Archived - Notes for an address at the conference “From Pierre-Esprit Radisson to Louis Riel: voyageurs et Métis”
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Winnipeg, November 18, 2010
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,
I am very pleased to be here with you this morning and to speak to you as part of this multi-disciplinary symposium. It is a pleasure for me to be here with you to recognize the anniversary of two men who left their mark on our history, particularly on that of the West: the 300th anniversary of the death of Pierre-Esprit Radisson in 1710 and the 125th anniversary of the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885.
I would like to thank the organizers of this conference—the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface, the Société historique de Saint-Boniface, the Centre d’études franco-canadiennes de l’Ouest and Brandon University—for their invitation to speak to you.
The choice to feature these two important figures in a conference looking at voyageurs and Métis has a particular appeal for me. The story of the voyageurs was part of my childhood, both because we studied the adventures of Champlain, Brûlé, La Salle and Radisson in depth in elementary school, and also because my father belonged to a group called Les Voyageurs that canoed along the same routes the voyageurs had taken 300 years before.
The important role played by the voyageurs, the coureurs de bois and the explorers left its mark not only on our history, but also on the collective imagination – both in Canada and abroad. Idealized representations of adventurers like Radisson are evident in the image and the historic representation some people have of our country.
The adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson were even the basis for a television show in the era of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier”. My own recollection of the program, which I watched as a child, was of coureurs de bois wearing anachronistic wristwatches. However, viewing an episode five decades later provides revealing insights into how First Nations—and women—were presented on television in the late 1950s.
Though the history of the West during the time between Radisson and Riel’s rise is very interesting, the other subject of this symposium, Louis Riel, remains a remarkable historical figure, as well as a rich and fascinating research topic for anyone interested in our history.
It is particularly fitting to speak about him here in St. Boniface, near his tomb. More than almost any other historic figure, he has permeated our reflections on the past, giving rise to intense debates about his role, his politics, his spirituality, his trial and his identity. For 125 years, each generation of Canadians has been exposed to different representations and interpretations of Louis Riel as a historic figure, which have been intensely debated. The complexities and many facets of this man have prompted an abundance of reflection which is ongoing today and should continue in the future.
Pairing these two men for a single conference does not seem, at first glance, to be an obvious decision. Two centuries separate them, with very different political contexts and two very different regimes. One was born in France, the other here in St. Boniface; one died in London after a relatively successful commercial career, the other was hung in Regina after a trial that is still controversial.
The more I thought and read about these two figures, the more I discovered common links. Both identified with Aboriginal culture—Radisson was adopted by an Iroquois family after having been captured and Riel was Métis, first identifying himself with the Red River Métis community. According to a number of historians, they were both rebels who questioned authority that they found restrictive or illegitimate. Both were treated as traitors. The mystery surrounding them and the questions raised by their respective lives pertain above all to identity. In times when multiple or hybrid identities were not looked on favourably, both figures are particularly interesting specifically because of their multiple identities.
Let us begin with a brief look at Pierre-Esprit Radisson.
His biographer, Martin Fournier—who will be addressing this conference—tells a fascinating story of a French teenager, born in Paris,Footnote 1 but living in Trois-Rivières, where he was kidnapped by the Iroquois, brought to what is now upstate New York, and adopted, in keeping with Iroquois customs.Footnote 2 During his time with the Iroquois, he learned the language, murdered three companions during an escape, and was later recaptured and tortured.
“Through the terrifying trauma of torture, the Iroquois had stripped Radisson of his former identity,” writes his biographer, Martin Fournier. “Now they welcomed him into the very heart of their society, as a member of one of their families, as one of their own […] Radisson feels so indebted to them that he tries subsequently to be worthy of their confidence and affection, seeking to achieve full integration into his new community. In reality, the trauma of torture and the feelings of gratitude towards his adoptive parents seem to have provoked in him, for a time, a profound ambiguity over his identity and life projects.”Footnote 3
His life was one of constant adventure, escape, exploration and self-transformation as, with his brother-in-law, Médard des Groseilliers, he spent the winter of 1659–1660 near the headwaters of the Mississippi, south of the tip of Lake Superior, where they participated in a peace assembly between the Sioux and the Cree.
