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The False Traitor

The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 272
  • Book Info
    The False Traitor
    Book Description:

    The nineteenth-century Métis politician and mystic Louis Riel has emerged as one of the most popular - and elusive - figures in Canadian culture. Since his hanging for treason in 1885, the self-declared David of the New World has been depicted variously as a traitor to Confederation; a French-Canadian and Catholic martyr; a bloodthirsty rebel; a pan-American liberator; a pawn of shadowy white forces; a Prairie political maverick; a First Nations hero; an alienated intellectual; a victim of Western industrial progress; and even a Father of Confederation.

    Albert Braz synthesizes the available material by and about Riel, including film, sculpture, and cartoons, as well as literature in French and English, and analyzes how an historical figure could be portrayed in such contradictory ways. In light of the fact that most aesthetic representations of Riel bear little resemblance not only to one another but also to their purported model, Braz suggests that they reveal less about Riel than they do about their authors and the society to which they belong. The most comprehensive treatment of the representations of Louis Riel in Canadian literature,The False Traitorwill be a seminal work in the study of this popular Canadian figure.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8125-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction Louis Riel: A Central Voice from the Margins
    (pp. 3-18)

    Louis Riel is simultaneously one of the most popular and most elusive figures in Canadian literature, and culture in general. Since his hanging for treason on November 16, 1885, he has been depicted variously as a traitor to Confederation, a French-Canadian and Catholic martyr, a bloodthirsty rebel, a New World liberator, a pawn of shadowy white forces, a Prairie political maverick, an Aboriginal hero, a deluded mystic, an alienated intellectual, a victim of Western industrial progress, and even a Father of Confederation. This tremendous fluidity in the aesthetic representations of the Metis leader calls into question the necessary connection between...

  5. 1 The Red River Patriot Riel in His Biographical and Social Context
    (pp. 19-42)

    In his testimony during his 1885 trial for treason, Riel made three central points: he was not, as his own lawyers urged him to claim, insane; he was divinely inspired, both politically and poetically; and he was a child of the North-West. The matters of his sanity and divine inspiration, which will be examined in greater detail in the last chapter, are perhaps ultimately insoluble. At this juncture, suffice it to say that Riel was well aware that his self-perception was not universally shared. As he acknowledged, instead of accepting him as God′s ′Infaillible témoin,′ the world considered him ′fou′...

  6. 2 The Traitor Riel As an Enemy of Confederation
    (pp. 43-68)

    Riel′s impact on the Canadian consciousness was almost instantaneous. The first literary work on the Métis leader, depicting him as an enemy of Confederation, appeared the very winter he entered the political scene. In February 1870, a retired Hudson′s Bay Company officer named Alexander Hunter Murray responded to the Métis seizure of Fort Garry by writing a martial ballad threatening to recapture Red River′s economic and administrative centre. In the two-verse ′The Marching Song,′ Murray leaves little doubt regarding his feelings about the mixed-blood upstart:

    Riel sits in his chamber o′ state

    Wi′ his stolen silver forks an′ his stolen...

  7. 3 The Martyr (I) Riel As an Ethnic and Religious Victim of Confederation
    (pp. 69-90)

    Frank Davey′s ′Riel,′ I argued toward the end of the previous chapter, complicates the contemporary image of the Métis leader considerably by showing that neither the author nor his subject exists in a cultural vacuum. More precisely, by virtue of its two voices, Davey′s poem suggests that today′s Riel is not necessarily yesterday′s. If anything, the reception of Riel is even more problematized by his own writings. With his racial and cultural European heritage, the Metis leader of course makes an ambiguous non-Westerner (Hart 163–4). Nevertheless, it is undeniable that his writings often resist the representations of him, not...

  8. 4 The Go-Between Riel As a Cultural Mediator
    (pp. 91-118)

    The theme of Riel as a mediator among different religious, racial, ethnic, and regional groups is a relatively recent one. As we have seen in the previous two chapters, whether English- or French-speaking, most early writers on the North-West conflicts do not display much empathy with the First Nations. Whatever identification they have with the country, it seldom seems to include its first inhabitants. Consequently, they could not possibly envisage the need to be reconciled with peoples they are convinced are not only doomed but have already finished ′de mourir′ (Roquebrune,D′un océan9). This is a situation that does...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. 5 The Martyr (II) Riel As a Sociopolitical Victim of Confederation
    (pp. 119-150)

    The essential Métisness of Riel, I argued in the previous chapter, accounts for the most flagrant contradictions in the representations of him as a cultural mediator. At least since the end of the Second World War, the Riel project has become an increasingly English-Canadian enterprise, with the anti-Confederation rebel of 1869–70 and 1885 being transformed into the very ′symbole′ of Anglo-Canadian nationalism (Morisset, ′Cents ans′). But because Riel is so unqualifiedly Métis, any portrayal of him as a Canadian patriot is bound to be seriously compromised by his Métis nationalism. Even those authors who portray Riel as a victim...

  11. 6 The Mystic/Madman Riel As a Para-rational Individual
    (pp. 151-190)

    Riel′s central concern toward the end of his life, along with his efforts to demonstrate that he was a child of the North-West and that he was divinely inspired, was the desire to prove that he was not insane. J.M. Bumsted has written recently that whether the Métis leader′s ′visions and revelations were part of his madness is as relevant a question as asking whether Jesus Christ or John the Baptist were sane men′ (′Louis Riel′ 26). Still, the issue of Riel′s mental state seems inevitable in any discussion of the self-declared David of the New World. The matter became...

  12. Conclusion Riel: Canadian Patriot in spite of Himself
    (pp. 191-204)

    As one reflects on the aesthetic representations of Riel in Canadian culture since the mid-1800s, one cannot help but be struck by two interconnected yet distinct features: the sheer volume of those representations and their enormous disparity. Despite the publication of all known writings by the Métis leader, which one might think would have grounded him in some sort of historical reality, he continues to be portrayed in rather conflicting ways. To mention only the most prominent roles attributed to him, Riel is simultaneously a sage and a madman; a Catholic mystic and an Anabaptist visionary; an Aboriginal leader and...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 205-212)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-236)
  15. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 237-238)
  16. Index
    (pp. 239-245)