A Métis Night at the Opera: Louis Riel, Cultural Ownership, and Making Canada Métis

Riel Set

Taking my seat at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, home of the Canadian Opera Company (COC) to watch the debut of Louis Riel, I snap a photo with my camera. (above). Immediately and out of nowhere an usher appears to inform me that I can’t take photos inside the hall, because the set design is copyrighted. I’m surprised by this, as the image used is clearly derived from a public domain photo of Riel, something that Métis rightfully regard as part of our historical legacy.

In truth though, I’m more annoyed that five minutes before this a number of Nisga’a—represented by the Git Hayetsk and Kwhlii Gibaygum Dancers—had presented to opera-goers on the theft of one of their songs by the opera’s composer, a lament song from the House of Sgat’iin. After contacting the COC, they had worked to educate the audience and the COC on how the composer took one of their sacred songs, without permission or prior knowledge, using Cree words in place of theirs and renamed the Kuyas Aria (read their critique in the opera’s program here).

The irony, of course, was that while the opera appropriated Indigenous songs and stories, my photo for Instagram was somehow violating the intellectual property of one of the many non-Native people who had decided to remix Indigenous culture, history, and imagery for non-Indigenous consumption. It reinforced the tightly held colonial notion that everything that once belong to us now belongs to “everyone,” and that in the name of art all is open to appropriation—and eventual ownership—by Canadians.

My theatrical faux pas is a microcosm of the larger issue with this production—indeed any creative work focused on Riel or one of his contemporaries—the seeming disregard of cultural ownership and societal integrity of Indigenous peoples. The appropriation of a Métis political epic to tell a story about Canada to Canadians or the use of a Nisga’a lamentation song as a culturally unsuitable lullaby used to foreshadow Riel’s death is really all part of the same process: songs and stories, removed from their original context, tell affirming stories about Canada without regard for Indigenous investments in our own histories.

The story of Riel and his “rebellions” have been repeatedly used to reimagine—and ultimately sanitize—the story of Canada’s origins. In fact the overwhelming majority of writing on Riel is by non-Indigenous authors. We should really be asking, who’s really in control of his story? To whom does Riel’s story ultimately belong? Who “owns” Riel? And who is best suited to tell the definitive story of his life? It should be Métis, but outside of our communities that’s rarely the case. Ultimately, the opera as well as countless written works on Riel, like the Nisga’a lament song at the opera’s emotional peak, is treated as a story without an owner, available for use by Canadians for their own purposes.

The opera itself is a product of its times—the Canadian Centennial of 1967. Peter Hinton, the director of this production has mentioned numerous times that he believes it to be an artifact of its time. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the 1960s story about Louis Riel. It’s a classic tragedy of a man who struggles with both internal and external demons, and while these are initially under his control, in true operatic style, they inevitably unravel destroying all that he cares about, making him witness to all possible indignities before his final death.

The melodrama of the story is powerful and as many will remind me after reading this, opera is not where you go for history. But as a work that has been repeatedly mounted at key nation-building moments for Canada, it’s definitely politicized and nonetheless serves an educational role for Canadians. It’s no mistake that it has been shown for Canada’s centennial in 1967, Vancouver’s Olympics in 2010, and now in 2017 to commemorate Canada’s 150th year since Confederation.

Riel, for those who don’t know him, is a key nation builder for the Métis people, he is part of an important national tradition for us that usually involves resisting outsiders—the Hudson’s Bay Company, Britain, Canada—who would claim our lands and govern us. Riel led two armed movements against Canadian imperialism, one successful and one less so. The first led to the creation of the new Province of Manitoba in 1870, a development that was intended to facilitate the Métis Nation’s entrance into Confederation, a process undermined by British and Canadian soldiers. In 1885 he led a second agitation, after being fired upon by the North-West Mounted Police at Duck Lake, it led to the mobilization of Canada’s army and the sacking of a Métis community at Batoche. Riel was hung as a traitor by Canadian authorities that same year.

