Writing Louis Riel

July 6, 2020

Written by guest blogger Albert Braz.

The Métis politician, poet, and mystic Louis Riel (1844-1885) is one of the most compelling figures in Canadian history. After having been hanged for treason by the Canadian state, he has been transformed into nothing less than the quintessential Canadian hero. Part of the political rehabilitation of Riel involved the gathering and editing of a five-volume critical edition of his extant writings in 1985, the centenary of his death. The publication of The Collected Writings of Louis Riel/ Les écrits complets de Louis Riel is remarkable, since at the time no such honour had been bestowed on any (other) Canadian public figure, including his nemesis, Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald. However, it is also the existence of the collection that complicates the dominant narratives about the so-called Prophet of the New World.

When I started doing research over twenty years ago for what became my first book on Riel, The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture, the turning point was my encounter with his own writings. To my astonishment, I discovered that the self (or rather selves) that Riel articulated in his poetry and prose often clashed with the image of him that circulated in both popular and scholarly discourse. For instance, Riel is usually identified with the Métis people of Western Canada. Yet his documents show that he also had strong affinities with collectivities like France, the larger French-Canadian world, and the United States.

In contrast, he displays little attachment to the Canadian Confederation and the First Nations. The publication of his Collected Writings should have enabled scholars to unravel the enigma that is Louis Riel. But this has not happened. Time and again, one finds works by people who profess to value Riel and his ideas yet ignore his writings. Paradoxically, the Riel that he himself fashioned in his diaries, letters, pamphlets, poems, and prophecies seems unable to match the power of the mythological Riel.

Photo of Albert Braz.

Photo by Carolyn Kapron.

Albert Braz is Professor of English at the University of Alberta. He is the author of The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (2003) and Apostate Englishman: Grey Owl the Writer and the Myths (2015), and is currently writing a book on the Canadianization of Louis Riel. His latest article in the Journal of Canadian Studies entitled “Consecrating Canada’s Icon: The Riel Project, Usable Heroes, and Competing Nationalisms” is free to read for a limited time here.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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