Thursday, October 8, 2009

Strange Empire

Right now I am reading The Strange Empire of Louis Riel by Joseph Howard.

Strange Empire is a very interesting book. The topic is an episode in Canadian history but it is written by an American. Howard grew up in western Canada but he lived most of his adult life in western America. He died in Montana at the age of 45, just before Strange Empire was published in the 1950s. A friend discussed the manuscript with him in the last weeks before his death and edited it for publishing.

The book is about Louis Riel who led the Metis rebellion in what is now Manitoba back in the 1870s. He was eventually arrested, tried and executed by hanging. According to Howard, this event not only changed Canadian history but American as well, he contends that the American Indian Wars may very well have had a very different outcome had Riel succeeded in establishing the Metis nation west of Ontario. Native Americans would have had great political and military support from their neighbours to the north, the Metis. Briefly Riel did succeed.

It is a very sad story and the author has a very interesting perspective on it. For starters, he has absolutely no use for Sir John A, considering him a slimeball of the worst kind in his dealings with the Metis. Equally he has almost no use for Ontarians, who clamoured for the death of Riel and his cohorts. It is his contention that the Canadian government might have dealt fairly with the Metis if Ontarians had not been so insanely set against them and Sir John A not quite so concerned about earning their votes. But given the racism of the time, it is unlikely that they would have gotten fair treatment from anyone. Louis Riel, ironically, did have the support of the Catholic Church (for a while), and certain senior churchmen did try to intervene on his behalf. In Quebec he is of course considered a hero of the highest level, and his execution is just one more bone of contention between French and English Canadians.

Aside from the politics involved, it is a fascinating story of the Canadian West, before it was the Canadian West. Riel was a somewhat reluctant leader who did his best for and was much loved and admired by his people. It is a very unpleasant chapter of Canadian history, and this book portrays a rather different story from that which I learned in school history class. I generally had an image of Riel as a bit of a madman; he may have had a just cause but he was crazy. This book sets out to show that he was not crazy, he was an educated and somewhat introverted and religious gentleman thrust into the role of leadership more out of a sense of justice than any desire to lead. When he was brought to trial his defense lawyers used a defense of insanity as a last resort since they were unable to procure the witnesses who could have exonerated Riel. Riel objected strenuously to this defense and was silenced by the court for his trouble. And then convicted and hanged.

What comes across in this book is the loss of a way of life and a human culture adapted to the prairie wilderness. In history books this is described as a necessary prelude to national progress, but the huge loss is minimized. It strikes a chord in me, I feel that loss profoundly.

Howard describes an interesting thing about the plague of smallpox among the prairie Indian tribes. There is a story that white people deliberately infected Indians with "smallpox blankets", blankets that had been impregnated with smallpox germs. I don't know if that is true or not, but Howard describes how Indians died and attempted to retaliate against the whites that they were certain had infected them. Dying men would go crazy, among other things attacking white posts in their last moments and if they could not actually get into those posts then they would rub up against them in hopes of leaving smallpox germs for the whites. They died terrible terrible deaths, and so many died that any resistance they might have mounted against the white invasion of their land was utterly short-circuited.

No comments: