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Behind the scenes of Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show

by Aurélie Lacassagne

As the discussion about reconciliation continues, we should, first and foremost, try to agree on the origins of the history of Confederation. That inappropriately named confederation isn’t rooted in the mythology produced and reproduced by the Canadian state, the French Canadian nation or Quebec nationalism. Rather, it was born at Batoche. Why does Batoche represent the true foundation of the history shared by all Canadians? Because all of our founding peoples—and there are more than two—were involved in that encounter: the French Canadians, the British, the Irish, various First Nations peoples, and the Métis. It’s a complex history, a history that has been erased from our collective memory and taken up residence in community memory. Each of the communities descended from the actors present at that pivotal historic moment has constructed its own memorial narrative of the event, a narrative that in most cases is firmly linked to a sense of identity. Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show proposes nothing less than a stage for confronting, peacefully if sometimes painfully, these various memories. This exercise in dialogue, in both the writing and the staging, is an invitation to launch a wide-ranging discussion a mari usque ad mare, to exchange memories in order to foster mutual understanding, and in turn, true reconciliation.

Articulating memories

Amid the many speeches, presentations, myths and other symbols trotted out and showcased in 2017 during the celebrations of Canada’s 150th anniversary, Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show stands out for its unique examination of the historic battles that took place during the Métis uprisings of 1870 to 1885. These uprisings represent not only the early years of Canadian Confederation, but above all, its social and political vision, its world view—in short, a certain zeitgeist that persists to this day.

Though all too often omitted from official historical documents and programs, the struggles of the Métis have enormous symbolic, historic and political significance, primarily because they were witnessed by all the peoples residing here at the time. In fact, you could say that Canada’s constitution was forged on the Western plains. The desire of the political and economic elite to open up the West could be fulfilled only by recruiting local populations (Nêhiyawak – Plains Cree, Nakota – Assiniboines, Nahkawininiwak – Saulteaux, Dënesuliné – Dene/Chipewyan, Dakotas and Lakotas [Sioux], Métis), and only a federation with a strong decision-making centre could sustain the energy required to implement such a project and raise the necessary funds. The military element was also a factor: the British feared an American invasion, a threat that could be magnified if the Western Indigenous peoples supported the Americans—another good reason to secure the loyalty of those “rebel” nations.

But there’s more. The Métis uprisings are important because they symbolize the complexity of the identities and memories woven into the contemporary Canadian psyche. At a time when reconciliation and atoning for the mistakes of the past are hot topics, we’re overlooking the key concept: reconciliation can be achieved only through a broad conversation that will bring closure to historic conflicts without imposing a unilateral national memory. Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show is the ideal vehicle to initiate that broad conversation.

There were many legendary battles during the Métis uprisings. The (dominant) Anglo-Canadian view considers these uprisings “rebellions,” and sees the Métis and Indigenous peoples as “terrorists.” The recent controversy about changing the name of the Langevin Block is a case in point. The Quebec nationalist movement appropriated Louis Riel (but not Dumont; not Catholic or Francophone enough, perhaps?) as a symbol of resistance to English oppression. The memory constructs of the Métis in Western Canada are complex, as are those of the region’s various First Nations (who thought long and hard about joining the Métis in battle) and of Franco-Manitobans and Franco-Saskatchewanians, long closely associated with the Métis.

In other words, the legendary battles were not just between communities, but within communities, particularly those that were dominated, oppressed and marginalized. They emphasized the many fault lines fracturing the country.

Batoche, Canada’s birthplace

Batoche is …

  • Kosovo Polje (1389), which shaped the founding myth of Serbia and Kosovo, and 600 years later, in 1989, witnessed the start of the unrest that would lead to the war in Yugoslavia.
  • Bannockburn (1314), which sealed Scotland’s independence and was followed in 1320 by the Declaration of Arbroath, a unique plea for human liberty that was endorsed by Scottish nobles and established the sovereignty of the Scottish nation.
  • Hastings (1066), which ushered in the Anglo-Norman era.
  • Crécy (1346) and Azincourt (1415), the latter immortalized by Shakespeare, which established the French nation.
  • Borodino (1812), which pulled together the Russian nation.

They make for a long list, the slaughters that, more than anything, laid the foundations of a national narrative and fostered the creation of a national pantheon where the dead are venerated, fallen in service of their country, and in whose shadow diligent students around the world grow up believing that the gateway to glory is death. In an ironic twist of fate, Robert Brasillach wrote in Les frères ennemis that “history is written by the victors,” but that doesn’t prevent the vanquished from turning their military defeats into anchor points for their national identity. To consider itself a nation, Canada must acknowledge that it all started at Batoche. Canada wasn’t born in Charlottetown, London or Ottawa; it was born at Batoche, where all the elements of the “Canadian nation” were represented. Hence, any national reconciliation must absolutely originate from that encampment on the South Saskatchewan River.

