Learning More about The Riel Problem: An Excerpt

Excerpted from The Riel Problem: Canada, the Métis, and a Resistant Hero by Albert Braz


The Riel Problem: Canada, the Métis, and a Resistant Hero builds on my 2003 book The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture. In that earlier monograph, a comprehensive survey of the cultural representations of Riel, I endeavoured to cover the totality of the discourse on him from the 1860s to the end of the twentieth century. I showed that he has such a multifaceted image that he has been portrayed variously as a traitor to Canada, a Franco-Catholic martyr, an Indigenous hero, a deluded mystic, a Prairie political maverick, and a Father of Confederation. In contrast, The Riel Problem focuses just on his Canadianization, mostly since the Centennial in 1967, and on the attempt by contemporary Métis to claim Riel as a strictly Indigenous hero—two developments that are often resisted by his writings. From the outset, it is implicit that historical truth is highly unstable, as illustrated by the fact that someone hanged as a traitor by a country can be transformed into a hero by that country. For the same reason, no current scholarly consensus exists on Riel’s place in Canadian history. Throughout my study, I strive to show how Riel viewed himself and the world, particularly Canada and the Métis, and I analyze cultural and academic celebrations of him as a Canadian or Métis hero in light of his poetry and prose, which I examine in detail.


The National Metamorphosis of Louis Riel

Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is essential to the creation of a nation.

—Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? / What Is a Nation?

The most paradoxical aspect of nationalism is arguably the way it can transform former enemies into compatriots. Over time, individuals who had battled a given country are turned into icons of the very polity they opposed and that vanquished them. This is what has happened to Louis Riel in Canada. After having been hanged for high treason by the Canadian state in 1885, the Métis political leader, poet, and mystic has emerged as nothing less than the quintessential Canadian hero. For decades after his death, Riel was perceived by most Canadians as either demented or a rebel, when he was discussed at all. But his image started to change after the Second World War, and by the late 1960s, he had become one of the most popular figures in Canadian culture, easily eclipsing the country’s founding prime minister and his nemesis, Sir John A. Macdonald. Riel has been the subject of endless poems, novels, films, sculptures, and even a world-class opera (Braz, False Traitor).

This book maps out his national metamorphosis from a wicked foe of Canada to the epitome of Canadianness. It does so mainly by examining a series of watershed cultural and scholarly commemorations of Riel since 1967, from a large-scale opera about his life, through his published extant writings, to several statues in his honour. In the process, it shows that a country’s conversion of a former enemy into a national icon is never innocent. At the least, it requires that the country efface its earlier defenders or caricature them for their now ostensibly anachronistic worldviews. To further complicate matters, the new hero’s writings may resist the fraternal embrace, as may the hero’s ethnonational progeny. This is what has transpired in Canada, as contemporary Métis writers, visual artists, and scholars pointedly ask what was the nation (and nationalism) championed by Riel. Yet, while exposing the constructedness of the Canadian nation-state and the magnitude of the current Canadian historical revisionism when dealing with Riel, today’s Métis artists and intellectuals reveal much discomfort about the politics of their historical leader. As I will show particularly in the later part of the book, through his writings, Riel can be as much of a problem for Métis as for Canadians in general.

The selective fashioning of a national past is neither a new phenomenon nor restricted to Canada. Nation-building is necessarily an exercise in myth-making, and historical truth is just one of its many casualties.

About the Author

Albert Braz is Professor Emeritus of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. He has worked extensively on aesthetic representations of relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers in Canada and the Americas, translation, travel writing, and the status of real-world figures in literature. He is the author of Apostate Englishman: Grey Owl the Writer and the Myths (2015) and The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (2003). His co-edited volume, with Paul D. Morris, National Literature in Multinational States, was published by University of Alberta Press (2022).