Reviews / Compte Rendus - Canadian War Museum, "The Rebellion of 1885"

Reviews / Compte Rendus

Canadian War Museum, "The Rebellion of 1885"

Brereton Greenhous
Department of National Defence
"The Rebellion of 1885," Canadian War Museum. Coordinator and designer: Victor Suthren. Temporary exhibition: July-December 1985.

1 Perhaps no other event except the conscription crisis of the First World War has affected the course of Canadian internal history since Confederation as much as the 1885 Rebellion and its immediate aftermath. An uneasy truce between the two solitudes was briefly shaped into a fragile alliance by the rebellion (to its credit, the Canadian War Museum has abjured the current "newspeak" of calling it a résistance), when the execution of Riel, accompanied by the virulent braying of Orange asses bent on demeaning the francophone contribution to his defeat, shattered it to pieces.

2 We are still picking up those pieces, so the centenary of the rebellion would seem well worth commemorating. But the Glenbow, in Calgary, chose to dodge a sensitive issue by mounting an exhibition dedicated to the Métis and the War Museum, in the national capital, has put on a bland, unfocussed retrospective that is simply too small (120 square metres) to make much of an impact even if everything else had been got right.

3 To be fair, the Museum worked under considerable difficulties. The building was under reconstruction throughout the planning process, a project that was six months behind schedule and intruding into the final exhibition preparations when it was eventually finished. Moreover, the original coordinator and the original designer had both dropped out during the preparatory stages, leaving Vic Suthren to carry the load.

4 At the entrance, a one-page typescript overview of the rebellion by Hugh Halliday is available. The centre of the hall is occupied by the major exhibit, featuring a Canadian gunner, one of his horses, and a brass, seven-pounder mountain gun which may, or may not, be one of the pieces taken on campaign. There is a Toronto infantryman smoking his clay pipe and an 1883-pattern Gatling gun complete with limber.

5 Around the walls of the hall, "blown-up" photographs of soldiers, policemen, teamsters, Indian and Métis alternate with narrative panels recounting the course of the rebellion from a text by Toronto historian (and author of two excellent books on the rebellion) Desmond Morton. Sprinkled about are artifacts ranging from the macabre to the entertaining - the hood that Riel wore at his hanging to a coloured pencil-sketch of his peers done by an Indian who had never seen coloured pencils before! There are also the usual rifles and muskets, as well as a Crée war club. But not A.H. Hilder's dramatic painting of Lieutenant-Colonel G.T. Denison leading his troop of Governor-General's Horse Guards over the ice of Lake Superior, which creates far more of an ambiance than the stylized battle sketches from the Canadian Illustrated War News presented in such abundance.

6 The North West Mounted Police's contribution is probably over-emphasized — they played a small part in events after the initial clash at Duck Lake - and there is very little on the logistics of the campaign, but these are value judgements. More specifically, one sees Riel's embroidered coat and the tobacco pouch he carried to his execution, one sees his bearded, expressionless face through a camera lens, but one learns nothing about the man himself. The same criticism may be made in regard to Middleton and Dumont. They are all flat, two-dimensional, figures, yet Riel and Middleton wrote much and even the illiterate Dumont dictated his memoirs a few years afterwards. In each case, their words give them a third dimension. Moreover, on the government side many lesser characters subsequently put their thoughts and reminiscences on paper. It would surely have been possible to fill the narrative panels with extracts from their experiences written in their own words instead of Morton's nicely turned phrases, and still have told the tale of the rebellion.

7 A musical background consists of regimental marches and Métis tunes. A nice touch, marred by the anachronistic inclusion of O Canada, written in 1880 but hardly a common tune outside Quebec, or in any way representative of central Canada in 1885.

8 Not a very satisfactory way of passing an hour or two.

Brereton Greenhous