|Riel a little closer Feb 23 2013|
Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern
Mythic Discourse in the
Robert-Falcon Ouellette’s interview with the author, Jennifer Reid
The following is a conversation that took place on the radio show
At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research between the host, Dr. Robert-Falcon Ouellette, and Dr. Jennifer Reid. First broadcast on April 17, 2012, the two talk about Reid’s new book Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern Canada—Mythic Discourse in the Post-Colonial State (published by University of Manitoba Press). This interview was broadcast by the UMFM radio station and the podcast is hosted at www.attheedgeofcanada.blogspot.com. The interview was transcribed by Bryan Tordon.
Robert: Welcome to At the Edge of
Jennifer : Well, thank you Robert.
Robert : I was reading your new book—well, it’s not a new book, in fact it’s an "old" book republished here in
Jennifer : Well, it was published in 2008 by
Robert: Wow, that’s very exciting,
Jennifer: Yes, it’s what I wanted in the first place but I couldn’t get a bite in terms of Canadian publishers, so that’s why I went with the
Robert: This book looks at the mythic significance that surrounds Louis Riel and explores the search for Canadian national identity. I was wondering if you could just talk a bit about the premise of the book.
Jennifer: There are a few things going on simultaneously in the book. One of the basic things that I’m interested in is how, in a broader sense, the notion of the nation state doesn’t work very well with post-colonial states. It’s a European construction, and with a nation state you need to have broad geopolitical notions of identity that rest on traditional things like religion, language, or ethnicity. This is what makes a nation, but in post-colonial states we lack those traditional markers for community. We don’t have a single nation in any post-colonial state. That’s the nature of colonialism: it mishmashes everybody together. So I started thinking about how, maybe, identity in this context has to reflect disjunctures and tensions rather than commonalities. Immediately, my long-term interest in Riel just kind of congealed around that. I thought about the constructions of Riel by so many different communities, and the so many different Riels that are out there, and it occurred to me that perhaps he could be one of those linchpins for thinking about identity in terms of disjuncture and tension. So that’s what it came out of.
Robert: Because you also write about the métissage and the creolization of the Canadian state.
Jennifer: Yes, I think that the fundamental thing we have to come to terms with in the modern period is that post-colonial states, the Atlantic world - essentially
Robert: In the beginning of the book, you talk about Canadian myths and the Canadian identity, and the myth of
Jennifer: I do, it was sort of the myth of the RCMP, the whole kind of notion that the force was created to bring order and cultural homogeneity to the West.
Robert: And they were a civilizing force.
Jennifer: Right. Bringing civilization to the landscape, to the people there who would, according to the myth, welcome them with open arms because, of course, the people there wanted to be civilized, whatever that means. Of course, the strangeness underneath civilization always is that it happens with guns, it really undermines its own logic.
Robert: There was one interesting thing, of being between two civilizations. You talk about how the Métis are between two worlds, and how the Royal Commission for Aboriginal Peoples, when they came up with the definition of the Métis people, defined them as a distinct Aboriginal people; this was in 1996, but they also specified that they were neither First Nations nor Status. You bring up the idea that historians have always tried to situate the Métis people as between savagery and civilization, which they’ve never actually been one or the other, they’ve always tried to be in the middle of something. You were pointing out how perhaps this was and are false premises for looking at the Métis people.
Jennifer: Yes, I think in terms of Métis peoples, and more generally in terms of the New World peoples, the idea that you can use old categories for talking about new people is, first of all, frankly erroneous. Secondly, it clouds the reality of people in the situation. If you can find a an established category in which to place a group of people like the Métis you don’t have to confront the fact that they reflect something very, very new. There have to be new languages to talk about not only who they are, but who and what we are. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with remaining hyphenated people - English-Canadian, French-Canadian, Polish-Canadian, Italian-Canadian - but this can deflect our attention from the utter novelty of our situation, which is where its brilliance emerges. Métis peoples haven’t had the option off falling back on a hyphenated identity, and that fact tells us a lot about postcolonial culture.
Robert: And even, you write, in the 1970s a lot of Métis authors yielded to this interpretive stance, they were just looking at how they were always in between, always fighting against the encroachment of civilization—you wrote here, "a civilization facing the frontier." And this was written by Bruce Sealey and Antoine Loisier, and this was a criticism that Emma LaRocque, another scholar here at the
Jennifer: Right, and there are all kinds of reasons for that. If you’re looking at scholars, what you’re looking at here is people who were working within the academy and had certain academic discourses that they had to use to talk about human beings in that context. So, to be able to function in an academic environment, to get promoted, to get tenure, to publish books, you know, there has been this pressure traditionally for scholars, even from the communities that pose a critique, to fall into the language of the thing they’re opposing because there’s no other way to get heard. So I think there’s a dual thing going on there: one thing is, of course, that the language becomes pervasive; but the second thing is that to have any voice, at times you have to use the language of the people who are oppressing you, you know? And it becomes tricky.
