Archive for the ‘Louis Riel’ Category

At an event I recently attended I was told that my dissertation was not considered feminist enough. My response, as I held my drink standing within the din of clinking glasses, was: “you’re joking, right?” Interestingly, the remark was made by someone who did not read my work but based their conclusion on my topic. My research project is an analysis of Louis Riel’s 1885 trial and the representation of the Métis leader by the nineteenth-century media and its present day implications. Beyond my ostensibly glib reaction, the remark raised several questions for me, which I am compelled to bring forward to create a conversation.

Aside from the intriguing fact that someone would suggest that my work concerning a Métis leader and his representation in the media is not feminist enough, even more curious is how exactly this reasoning was deduced? This is particularly troubling when considering the long-standing issues endured by Métis peoples in Canada and the continued violence against all Aboriginal Nations specifically with the ever present crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls – a consequence my research connects to Riel’s execution and the negation of Aboriginal sovereignties. Perhaps a more astute question is how could this work not be feminist?

While I accept all criticism as valuable, even more so than praise, this remark left me stymied. Granted my methodology for this specific project does not outwardly use a “conventional” western feminist approach (explained in my Introduction). Instead, my discourse analysis of the historical event applies a critical race and postcolonial approach as I utilize the scholarship, storytelling, and writings of Métis and First Nations scholars, including Riel. I felt this method was necessary because a western analytic framework could once again colonize the sovereign objectives and paradigmatic and contextual shifts Riel was undertaking. As a feminist scholar, I felt this was the most feminist approach to take.

What then does it mean to be feminist enough? Who am I proving my feminism to? Must my feminism be proved at all? Who is in charge of judging this? Are there guidelines, a rule book, an obstacle course, a code of conduct, a hazing ritual, a membership mandate, proof in the pudding, or a complex set of algorithms which will magically spit out gold coins revealing: “Yes, this is feminist … enough?”

Am I, or is my feminism, not enough? Bound with the short sighted evaluation of my work (or more specifically, its title) is an intellectual and proprietary hierarchy, which privileges an assumed power to dictate what feminism is, and with it also arrives (ironically) a distinct gust of patriarchy, no?


To me, if I may be so bold (as a feminist), the remark in many ways says more about the institutionalization of feminisms (plural intended), rather than my work as not being feminist enough. My work was shut down instead of opened up to consider all the possibilities. I was silenced and with this silencing so too was, once again, the contextual histories of the critical work at hand: issues concerning Métis sovereignty.

For the record, my research illuminates new scholarship concerning Riel’s advocacy for the rights and recognition of Métis and First Nations women and girls; his public condemnation of the Canadian government’s gender-based violence during the period; and the connection between the criminalization of Métis sovereignty, which culminated in Riel’s execution, with present day issues concerning missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The criticism I received was indeed extremely valuable as I continue my everyday feminist methodology: to question and to listen in order to understand and create conversations. I also look forward to bring this anecdote forward into the classrooms where I teach students who come with their own complex histories, and varied stories, and who are grappling with what it means to be a feminist.

I will listen to them in order to understand and to remain open to all possibilities.


I have been asked the question many times over the course of my research and writing: “Why Riel?” The a/effect of answering the question provides me with the opportunity to consider my position within the work. One answer could be that as I happened upon the torrent of dehumanizing representations of Riel in the nineteenth century press, I also realized that a critical analysis addressing the relationship between the trial and the media was lacking in scholarship and thus necessary. Another answer could be that additional work needed to done within the context of Canada’s nineteenth century media and its representation of Aboriginal identities; moreover, how do these early representations inform the present day understandings of indigenous sovereignties, histories and stories? It could be that late one night at a library’s microfiche bay, I realized that something was not quite right when I read the Riel trial coverage in the 1885 newspapers. The answer could also be that I wanted to better understand how the mechanics of racism operate and figure out how the stereotyped matrix is configured and then dispensed into zones of intelligibility. All these responses would indeed be accurate; yet, these answers do not really resolve why I have not been able to let Riel go.

