sábado, 22 de novembro de 2008


One of the positive aspects of my profound distaste for Bush's America was the way it led me to look at my own country, Canada. My first article published at CounterPunch was a statement of rejecting any concession of our sovereignty due to the Patriot Act and War on Terror. When I wrote this piece three years later, thanks to a major CBC initiative that just vanished into thin air since then, I was moved by the thanks I received from some members of the Metis community in Canada. The way the Metis story is told in Canada is just a symptom of the moral superiority that unadultered ideology affords to the victor. Benjamin's thesis never held stronger. Canadians, in general, were left clueless as to the article's message. I could never publish the piece in Canada. We're so good, aren't we?


By Norman Madarasz

October 21-23, 2002

No rebel has graced the heights of Canadian history like Louis Riel. Educated in Montreal by the Sulpician Fathers, Riel trained to be a lawyer, while his deep spirituality had destined him to enter into the ecclesiastical order. But Louis Riel was Metis. From 1869 to 1885, he led his people in two separate struggles, striving to have its rights recognized as sovereign by Canada’s nascent federal government. The courage of his leadership cost him his life. Thanks to it, and the way historical time seeks retribution, the Metis people are rising to find the place due to them in Canadian history.

When the Hudson’s Bay Company relinquished ownership of the northwest Rupert’s Land, basically today’s Manitoba and beyond, Riel petitioned John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, to grant the Metis rights over their homeland. Settlers were also coveting the territory, and its sale sparked Canada’s first westward venture. The dramatic events to which it led is better known as the 1869-70 Red River Metis rebellion.

The Metis had settled, farmed and dominated a large area of the northern prairies for close to a hundred years. By the mid-eighteenth century, their population numbered about 10,000. The first conflict marked by the events at Fort Gary had Riel flee into exile. Over a decade later, with rebellion in the air again, the wayward rebel was summoned back to lead a last ditch effort at saving the Metis’ sovereign claims. Defeated, captured and put on trial, he was found guilty of high treason and executed in 1885. Ever since, Riel’s name has draped our history like a constitutional ghost.

On October 21-23, the CBC, SRC and Dominion Institute produced an event for television that beckoned the ghost to become a man again. In an unprecedented act of political television, producer Mark Starowicz and his team staged a re-trial for the Metis leader. In his closing testimony, Riel, played by French-Canadian barrister Guy Bertrand, cited the national anthem in French. Francophones can hear its opening line resounding: “Oh Canada, terre de nos aïeux.” Riel hastened to point out that the verse translates differently to the English rendition. Where it intones “Our home and native land”, the French sing “Home of our ancestors”.

“Who are these ancestors?” asked Riel. The answer was to plain to hear: “My native ancestors.” No English Canadian in 1870, very few in 1960, and perhaps only a handful in 2002, could sing this line in French as theirs.

Canada has remained a divided nation. Yet for the Metis, this people of mixed Fanco-, Anglo-, and Indigenous origins --- the ‘half-breeds’ as they were once disparagingly called ---, to be able to claim the line is testimony to their place as one of Canada’s founding peoples, the original Manitobans.


The beauty of the sciences’ obsession with objectivity is that when its object begins to blossom and then wilt, to split in the way the atom once did, its outstretched form shows just how subjective knowledge systems are.

When the atom whispered through the help of the right instrument, were it a microscope or model, what it said was that it could still be divided, as would its offspring so long as humans were its observers. When behaviorism’s ‘black box’ model for the mind began to utter from within its hollow depths, it pointed to being populated with the frictional push and pull of genetic and memetic activity. As evolution riles out, theory shifts from selection to adaptation when it doesn’t hearken back to the distance of creationism.

Until recently, the myth of Canadian nationhood furrowed between two founding peoples, the French and English. The story stretched tautly over an echo chamber, within which resounded Native Indian truth. When the European colonial membrane finally grew holes and began to breathe again in the 1970’s, a triangular reality rearranged it.

Slowly but steadily, Canada’s First Nations returned to engrave their mark on a country that was more willing to be adorned with the idea of multiculturalism than grant them anything beyond their ‘titres de noblesse’, i.e. everything but territorial and political autonomy.

Canada’s pedigree of nationhood now confronts a novel step in this history of the past in the making. Few events demonstrate as clearly how history steps backward. It skates from the future into a dispersed and coagulating past. As far as most Canadians as concerned, I could, or maybe should, be writing in another language. For, from the denial generally cast upon the founding role held by the indigenous peoples, many Canadian ideologues react by embedding the denial of fact into their own nationalism, self-denial framed by a sense of identity seemingly void of patriotism.