In defence of Gabriel Dumont, the Métis

Nations like homogeneity. The army, school, language (unique and authoritarian), Culture (with a capital C, instituted from on high)—these are the weapons nations use to homogenize peoples, like steamrollers crushing out differences. Nations like to consider themselves pure elements descended from a single root. They mistrust multiples and hybrids. Most of all, they fear contamination. Make no mistake: nations are not so much afraid of the Other—after all, the Other, the enemy, can be fought, we even need the Other in order to exist! As a mirror of ourselves. No, the greatest danger is less visible, more insidious; it lives within our own national territory: the bastard. And as Jean Marc Dalpé has pointed out, “in our Western culture, bastards get a bad rap.” Métis people are neither Scottish, nor English, nor French, nor Cree, nor Assiniboine, nor Dene, nor Ojibway; they are a merry blend of all those things. And that’s why they are viewed as Other: despised, denied, rejected.

To quote Dalpé, “The Métis, hybrids, bastards live in a kind of border zone in a vague, ill-defined, shifting, tainted no man’s land … In other words: Since we’re out, we’re fucked.”[1]

This play is an ode to Gabriel Dumont, an invitation to embrace bastardization! As such, it is part of a universal trend in contemporary history, which over the past few decades has seen the hybrids, the creoles, the bastards of the world emerge from the abyss, shouting and singing their poetic cries, insisting that they exist, that from now on they are to be counted in rather than counted on. This is what the great Caribbean creolization theorist Édouard Glissant calls the chaos-monde, this imperative to acknowledge multilinguicity, creolization, decentralization, the Relations between peoples that constitute the tout-monde, or the world in its entirety. In the tremendous (and ironic) global upheaval, the major urban centres (London, Paris, New York, Toronto, Montreal) no longer dominate, or if they do, it is largely because of the influence of the creativity of Others, come from elsewhere: the old World is becoming peripheral, and the attention of today’s young creators is focused on emerging centres such as Dakar, Kingston (Jamaica), Mumbai and São Paolo.

Gabriel Dumont: grandson of Josette (a Sarcee) and Jean-Baptiste (a French Canadian fluent in six languages); more comfortable with a bow and arrow than a crucifix, astride a horse than kneeling in church; married to Madeleine (of Scottish, Chippewa, French Canadian and Assiniboine descent). Gabriel Dumont, largely forgotten by history, which retained only Louis Riel (who, unlike Dumont, was a culturally assimilated Métis and a devout Catholic). Restoring Gabriel Dumont to his rightful place as a key player in the Métis resistance by fulfilling his crazy dream of putting on a Wild West Show to tell the story of his people, of our peoples, our shared story. It’s not just about vindicating the person, but proposing a new vision of the world where mixed-bloods are recognized and creolization is a desirable aesthetic.

A theatre of emancipation

Fundamentally, because it’s written collectively by multiple authors representing all those nations and peoples, Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show promotes a dialogue among all those different memories. It’s a chorus in which every voice is heard and expressed, every individual statement invites a collective response.

And that is a masterful political gesture that is part of a tradition of theatre that is engaged, that contributes to the community, to its dialogues and to emancipation. It reaffirms the potential of politics to change the world, as Bertolt Brecht maintained. You could even say that the project is aligned with Eugenio Barba’s notion of a Third Theatre, that is, a theatre characterized by “the autonomous construction of meaning that disregards the restrictions imposed on the performing arts by the prevailing society and culture”; a theatre that invites artists from different backgrounds and disciplines to connect and exchange through performance, in a kind of “barter.” In other words, Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show is a site for negotiating, for renegotiating identities and cultures. These exchanges are by no means effortless, but the collective writing approach clearly works: as Jean Marc Dalpé noted, “Around the table, people defend agendas but are not precious about it.”

This play may very well be one of the first authentic post-colonial creations in Canadian theatre! It is essentially a vehicle for exchange, that indispensable element of post-colonial theatre, as Howard McNaughton would attest.

Further reading:

  • Eugenio Barba, “Tiers Théâtre : l’héritage de nous à nous-mêmes,” translated by Éliane Deschamps-Pria, Jeu, no 70, 1994, p. 43–53.
  • Jean Marc Dalpé, Il n’y a que l’amour, Prise de parole, 2011 [1999].
  • Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation : Poétique III, Gallimard, 1990.
  • Howard McNaughton, “Negotiating Marae Performance,” Theatre Research International, vol. 26, no 1, 2001, p. 25–34.

AURÉLIE LACASSAGNE is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Laurentian University in Sudbury. She is a theorist by training, and her areas of research include cultural policy, cultural studies, and issues of identity. She is particularly interested in creolization in the arts.

 


[1]. Statements (translated) by Jean Marc Dalpé are from a lecture he gave on November 8, 1996, at the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface during the Canada: Horizons 2000 symposium. The lecture was published (as “Culture et identité canadienne”) in his anthology Il n’y a que l’amour (Prise de parole, coll. BCF, 2011 [1999], p. 247–258).

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