What I have come to learn over the years, and in fact what I am still learning, is that much of what draws me to the subject of Riel and Métis sovereignty has much to do with my own histories. Although I am not from Aboriginal descent, my corporeal and psychic being is a product of the colonial project. My father was Dutch; my mother was Indonesian. While not plunging the plumb line too deep into my own complex historical well (this work will be left for another time), what lies at the core of my affinity to Riel’s history is my mother. As a half-caste Indonesian-Dutch woman, she was born into the Dutch colonized archipelago where she survived a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia during WWII. Her histories similar to those histories of thousands of girls and women, who endured the violence of war and subsequent displacement, exile and lose of identity and geography, has remained largely undocumented. From the age of ten until she was fourteen my mother was a prisoner in the camp along with my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my tanta. One of my tantas was born in the camp. When the war ended they were further displaced into a refugee camp in Singapore before being forced to the Netherlands and into exile. My mother and her sisters were told never to speak of their origin, the camp, their histories, and their mixed race. Silenced was the history of my mother whose hair was cut and her name changed to “Jimmy” along with her gender at the age of ten. She lived in the camp as a boy (a common mother’s trick during war to save their daughters from being taken by soldiers as “comfort women”). The “comfort woman” euphemism of war facilitated the rape, exploitation, and the torture and murder of young girls. Silenced was my grandmother’s smuggling of cigarettes out of the camp at night for medicine to try to save the malnutritioned, sick and dying girls and women, one of which was her own mother, my great grandmother. Silenced was the sexual violence, my grandmother giving birth to a daughter in the camp, the racial hierarchies in all-women’s camps that relegated the hybridity of Indonesian-Dutch women to exclusion and violence. Silenced were these histories and countless others under the guise of assimilation and shame. “We are now Dutch,” my mother was told. But my mother knew she wasn’t really Dutch. She didn’t want to be Dutch. And in her bones she would never belong – anywhere; her hybridity, her half-breededness, her impurity would haunt her and, so it seems, would haunt her daughter. My mother always felt she lost her home, her land, her self.  When she eventually arrived in Canada, she was lost.

I am able to pass as white, yet beneath my skin, just under the surface I am an Indonesian-Dutch hybrid who is determined to keep categories, whatever they may be, complicated and unfixed, and always with unstable histories. Complicated histories. Sarah Stillman explains that it is the obligation of scholars to “pursue the unknown ghosts and recognize the need for proactive digging to recover stories about those deemed ‘disposable’; and valuing the structural integrity, details, and delicacy of each individual story you unearth” (500). Perhaps it was the words in Riel’s testimony: “But justice demands that we honor our mothers as well our fathers. Why should we care to what degree exactly of mixture we possess European blood and Indian blood?” Riel’s words struck a chord when defining his place, his identity, and his sovereignty; perhaps, what struck a deeper chord was the government’s negation of his rights and the denial of his belonging. If I do not identify as mixed raced I negate my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and tantas’ histories; I ignore the colonial violence they lived; I absolve the colonizer, and I devalue their daily acts of resistance. I erase their strength. I enable silence. Assimilation is amnesia’s handmaiden. I am privileged to be stained by my father’s whiteness; yet, I am also privileged to be haunted by the hybrid ghosts who never sleep, who speak to me, who toss and turn and at times beat their fists beneath the floorboards of my skin and demand that their histories are spoken. So, here I return to my initial question:  why Riel?  Truthfully, I am still not exactly certain. What I do know is that somewhere within the landscape of Riel’s and Métis histories I recognize specters that continue to haunt me; and their need to be resurrected, to speak, to be recognized, to refuse the refusal of their sovereignty and to do the work to set it right.  There is indeed work for the living to do.


