Transculturation and Religion: Religion in the Formation of Modern Canada
TRANSCULTURATION AND RELIGION: RELIGION IN THE FORMATION OF MODERN CANADA
The history of modern Canada has been characterized by a concurrence of dichotomies typified by the ongoing discord between French and English Canadians. This dichotomy, however, has been only one of a number of defining antitheses involving ethnicity, religion, and regionalism. Historians have long recognized the preeminent role of religion in the formation of the nation, and the relationship of religion—particularly the churches—to the growth of the specific dichotomies that define the Canadian Confederation. The churches, and religion more broadly, have been thoroughly bound to the political, social, and cultural development of this nation whose designation of "dominion," and motto, "from sea to sea," are both taken from the seventy-second Psalm.
The relationship between churches and state in Canada was inaugurated in 1534, when Jacques Cartier erected a cross at the Gaspé Peninsula around which he and his companions knelt to pray. Cartier had sailed from Saint Malo, a French seaport connected with the transatlantic fishery that had emerged in the wake of the discovery of cod stocks off the coast of Newfoundland by Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) and his son Sebastian, who had been commissioned by Henry VII in the late fifteenth century to seek out spices. By the end of the sixteenth century French fishers and aboriginal peoples had established a lucrative trade in furs, laying the foundation for a staple trade that would continue to bring the French to the northern part of the continent. The first permanent French settlements were established in Acadia in 1604 and Quebec in 1608. At the time of their founding, France was undergoing a period of religious revitalization. The counter-reformation had engendered a firm association between an increasingly missionary Catholic Church and the state, and all colonial ventures were consequently required to carry Catholicism with them and to missionize among native peoples. Aside from a few itinerant priests among the Mi'kmaq of Acadia from 1604 to 1613, active evangelization in North America was undertaken by religious orders, beginning with the Récollets who arrived at Quebec in 1615, and then the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1625. French/aboriginal relations were relatively amicable during this period, due to the fact that French settlements were tied primarily to the trade in furs, an enterprise that did not give rise to large-scale colonization and required a level of cordiality among interested parties. Additionally, the French fostered alliances through the extension of trading privileges to baptized aboriginals.
In 1627, the French crown transferred control of the colony to the Company of New France, whose charter required the importation of four thousand French settlers with the services of priests, who would also evangelize among the native population. Baptized aboriginals were to be afforded the same rights as French citizens. Over the next quarter century the Jesuits established missions among the Algonquin, Montagnais, Abenaki, and to a lesser degree, Mohawk. The order assumed a prominent role in New France, due primarily to the fact that it was the principle purveyor of education, health care, and social assistance. Over time, much of this work would be undertaken by French and Canadian religious orders of women, such as the Ursulines, who arrived at Quebec in 1639 and established a boarding school for French and native girls.
By 1700, France controlled most of North America, aside from some parts of Newfoundland and the thirteen colonies. New France, however, was not isolated from the English colonies; indeed, conflict between them began in 1613, when Samuel Argall sailed from Virginia and destroyed the French trading post on Mount Desert Island (in present-day Maine). In 1627, the Kirk brothers took Quebec, and maintained control of the colony until 1633; and in 1690, William Phips unsuccessfully attacked Quebec. French control began to wane with the conquest of Acadia by seven hundred New England soldiers in 1710. By the Treaty of Utrecht (ending the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713), France surrendered Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and Acadia (Nova Scotia); while maintaining control of the Saint Lawrence colonies, Ile Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), and Ile Royale (Cape Breton). The Treaty established two separate legal structures for the French Acadians and the Mi'kmaq population in the region, and guaranteed freedom of religion to the Acadians in return for oaths of allegiance, which they refused to take. The legal separation of ethnic groups was unstable, given that trade, intermarriage, and missionization had created an Acadian community that lacked such distinctions. The situation was epitomized by the request by the Acadians for a ruling on whether a 1744 order placing bounties on Mi'kmaq scalps applied to mixed-blood peoples. Frustrated with resistance from an allied Acadian and Mi'kmaq population, the English began forcibly deporting the Acadians in 1755.