Robert: You also talk about how there’s a lack of a single narrative in
Jennifer: Right, and Canadians traditionally grow up thinking, well I grew up thinking, that that was a problem, even in high school when we were taking Canadian history classes. Two thirds of the class was always about the Canadian identity having to sort of figure out what it is. The message was that if you can’t come up with a unifying theory, then you don’t have an identity. That’s what I think the brilliance of Riel is, because in a sense he can be that kind of figure, but in an inverse fashion—it’s the variety of Riels that together tell us there’s something in this figure that is important about Canadian identity—it’s variegated and it’s dichotomous and that’s truly interesting. Trying to locate one person around whom the whole Canadian people can coalesce - regionally, ethnically, religiously, whatever you want - you’re not going to find that and to be honest you’re not going to find that anywhere else either. The language of unity in the
Robert: Well he did have slaves.
Jennifer: So maybe, I guess what struck me as I was doing this project is you get to explore some issues about the modern period so well in Canada because perhaps Canadians have come closest to dealing with that in a conscious fashion. We haven’t smoke screened the issue as much as Americans have, or South Africans, or Zimbabweans.
Robert: That’s interesting you bring up
Jennifer: Right, and
Robert: In the book, in chapter six, you invite Riel to speak about the issues that you’ve raised so far in the book, and you lay out that Riel would’ve agreed that: one, the creation of the Canadian state had religious implications; that, two, dichotomies, particularly ethnicity, were primary structures of the state; and that [three] the state could not will itself into being; four, that violence as a religious force was implicated in the creation of the state in Canada; and, five, the Métis reflected of New World states. I find it really interesting that you would invite Riel, if he could to speak of the issues.
Jennifer: It’s tricky because everybody’s been inviting Riel to speak to every issue forever, so I just fell into one more myth-making process there. I was looking at Riel’s own words and trying to find in them a narrative that would work. But in some ways I was aware of the fact that I was doing exactly what we’ve all been doing to him all along. But I also felt that my argument was being shaped by his words, rather than the opposite. The fifteen years of reading Riel’s diaries and the collected works and working with them and being fascinated in them had actually created the argument in the book rather than the other way around. It only made sense at that point to incorporate what I had learned from him into that small chapter to say, you know, to say that these weird thoughts I was having here were actually founded in some of his weird thoughts - which, actually, I think weren’t so weird.
Robert: One of the prime—because you are a professor of religious studies at Maine, you also point out that the creation of the Canadian state had religious implications, and violence as a religious force was implicated in the creation of this state. I was wondering if you could just talk a bit about that.
Jennifer: Yes well, as you pointed out I was in the
Robert: Revolution on both sides.
Jennifer: On both sides, right, exactly.
Robert: Why is religion so important in the creation of
Jennifer: Well I think religion is critically important in the creation of modernity. I happen to be Canadian, so that’s what I want to write about. Since the Enlightenment, we’ve had this notion that we live in a secular age and that religion doesn’t really matter to people, that it’s some vestige of an older time in terms of deep meanings of society. But when I look at the modern period, what I see is that it instigated an incredible crisis for most of the world’s population. I mean, this small group of post-enlightenment people who were living in
Robert: When we think about Riel, though, in religious context, he’s often portrayed as—maybe I don’t want to say this—but kind of that crazy person who, at the end of his life, some of his lawyers tried to have acquitted believing him to be insane, not of right mind. He had a history of being out of the ordinary by setting up his own religion with a new pope.
Jennifer: And, to be fair, we’re talking about a guy who was having fireside chats with the Holy Spirit. That’s not exactly a normal kind of situation. There’s no question that he was quite decidedly off his rocker in some ways. I mean, it’s fine to say that, but that’s what happens to a lot of people who are involved in creating new things in the modern period. If you look around, religious visionaries like Martin Luther King, for example, happened to become famous and loved in the
Robert: Do you think Riel having grown up as a Métis person really influenced his later beliefs? Because if he grew up in
Jennifer: I think probably it opened him up to other possibilities. He also, as a young man, traveled more than your average person. Most people who lived in rural areas didn’t end up in
Robert: Well, Jennifer, could I just have your final thoughts on your book?
Jennifer: I think it’s a starting point. I haven’t looked at it for a while, but it’s probably over three hundred pages of starting point. I think what I tried to do was raise some questions that would pertain to
Robert: Do you think people who really defend the idea of the nation-state and that one monolithic type idea of a nation-state could criticize you for going towards a more pluralistic type of identity?
Jennifer: They could, but I think they’re on the losing side. The nation-state is an obsolete notion. Even people in global studies are now telling us that the nation-state is not going to work. In the places where the nation-state was forged and seemed to work for a long time, basically
Robert: Even the
Jennifer: Well thank you very much. It was pleasant to talk to you, Robert.
Robert: So I’ve been speaking with Jennifer Reid, a professor at the
Reid, Jennifer. 2012. Louis Riel and the Creation of Modern