Kim Anderson, Métis writer and scholar, explains that “Native women [have] historically been equated with the land.  The Euro-constructed image of Native women therefore mirrors Western attitudes towards the earth.  Sadly, this relationship has typically developed within the context of control, conquest, possession, and exploitation” (100). Emma LaRocque borrows from Sarain Stump‘s poetry in There Is My People Sleeping when explaining the significance of hearing the voices that break the violent continuity of this ever present colonial misrepresentation:

I was mixing the stars and sand
In front of him
But he couldn’t understand
I was keeping the lightening of
The thunder in my purse
Just in front of him
But he couldn’t understand
And I have been killed a thousand times
Right at his feet

“Culture forms our beliefs” as Gloria Anzaldua argues, and “we perceive the version of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture” (38). Stereotypes are not spontaneous phenomena; they require what John Durham Peters calls “the zone of intelligibility” (208) where a meeting of minds can take place – this takes time. But where does “the zone” or what Wilkie Collins used as his essay title, “The Unknown Public,” occur?  How does it happen? What are the power configurations at work and how are the images and their inscribed knowledge transmitted and what is their material and psychic impact?  When describing the representation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada’s nineteenth-century, historian, Lyle Dick explains “from the time of Confederation, the media has generated images of Canada, its constituent peoples and regions, exerting a wide-ranging impact on the country’s culture. To study these images, especially in the key period after 1867, is to witness the nation-state in the process of its ideological construction” (1).[1]


Plate 1

The nineteenth-century newspapers in America, Britain, and Canada were the most ubiquitous agent of popular education (Anderson and Robertson 2011; Benjamin 1968; Brake 2009; Burke 2005) and as such constructed events using established stereotyped colonial ideologies to organize a meeting of minds or “imagined communities” among strangers (Anderson, “Imagined” 6). European whiteness mobilized the stereotype of the so-called “wild savage” and held within it the noble, the child, the feminine, and the enemy. Nancy Black argues that to determine a sovereign state there must be an enemy and it manifested in the Western illustrated press into the figure of “The Indian” (130). Understanding that the nation’s communication systems were saturated with the figure of  “The Indian,” in its multiple formations, begins to address Daniel Francis’ question:  “How did I begin to believe in the Imaginary Indian?” (18).  Francis’s query opens further questions concerning the shaping of a national consciousness that contributed to a unifying ideology that Eva Mackey calls Canadian-Canadians (3) or as Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson describe as “imagined Canadiana” (9).

How then is the mythical continuity of a unified “Canada” ruptured in the 2013 counter movement Idle No More; moreover, how does the present leadership of Chief Theresa Spence disrupt (in her demand to speak with the Prime Minister of Canada concerning land, governance, social and economic policies) the historical national framework that has endeavoured to make absent and silence Aboriginal women and girls: (in)actions that continue to wage an ignored colonial violence against them, and even in the real and statistical atrocities, that mark the evidence of their missingness and murders, their names are erased. What violence then, it must be asked, does the Prime Minister’s refusal to speak to Chief Theresa Spence continue to advocate and authorize?

It was not surprising to read the biased article reported by the CBC, a Canadian Crown corporation owned by the federal state: “Review of troubled Northern Ontario reserve’s finances says federal funds spent without records” If the audit report, that the CBC coverage presents inaccurately, is actually read it is clear that the audit conclusions criticize, in fact, the federal government’s department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s (AANDC) management, or rather mismanagement, of the Attawapiskat funding. The media and its “timely” slandering of Chief Theresa Spence’s leadership is a stark reminder (if indeed one needs to be reminded) of the colonial strategies and stereotypes that continue to be deployed by the government through the media when they are confronted with acts of resistance.

The line of attack is not new. The foundational media strategy is rooted as far back as the c1493 Basel woodcut, “Epistola de insulis nuper inventis” [“Concerning islands recently discovered”], from Columbus’ letters and the advent of print production; yet, its stronghold, within the material and psychic spaces of growing nationalism and printing press technology in Canada, is made by the mid-nineteenth century.