The Seven Years' War (1756–1763) marked the end of French control in North America, but colonial animosities had reached a pitch before the end of the war. On September 13, 1759, the Canadians surrendered Quebec, following a confrontation with the New Englanders on the Plains of Abraham. A year later, Montreal followed suit. Until the end of the Seven Years' War, the two cities were occupied by the British. The treaty ending the war was signed in 1763; within a year, the colony was renamed the Province of Quebec and the Royal Proclamation of 1763 established the administration of the country. England had no clear policy toward the colony in the decade following the fall of Quebec. The Proclamation was vague, apparently presuming that English immigration would define the colony's political, economic, and religious temperament; but a consistent policy was not articulated during the 1760s due to the fact that England was politically unstable, with six administrations in the span of a decade. This haphazard mode of control was ended by the need to counter revolutionary rumblings in the thirteen colonies, and the result was the Quebec Act of 1774, the first constitution created by a parliamentary statute for a British colony. The Act inaugurated England's "second empire," a period during which parliament became chiefly responsible for imperial affairs. The Quebec Act guaranteed freedom of religion to French Catholics in return for an oath of allegiance that was modified to exclude potentially offensive references to religion. The Coutume de Paris remained the civil law of Quebec, while English law applied in criminal cases. There was no habeas corpus. The Act made no provision for an elected legislature, and left the Canadians comparatively free of taxation. Many in the thirteen colonies regarded the Act as an assault, objecting to the creation of nonrepresentative government, the "establishment" of Roman Catholicism in the colony, and the prerogative assumed by the British Parliament in its enactment. It is consequently cited as one of the causes of the American Revolution. More critically for Canada, it was the first British statute that conceded the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a colony.
At the time of the conquest of Quebec, French Catholics represented 95 percent of the province's non-aboriginal population. Although a few thousand European immigrants arrived after 1750, the influx of American loyalists instigated by the Revolutionary War dramatically altered the population balance. Between 1750 and 1800, English immigrants attempted to establish the Church of England, an effort that failed in Quebec, but succeeded to varying degrees in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and what would become Ontario. In 1758, for instance, the Nova Scotia legislature instituted the Church of England, allowed freedom to Protestant dissenters, and prohibited Catholic priests from ministering in the province. In 1769, Prince Edward Island limited the rights of Roman Catholics, and by the turn of the century established the Church of England.
Following the American Revolution, seven thousand loyalists claimed land in Quebec, where there were ninety thousand French Catholics. Loyalist demand for constitutional amendments resulted in the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided Quebec into two provinces: Upper and Lower Canada. The Act implemented elected assemblies, set aside one-seventh of the land as clergy reserves for the support of the Anglican Church, and stipulated that only Anglican ministers could perform marriages. Ultimately, however, it effectively gave power in each of the Canadas to a leadership that could override legislation passed by their assemblies. Upper Canada's political elite, the Family Compact, was firmly allied with the Anglican Church, despite the fact that Anglicans constituted a minority of Protestants in the province (by 1800 there were, among others, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Mennonites); and the Compact's counterpart in Lower Canada, the Chateau Clique, was controlled by the English and their French supporters. Popular rebellions were crushed in both provinces in 1837 and 1838, and Lord Durham was dispatched from England to report on the causes of the unrest. His recommendations, which included the granting of responsible government, the union of the two provinces, and the systematic assimilation of the French, resulted in the Act of Union of 1841. The Union created an inevitable tension between French Catholics demanding protection for their national distinctiveness, and English Protestants who began to lobby for denominational equality in a definitively Protestant society (the secularization of clergy reserves in 1854, for instance, was an offshoot of these efforts). Evangelicalism within both groups became prominent after 1840, as each sought to influence the fabric of Canadian institutions and laws. Catholic energies were focused on French Canada, while Protestants concentrated on the nation as a whole.
By the British North America Act of 1867, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia were united into a Confederation: the Dominion of Canada. Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia were identified as "colonies or provinces" that could join the Confederation by means of a joint action of their legislatures and the federal parliament. A year later, the Imperial Parliament enacted the Rupert's Land Act, providing for the surrender of Hudson's Bay Company land to England (Charles II had granted the entire territory surrounding Hudson Bay to his cousin Prince Rupert and seventeen associates in 1670), and the subsequent transfer of the territory to the Canadian government. No provision was made for the territory's admittance into the Confederation; it was regarded as a colony of a colony, a foundation that would perpetually cause western resentment toward central Canada.
