- Honoré Jaxon: Prairie Visionary
When Louis Riel was sentenced to death in 1885, despite mitigating circumstances and his apparent insanity, French-Canadian opinion considered the rebel leader a victim of racial prejudice; no English Canadian, it was thought, would have been condemned in such a case. Indeed, an anglophone named Jackson, who had been Riel's secretary and apparently as guilty as he, was let go easily - clear evidence of a double standard. 'The acquittal of Jackson, an English Métis,' wrote Quebec petitioners, '. . . is a revolting act of partiality, and a show of defiance . . . toward all French Canadians.'
Who was this 'English Metis' Jackson? In fact, he wasn't a Metis at all, though he would pass himself off as one for most of his life. William Henry Jackson was born in Toronto, the son of English emigrants, was schooled in Ontario, studied classics at the University of Toronto, and followed his family to Saskatchewan without finishing his degree. His involvement with Riel was only the first of a lifetime of crusades, dramatic gestures, and wacky attempts to promote what he saw as justice. They are recounted by Donald Smith with understanding and impressive detail in this biography.
Jackson was only twenty-one when he joined his family at Prince Albert. He soon became active in organizing a settlers' rights movement to protest against oppressive government policies. When Louis Riel arrived in the region in July 1884, Jackson rushed tomeet him and was instantly attracted to him. When Riel addressed public meetings of English-Canadian settlers, Jackson acted as secretary, and he worked with Riel to unite settlers and Metis behind a common petition. But the two men soon fell out - each was becoming increasingly erratic in his own way - and when fighting broke out in March 1885, the Metis made Jackson their prisoner, holding him captive throughout the rebellion.
After the rebellion, Jackson was arrested and charged with treason. His agitated state of mind and behaviour in captivity were apparently extreme, and he had to be physically restrained. His short trial ended [End Page 490] with a verdict of insanity, and he was sent to an asylum, from which he soon escaped.
Jackson made his way to Chicago, where he lived from hand to mouth, often on the street, supporting himself at times by paving sidewalks but convincing himself that he was an expert engineer and architect, lawyer, and scholar. He also came to believe that he was a Metis, who had fought actively in the 1885 rebellion, and called himself Honoré Jaxon to suit this French-Aboriginal identity.
For sixty years in Chicago and in New York, Jaxon gravitated to anarchists, socialists, radical union leaders, and any weird utopian scheme he came across. Because he spoke and wrote well, he could be useful writing tracts for labour unions and could get himself accepted in well-to-do or cultivated homes. He attached himself to projects, movements, causes, and associations, often getting himself into positions that seemed important or influential, but soon broke away when his ideas were insufficiently appreciated or it was discovered he wasn't what he claimed to be. Always he presented himself as a member of the 'Metis tribe,' the 'Metis Indian nation,' or as a 'Buffalo Indian.' He decided he was a 'major' - from the First World War? the Spanish-American War? or the Metis army of 1885? - it wasn't clear.
He changed religions as he changed causes. Born a Methodist, he became a Catholic in 1885, then switched to Riel's new messianic religion. In Chicago he joined the Baha'i but eventually broke from them too.
In the end he ran out of credibility and resources, ending up on the sidewalk at the age of ninety. He died shortly after in Bellevue Hospital.
Smith treats this story with sympathy and understanding. His use of Jaxon's own letters and interviews enables him to tell it very much as Jaxon saw it, treating all his schemes, ambitions, and pretensions as seriously as possible. It's a sad but entertaining tale of...