In the July 16, 1885 edition of The Regina Leader newspaper, for instance, under the headline Telegraphic News – Ottawa  – “Supplementary Estimates Brought Down,” paper editor and owner, Nicholas Flood Davin summarizes the federal budget report for the North West; the article proves insightful particularly when bearing in mind the ignored petitions and the grievances brought forward against the federal government by the Métis peoples, Aboriginal Nations, and white settlers concerning not only land, but also the social anxiety and violence by increased and aggressive policing along with an upswing in the government’s implementation of irresponsible and malignant policies that created the foundations of inadequate health, economic, educational, and social systems on Reserves – issues demanded to be constitutionally addressed and recognized in the Métis Bill of Rights (1869 and 1885).  Sound familiar? The report includes the 1885 federal budget forecasting $250,000 earmarked to the North West Mounted Police, $50,000 toward land surveys, $660,000 for the CPR, and $6,000 to the “Half-breeds” (1). The report on one level reflects the government’s exclusive priorities: security, ‘acquisition’ of land, military transportation and communication technologies through the North West specifically adhering to colonial objectives, while on another appeasing the apparent needs and sentiments of the Victorian settlers by disseminating propaganda that security is enforced, land is organized, mobility and communication services are accessible, and that the Métis, with Riel charged with high treason, were, according to their the under-funding, “disappearing,” and the Aboriginal Nations (not allotted a funding budget line) were not present at all. It was the era of the “Vanishing Indian” and similar to the 2013 CBC coverage, the numbers were presented to do colonial ideological legwork. Conventional to the Leader’s format, the article is followed by a travel narrative entitled “The North West as, a Home, for the Small Farmer” and on the following page, the headline “The End of the Rebellion.”

In the same issue, the article “The Mounted Police – The Report of the Commissioner” replicates the geographical specialization of race, the implementation of government policies in the Indian Act, as well as how the policies were not accepted by the Aboriginal communities but were instead forced upon them in the issuing of discipline and punishment through state policing.  In the report, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald condemns “the indiscriminate camping of Indians in the vicinity of towns and villages in the North West … Indians should not be allowed to leave their reserves without a permit from a local Indian agent.” The report

pointed out that the introduction of such a system [The Indian Act] would be  tantamount to a breach of confidence with the Indians generally, inasmuch as from the outset the Indians had been led to believe that compulsory residence on reservations would not be required of them, and that they would be at liberty to travel about for legitimate hunting and trading purposes … that discretionary power, according to circumstance should be vested in the officers of police, was wise and sound … The camping of Indians near towns is an unmitigated nuisance, and if they are to be allowed to wander off their reserves without even the small check of a permit from the local agent, what is the good of having reserves at all?

Davin’s extract taken from the House of Commons invites his readers into the sovereign zone of intelligibility as it reinforces the mapping of racialized spatial hierarchies and authorizes “community” surveillance as a “wise and sound” method to maintain security while it segregates boundary lines between the civilized “towns and villages,” and individuals from Native communities as “unmitigated nuisance.”  Within the loaded colonial tropology of “if they are to be allowed to wander” metaphorically transfers as it reduces the Aboriginal population as deviant and must be kept confined and more specifically aligned with the state protocols of incarceration. In 2012, with the prison population overwhelmed with individuals of Aboriginal descent, the nineteenth government policy as a racist template continues to have catastrophic implications: “Aboriginal people are four per cent of the Canadian population, but 20 per cent of the prison population … one in three women in federal prisons is Aboriginal and over the last 10 years representation of Aboriginal women in the prison system has increased by 90 per cent.”[2] Moreover, the imperial euphemism of discretionary power issued by the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) elides the colonial violence in the rhetoric of security; the police did not protect the rights and interests of the Indigenous population but, rather, collaborated closely with eastern business interests who paid their salaries.[3] By 1883, 70% of the Métis and more than 50% of the Native English (“Half-breeds”) had seen the lands they occupied in 1870 patented to others mostly Ontario Orangemen newcomers.[4]

The public slandering of Chief Theresa Spence in the national media, and the Prime Minister’s explicit disrespect in his refusal to meet with her as a leader of a community, within the nation of Canada, that has not only been mismanaged by its federal agents (as identified in the audit report) but has also been sanctioned into a state of crisis because of the AANDC’s delinquent and negligent methods, reflects how Harper continues in the colonial footsteps of his nineteenth century Conservative predecessor.