In one respect, the Dominion was the project of politicians and advocates for a transcontinental railroad; and in this sense, the nation had a secular foundation. Still, Confederation provided for substantial provincial autonomy in matters of religion, language, and education, provisions that acknowledged the failure of the attempt, by means of the Union of 1840, to submerge French Catholic nationalism within a dominant English political structure. The British North America Act addressed more fully the constitutional rights of religious minorities, than those of ethnic groups; yet, although the Act confirmed the rights of French Canadians, the Confederation itself did not mitigate their fear of cultural eclipse within a prevailing English national culture. As early as 1871, for instance, the New Brunswick legislature prohibited the teaching of religion and the use of the French language in state-supported schools. During the same period, rival Protestant factions were creating coalitions that expressed a desire for the newly formed nation to assume an Anglo-Protestant character. The move toward Protestant unification was widespread in Anglo-Saxon nations during the nineteenth century; but Canadian churches generally accomplished the move earlier than others. Nineteenth-century intradenominational unions established a model that was expanded following Confederation, and that ultimately resulted in the creation of the United Church of Canada in 1925 (bringing together Methodists, Congregationalists, and many Presbyterians).
The acquisition of the west aroused in many evangelical Protestant churches a millennial desire to extend "His" dominion from one ocean to another, by assimilating immigrants into a dominant Protestant national culture. Competition among denominations quickly became economically unfeasible, and the need for a united response to the task lent urgency to the movement for union. Interest in a national church was fueled also, in part, by the desire to influence legislation, and by Anglo concern over increasing Roman Catholic influence in politics, especially in Quebec. By 1902, a number of anti-Catholic associations were already in existence whose aim it was to curb the expansion of Catholic influence. Unionists believed that a single Protestant church would foster an Anglo-Protestant form of national unity, a sentiment that was expressed in the preamble to the United Church's 1908 Basis of Union, which described "a national church with a national mission."
Although no formal agreement was reached until 1925, local Protestant churches in Ontario, the Maritime Provinces, and the west began to initiate their own unions in 1908. The unions coincided with a general wave of social action in Canada within which churches were deeply implicated. Among Protestants generally, the Social Gospel had become prominent by the late nineteenth century, a movement motivated by the belief that social reforms would establish God's kingdom, and that capitalism must be tempered by cooperation between business, workers, and consumers. The United Church of Canada institutionalized the vision of the Social Gospellers, and is acknowledged as having contributed significantly to the development of the Canadian welfare state.
While Protestants generally pressed for the development of an English-Protestant nation, the Catholic Church was engendering its own forms of social action. Catholic social action emerged in Nova Scotia in the 1930s in cooperative organizations like the Antigonish Movement that involved fishers and farmers. In the late 1920s, Action Catholique became prominent in Quebec, contributing to a general growth of social and political awareness in the province. Many of its young members eventually assumed prominent roles in academia and the media in Quebec during what was called the Quiet Revolution. Quebec underwent a dramatic transformation during the 1960s, whereby a social order that had functioned relatively uninterrupted since the Union of 1841 was overturned. The Quiet Revolution profoundly altered the province's social structure, where an Anglophone elite had for over a century controlled the economy, and the Catholic Church had assumed responsibility for protecting Francophone culture through education and social welfare. In 1960, the Quebec government began nationalizing major industries, providing for the rise of trade unions, and assuming control of health, social welfare, and education. As the Catholic Church lost control of these institutions, church attendance plummeted.
Declining church attendance ultimately affected not only the Catholic Church in Quebec. Prior to 1950, two-thirds of Canadians attended a church on a regular basis; by 1980, only one-third did so. Scholars have noted that evangelical Protestantism and Catholicism, which had been assertive forces for more than a century, had ceased to inspire Canadians. In addition to the Quiet Revolution, an obvious reason for this decline was the fact that Canada's ethnic composition no longer lent itself to the traditional cultural duality of English/French: by the early 1960s, over one third of the nation's population did not identity with either group. For Protestants in particular, any aspiration for a monolithic Protestant nation was simply anachronistic. Additionally, a transformation of higher education during the period may have contributed to the decline. Until the 1960s, most Canadian universities and colleges were owned and managed by churches, but increased costs forced the churches to turn to government for subsidization, and provincial legislatures refused to support church-controlled institutions. Some closed, while others secularized. The trend toward secularization has continued, with the result that churches no longer exercise direct influence over the public sphere. Many believe, consequently, that religion has become a private phenomenon for Canadians, involving such things as belief in the supernatural, the questioning of life's meaning, and institutional memory that draws them back to the churches for selective events (Bibby, 2002). The public role of religion, as typified by the churches, has been all but eliminated.
