Louis Riel: On the Page, On the Stage

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.”

Scofield Thunder Through My VeinsThe 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:

Scofield Louis Heretic Poems“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.”

Chester Brown Louis RielAs 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:

Louis Riel Opera Study Materials“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?



  1. […] Sister Commodore Ajith Boyagoda with Sunila Galappatti’s A Long Watch Joseph Boyden’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide […]

  2. Wendy May 9, 2017 at 10:28 pm - Reply

    I’m going to add both of these authors to my to read list. I’m familiar with both as Butala’s family made a significant prairie land donation to Ncc and Savage also writes about birds and “birding is another passion. Thanks for suggestions

    • Buried In Print May 12, 2017 at 7:36 am - Reply

      Because I’ve read a few of Sharon Butala’s I can’t recall which of them most explicity discusses the land preservation efforts, but I’ve enjoyed all the non-fiction of hers that I’ve read (I’m at least three books behind, though) and I’ve read all of her fiction too. (All but one are prairie-soaked so I’m guessing you would enjoy them even more than I have.) I know Candace Savage’s work less well, but I did read one of her birding books along with the one I’ve mentioned; I also loved Karen Molson’s debut novel, The Company of Crows. Do you know Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet? She’s not Canadian, but I loved that one. Also loved Graeme Gibson’s Bedside Book of Birds, which is a miscellaney (he did one on beasts too), not meant to be read straight-through, but is still charming (and very artsy). Okay, I’ll stop now. *grins*

  3. Wendy May 7, 2017 at 9:33 am - Reply

    I also grew up in small town Saskatchewan and our year-end class trips were to Batoche but as a kid I never had any interest in the history. Unlike Melwyk I’ve never read anything about Riel. Historical stories have never captured my attention.

    • Buried In Print May 8, 2017 at 11:08 am - Reply

      It’s so interesting that what we consider ordinary for our own self is someone else’s idea of extraordinary; I’m betting that Melwyk would’ve loved those end-of-year class trips. (I wasn’t living in Toronto then, but our big trips were usually by bus to the Royal Ontario Museum in the city here – which I still love to visit.) Have you read either Sharon Butala or Candace Savage, say Perfection of the Morning or The Geography of Blood? I was really impressed by both, in terms of the way that these women connected with a sense of the land’s history, rather than viewing human history is a separate entity.

  4. Laila May 6, 2017 at 11:00 am - Reply

    As most Americans are, I am woefully ignorant of Canadian history. I had never even heard of Louis Riel or the Metis people. Thanks for introducing me to this.

    • Buried In Print May 8, 2017 at 11:02 am - Reply

      If you’re looking to dip your toe in, but also crave the sense of relevance, I recommend Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian, which is available in paperback on both sides of the border and approaches the matter from more of a continental approach. It is informative, but I recommend it because of King’s humour; he appreciates irony and laughter and you will be amazed how often this book will make you want to read just short passages to whomever is sitting nearby and how often you will find yourself smiling, even laughing (sadly, yes, but still). Oh, he has a way about him!

  5. Mel u- The Reading Life May 5, 2017 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    Your post reminded me of a theatrical performance I saw a few years ago in The Cultural Center of the Philippines. It depicted the failed revolution of the Philippines to achieve independence in the late 19th century. The leaders were either killed in battle or executed. Unlike Canada, USA, Australia the heroes of the Philippines died in lost causes.

    • Buried In Print May 8, 2017 at 10:58 am - Reply

      That sounds like another important piece indeed. These stories need to be told and heard! I guess a couple of factors contributed to Gabriel Dumont’s “escape”; he left Canada and his homeland to travel south of the border into territory colonised by the Americans, and the sheer distance between the rebellion site and the lack of speedy travel between it and the seat of Canadian government (the Great Lakes were smack in the middle and interfered with straight-line travel and the railroad was not completed – the government used this “threat” as a means of raising funds to facilitate control of outlying territories).

  6. Melwyk May 4, 2017 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    I’ve read many of these, and many, many books about Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. I was considering doing a master’s thesis on Riel at one time but realized that to do justice to my idea I’d have to speak and read French a lot better than I do. I still have a large collection of Riel books though. My excuse is that I grew up near Batoche and went there many times on school trips; it started a long lasting fascination.

    • Buried In Print May 5, 2017 at 9:31 am - Reply

      I had no idea: I can see why you’d still have a lot of the books, even if you didn’t pursue the thesis (good reason of course). If you can find a way to take in the performance (it’s on until the 13th), I think you’d find it fascinating, seeing how they emphasised certain parts of his story. Apparently you can watch the original production (from 1967) on video, so perhaps you’ve seen that one, but they made substantial changes to this version (the changes are as interesting as the story, to my mind). Let me know if you’re headed this way so we can meet at a bookstore while you’re here!

  7. Naomi May 4, 2017 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    My brother-in-law (Zach Fraser) directed a theater production of Chester Brown’s book. It performed in Montreal last year and was nominated for a few awards at the METAs. I think it won at least one of them. Here’s a link about the show: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/louis-riel-theatre-metis-1.3462161

    Okay, I just found it – it won for Outstanding Ensemble and Outstanding New Text and Outstanding Independent Production. http://metas.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/4th-annual-METAs_2016_AWARD-RECIPIENTS_Oct-25.pdf

    And here he is – actor, director, teacher, puppeteer: http://www.rustwerk.ca/Playmakers/zachfraser.html

    Thanks for giving me a chance to brag about my family! (But, really, he is pretty amazing.)

    • Buried In Print May 5, 2017 at 9:27 am - Reply

      That is so interesting, Naomi! First off, the idea of using puppets to tell the story is fascinating, but then to choose two-dimensional ones rather than three is even more interesting: forcing us to think about how we take a printed page and bring it to life (or, don’t) and make it real (or, leave it flat). I’m so intrigued. And it’s quite a parallel to the idea of this opera, which is obviously 3-D but takes such a minimalist approach that it also feels like it’s trying to reach past the trimmings and fancy-bits in a similar way.

      I was suprised to see how long ago it was that Chester Brown’s comic-strip biography was published, because it feels to me like I just added it to my reading list. It’s not the first time I borrowed a copy from the library, but the first time I didn’t have a specific reason for reading and the copy was in terrible shape and went back unread; this library copy was also overly well-read, its spine cracked through in places, the cover tattered and many pages dog-eared: obviously a book which is still being read a lot!

      • Naomi May 6, 2017 at 9:36 am - Reply

        I think it might be performing again sometime soon – maybe this Fall? I’d love to see it!
        I love that the library copies are getting lots of love!

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