 

Riel Mythmaking in the Radical Sixties

The Riel of the opera, however, is not the Riel of his political writings, gone is the general Métis movement that elevated him, to the point that Louis probably wouldn’t recognize himself or his people in this work. Something central to Métis stories of Riel, of course, is his indigeneity, a fact which at times seems incidental to the operatic medium, but at other times is highlighted, particularly as the current production of the opera works to be more attune with the expectations of Indigenous people in 2017.

In the 1960s, the period in which Louis Riel was written, the mythmaking of Louis Riel was undergoing a radical change. In English Canada he transitioned from an insane pariah leading the semi-civilized half-breeds in their attempt to break up Canada, to a relatable cultural hero that stood for all the best progressive values that Canada supposedly holds dear—multiculturalism, bilingualism, an equal place for the West in Confederation. That Canada executed him while expropriating Métis lands was rarely considered deeply enough to be thought ironic as he was remade into a Canadian hero, because being critical Canada’s treatment of Indigenous nations was never the purpose of this mythmaking.

Riel’s reinvention as a Canadian icon does not prioritize political justice for the Métis Nation or other Indigenous peoples, but instead a more palatable story about the development of progressive Canadian values, which were changing dramatically during 1960s. Emerging from its sleepy loyalist-inspired toryism, the 60s ushered in an era of new progressive values, of which multiculturalism was of central significance. Riel emerged as the new mythic repository of these multicultural values at the same time that multicultural values were being lauded as central to this new Canada. And what better representative of multicultural cosmopolitanism than a mixed-race Indigenous, educated in the European classics, even if some of the stuff about Indigenous independence needed to be downplayed a little.

 

An Operatic Riel Becomes a Canadian Hero, the Natives are Silent

The opera portrays Riel as a tortured soul, identifiable to many Canadians whose new value system was incompatible to the power and out-of-touch world around them, a story which resonates as much today as it did in 1967. Riel is the leader of a cause ahead of its time, wrestling with powerful conservative forces in Eastern Canada, he envisions a new society that will transform the old—that this society would be Métis seems to be lost in much of the mythmaking—but the struggle is relatable, as the Riel of 2017 battles the scotch-drinking 1% in their board rooms sitting high above the rest of us.

These conservative power brokers are represented by a scheming Sir John A. Macdonald, who is a kind of mash-up of Don Cherry and Donald Trump. Wearing a loud, red, Cherry-style plaid suit, Macdonald struts around as an overconfident boorish man, talking over his ally Georges Cartier (in a similarly-styled blue plaid suit), talking down to Donald Smith in a HBC blanket themed suit, and an easily fooled Archbishop Taché, (who replaces Abbé Ricthot as the primary priestly ally for the Métis). These four men repeatedly meet debating matters, and as the opera unfolds it becomes apparent that they are the real political actors, the real forces of history, not the titular Riel. Riel is left  to react. His destiny is to lose nobly to these deplorable men, but in doing so will one day give life to a better, more cosmopolitan Canada.

The Métis in the opera are comparatively silent. Indeed, outside of the Riel family—Louis, his sister Sarah and mother Julie—few Métis speak. The Métis in the opera are uncharacteristically silent, much different from actual Métis politics, as anyone who has been to an annual general assembly will tell you. Riel’s lieutenants, Ambroise Lepine and Gabriel Dumont get some dialogue, but it’s mostly incidental. Métis have some stage presence when they occasionally emerge out of the background and cease to be living props for a moment.

Indeed, in the third act, when Riel interrupts a sermon at the Batoche chapel, warning his silent people of the approach of Canadian troops. They quickly announce Riel as a prophet, without any discussion, before promptly leaving the stage. At this church meeting many Métis spoke, and as Métis do, took a long time to reach a consensus to take up arms. Métis were the authors of their own actions, they made decisions through extensive discussion, a reality at odds with the opera’s portrayal of us. Maybe it’s because there are already so many characters in the production, that even someone with a fairly deep understanding of events could have trouble keeping track, but the opera kept most of the white political figures and their dialogue, a decision ultimately made at the expense of Indigenous voice.