Debates to admonish patriotism rage among Anglo-Canadians on the topic of national identity. They portray themselves as having a hard time settling on who exactly they are as a nation. The Anglo-Canadian brew simmers from a dash of the American uplifted by a sprinkle of the British, all fomented with a spice of Ire. Yet the big chunk of actual identity seems to melt into thin speech. Oddly, it vanishes alongside the other flavors that have diluted the true-bred Canadian over the last century, a mention for many of them not worth recalling.

And right when Anglo-Canadians were getting accustomed to the schema of a triangular reality involving the founding peoples, a new omen has arisen. From atom to quark, and now onto cords. The Metis are literally on the way to etching out their rightful place in history. But instead of heading towards four peoples, integers split into fractals. Unlike other numbers, fractals describe the process of shifting from one dimension into another. Their inter-dimensional complexity only does greater justice to the study of history. That’s because once you step outside of the hard and fast and dominant version of history, the sagas of the conquerors and their conquests, a sense of subtlety becomes the master.

Canada’s indigenous peoples are so much more than founders of the country.
They are the soul of the land and its soil, its air and sky. Yet until recently, in terms of the nation’s actual configuration, their heritage and presence have barely inflected key policies since the early nineteenth-century. The reasons for this absence have next to nothing to do with will, desire or abnegation. Tecumseh, Big Bear and Joseph Brant were all natives. All participated and struggled to build the prototype of this nation. When the moment came to commemorating their devotion through recognition of territorial treaties and claims, all were dismissed when they hadn’t already died in battle -- at times in alliance with the British white man against the American, at others against the British themselves.

At this point, the Metis’ role appears as less alienated. Like the First Nations, its people stand at the heart of the country and continent’s indigenous heritage. What differs is how the Metis have directly helped to shape Canada as a nation. With the coupling of Indians and French, and Indians and Scots, and the further intertwining among their descendants, the Metis formed a population stimulated by the political and judicial behavior of the European ancestor. That continent’s political innovation was to have founded nation-states that are bureaucratic, centralized and either democratic or dictatorial in character, divided into jurisdictional entities such as states/provinces and counties in structure.

On the heels of Confederation’s enactment in 1867 through the union of four provinces, the Metis aspired to be bound to the new country. By proxy, they had preserved the autonomy of the northern prairies in their victory against the Plains Indians a decade earlier. More importantly, they built a distinct society. By the very meaning of their name in the French language, the Metis embodied and anticipated Canada’s future multicultural fabric a century before the buzzword was even coined.

As the contour of historical details is drawn over, Anglophone Canadians will probably object that the colonial war they are accused of sponsoring against the Metis was, in fact, fought with a broader objective. The government sought to prevent American settlers from invading the northern Great Plains. Their advocates would ad that the alliance system characteristic of Canadian history, as proven by its ties with the Iroquois especially, would have been pursued in quite different manner were it south of the border.

Decoding the humility, the British North Americans were protecting the Indians from the expansionist Republicans bounding westward and north. After all, the Iroquois paid a heavy price for siding with the British in the 1812-1815 war. Already threatened by the advance of settlements, as the war concluded in a stalemate between the white powers, the Iroquois would be deported from their homeland, right out from the northern US. And so, the pleading ends, the white man’s actions against the Metis were meant to secure for them a homeland – of sorts.

For diplomacy's sake, then, let the Canadian’s objections stand as a memento to their will. In exchange, let them recognize that the means used to achieve continental access to the Pacific only considered the Metis’ welfare as a trickle-down side effect.


The CBC’s objective was to call on Canada’s leading legal minds to try Riel according to today’s laws. The trial would bear in mind the Charter of Rights and Freedoms passed in 1982 when the Constitution was, finally, repatriated from England. In the end, any referral to that Charter merely played a role in lending legitimacy to staging the re-trial. For, as was revealed, the legal point of contention remained then-prime minister John A. Macdonald’s decision to use an old British law of high treason by which to charge the Metis leader. Not only did this law not exist on Canada’s books, its evident purpose was to put Riel to death.

The series opened with a biographical portrayal of the Metis leader. The re-trial took place on the second evening, after which viewers were asked to act as jurors and vote on-line to either convict or acquit Riel beyond reasonable doubt. Poll results were to be broadcast in the course of the third evening when distinguished members of the Metis nation were invited to speak of Riel, the trial and re-trial, their history since the fateful rebellions and what the Metis expect today. Over these three hours, our uncompromising public network has rarely been as ambitious.

So much lay on the agenda that the name of a most prominent political leader was skipped over. Yet in 1990, Elijah Harper had many a Canadian dizzy. For over two hundred years the English and French, Euro-Canadians, had lived in two distant and separate worlds. Two solitudes it was once said to be. But a Siamese twin is what they come closest to resembling. The Constitutional amendments of that time, known as the Meech Lake accords, were meant to harmonize the life of this bickering couple by enshrining French-speaking Quebec as a distinct society to which exceptional collective rights were due. Mr Harper quashed the attempt “silent, with a feather”, in the words of John Ralston Saul.