Between the Dichotomies
The churches have indelibly marked the development of modern Canada. In this respect, religion has played a key role in the creation of the nation but, since the 1960s, has ceased to pervasively define the public sphere, nor to influence Canadians' collective sense of national identity. This aspect of religion in Canada has essentially revolved around a series of dichotomies: English/French, Catholic/Protestant, native/white, east/west (metropolis/hinterland). Within this framework of dichotomies, another modality of religion has expressed itself from the margins of the dominant culture and its various national visions. The impact of this religious mode upon the formation of modern Canada is not immediately discernable in traditional narratives of the nation's religious history, but it has been, in many instances, profound. Although examples of this form of religion are numerous (Grant, 1980), one of the most significant instances is the religiously inspired leadership of Louis Riel in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Riel provides a vantage point from which to explore another relationship between religion and the formation of Canada, one that may well continue to have an effect on the nation during its so-called secular period.
This relationship is imbedded in an abiding historical pattern foreshadowed by events in Acadia at the turn of the seventeenth century. In 1610 a secular priest in Acadia, Jessé Fléché, baptized the Mi'kmaq chief Membertou and twenty members of his family. Given that Fléché could speak no Mi'kmaq (and Membertou appears to have been under the impression that he was entering into a trading alliance), the legitimacy of these baptisms was called into question by the Church and by Jesuits who arrived in Acadia a year later. To redress the problem, the Jesuit Enemond Massé availed himself of the hospitality of the Mi'kmaq, choosing to live within the community and learn their language, a move made possible by a half century of previous goodwill between aboriginals and French fishers in Acadia, and that would define the nature of Jesuit/native relations in North America. His residence among the Mi'kmaq was short-lived. In 1613, the New Englander, Samuel Argall captured Acadia. During the battle for control of the region, Gilbert Du Thet was shot fatally, making him the first Jesuit to die in New France. Du Thet was killed while manning a canon. The events of 1610 to 1613 to a great degree established a pattern within which much of Canada's subsequent history can be situated. The pattern involves at least three distinct aspects: (1) a French/aboriginal foundation based on trade and Catholicism; (2) a violent English overlay that results in a French/English dichotomy that takes precedence over the aboriginal foundation; and (3) the implication of religion in this dichotomy.
This Acadian configuration is an especially apt model in respect to Louis Riel and the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Riel was born at Red River (in what would become the province of Manitoba) in 1844. He was Métis—a member of a community created by the Canadian fur trade, the descendants predominantly of French Catholic men and aboriginal women. The Métis, and in particular, the Métis buffalo hunt, were integral components of the society of the nineteenth century north-West until the transfer of the territory from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Dominion. The transfer was badly managed, with the Canadian government initiating land surveys before the territory had been formally transferred to the Dominion. Residents of the area around Red River (a large number of whom were Métis) were led to believe that existing land titles would not be acknowledged, and under the leadership of Riel formed a provisional government to oppose the transfer without legitimate attention to their grievances. Central to the negotiations between Canada and Riel's provisional government was the assurance of representative government and recognition of land claims. The result was the Manitoba Act, which created the province of Manitoba in 1870. Among other assurances, the Act guaranteed that land grants would be made to all mixed-blood residents of the territory. In the immediate wake of the creation of the province, Riel, the Métis, and the region's aboriginal population found themselves very much enmeshed in the Acadian pattern outlined above. Riel had expected to be a central figure in the transition of the territory to a province, but instead, a warrant for his arrest was issued (pertaining to an execution that had occurred in the course of the Métis resistance), and the Ontario legislature subsequently placed a $5000 bounty on him. He was a fugitive until 1875, when the federal government imposed a five year banishment. The Métis and aboriginals fared little better. The Métis land base did not materialize, and they were forced to migrate north and west as immigrants from central Canada inundated the province. Meanwhile, Canadian and American hunters were decimating the buffalo, which had been the foundation of both Métis and aboriginal life. The disappearance of the buffalo, in addition to epidemic disease, and insufficient assistance to native peoples who had signed treaties extinguishing land rights in return for reserves, led to starvation. Cree leaders petitioned the Canadian government and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, but received no replies.