The current production attempts to overcome the lack of Indigenous presence and voice, succeeding in increased presence of Indigenous bodies, but ultimately failing to address the more major issue of Indigenous voice and agency. To ensure Indigenous presence, the COC added a “Land Assembly” for the 2017 production, comprised exclusively of Indigenous actors who are physically present in almost every scene. They are there, as the director Peter Hinton suggests, to keep silent witness of the unfolding plot.

The physical presence is in many ways stunning, but with one exception, are silent throughout. This of course is consistent with convention, as the musical components of the opera are rarely changed. While the performance of the Land Assembly is itself powerful and the actors themselves project an immense physical presence on the stage, the decision to keep Indigenous people—yet again—silent in almost all regards as white people trample over top of them, does little to change the underlying narrative of this work.

Contrasted to the silent Land Assembly, is a loud Parliamentary Chorus, a group of Canadians that spends much of the performance seated above the Land Assembly and Métis—but never lording over Macdonald & Co. for their backroom dealings. They  a voice, a very loud one, and as a chorus that represents the power to drown out the Métis, which they do at key moments. This is particularly important at Riel’s trial when he both literally and figuratively tries to be heard but is drowned out. The power to speak and be heard is clearly delineated in the opera, and tends to reproduce the tropes of Indigenous people too often used: as noble, voiceless, romantic.

While I get the artistic intent behind the discrepancy of voice in the production—that one party has it and the other does not—it’s historically inaccurate for that period. Métis spoke loud and often, as did other Indigenous peoples. Treaty negotiations in the 1870s and 1880s took days, sometimes it took days even for a decision to be made to sit down together. Indigenous peoples had political voices and they were heard, because until 1885 when the North-West was swarming with Canadians in red coats, what other option did British officials have? Indigenous peoples remained in firm control of their territories for the period that the opera covers, except at the end.

The way Indigenous silence is portrayed in this work only succeeds to projecting a voicelessness backwards in time to re-imagine a weakened Indigenous landscape on the prairies, that existed only after Riel’s execution in 1885, not before. Even with the COC’s attempts to remedy some of the issue with Indigenous voice, the limitations again represent Indigenous people as silent and stoic as Canada rolls over us, ironically in an opera about an Indigenous leader who resists.

 

Canada Inherits the West through Riel’s Martyrdom

This opera turns Riel into a kind of Canadian version of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” a noble Indigenous figure who from US mythology, who, before receding into the mists of history, selflessly turns over all Indigenous lands, culture, politics, and stories to the Americans. Emerging from the imagination of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1855 as a new epic of American nation-building, “The Song of Hiawatha,” is the fictional story of an old Indian travelling west, a symbolic journey that like the setting of the sun, symbolizes his—and ultimately his people’s—disappearance from history. But before he goes, he sits down with some strangers—Americans—to tell them a story about his lands, his culture, and his life. (This mythic Hiawatha of course, should not be confused with the actual Hiawatha who was instrumental in founding the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and predates Longfellow by centuries).

Having shared this vital knowledge, he then bequeaths his entire world to these newcomers, who have the vigour and vitality to make a go at it, assuming that his own people are destine to follow him one day. And with this gift, Hiawatha bequeaths the continent to this new American people, now indigenized to the soil. The Song of Hiawatha is an indigenization fantasy, a tale for settlers by settlers that allows them to imagine themselves in possession of a continent that was “given to them,” disguising the fact that much of it was taken.