In Fournier’s words, “Radisson and des Groseilliers manifested exceptional skill in negotiating a sphere of agreement which benefited them, while at the same time satisfying native partners with whom they hoped to develop long-standing relations, such as the Saulteaux and the Cree.”Footnote 4
The two men were more successful in managing their relations with the First nations they dealt with than with the French authorities in New France and in France. When their proposal to reach Hudson Bay directly by sea, circumventing the Iroquois who were an obstacle to their trading ambitions, was blocked by the French, they took their plan to the English in Boston.
This led to Radisson and des Groseilliers participating in the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and an ongoing relationship with the British traders as the fur trade began to develop in trading posts in Hudson Bay. Radisson’s accounts of his travels were translated into English and published in London, he married in England, and—despite several short-term returns to France—retired and ultimately died in London.
Fournier tells the story of a man who moved easily between cultures—from European to Aboriginal, and from France to England.Footnote 5
However, as a result of his nomadic ways, I would suggest, he was never fully trusted by the very different peoples with whom he dealt—or by the historians studying New France. He had been adopted by the Iroquois, travelled and traded for New France, and then moved to the British and helped found a major trading enterprise. What would be seen now as a remarkable talent for cultural adaptation, personal survival and economic initiative was then viewed with suspicion and distance. He had adopted the ways of “the other”; he was a “traitor,” he was an opportunist. What side was he on, anyway? Who was he?
If Louis Riel was called a “traitor”, it was never because he had betrayed his people, but rather because he opposed a regime that did not consider him a legitimate leader. As much as Radisson has been marginalized and practically ignored by history, Riel continued to be a figure who fascinated Canadians – because of his vision, his protection of the Métis people, his leadership of an armed rebellion, his spirituality, his mental health and his controversial trial.
The reaction that Louis Riel’s death caused, particularly in Quebec, revealed John A. Macdonald’s monumental error when he wrote after the sentence: “The conviction of Riel is satisfactory. There is an attempt in Quebec to pump up a patriotic feeling about him—but I don’t think it will amount to much.”Footnote 6 On the contrary, his hanging put an end to the Conservative Party’s popularity in Quebec for a centuryFootnote 7.
Almost 30 years ago, Douglas Owram wrote a fascinating description of what he called “The Myth of Louis Riel,”Footnote 8 in which he traces the evolving perception of Riel over the preceding century. Over the decades, Riel was variously seen as a dictator, a loser on the wrong side of history, a martyr to fanaticism, a victim of temporary insanity, “the American primitive,”Footnote 9 “symbol and spokesman of the oppressed but gallant minority [,] revolutionist, leader and lord,”Footnote 10 and “a prairie politician.”Footnote 11
Owram presents the contemporary myth of Riel as the incarnation of a symbol of pluralism – a Francophone, a regionalist, and a Métis, who was the leader of a society that founded a province – but also as a political lesson for all those who might forget the need for compromise in Canadian politics Footnote 12.
And this year, novelist Joseph Boyden twins Louis Riel with Gabriel Dumont for a portrait of the two men, contrasting the spiritual leader and the warrior.Footnote 13
After all that has been written, are there new areas to explore? I think that the richness of the symposium program answers that question.
What I find fascinating in the evolution of our reflections on Canadian history is the emergence—or should I say rediscovery—of the Aboriginal reality. We see it in a series of Supreme Court decisions. From Drybones to Sparrow, from DelgamuukwFootnote 14 to Marshall, the Supreme Court has established the framework for a new Aboriginal economic policyFootnote 15.
Let’s look at the contexts in which Radisson and Riel lived. Radisson worked in a business setting. He maintained trade relations in a context of fierce competition and delicate diplomacy between nations: the French, the Algonquians, the Dutch, the Iroquois, the British and the Cree. Riel, on the other hand, came up against a political and social context that did not look very favourably on the Métis’ and Aboriginals’ claims, where prejudice and racism were everywhere. At Radisson’s time, understanding Aboriginal languages was an extraordinary asset in the fur tradeFootnote 16.
