The Canadian Opera Company is now presenting a new 50th-anniversary production of “Louis Riel”, originally written for the celebration of the Canadian centenary in 1967, with an attempt to shift that oh-so-colonial gaze, now including indigenous artists and languages with more nuanced representations of the historical figures.
These are powerfully important figures, and seeing their stories performed live can have a profound effect on those whose voices are typically confined to the margins, to the audience, rather than centre stage. Such an effect is described by Gregory Scofield, who attended another cultural historical event which he expected to ridicule and resent, called “Back to Batoche Days”.
In Thunder Through My Veins (1997), he writes: “Now I had new heroes – Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the half-breed soldiers who had given their lives for our homeland, freedom and independence. Never again would I search for a place of belonging. This place, Batoche, would always be ‘home,’ my home.”
The event came complete with fiddling contests and a theatre production narrated by Gabriel Dumont’s character, and it was followed by a pilgrimage to the mass grave site of the Métis soldiers killed in the 1885 rebellion and a tour of the historical site (of which only the chapel and rectory remain).
“As we left Batoche I felt my heart sink into the very landscape, my spirit joining those of my ancestors in the empty ravines and coulees. I had searched so long for a place of belonging, and now I had found it. The importance that I had once placed on being Cree – a true and pure Indian – seemed to disappear with the sinking sun.”
More than fifteen years later, he more fully engages with this experience in Louis: The Heretic Poems (2011). Here, each of four sections, titled in French, consider four roles Riel played during his lifetime: as boy, president, spokesman and statesman. “The Orange Poems” section begins with verses inspired by Riel’s experiences in the Red River Settlement in 1869.
“I did not want this, a crate of oranges
spoiled by greed.
But it came to be, this unpleasant fruit.
I said to them, these pitted anglais
we will not be shaken like so many plums
We will not fall down
not even like one pitiless
And, yet, there is a descent. The third segment contains a series of works which parallel government documents which outline the requirements of newcomers/settlers with words from Chiefs of the indigenous peoples/inhabitants. Here are a few lines from Minahikosis (Little Pine), Chief of the Plains Cree:
“We are collected here
like raindrops in a bucket.
The piece of parchment says
We are to stay here
Like stones that do not move.
We are to wait for rations
Like a dog or beggar.”
After the successful rebellion of the Métis people,which should have drawn attention to the rights of the indigenous peoples to inhabit their homelands and also to freely move through these lands as needed, Louis Riel turned himself into the government, in an effort to secure protection for the Métis.
He was tried and sentenced to be hanged.
The final segment of Gregory Scofield’s volume of poems imagines what verses Riel might have written to leave behind. There are letters and excerpts from a diary which remain in Riel’s hand. It’s not hard to imagine a poem like “The Request” being left behind. Here is a glimpse of one of the volume’s later verses:
“I ask, too, that when I am laid in a box
I am not made to look the sufferer
as if I was man of great articulations,
as if I was more that of a mapmaker
rather than those of a boxer
whose movements are quick and calculated
such as the dance of drunk mumbling fool.
This is my fear.”
As such a noteworthy figure, how could he not wonder how he would be viewed as the years passed, whether he would be considered a calculating martyr or a foolish heretic. Given that his legal representation relied upon a plea of insanity, this fear would be compounded.
Non-fiction sources could include Joseph Boyden’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont (2010) or Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography (2003).
Readers familiar with the Extraordinary Canadians and Penguin Lives series will anticipate a cursory treatment in Joseph Boyden’s book.
He acknowledges the vast primary source material (particularly recommends Riel’s diaries) and cites a handful of secondary sources, including Chester Brown’s comic, but the narrative itself can be read comfortably in a single sitting.
The introduction to the series is written by John Ralston Saul, who also was in attendance at the COC production on opening night (with Adrienne Clarkson).
He writes: “Each one of these people has changed you. In some cases you know this already. In others you will discover how through these portraits. They changed the way the world hears music, thinks of war, communicates. They changed how each of us sees what surrounds us, how minorities are treated, how we think of immigrants, how we look after each other, how we imagine ourselves through what are now our stories.”
This fits with Gregory Scofield’s experience of “Back to Batoche Days” too; the potential for transformation as we recognize heroes and homelands.
Chester Brown’s biography actually has more pages and extensive endnotes but it, too, can be read in an afternoon. It is divided into four parts also, with the panels in the final part blackened throughout Riel’s trial, only switching to a white background again following the sentence (and for the epilogue).
The Métis experience is not well known or understood. In his most recent volume of poems, Witness, I Am, Gregory Scofield writes:
“I apologize my skin
is not a good skin to be in
I’m not brown enough to testify
I apologize for my off-putting
beige hue, the discount colour
they sell at the fabric store”
In “This is not a manifesto”, he considers belonging as a place of betweens: “the half of a half of a half half half the one little / two little three little hatreds”. And in “Since When”, he describes the process of becoming a “no accent é Mé – tis / but a stand-my ground Metis / lay my bones at Batoche Metis / kill-me-if-you-can Metis”.
Tantoo Cardinal’s “There Is a Place” in Our Story considers later Métis experiences, betweeen 1915 and 1928: a “time of hopelessness”, in which the history of Red River and Batoche was forgotten. “The new immigrants knew nothing of it, nor did they care – a proud history forgotten. Now we had illiteracy, landlessness, and disease to consider in a new world where we had no place. We were obsolete.”
These are stories which need to be told. They require open-minded listeners. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Louis Riel” by Harry Somers (libretto by Mavor Moore with the collaboration of Jackques Languirand) underscores this idea, presenting the tale in an atonal and discordant language, inviting us to enter uncomfortable spaces, encouraging us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Are you familiar with any of these works? Did you study Louis Riel in school? What aboriginal stories are next in your stacks or your TBR?