Finding Louis Riel’s Voice

Written by guest blogger, Max Hamon.

Image of Riel c. 1866. Library and Archives Canada

Honestly, it is thrilling to see one’s work appear in the Canadian Historical Review. In truth the process is never really finished, but at least there is now a flag marking something of a path through my travels in archives over the past few years. To find a new archival document that originated in Riel’s college experience and demonstrated his early engagement with the ideas of civilization was rewarding in itself. But, as I look at the essay now, I recognize how much this process has changed my own perspective on history and our relationship to our sources.

As I show in the article “Contesting Civilization” Riel had a preliminary experience of public life in Montreal when he presented his views at a college debate Sur l’Influences des Arts et Sciences. Such debates lie at the heart of “western civilization” (think Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and to see him deliberate and respond eloquently to these questions is a rare opportunity to watch an indigenous person speak back to imperialism. Mediated though he is by his peers, we hear Riel speaking publicly at the heart of the “civilized” British North America, Montreal. Riel’s is a rare voice that examined how imperialism, with its assumptions of superior civilization and culture, could be negotiated, even as he attempted to re-forge it.

The document also offers a chance to reflect on the relationship between historians and their sources, particularly those created by colonial institutions. Perhaps “deconstructing the colonial archive” seems a bit of old hat, but the discovery of this document reinforced for me some of the forces at play in the practice of history itself. We establish relationships with these sources—they become “ours”. These relationships define our work and what we “know”—we become them. Archives enable us even as they constrain us. Archives provide us with answers even as they deny them. So the puzzle emerges: What do we do with them? What do they do to us? (Or, to borrow from Jill Lepore, do we love them too much?)[1] As I argue, this document, for so long undisturbed and unnoticed in the Sulpician archives, affords a chance to scrutinize this relationship. I realized that, as is so often said about theory, sources are also “tools to think with”. This source allows us to think about other perspectives on “civilization” that have been marginalized by the overbearing power of a particular colonial system.

[1] Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (2001): 129–44.

Max Hamon’s research note, “Contesting Civilization: Louis Riel’s Defence of Culture at the Collège de Montréal” appears in the latest edition of the Canadian Historical Review. Read it today at CHR Online – or on Project MUSE –


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