Riel, like Hiawatha, is a doomed figure. While Riel has less choice in his great walk west, he is nonetheless seen as making the same bequest to Canada that Hiawatha made to Americans—at the moment of his death Canadians with inherit Indigenous lands, culture, and, in particular a set of multicultural values. Like Hiawatha, his national specificity is erased, and all Indigenous possessions are turned over, even that which never belonged to him, (like a Nisga’a lament). Riel is the vessel through which this great transference occurs and it is clear that this is not a story of a Métis martyr, but rather a Canadian one.

Riel is the classical tragic hero, he’s identifiable, sympathetic, but also doomed to fail for reasons out of his control. Few people go in the opera house not knowing of Riel’s fate, much like nobody watches Julius Caesar without knowing his. It’s clear that the audience is meant to identify with Riel, and not their actual countrymen. The 19th century Ontario public is depicted as riotous Organemen denouncing Riel and singing a song alluding to his lynching.

Contrasted to Riel’s sympathetic character, are the largely unrelatable nation-builders of Canada, Macdonald and Cartier, whose policies and vision had a much greater influence on modern Canada than any mythmaking about Riel ever could. Nobody in the opera house is cheering for Sir John A. He is scheming, duplicitous, sometimes drunk, and always sinister. Cartier, a maybe-ally to Métis in 1870 is uncharacteristically silent, allowing Macdonald to talk over him, or to be reassured of things he knows are false. In fact, the only identifiable Canadian in the opera is a fictional soldier who rushes in to Fort Garry to warn Riel that there are others coming to run him up the flagpole. But that didn’t actually happen, it was Métis scouts that warned their people of the impending occupation.

Perhaps the audience’s identification with Riel is why most Indigenous characters are silent, because if Indigenous characters were to more clearly articulate their political programs of ongoing Indigenous independence in their homelands, that their relatability to this mostly non-Indigenous audience would evaporate. Perhaps they are silent because the audience, in the act of identifying with the Métis, are in essence taking their place, they are voiceless because the audience fills the void with their internal monologue.

In some ways, the work is an indictment of Canada, at least a certain version of Canada. In no place is this more evident than in the third act, as Riel’s sham of a trial rams through a guilty verdict. The Parliamentary Chorus, joined by General Middleton and the judge, shout condemnations from their benches to Riel below. The trial is stacked with false witnesses, mistranslations, all of which ensure his demise. It is a travesty of justice, to be certain, but it invites Canadians to reject it, along with their founding prime minister, who greedily condemns his “greatest adversary” to hang.

It is at this fever pitch, that Canadians are invited to see this old justice from outside their current Canadian identity, and adopt a new one. In identifying with romantic Métis resistance, in identifying with Riel’s struggle, and most importantly his progressive values as old conservative men try to snuff them out. In this moment Riel has become, as many scholars have unironically argued, “the quintessential Canadian” and at the opera, Canadians are invited to be Riel, to be Métis.

But, Albert Braz notes, “If Riel becomes a Canadian patriot by opposing the federal government, what is the national status of the volunteers who battled him on behalf of that government—traitors? Indeed, it is probably not an accident that the 1885 volunteers have vanished from the consciousness of Canadians.” Indeed, this opera invites its audience to exorcise the inconvenient spectre of Canadian anti-indigenous violence and instead embrace new values, inspired by the martyrdom of Riel.

As Riel is strung up and sings his last, the opera ends awkwardly. The crowd erupts, applauding his death, the final action before the curtain drops. I found this moment incredibly uncomfortable, as this is certainly a tragic day for the Métis, indeed we mark the occasion on its anniversary every year. But in its tragedy, the applause symbolizes the joyous Canadian overcoming as his martyrdom symbolizes a realization of Riel’s supposed vision for Canada. In his death he becomes a hero and delivers a powerful message to the Canadian people, ushering in an era of new values, a better Canada.

