Poetry Review by Monica Kidd

Dilys Leman, The Winter Count (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s, 2014). Paperbound, 134 pp., $16.95.

If you are like me, the name Louis Riel strikes a note of guilt—not for any of my The Winter Countancestors’ wrongdoings, though they were some of the Anglo-Protestant homesteaders whose expansion west Riel fought, but for my unbecoming ignorance, in spite of the best efforts of the 1980s Alberta grade-six social studies curriculum, of just who Riel was. And so, when a copy of The Winter Count, Toronto poet Dilys Leman’s examination of the 1885 Métis insurgence, crossed my desk, I was happy to have the opportunity to revisit Riel and the role he played in nineteenth-century prairie life. Riel, the online Canadian Encyclopedia reminds me, was born in Saint-Boniface, Red River, in 1844. As a teen he studied in Quebec, eventually spending time in the seminary. While still in his twenties, he became president of the Métis National Committee, which served as government for the Red River Settlement after seizing property from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Those efforts earned him a reputation as a rebel among the Anglo-Protestants of Ontario, whereas the Roman Catholics of Quebec regarded him as a hero. He soon left for the United States where he married and settled down as a teacher.

But, in 1884, Riel was summoned back to the Northwest Territories (everything west of Rupert’s Land at the time that was not British Columbia, not the NWT of today) by Métis in the Saskatchewan River valley who, in the face of Canadian colonialism, were growing increasingly concerned about their land rights. Riel travelled to Batoche where he helped draft the Métis “Revolutionary Bill of Rights.” The federal government sent 500 troops in response to the petition, and a two-month battle ensued, ending with Riel’s surrender. He was subsequently charged with treason, which carried the penalty of death by hanging.

Riel’s lawyers in Regina, backed by supporters in Quebec, chose a defense of insanity. In the latter part of the 1870s, Riel had suffered a “nervous breakdown” and was admitted against his will to psychiatric institutions in Montreal and Beauport, Quebec. A successful insanity defense would mean Riel could not be held criminally responsible for his actions, but Riel felt it would also delegitimize his rights-based battle with the Canadian government. On November 15, 1885, the jury found in favour of the Crown—and of Riel’s sanity—and he was hanged.

In part, it was Riel’s own words to the jury that convinced them of the soundness of his mind. But it was also the medical testimony of Dr. Augustus Jukes. Jukes, a physician for more than thirty years in St. Catharines, Ontario, was appointed senior surgeon to the Northwest Mounted Police and was stationed at Regina in 1882, which is where we enter Leman’s collection. Leman, a teacher, writer, editor, director, and arts entrepreneur, is also Jukes’ great-great-granddaughter. She explains in the book that the poems are narrated by Jukes, his wife and daughter, Chiefs Big Bear, Poundmaker, and One Arrow, and a cast of Dominion politicians and bureaucrats. Poems are both original and found, with lines borrowed from a vertiginous number of historical documents including police and government reports, treaties, transcripts, and family fonds housed in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. The Winter Count includes photos and illustrations, and as such, acts as a kind of history itself.

I was intrigued when I learned of the poet’s connection to the material. I expected Leman to inhabit her great-great-grandfather, interpreting his observations of nineteenth-century life in the Saskatchewan River valley—especially his time with Louis Riel—for a brand new telling of an old story. I had recently read Susan Downe’s muscular Juanita Wildrose: My True Life (Pedlar Press, 2013) and was captivated by the depth Downe achieved in portraying her mother. Leman’s collection aspires to that depth. It offers snapshots of commoners such as Jukes and his family, plus anonymous police officers and labourers, alongside major historical figures such as Riel and Chief Big Bear, situating the story’s centre of gravity closer to the ground than perhaps previous, official accounts have. There is also a food/appetite/double-double-toil-and-trouble motif running throughout—recipes for cakes to be eaten in polite company, for “Indian candy,” as well as for a highly disturbing pot-luck surprise that instructs on how to stir 300 Assiniboine into a drunken batter and bake in the oven until dead, using a “clean, sharp knife” to “test for survivors.” These food images domesticate the story in an unexpected way.

But while the many voices democratize the narrative, I was left sidelined by the polyphony—it frustrated my hope of hearing the sustained voice of Dr. Jukes. Perhaps that was a deliberate choice on the part of the poet, copping the colonial stiff upper lip of her primary sources. Leman’s poetic reimagining of 1885 represents a mammoth effort. It asked of me questions I was compelled to answer, and I am better for it. But Jukes was a world-weary man possessed of disarming insight—“Yes, it is so. You may converse with a man // continually and not be aware of his insanity”; (“Testimony: Riel’s Trial”)—and he was someone I wanted to hear more from. An anonymous observer says, “Something changed inside the Doc when // they done brought down that Louis Riel” (“You’re a patient woman, Mrs. Jukes”), but I didn’t get to know him well enough to know what that something was.

—Monica Kidd

As in The Malahat Review, 190, Spring 2015, 86-90