Plate 2

There was another figure who led, with others, two movements of resistance, whose leadership was also disparaged in the press, and who articulated his response to the nineteenth century Canadian federal government concerning parallel issues that remain to be addressed in 2013. To follow is one instance among many:

The only things I would like to call your attention to, before you retire to deliberate are:
1st. That the House of Commons, Senate, and ministers of the Dominion who makes laws for this land and govern it are no representation whatever of the people of the North-West.
2ndly. That the North-West Council generated by the federal Government has the great defect of its parent.
3rdly. The number of members elected for the Council by the people make it only a sham representative legislature and no representative Government at all. British civilization, which rules to day the world, and the British constitution has defined such Government as this which rules the North West Territory is an irresponsible Government, which plainly means that there is no responsibility, and by the science which as been shown here yesterday you[] are compelled to admit it, there is no responsibility, it is insane. (Louis Riel, Prisoner’s Address, 1885)

The Idle No More movement is also not a recent phenomena but a continuum of 500 years of resistance. Perhaps then, in the news media’s eagerness and the government’s colonial anxiety that attempt to misrepresent and undermine, once again, Aboriginal peoples issues, demands and leadership, make evident just how powerful Spence’s counter movement, and a growing solidarity, is.

List of Illustrations

Plate 1
“Canada West” (c. 1923-1925)
Immigration Poster
Issued under the direction of N. James Alexander Robb,
Minister of Immigration and Colonization, Ottawa, Canada

Plate 2
Glenbow Museum.  Edgar Dewdney Fond.
“J.A. Macdonald to Dewdney.” Correspondence with Sir John A. Macdonald – 1878-1888.
Series 8. M-320-p.587. On-line.

[1] Dick, Lyle. Manitoba History, 48. Autumn/Winter 2004/2005. Web. April 30 2012.

[2] Carolyn Bennett. “Aboriginal People Need Solutions, Not More Jail Time.” The Huffington Post. December 11, 2012. Retrieved from

[3] Metis Culture 1875-1885.”1883.” Retrieved from

[4] Metis Culture 1875-1885. Retrieved from -

… there is a clementine, a cup of green jasmine tea, two cats, and the word Trauerspiel. From this odd catalogue, I’d like to begin with the “mourning play” because, well, I think it is as good a place as any to begin.  In “The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” Walter Benjamin describes Trauerspiel as being unlike Tragedy which is rooted in myth, and instead finds its difference by being grounded in history (16).  But what exactly is the work that needs to be done to separate the mythical out from the historical or the transcendental from the material?  This blog is not necessarily rooted in the 19th century, but it is a site of rupture from which oranges, tea, and the feral, as well as other possible tangents might emerge…

“The drama, more than any other literary form, needs a resonance of history” (48)

And don’t get me wrong, I agree that this would seem, at first glance,  a rather morose way to send off a blog on its initial voyage:  “go and play in sorrow and stuff!”  But of course there’s more going on here.  Benjamin insists that Tragedy is performed in silence whereas the Baroque Trauerspiel is anything but that : it’s rather noisy.  Tragedy does not need an audience.  Trauerspiel demands one.  What happens when the silence sewn up in Tragedy is ripped open to reveal all the historical threads?  More directly:  to hear them:  “For how justified are we in accepting that what people describe as tragic as tragic” (38). What happens to Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar when they are read through this Baroque lens, as Benjamin suggests? And further, what happens when these plays and their ubiquitous themes (power, betrayal, and love) are adapted into 19th century media, People magazine, in trial and state execution transcripts, and detention sites, etc; what happens when the sovereign and beast are no longer dichotomized but are one?  What does the Trauerspiel, in its very “primal leap” into being or Ursprung, give us access to?

Indeed this is where the task of the investigator begins, for [they] cannot regard such a fact as certain until its innermost structure appears to be so essential as to reveal it as an origin (46).

And for Benjamin, as for Foucault, Dilthey, Derrida, Spivak, and for all curious and questioning beings:  this is an endless task …