Media @ McGill

"Louis Riel and Red River Publics: The Rise and Fall of an Indigenous Public Sphere"

Submitted by Media@McGill on



M. Max Hamon

Department of History


The founder of Manitoba and leader of the Métis, Louis Riel led two resistance movements against the Canadian government: Red River in 1869 and the Northwest in 1885.  The now famous photograph of Riel and his councillors depicts a unique moment when indigenous peoples successfully defended their lands, identity and culture.  Viewed simply as a reproduction of the past, this appears to be straightforward History with a capital ‘H’. Riel stares at us with such physicality, such material reality, that it is not surprising we reify it as Truth. However, this photograph is much more disruptive than it appears; it is a performance, challenge and declaration of sovereignty.  In posing for this picture Riel, and the Métis, asserted the legitimacy of the government and produced a document that would be equated with photographs of “Fathers of Confederation,” for instance at Government House in Charlottetown 1864.  History does not simply happen; it is made.  With this photograph Riel, just like John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier, forged history.





My work at the McCord Museum and at the Sulpician Seminary archives explored how photographs convey authority.  It demonstrates that media is best explained through attention to its transmission, circulation and meaning in historical context. Future research will reconstruct the indigenous public sphere of Red River during the nineteenth century.  Interdisciplinary methodologies will be used to examine the production and consumption of media.  Unlike the rational bourgeois public sphere of Habermas, the indigenous public sphere legitimated a variety of media leading up to and during the 1869 resistance.  An examination of court transcripts, petitions, broadsheets, early newspapers, photographs, clothing, dances and tobacco-giving rituals will demonstrate the rich diversity of structures of communication. Mindful of Foucault’s critique of the “privilege” of the author, I consider these media as social practices and structures of communication that Louis Riel “experienced” to fashion a consensus that would be resilient in the face of Canadian annexation.

The overlapping publics of a borderlands territory provided a fecund context for cultural and political production. Riel, as Métis, incarnated this convergence of ethnic, religious, linguistic and political worlds, what Richard White terms a “middle ground”.  This cultural and political apparatus explains the success of the 1869 resistance. This “contact zone”, as Jennifer Reid points out, produced a mythic and postcolonial discourse that still today fragments Canadian society and, as recent legal decisions confirm, continues to thwart the hegemonic aspirations of a colonialist nation state.

Riel was what Gramsci called an organic intellectual. His political acumen and legitimacy as a borderlands subject benefited from the rise of this public sphere. Produced from the abrasive engagement of competing worlds, the indigenous public sphere was a series of contests between Anglophone and Francophone settlers, Protestants and Catholics, Métis, Half-breeds, Sioux, Saulteaux and Cree, not to mention American, Canadian and British empires. By 1885, hegemony had been established, the borderlands had become bordered lands, and the autonomy of the indigenous politics was shattered. Riel was hung as a traitor.

My work challenges the facile “settlement of the west” narrative that posits a straightforward emergence of democracy.  The frontier was not a chaotic, empty space upon which colonial settlers and administrators inscribed order. Indigenous publics were displaced and removed from history because the colonialist state was anxious of its own identity and legitimacy. This erasure has served the mythmaker’s project of Canada, or as Michelet might have called it that “wonderful necropolis of national monuments”.  Yet, buried in its ruins are the lives of people and their dreams, all we have to do is bring them up to the light of day, let them speak again and listen.