As a member of the Manitoba assembly, Mr Harper reminded Euro-Canadians that there can be no just constitution without honoring either the ancestral peoples of the land, or the silenced other, the Metis. He managed to block the Manitoba provincial government’s ratification of the accords precisely according to what the Charter of Rights grants to the nation’s founding peoples, now minorities. With Manitoba’s failure to ratify the accords, though, Quebec stared in awe as if suddenly recalling its distant cousin.

Riel was hung in a bloodsucker’s bash in Regina on November 22, 1885. In Montreal, far from its cheering crowds, 50,000 French Canadians stormed onto the Champs de Mars, after “Ils l’ont pendu-They hanged him” was splashed on the front-page of newspapers. There was no god of war trudging this field, but simply a man of rights. Wilfred Laurier, who would become the first French-Canadian Prime Minister and steer the country away from MacDonald’s legacy, spoke out to the demonstrators. “Had I been on the banks of the Saskatchewan”, he declared, “I also would have taken up my rifle.”

In Quebec’s view a century later, history’s kiss was given from smirking lips. And for its latest Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, the promise being repaid to his Quebec constituency had fallen into pieces through the device of the Manitobans. Mulroney would still give it one last chance in 1995. By then, the indigenous renaissance had already grown. Few were able to see eye-to-eye on rights, and even fewer have felt like touching the Constitution since.

So the negotiating table has turned an increment and slid into another venue: public television. The re-trial mustered up two primary pieces of litigation. The prosecution accused Riel of murdering Thomas Scott, an Orangeman from Ontario, imprisoned during the Red River rebellion. That charge was only meant to trigger a list of wrongdoings: establishing a provisional government, setting up a capital, Batoche, establishing a tribunal and killing 90 officers of the Canadian mounted police, dispatched there to enforce order. Riel rebutted that they, as Scott himself, had come to kill him.

The prosecution then emphasized Riel’s religious beliefs as obsessive, quoting him as “the prophet of the new world”. It tainted the wandering that followed his initial defeat as a slide into insanity, therefore explaining Riel’s two-year tenure in a mental asylum in Montreal. Climatically, the prosecution then quoted from the letter Riel sent to the Canadian forces amassed outside of Batoche. In it he vowed to wage “a war of extermination” against the Canadian forces were they not to return to Ottawa.

The defense council sparklingly drew Riel’s devotion to his people. It argued that the fight he led was waged in self-defense. Prime Minister Macdonald was harshly scrutinized in his desire to execute Riel. Yet truer to the fact was that following the Metis surrender in 1885, 76 leaders were charged with treasonous felony. Riel alone received the charge of high treason whose only sentence was death.

The circumstances of a further procedural problem had arisen as well. Riel, a francophone and speaker of ‘Metisian’, had the right to a trial in French before a jury comprised of his peers. But MacDonald chose to shift the trial further west to Regina, ensuring that no Metis would be part of the jury. How could there be due process when only one of the jurors spoke French? It may not be surprising that by acting as his own witness, Riel had a hard time clarifying how “waging a war of extermination” was primarily meant as a message to intimate and scare off the Canadian forces. There was no battle plan, no “rebellion”. Given the British North Americans' military superiority any such strategy would only have been suicidal.

Based on the campaign to deprive Riel of a just hearing, offset by the claim of self-defense faced with the invading Canadian police and military forces, the defense counsel then asked for the jury --- the Canadian viewers of the program --- to decide again on a verdict beyond reasonable doubt.


Out of the roughly 10,000 viewers who phoned in between 9 pm October 22 and
8 pm October 23, nine out of ten voted to acquit Riel. Close to 90% of viewers had found him innocent of the charges laid against him. Announced toward the end of the forum in which representatives of the Metis nation were invited as witnesses and guides, the results left the gathering profoundly moved.

One hour could not be enough to contain their enthusiasm. Nor could any objections to its lack of legal value override the moral legitimacy of the vote and its historical implications. Indeed, one of the barristers participating in the re-trial, Edward Greenspan, vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court. Again, the objection could be raised that only those were watching who had already decided in favor of acquittal. In that event, emphasize the fact that these viewers were the ones giving the controversy closest consideration. Based on research, inquiry and, surely, common legal and moral sense, they chose to alter the historical verdict. In the end, the re-trial managed to raise the factor of reasonable doubt -- in face of which the charge of high treason could not be held up in a court of law.