As he falls through the gallows trap-door, Canadians are offered their inheritance through their identification with him. They bear witness to his injustice. They become in essence Métis: Indigenous to the land, inheritors of our culture, but also all other ones too. Canadian society can now be recognized as a métissage, a mixture of many people that have come together for form a single nation—supposedly just like the Métis Nation, as if this new Canada is best represented as métissage, a society of mixture. Indeed, this was a common theme among many opera goers afterwards.

It is clear from the outset that this story is not aimed at an Indigenous audience; the opera crowd isn’t really an Indigenous crowd. But this isn’t really a Métis story either. It’s a Canadian one. It’s tells us of how Canada inherited its cultural essence from Riel and his people, it is a love of peace, and it is an inheritance of values and meaning from here—not from elsewhere like Canada’s old world cultural influence. Riel is how Canada comes to recognize itself as if its from here. Just like Hiawatha’s supposed gift to Americans.

The biggest irony of the mythmaking of Louis Riel is that the opera flies in the face of what Riel actually fought for: an on-going and independent Métis nation. He wanted his people to be respected as a political entity that would continue to live freely either inside of Canada (with a new province of Manitoba that never materialized for us) or as part of an independent Indigenous confederacy when Canada proved unwilling to respect Indigenous sovereignty.

True, Riel fought for official bilingualism is Manitoba, he envisioned multicultural immigration to the prairies, and he argued that the prairie provinces should have jurisdiction over Crown lands, but all of this he did in support of his primary and unending mission: the continuity of the Métis Nation as a nation. In this regard Riel is no different from any of his Indigenous contemporaries, everything they did was to secure a thriving future for their people in a time of dramatic changes.

Riel’s actual vision is spelled out rather clearly in his Last Memoir from October 1885, in which he insists that Métis sovereignty persists, despite Canada’s claims otherwise. The Dominion, he writes, “laid its hands on the land of the Métis as if it were its own” and with armed force “even took away their right to use it.” He declares that according to the law of nations, only consent can lead to one people governing another, arguing that “the Canadian Government cannot become trustee [of the Métis Nation] unless by the consent of the people. Because this consent had neither been asked nor given, the Council of the Métis … their Laws of the Prairie continued to be the true government and the true laws of that country, as they virtually still are today.”

If the opera ended with these words, it would of course be incompatible with its own mythmaking, it would not aspire to a new system of Canadian values, but old Indigenous ones that Canada has long refused to acknowledge. The opera does not ask the audience to fight to realize Riel’s vision, it asks them to adopt a thoroughly Canadianized vision of Riel. In true Hiawatha fashion, this fantasy of Riel turns the audience Indigenous—they are witness to the injustice of his death, but they now understand him, they are witness to his values—the values that truly make Canada what it is today.

 

Who owns Riel?

In this case, presumably Canadians do, just as they own his slightly-altered public domain image used for the opera’s set. Just like the opera’s composer presumes to own a Nisga’a lament song that he appropriated from an anthropological study. In essence, the opera assumes to have inherited these things, symbolically at least, but also on a legal level. Much as Canada presumes to have inherited Indigenous lands.

The opera then is part fantasy, part declaration of sovereignty. It’s a work that features silent Indigenous people and vocal Canadians, and at its finale Riel doesn’t really get the final word, even if he’s the last to sing. The real final word really goes to Macdonald, who as Riel’s world is crumbling proceeds to narrate the actual future of Canada, in this sense the opera allows Canada to have its cake and eat it too. It can benefit from the undeniable genocidal vision of Macdonald whose government sought to clear the West of the Indigenous polities who live here, but also inherit the values represented by Riel, if not his outright Indigeneity, and become Métis themselves.


I’d like to thank Dylan Robinson for all his insight on the opera and its history. I’m also grateful to the Git Hayetsk and Kwhlii Gibaygum Dancers for taking the time intervene and for sharing some of their knowledge with me.

 There were many provocative responses to the opera at the Hearing Riel symposium, and I would like to thank the organizers for allowing me to be there and reflect further on the opera.

As always, any shortcomings are my own.

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