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Manitoba History: Review: George F. G. Stanley (editor), The Collected Writings of Louis Riel, 5 Volumes

by Michael Gauvreau
Queen’s University

Manitoba History, Number 16, Autumn 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Collected Writings of Louis Riel / Les ecrits complets de Louis Riel, 5 volumes. George F. G. Stanley, General Editor. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1985. ISBN. 0-88864-091-9.

Louis Riel’s monument stands near the Manitoba Legislature. Unlike the statues and busts of his Victorian contemporaries, which exude the cherished values of stability and respectability, that of the Metis founder of Manitoba immediately and insistently assaults late twentieth century visitors with the realization that they stand in the presence of a man who can be comprehended only with great difficulty. A twisted and tortured body, reminiscent of the Christs of Latin American liberation theology, sustains a head upon which is written an expression at once suffering, quizzical, and ironic, one which defies a facile evaluation of Riel’s inner constitution and his achievements.

A similar encounter with the uncanny and the incomprehensible confronts readers who venture into this massive collection of Riel’s writings. Three volumes contain Riel’s speeches, memoranda, correspondence, diaries, and notes written between 1861, when he was a seventeen-year-old college student in Montreal, and his execution for high treason in the Mounted Police Barracks in Regina in 1885. That so much of this material has survived creates an exhausting experience but a pleasant realization for the historian. Indeed, the very size of Riel’s written record places him on a footing with his more famous Victorian contemporary William Ewart Gladstone. A fourth volume presents a large body of his poetry, an aspect of the Métis leader’s life perhaps unfamiliar to any but Riel specialists. The fifth volume is a work of reference, which contains a chronology of Riel’s life, a biographical index with brief sketches of his correspondents, family, and associates, an extensive bibliography, and a disappointingly small collection of photographs.

In the opening pages of the first volume George F. G. Stanley, the general editor of the University of Alberta’s Riel Project, outlines the aims and philosophy of this massive scholarly effort. The collection, he declares, “provides the source materials for scholar and layman alike, indeed for any person interested in the history of the Canadian West and in the relations of the native peoples with the various levels of government.” (I, xxxii) From the inception of the project, the editors agreed that they would not write a biography of Riel; rather, their efforts were directed to “producing a source book that subsequent students of Riel could rely upon as providing them with access to everything Riel wrote that is still extant.” (V, 3) From these, the editors hope, “the student and the merely curious alike can draft their own biography of Louis Riel and arrive at their own conclusions, their own assessment of Riel’s place in Canadian history.” (I, xxxii) The intention of this lavishly-subsidized edition of Riel’s writings is thus the very laudable one of rendering the Métis leader accessible to students and to the general reader, not simply to the initiated specialist.

It is precisely at this point, however, that this collection of Riel’s writings falls short of its objectives. In spite of the multitude of critical notes attached to each text, the editors, among whom are Professors Thomas Flanagan and Gilles Martel, two of the leading scholarly authorities on Riel, fall into a trap. There is a widespread but erroneous belief that because many issues which confronted Victorian Canada remain alive in our own time, the thoughts and experiences of people living during the late-nineteenth century are somehow immediately accessible and comprehensible to the modern mind. This assumption persists to the point of believing that the general reader or undergraduate can, without any special knowledge of personality or social context, enter intimately into a past that, on the surface, seems familiar and beckoning.

Through his writings, Louis Riel himself confronts and challenges the ostensibly value-neutral, but in fact highly-charged approach, of the editors of the Riel Project. What, in fact, are we to make of a lengthy document that Riel wrote from the asylum at Beauport sometime between 1876 and 1878? At first sight, text 2-004 appears to be a meandering commentary on the marriage laws of the Old Testament. Until, of course, one realizes that Riel claimed the authority of prophetic revelation for his argument that polygamy was the most natural and divinely-ordained form of social relationship, upon which would rest the theocratic utopia he aspired to build. (II, 144-163) At the very least, it is the responsibility of conscientious editors, even those wishing to avoid any possible bias, to furnish “the student and the merely curious alike” with some explanation and context concerning the sources of Riel’s remarkable reworking of ultramontane Catholicism in the light of his revelations and his messianic sense that the Metis were a chosen people.

This responsibility becomes particularly acute in light of the fact that a large portion of the collection consists not of the traditional correspondence, speeches, and memoranda associated with Victorian political figures, but with prophecies, revelations, and utopian yearnings which the general reader might be tempted to simply dismiss or gloss over, but which must be faced if Riel’s thought and achievements are to be appreciated. Indeed, the dominant theme that emerges from this remarkable collection is the extent to which, for Riel, religion, politics, journalism, and poetry were bound up with one another, in a manner which can be only dimly comprehended by the modern reader. While it is possible to agree with the editors that the time is perhaps not ripe for a full-scale biography of Riel, this should not mean that the reader should be left without some critical introductory material with which to wade through Riel’s literary legacy. The lack of such a balance of text and context ensures, ironically, that Riel remains, despite the good intentions of the editors, accessible only to the initiated specialist.

In the final analysis, however, the editors of the Riel Project are to be thanked for their monumental efforts in collecting, classifying, and annotating this mass of diverse material. It can be hoped only that the value of this collection will be seen, not merely at the level of Western Canadian or native history, but in the context of intellectual, religious, and cultural history, where Riel’s personality and ideas deserve further attention and critical scrutiny. Indeed, the very nature of Riel’s writings ensures that he will be studied, not only in relation to his antagonist Sir John A. Macdonald, but alongside religious visionaries like Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, the English prophetess Joanna Southcott, and as part of a rich tradition of popular religious prophecy and resistance.

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