It isn’t just Riel who has received historical justice here. It’s the Metis themselves who have torn a page out of the history books. What's more, they have included a new one. On that page, they will have emerged from the shadow of shame into which Canadian history had attempted and succeeded to shut them for far too long. Shame of their heritage and shame of the unprecedented and unsurpassed violence of the clash the Canadian federal forces led against them.

What have the Metis wanted since then? The distinguished guests in attendance had to keep recalling that their status as a distinct people, distinct from French-Canadians, English-Canadians as well as the First Nations, had been implicitly recognized by Ottawa. More important, these rights are explicitly enshrined in the UN’s definition of a people.

What the Metis still expect, though, is settlement of the pending land rights claims left unattended since Riel’s execution. In the meantime, the Metis got a chance to speak their pride.

There was nothing happenstance to this implication. Anyone could feel it in the emotions running through the attendance. A young woman pondered: How does one define being Metis? When returning to the history and traditions of her ancestral people, and then especially, she could feel that she was Metis. Rewriting the history of the conquerors into progressive history may proceed by small steps. Its accomplishment is reached when a feeling finally blossoms, confirming that justice has been given its due.


The third part forum discussion cannot pass without being given a modest technical criticism. The CBC/SRC and Newsworld/RDI, like any other of Canada’s publicly built and developed cultural institutions, have also had to resort to the use of commercial advertising due to relentless budget slashing. Thank your federal government’s budget surplus for that. Yet the most annoying management of advertising time, and when to cut for it, prevailed throughout the forum. So much so that participants would be cut off in the middle of a point about their history that was worth more than reading 10 books claiming to tell the real story.

Adding insult to injury, the way the broadcast closed was atrocious. Here we had the first manifestation on a national scale to elevate the Metis to the place of a founding nation. For over a hundred years, they as a people have been subdued, crushed and almost erased from the historical and cultural landscape. And what does the CBC host do when airtime is almost up? She cuts off a participant just minutes into proud elation lauding the public’s vote, only to sign off with barely a closing word --- a quick thank you to all of you for participating, and we’ll be sure to remember your tears.

How smooth is the slide of political television into the reality show format! The CBC must offer a follow-up program to continue the discussion. Otherwise, its interests in Ottawa will simply betray it as misbegotten. In an age of reality shows, the CBC participated in redrawing reality, bringing it a step closer to justice. It cannot, without letting down the Metis, leave without a statement as to the implications of this program.

Save for these flaws, CBC/SRC has to be congratulated for such a powerful lesson on nation forming. Its perspective is not only to inform, but also to right the wrongs of history. Much more modestly, it's to expose Canadians to their complex and neglected stories. This is no small task in a nation that perpetually downgrades its own history as quite simply ‘boring’. Would a country be depressed at not being an empire, carried through time in sealed linguistic oblivion under the country's name, which derives from a Huron word meaning ‘village’? That the most interesting parts of the country’s history are often left out from the curriculum is symptomatically reversed in the continual adulation of the US’s epic representations, be they good or not.

The present author is a first generation Canadian, born and raised in Montreal from Hungarian parents. It took him the chance of studying in Europe, discussing with European intellectuals and reading the history of European contact with the Americas to understand that non-Anglo and non-Franco immigrants to Canada have also shared in the plight of colonizing this land, disenfranchising its native peoples in the same move.

Perhaps I’m slow, distracted and blind. Little around, save for their walking living memory after all, had led me to see our arrival differently. Like others, my parents’ generation strove to fit into a new country whose inhabitants repel every new wave of foreigners, aspiring to be recognized by ‘native’ Canadians. Assimilation in the case of my peers and myself, whether in Quebec or Canada, was successful by the standards that any state can afford to give its newcomers.

Yet the flipside is that living with that need to fit in, and embedding it deeply within the skin, shuts historical space right down, and sometimes bitterly. Often, the end result is that immigrants have little physical space to care deeply about what happened here a hundred-and-thirty years ago. And once this problem of assimilation has been settled for them, the reality of the continued colonization of Canadian land and people at the expense of the rights of the First Nations to their own land and traditions goes streaming in only one direction: back further into the mindscape. Far from the metropolitan hubs, we Canadians know little of the living conditions experienced and suffered by the native populations.

The 1867 confederation brought together four provinces: French-speaking Quebec, English-speaking Ontario, and the former-fourteenth British North American colony of Acadia, split into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick once the majority of its French-speakers had been deported. The fifth to join was Manitoba, the Metis’ homeland, from whose sovereignty they were torn.

Long since a minority, the Metis have begun to find some truth now, a little retribution for times forcefully and forcibly forgotten. The nation's public broadcaster has helped clear the way for them to finally accede to the pantheon of the nation’s founding peoples.

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