Red River Resistance
Red River Resistance
Pemmican Wars, the first volume of Katherena Vermette’s graphic novel series, “A Girl Called Echo”, ended in the early decades of the nineteenth century in the territory known as Red River. More than fifty years have passed, and, in the opening pages of Red River Resistance, the second volume of the series, Echo lies asleep in her room, dreaming of the open prairie. Next morning, she heads off to school, and in her history class, she learns that the landscape will change:
Throughout the 1860s, immigrants from the province of Canada started arriving in the Red River Colony. Some came to farm, others – such as Dr. John Schultz – came out as land speculators, out to make their fortune when an expected immigration rush took place. When the Hudson’s Bay Company sold 7 million acres of land to Canada, many residents of Red River were worried the Canadian government would not honour their land titles . . . (p. 6)
As she listens, Echo travels into another time and place and finds herself on a farm in the Red River Settlement in October, 1869. Suddenly, a young Métis man, Benjamin, charges out of a nearby barn and stops long enough to introduce himself and to offer Echo a ride on his horse. The two set off, stopping close enough to observe a confrontation between a Canadian government survey party and a group of Métis being led by Louis Riel. Major Webb is adamant that “the Hudson’s Bay Company owned this land and everything on it. They sold it to Canada.” But Riel and his men, whose families have lived on the land for generations, are equally firm: “Red River doesn’t belong to Canada yet. And the HBC doesn’t own us.” (p. 12) The air is charged with anger, and while Riel insists that he and his men want no violence, they also want the surveyors to leave. Surprisingly, the surveyors pack up their survey links and move on. Riel and his men appear to be pleased with the outcome, but Benjamin is not so optimistic. When Echo asks if the surveyors will stop, he replies, “No, I think they are just starting.” (p. 13)
Back at Winnipeg Middle School, Echo is making a tentative start at fitting in. She’s still eating her lunch in the halls when a fellow student, Micah Fontaine, reaches out to her and extends an invitation. When she wanders into a meeting of the Indigenous Student Leadership group, she’s persuaded to help with their upcoming bake sale. Returning home, she plugs into her playlist (entitled Mom’s Old CDs) and falls asleep, once again finding herself in Red River. More than a month has passed since her last visit, and the Métis have plans to form a provisional government and to negotiate with the Canadian government for their rights so that they will “not just be sold like cattle by the Hudson’s Bay Company.” (p. 17) It sounds promising, but there’s been another confrontation. At the U. S. - Canada border, a group of Métis has prevented William McDougall, the Lieutenant Governor appointed by the Prime Minister, from entering the territory until terms are negotiated between the Métis and the Canadian government. Dr. John Schultz, leader of the Canada First movement (a right-wing political movement hostile to the Métis and the French), along with his followers, is captured by Riel and his men and is being held at Fort Garry. However, Schultz and his associate, Charles Mair, escape. At first, they plan an uprising against Riel but ultimately decamp to Ontario. By the end of December, 1869, Louis Riel has been elected President of the Provisional Government, and Donald Smith, well-known as a major investor in the Canadian railroad, is sent by Sir John A. Macdonald to attempt to get the Provisional Government onside with the Canadian government.
Despite Riel’s hope that there would be no violence, there have been killings on both sides. One of the Canada First supporters, Thomas Scott, has had an ongoing history of threatening and abusive behaviour, including leading a mob which fatally beat a Métis named Norbert Parisien. Brought before the court of the Provisional Government, he is sentenced to execution by firing squad on March 4, 1870. Scott’s death unleashes a torrent of anti-French, anti-Catholic sentiment. In an attempt to forestall more bloodshed, the Canadian government sends Bishop Taché, Archbishop of Saint Boniface, to invite members of the Provisional Government to negotiate terms. A key point requested by Riel and his party is that those members of the Provisional Government involved in Scott’s execution be granted amnesty. On May 12, 1870, the former Red River Colony becomes Canada’s fifth province through the passage of The Manitoba Act, based on the final List of Rights drawn up by Riel and his party. The promise of amnesty is withdrawn.