Radisson was and is depicted as a key actor in changing the dynamic of the fur trade—a commercial activity that set the pattern for economic and geo-political developments for the centuries that followed.
As early as 1930, Harold Innis recognized the transformative effect of the fur trade and commented on it in respectful terms. “The fur trade was a phase of a cultural disturbance incidental to the meeting of two civilizations with different cultural traits,”Footnote 17 he wrote.
Not all of Innis’s historical contemporaries saw the interaction between Europeans and First Nations in as respectful terms as he does. George Stanley, one of the historians of Western Canada—and a biographer of Riel—wrote that the Red River Rebellion “was fundamentally the revolt of a semi-primitive society against the imposition of a more progressive alien culture.”Footnote 18
Ironically, Innis was reflecting the respect for First Nations that he had observed in his research into the 17th century accounts of the fur trade, while Stanley was reflecting the racist attitudes towards First Nations and Métis peoples that emerged in the 19th century.
In fact, according to David T. McNab, the Confederation of Canada in 1867—and to a larger extent, the Indian Act in 1879—embodied this racist bias towards First Nations. Confederation was “one of the primary events that eroded Indigenous rights.” While Confederation “was conceived of and was supposed to have been a treaty among the founding nations of Canada, including all of the First Nations, [...] it soon became a means of carrying forward the policy of extinguishment, including the surrender or relinquishment of the Indian territory[...]"Footnote 19. This unfavourable political context would have an impact on Louis Riel and the Métis, and the federal government’s response to their grievances.
As Robert Cunningham put it in a lengthy piece in The Globe on his visit to Manitoba and interview with Louis Riel in 1870, “it is allowed on all hands by everyone who knows anything about the French half-breeds, that since this difficulty began, they have been grossly maligned. They have been pictured as an ignorant, savage race—worse in many respects than the Indians themselves—and capable of engaging in any atrocity.”Footnote 20
This depiction of the Métis—and the Aboriginals—continued. As indicated by an Aboriginal historian, Georges Sioui, in speaking of how the Aboriginals conceive of war, “But it is the Amerindians, not the Europeans, who have been given the title of champions of cruelty in the history books.”Footnote 21
Now, 125 years later, John A. Macdonald’s refusal to pardon Riel is seen as his greatest political error.
In the 17th century, First Nations people were trading partners or rivals, and essential to the burgeoning trade in furs; what was important was establishing networks of trade. In the 19th century, European assumptions of land settlement and ownership came into conflict with the very different relationship that the First Nations had with the land.Footnote 22
Now, as a country, we are able to embrace the complexity of our past. But it is not always easy. This, in fact, is one of the contributions of events such as this one. They help us gain a better understanding of our common history.
As the author and anthropologist Serge Bouchard said, [translation] “The greatest practitioners of interculturalism in America were the Amerindians and the Francophones.”. How is it that we marvel today at that which was so despised yesterday: mixed races, Amerindian languages, the coureurs de bois’ illiteracy, and the original cultures of those who were body and soul, the first “Americans”Footnote 23?
Earlier this year, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told a conference in Ottawa that this is “an era of reconciliation.”Footnote 24
It is in this spirit of openness and imagination that I hope we may find the intellectual links, contemporary perspectives, and paths for future reflection on the lives of Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Louis Riel, who were different, yet shared some similarities. I invite you, in your reflection and discussions, to think about the lessons we can draw from our past as Francophone, Anglophone, Aboriginal and Métis Canadians. I also encourage you to continue the conversation so that we might all come to understand one another better, appreciate one another and live together.
I look forward to hearing your presentations and discussions.
Thank you and enjoy the symposium!
- Footnote 1
1 One of his biographers thinks he was born in or near Avignon, where his father was born, while others cite documents indicating he was born in Paris in 1636. See Grace Lee Nute, “Radisson, Pierre-Esprit,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, vol. II, 2003, p. 1701–1740. http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.html (accessed November 1, 2010). See also Martin Fournier, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, Merchant Adventurer, Les éditions du Septentrion, Montréal, 2002, p. 17. Fournier cites Marcel Trudel, Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, vol. III, Fides, Montréal, 1983, and Radisson’s own account.
