This book is a quick read, and keeping track of the action might take a bit of effort if your not familiar with the events it relates to. There are also problems of representation which undermine the book as a piece of scholarly history. But with some of these problems in mind, Gabriel Dumont Speaks is still a valuable volume for anyone interested in this under appreciated figure from Canadian history.
Gabriel Dumont Speaks is a labour of love for the author, and not a scholarly translation of Dumont’s 1902/3 memoirs. I enjoyed the introductory section where the author relates how he came to write the book. Especially interesting was learning about the history of Dumont’s second, unpublished, reminicense of the events leading up to and including the Northwest Resistance, or 2nd Metis War. The book is distinct from the received history of Dumont, which is based on a transcription (and consequent polemic) made of Dumont’s speeches in Quebec during the years following the war. This first reminiscence was solicited by Quebec Liberals who wished to appropriate the conflict with the Metis for their own political purposes.
As the decades wore on this same account, which had been vetted by Dumont at the time of its writing in 1889, was translated and presented by G.E.G. Stanley in the 1949 edition of the Canadian Historical Review. (I believe this should be G.F.G Stanley, the noted Canadian historian whose work tends to form the basis for received history on the Canadian West, and, incidentally, is also is responsible for the design of the current Canadian Flag). According to Barnholden, from this point on it became the go to reference for “almost every Anglophone work” on the topic.
Gabriel Dumont Speaks, however, is not based on that 1889 transcription of Dumonts political speeches in Quebec. Rather, it is based upon two other reminiscences, this time dictated in 1902 or 1903 to a small gathering, and transcribed by a representative of L’Union nationale métisse de Saint- Joseph. These two reminiscences, received instead by Barnholden after having ordered a duplication of the 1889 reminicense from the national archives, are what has been presented Gabriel Dumont Speaks.
While on the cover Michael Barnholden is credited as translator, his involvement with the work goes further. He seeks to “re-create the voice of Gabriel Dumont.” The author notes that the original is written in a “torturous French” which he contextualizes well in helping us understand the problems of translation. It is likely that much has been lost, if not in the act of translation, then likely in the act of transcription. The description of the linguistic challenges are fascinating; however, given the choices made by M.B. in handling the translation, I believe it appropriate to call him author, as well as translator. Mainly for two reasons.
The first is his decision to shift the narrative voice of the transcription. The originals were rendered in the third person. The linguistic challenges M.B. describes and the fact that it is transcription, means that the document is open to interpretation. But he has made a conscious decision to render his translation into the first person. His reasons are political as well as stylistic.
I have a quibble. He asserts that he made the decision to “restore” the manuscript to the first person voice. While his assumption that Dumont delivered his talk in the first person, and that the transcriber chose the third person is reasonable, it is disingenuous to claim that he is “restoring” anything. More accurately he is imposing something. It is certainly a stylistic choice made out of a political priority, ie. to “make him [Dumont] the author of his own story,” and to “restore him to his political and intellectual standing” for English speaking Canadians.
The second reason I think they should redesign the cover is that the 1902/3 reminicense has now been given a scholarly treatment, and translation. Gabriel Dumont: Memoires was published in 2006, over 10 years after the release of the 1st edition of Gabriel Dumont Speaks. The production of the scholarly translation doesn’t diminish Gabriel Dumont Speaks, quite the opposite, as Barnholden incorporated the work of the academics into a revised 2nd edition. By doing so he liberates his work to allow it to be the surrogate voice of Dumont that he intends.
My final concern with the work is tied to the last. While I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in accessing the history of western Canada from an alternate point of view, I am cautious because the author seems at times to be in step with the contemporary academic perspective of ‘Metissage.’ This ideologically motivated conceptualization asserts that, as a “hybrid culture” (ie. of both First Nation and European cultures) the Metis represent a core feature of Canadian “distinctness.” It is a concept advanced by John Ralston Saul in his 2009 book (which I have not read) A Fair Country. A Globe and Mail review of the book which I turned to in a desperate attempt to find a succinct characterization of the concept) puts it this way, “the country’s distinct nature, [is] born of this land, and the integration, not just interaction, of settler and aboriginal life.”
I won’t go into a criticism of this argument, or the problematic nature of identifying (and for that matter even intending to identify) a distinctly “Canadian” identity. Leave it to say I believe it a foolish endeavor doomed to fail. I also won’t say the author explicitly supports the idealistic and ahistorical perspective advanced by John Ralston Saul, but reading in between the lines in places I feel as though he reflects the contemporary identity crisis of many Anglo Canadians and others of European descent who are desperate to try and find a way out from under our Colonialist (ahem, Capitalist) history and its present manifestation. (More appropriately in a western Canadian context, its not colonialism, its imperialism- again, me dickering over words…)
All in all, I have enjoyed this book so much I’ve read it twice. Both the 1st and the 2nd editions. Do yourself a favour and pick up the 2nd edition, its been more completely informed by the inclusion of academic historical work. Its full of previously ignored historical perspective, and depicts, based on the words of Dumont himself, the shape and flavour of the lives of Metis and others in the Northwest. Full of drama, the horrible and confusing swirl of events created by war, the story also has some genuinely funny moments.
The author provides a service with this book. While the history is not academic, that’s not a bad thing. Instead, as a work that’s undergone some popularization what we get is a book that presents Gabriel Dumont as more than just a military leader, or Riel’s right hand man. He is given a voice, and while it may not be his own, it is close enough that we begin to understand him in more than just 2 dimensions.
A very useful book to cross reference with is Walter Hildebrandt’s book The Battle of Batoche. British Small Warfare and the Entrenched Metis.
And another fascinating in the Canadian Military Journal by Robert Falcon- Ouellette, Academic and veteran of the Canadian Military, printed in the Canadian Military Journal, The Second Métis War of 1885: A Case Study of Non-Commissioned Member Training and the Intermediate Leadership Program
And if your looking for a criticism of the concept of “Metissage” I’d start with this article, The mythology of Métissage: Settler moves to innocence
If you like academic articles, this one from the University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies looks informative. The Métis-ization of Canada: The Process of Claiming Louis Riel, Métissage, and the Métis People as Canada’s Mythical Origin