As Echo’s history teacher recounts the events which follow from the arrival of government troops led by Colonel Garnet Wolseley, sent by Macdonald to effect the transfer of power from the Provisional Government to Canada, Echo returns to the autumn of 1870. Benjamin tells her that “the army got here. They have been relentless! They’ve killed people, mon amie! They terrorize everyone, especially anyone who supported the Provisional Government. . . . Riel has fled for his life. Ontario has put a price on his head. No one feels safe here anymore. We will seek refuge farther west.” (p. 43) With that, Benjamin bids Echo goodbye and joins his countrymen as they head west to the area which would ultimately become the province of Saskatchewan. The final frame of the story shows Echo distraught, tears streaming down her face, both at the sadness of her people’s history and the loss of a friend. In Pemmican Wars, Echo stated that she wanted to learn more about what it was to be Métis, and in Red River Resistancethat lesson has been a difficult one.
As the second volume of the series, Red River Resistance maintains much of the story structure established in Pemmican Wars, and, although it helps to have read Pemmican Wars, this book can stand on its own due to its focus on the events of the Red River Resistance. There are two levels of narrative: Echo’s personal story, set in the present, and the story of her ongoing search to understand her Métis heritage, told in historical events in which she observes the struggles between the Métis and the many economic, social and political forces which are supported by Canada’s federal government. Echo speaks little, having the role of observer rather than participant. Most of the dialogue in this novel is found in scenes set in the past, or when Echo’s teacher recounts the history which she has witnessed. As in Pemmican Wars, Robertson’s drawings and Yaciuk’s colourations illuminate both levels of storytelling and truly bring history to life through intensely coloured and powerfully drawn graphics. Life at Winnipeg Middle School is still difficult for Echo, but it’s getting a bit better, and the scenes in the History class show that the story of Métis struggle captures her attention, even if her fellow students are asleep, passing notes, or resolutely disengaged.
The story of the Red River Resistance is very much a part of the history of Canada’s prairie provinces, especially Manitoba. It’s noteworthy that this story is called the Red River Resistance. As a high school student (admittedly, in the last century), I recall being taught about the Red River Rebellion which casts the event in a very different light. As with Pemmican Wars, by telling the story through the perspectives of the Métis, Louis Riel is seen, not as a defiant traitor to the authority of the Canadian government, but as a hopeful and statesmanlike leader seeking a peaceful path to the preservation of Métis rights to the land on which they had lived and farmed for generations.
At the end of the book, there is a “Timeline of the Red River Resistance”, listing dates, events, and the outcome of the Resistance for the Métis. The contents of the Métis List of Rights, which formed the basis of the Manitoba Act of 1870, are also provided, and a map of the Red River Settlement will be of particular interest to those readers who live in many of the Manitoba communities which originated as parishes along both the Assiniboine and Red Rivers.
Although the front cover of Red River Resistance is dominated by a portrait of Echo, this book was less about Echo and more about the people and events of the Red River Resistance. There are fewer scenes at school and at home than in Pemmican Wars, and readers still don’t know what has led to Echo’s separation from the mother she misses so much. As with Pemmican Wars, Red River Resistance ends with “to be continued”. Perhaps the next volume will provide more of Echo’s current personal history as she continues her individual search for Métis identity. The intended audience for Red River Resistance is ages14-17, an age group which would be studying the Red River Resistance as part of the Canadian history curriculum. As a teacher-librarian, I was very familiar with the history of the Red River Resistance, but readers unfamiliar with the event might have some difficulty knowing the location of the events and keeping track of them as they unfold in the book. As a lifelong resident of Winnipeg, I easily recognized such landmarks as Lower Fort Garry, Upper Fort Garry, and areas such as “Kildonan”. Names such as “Taché, Lepine, and Ritchot” are now commemorated by street names in the St. Boniface area on the east bank of the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
Although Echo is a fictional character, I think that the historical content of Red River Resistance offers a valuable perspective on a critical event in western Canadian history. Teachers of Social Studies and Canadian History will find it a worthwhile supplemental resource, and adolescent readers who connected with Echo in Pemmican Wars will be interested to see how she is faring at Winnipeg Middle School.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 Territory.