- Footnote 2
2 See Georges E. Sioui, Pour une histoire amérindienne de l’Amérique, Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, 1999, for an explanation of this custom.
- Footnote 3
3 Martin Fournier, Merchant Adventurer, p. 35.
- Footnote 4
4 Martin Fournier, Merchant Adventurer, p. 111.
- Footnote 5
5 According to Martin Fournier, “By the time he reached about age 50, Radisson had already absorbed all his experiences with the Iroquois and the other Amerindians of the Great Lakes and Hudson’s Bay,” Fournier writes. “He was familiar with them; he was well acquainted with their values, and with their customs; and he was able to make his way almost as easily as they did in the North American environment. And yet it is quite clear that after his return to Europe, in 1665, Radisson became a full-fledged European in regard to the values and objectives that would count for him thenceforward.” Martin Fournier, Merchant Adventurer, p. 241.
- Footnote 6
6 Telegraph to Edgar Dewdney, August 17, 1885; Library and Archives Canada, Macdonald Papers Book 23; quoted by George G. F. Stanley, Louis Riel, The Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1963, p. 361.
- Footnote 7
7 Frances Russell, The Canadian Crucible: Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide, Heartland Associates, Winnipeg, 2003, p. 54.
- Footnote 9
9 Bernard de Voto, in the introduction to Joseph Kinsey Howard’s Strange Empire, New York, 1952, p. 9–10; quoted by Douglas Owram, Myth, pp. 325–326.
- Footnote 10
10 Joseph Kinsey Howard, Op. cit., p. 133, quoted by Douglas Owram, Myth, p. 326.
- Footnote 12
12 “. . . .the story of Riel is also a civics lesson of a peculiarly Canadian nature. The writings on him are both a reminder of the continuous frictions within Canadian life and of the delicate nature of the Canadian nation,” he writes. “Those who would forget the necessity for compromise within Canada, as the Canadian government did in 1869 or as Riel did in 1885, invite disaster.” Douglas Owram, Myth, p. 336.
- Footnote 13
13 Joseph Boyden, Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2010.
- Footnote 14
14 “Both the common law and the aboriginal perspective on land should be taken into account in establishing the proof of occupancy,” in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia,  3 S.C.R. 1010.
- Footnote 15
15 Graham Fraser, “Le prix de l’incohérence”, Le Devoir, October 7, 1999.
- Footnote 16
16 One of the first things Samuel de Champlain did was to send young Frenchmen, like Étienne Brûlé, to spend a year or two with the Aboriginals to learn their language and understand their culture.
- Footnote 17
17 Harold Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001, p. 42.
- Footnote 18
18 George F.G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1992.
- Footnote 20
20 Robert Cunningham, “Special Correspondence,” The Globe [Toronto], January 28, 1870; included in J.L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer, First Drafts: Eyewitness Accounts from Canada’s Past, Thomas Allen Publishers, Toronto, 2002, p. 88.
- Footnote 21
21 Georges E. Sioui, For an Amerindian Autohistory, McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 1995, p. 52.
- Footnote 22
22 “[the Metis] system of land ownership was customary rather than the formal, deeded property rights of British Law.” Frances Russell, Canadian Crucible, p. 64.
- Footnote 23
23 Serge Bouchard, “Nos langues, nos mères, notre terre : les grandes oubliées de l’Histoire”, lecture given at the Ministerial Conference of La Francophonie in Canada in Yellowknife, June 22, 2010.
- Footnote 24
24 The Institute of Public Administration of Canada 62nd Annual Conference, Ottawa, August 24, 2010.
8 Douglas Owram, “The Myth of Louis Riel,“ Canadian Historical Review, 63, 3 (1982):
11 W.L. Morton, “The Bias of Prairie Politics,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada,
49 (June 1955): p. 57; quoted by Douglas Owram, Myth, p. 329.
19 David T. McNab, “A brief history of the denial of indigenous rights in Canada,” in Janet Miron,
A History of Human Rights in Canada: Essential Issues, Canadian Scholars' Press, Toronto, 2009, p. 105.