowed First Nations the federal vote. Although Gorman intended to complete the tribute to Laurie herself, she was unable to finish her undertaking. Pannekoek, with a team of dedicated assistants, assumed the Herculean task of assembling her many notes and anecdotes into the manuscript now available to readers interested in Canadian political history, First Nations history, and women's history.
Behind the Man is an auto/biography. It evokes the early years of Laurie's life and then merges into an autobiography of Gorman in the final six chapters, as her life intersected with Laurie's. Pannekoek contextualizes Gorman and her writing in a lengthy academic introduction featuring many relevant references. Yet despite this added context, the work is essentially a highly personalized political history of the First Nations' franchise. Overall, Behind the Man reads easily, evoking the free-spirited nature of Gorman and her dear friend John Laurie in a Western Canada, where freedom was mainly the domain of cowboys and oilmen, not women or Indigenous peoples. As a true freedom fighter, Gorman recalls how she and Laurie broke loose the political shackles that bound Indian people. It is with this flair and style that the book reveals its true nature: it prefers the pluck and gallantry of Gorman and Laurie to delving into the complex political history of Aboriginal political action. Indeed, Gorman was a feminist; she was an active agent of change in an era and place in Canada where conservatism ruled most households. At the same time, money and privilege were on her side as she worked. Her writings reveal beautifully the liberal attitudes colouring her reasons for, to use her words, 'helping my Indians.'
Pannekoek has done well in assembling Gorman's manuscript posthumously, giving voice to a perspective and story little recalled in our national political history lessons. But, in keeping with the penchant of so many writers of Canadian history, the author and the editor prefer to [End Page 561] create and elevate stories of heroes and heroines above those of the collective communities those heroes or heroines may - or may not - have represented. If Behind the Man is a reader's introduction to the Indian Act and First Nations' franchise, it should probably be balanced with works by those who served as objects of Gorman's and Laurie's philanthropic efforts: Indigenous people themselves, including authors such as Harold Cardinal, William Wuttunee, Waubageshig, Dick Fiddler, Pat Dieter, and many others.
Laurie Meijer Drees, Department of Native Studies, University of Saskatchewan