During his exile Riel began receiving visions, beginning at Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in 1875, where the Holy Spirit anointed him "Prophet of the New World." His visions would ultimately map out a different kind of Canada. From his position between the dichotomy of ethnicity, Riel perceived a creative space within which a new orientation emerged with the potential for a different kind of unified national body. This nation was defined between the various Canadian dichotomies of ethnicity (English/French, native/white), religion (Catholic/Protestant), and metropolis/hinterland. In respect to ethnicity, he envisioned massive immigration of Italians, Poles, Belgians, Scandinavians, converted Jews, and Germans who together with the aboriginal population, the French, the Métis, and the "great Anglo-Saxon race" would each inhabit equal shares of the nation's territory, creating hybrid ethnicities. The Germans would, for instance, "make a new German-Indian world" (Morton, 1974, pp. 355, 366). Religion, too, was to undergo a radical transformation through which the dichotomy of Catholic/Protestant would be subsumed by a new universal Catholicism. "I wish to leave Rome aside," he said,
Inasmuch as it is the cause of division between Catholics and Protestants.… If I have any influence in the new world it is to help in that way and even if it takes 200 years to become practical…then my children's children will shake hands with the Protestants of the new world in a friendly manner. I do not wish these evils that exist in Europe to be…repeated in America. (Morton, 1974, p. 319)
Finally, the dichotomy of metropolis/hinterland was recast with Canada as the center of a new world. It was obvious to Riel that the territories, the hinterland of central Canada, would be the fulcrum of this new order: "although the Province of Ontario is great it is not as great as the North-West" (Morton, 1974, p. 321). The north-West was also to be the seat of a new Roman Catholic church, with Saint Boniface (present-day Winnipeg) as the new Rome, the Métis as the new "sacerdotal people," and A. A. Taché, archbishop of Saint Boniface, the new pontiff. The removal of the papacy from Rome was warranted by the simple fact that "Rome did not pay attention to us" (Morton, 1974, p. 322). Ultimately it was clear to Riel that with all these transformations, Canada was to "become one of the most prosperous centres of the world, thanks to God" (Flanagan, 1974, p. 26).
Driven by this vision of a new Canada in which existing dichotomies would be rendered meaningless, Riel led a second Métis rebellion against the Dominion in present-day Saskatchewan in 1885. It coincided with similar uprisings from the region's aboriginal population, and both resistances were crushed by Dominion forces. Riel was tried and found guilty of high treason, and was hanged on November 16, 1885. Riel's religiously inspired resistance to central Canada seemed to have little effect on the formation of the nation, beyond apparently intensifying an existing historical pattern of an English Protestant/French Catholic dichotomy and an increasingly marginalized aboriginal and Métis community. The hanging of Riel fueled the French press and leadership, who found common cause with Riel's French ancestry, and accused the English of ethnic prejudice and religious fanaticism. Reaction among English Canadians quickly turned to an anti-Quebec sentiment, and amplified calls for national unity based on Anglo-Protestant patriotism. The execution has been linked to subsequent attacks on French Catholic education, resistance to the creation of French divisions in the world wars, and opposition to the institution of official bilingualism after 1960.
In 1885 aboriginal grievances were not the same as those of the Métis, and although at least two native actions may have been prompted by news of successful Métis action, this resistance was in no way executed under the leadership of Riel. Nonetheless, contemporary authorities melded the resistances, going so far as to accuse Riel at his trial of "arousing the Indians" and letting "loose the flood-gates of rapine and bloodshed" (Morton, 1974, p. 371). In the year following the events of 1885, aboriginal peoples were increasingly marginalized from mainstream society. The Department of Indian Affairs began to assume greater control over their lives, a trend that continued for almost a century, and resulted in wide-ranging regulation from education to the writing of wills. An aboriginal pass system was introduced, effectively restricting native peoples to their reserves. This was justified by the contention that participation in the rebellion constituted a violation of treaty agreements. Later "pass laws" adopted by the South African apartheid regime were patterned on this Canadian model.
As for the Métis generally (who were not afforded status by the Canadian government until 1982), the community became virtually invisible to the dominant culture. Many changed their names, others immigrated to the United States, some moved onto native reserves, while others moved northward. It seems that Riel's religiously-inspired rebellion did not immediately inform the creation of modern Canada, except insofar as it solidified a basic Canadian pattern that would inform the nation's next century.
The Twenty-First Century
Turning to Canada a century after the hanging of Riel, a number of dramatic alterations in this pattern have occurred. First, as church historians have noted, the nation has become secularized, and increasingly Canadians no longer associate themselves with the churches that informed so much of the nation's development. Additionally, the delicate antagonism between English and French entered into a new phase in the final decades of the century, through which their ongoing dichotomous relationship could well be dissolved. On October 16, 1970, the federal government declared the War Measures Act (a presumption of virtually unlimited power) in response to the kidnapping of British senior trade commissioner, James Cross, and Pierre Laporte, a Quebec cabinet minister. The kidnappings and subsequent murder of Laporte were attributed to the Front de Liberation du Québec. Although the events of October 1970 did not initiate further efforts to secure an independent Quebec through violence, the question of separation remained a serious political issue, culminating in the election in Quebec of the separatist Parti Québecois in 1976, and two narrowly rejected referendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. Additionally, constitutional changes have created a context for the assertion of aboriginal and Métis land claims, which are only beginning to be felt. The Constitutional Act of 1982 (through which Canada gained its own constitution) vaguely recognized "existing" aboriginal and treaty rights, and recognized the Métis as aboriginal peoples. Land claims recognition has been slow but profound. In the mid-1990s, for instance, Donald Marshall was found guilty in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal of fishing eels illegally. A team of lawyers (four of whom were Mi'kmaq) took the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, and in 1999 the Court upheld Marshall's right to catch and sell fish in accordance with treaties ratified in 1760 and 1761. The same year that the constitution was patriated, the Constitutional Alliance of the Northwest Territories was formed to press for the division of the Northwest Territories into two distinct territories. The subject had been discussed for a number of decades, and on April 1, 1999, the central and eastern part of the territories (a region constituting nearly one-fifth of Canada's land mass) was established as the territory of Nunavut, marking the largest aboriginal land claim settlement in Canadian history. The creation of Nunavut effectively gave the population (85% Inuit) control over education, health and social services, and the management of natural resources. In September 2003, the Supreme Court overturned an earlier conviction of Métis Steve Powley for hunting illegally. In the landmark ruling, the court declared that Powley could exercise the right to hunt without a license on the basis of the definition of the Métis as "aboriginal" in the Constitution of 1982 (council for Powley included lawyer Jean Teillet, great-great-grandniece of Louis Riel).
As Canada entered the twenty-first century many aspects of the national pattern of English overlay on an aboriginal/French foundation were disintegrating, while longstanding dichotomies were reshaping the national landscape. What might now be said of Louis Riel, who was religiously inspired to conceive of the nation in a radically different way, but whose life seemed to have accomplished little beyond the reification of the established order? This man was situated in the space between the dichotomies of ethnicity, was called by God to break with Rome and refashion a new universal Catholicism, envisioned the geographical center of Canada as the defining center of the nation, and was tried and executed as a Canadian traitor. Yet, a statue of Riel now graces the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature, and an accompanying plaque reads: "In 1992, the Parliament of Canada and the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba formally recognized Riel's contribution to the development of the Canadian Confederation and his role, and that of the Métis, as founders of Manitoba." Riel is the hero of over twenty plays, an opera, radio and television dramas, novels, poetry, music, cartoons, and a comic book. He is the only Canadian public figure whose writings have been published in their entirety (Riel, 1985), a project undertaken jointly by the federal government and a number of universities to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Riel's execution; in recent years, he has emerged as a national hero, especially, among English-speaking writers. Riel has been called a mythic figure, a mad messiah, a prophet, a savior, a mystic, a visionary, a Canadian Joan of Arc, a saint, and a martyr. Such frankly religious language is not accidental. As scholars announced the triumph of secularization and the privatization of religion in Canada at the end of the twentieth century, Riel was simultaneously emerging as a religious figure implicated in the meaning of a changing nation. As such, he may well constitute a resource for the continued role of religion in the formation of a twenty-first century Confederation.
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Jennifer I. M. Reid (2005)