Literary Review of Canada - Honore Jaxon

Métis Imposter
Reviewed by: Literary Review of Canada

Honoré Jaxon: Prairie Visionary is the third in a series of detailed and nuanced biographical works about 'Prairie Imposters' by University of Calgary historian Donald Smith. It follows earlier books on Grey Owl and Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, both of whom made questionable claims to aboriginality. Grey Owl, born Archie Belaney in Britain to British parents, made quite spurious representations, while Long Lance, being European, aboriginal and African American, had a more complex (un)truth behind some of his claims. Honoré Jaxon, more obscure today than either Grey Owl or Long Lance, played a colourful role in the second Métis attempt to curb central Canadian power under Louis Riel in 1885. During the Northwest Rebellion, Jaxon had the distinction of being jailed by both sides in the conflict over the treatment of Métis and First Nations people in what is now northern Saskatchewan.

Jaxon, born William Henry Jackson to a Methodist family in southern Ontario, had a talent for learning, and eventually attended the University of Toronto despite limited resources. Although he did not complete a degree, he read widely and both wrote and spoke well, and these skills served him for the rest of a long and eventful life. Long lived though he was, it appears that the peak events of his life occurred early - in the mid 1880s, when he became a key organizer and activist in the attempts of the residents of northern Saskatchewan (First Nations, Métis, country born and many settlers alike) to shape the integration of the area into the Canadian nation-state. He became 'secretary' to the recently returned Louis Riel Jr. and spent considerable time among the Métis of the south fork of the Saskatchewan, developing deep friendships and a romantic attachment with one of the women of the area. On the eve of the Northwest Resistance, Jaxon actually converted to Catholicism in spite of the pleadings of his family, and then, according to Smith, embraced the new religion developed by Riel toward the end of the war.

Unfortunately for Jaxon, once armed hostilities broke out, the Métis did not trust his ties to their community and they imprisoned him. After the fall of Batoche, he was in turn imprisoned by the Canadian authorities for his actions in support of the Métis, but he never stood trial. Exhausted by events and the conditions of his incarceration, he suffered a psychological breakdown and, although he recovered relatively quickly, he was denied the trial he very much wanted when he was declared insane and placed in an asylum. He later escaped and went overland across the border, staying in the United States for most of the rest of his life. He eventually became a labour leader and political activist, businessman and contractor, writer and Baha'i adherent in both Chicago and New York. He also occasionally strayed back to the Saskatchewan River to visit friends and family, and collected materials for a book on theMétis and the Northwest Resistance.

The experiences of those early days stayed with him, and he continued to identify with the Métis and their cause long after the community had been officially erased by Canadian authorities, and long after his effective ties to the Métis had ceased. He died dispossessed and homeless in 1952 at Bellevue Hospital in New York, separated from his family and from a mountain of materials he had collected for his still unwritten book on the Métis. A poignant picture of Jaxon sitting in the street surrounded by stacks and stacks of papers and books graces the cover of this biography- it is difficult to know precisely what was lost when the bulk of these documents went to the New York City dump, but one cannot help feeling the loss. It is hard to précis in a couple of paragraphs what Smith has done in 294 pages - unfair, in fact.

What Smith has accomplished here is the product of a skilled and seasoned historian at the height of his craft. As the author says, the book is the culmination of 40 years of research into the life of Jaxon, including both archival work and interviews with his family. In a word, the book is humane: it is a subtle investigation of Jaxon's life and the tensions, commitments and conceits that drove it. Along the way the reader learns a great deal, not only about the ostensibly central Métis-related events that shaped Jaxon, but also about the early southern Ontario school system of the later 1800s, about labour politics in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, about the development of the Baha'i faith in America and even, surprisingly, about the loves and losses of his neighbour and friend, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Amidst all this nuance is a central tension: Jaxon's relationship to the Métis - his representations of that relationship and the layers of truths, half-truths and fabrications that earned him a place in Smith's imposters series. It is clear, although Jaxon was not born Métis, that there was a point in 1885 when he was, somewhat ambiguously, a part of that community. Lacking blood ties, he nonetheless sought to contribute and to belong. After leaving Saskatchewan, Jaxon spoke publicly about the marginalization and dispossession of the Métis and First Nations and advocated for change constantly. At various junctures after 1885 though, in times and places where Jaxon was demonstrably no longer in an active relationship with the Métis community, his claims to be a representative of that community became more spurious, more elaborate, and less and less accurate. At various speaking events and political gatherings, even at international gatherings of representatives of aboriginal peoples, Jaxon seems to have claimed essential blood and political ties to the Métis he clearly lacked. At times it is difficult to tell whether Jaxon claimed aboriginality or whether it was claimed of him while he stayed silent, but nonetheless claims were made, and became more essential to his persona over time. While these events unfolded, Jaxon retained his ties to his natal family.

Perhaps the most disconcerting misrepresentation Jaxon made was to himself, Smith reports that by 1932 Jaxon had developed the belief that he was indeed of mixed aboriginal ancestry, later adopted by his Methodist family in Ontario, and his letters to that family discussed this seriously. It is Smith's careful attention to detail that allows us to contemplate the shape and consequences of Jaxon's appropriation of an essentialized Métis identity. It would have been easy for Smith to slip toward simple condemnation of Jaxon's conceits, but in this work we also get a truly humane representation of a final prairie imposter. This work is a fine wrap-up to an intriguing series. Article by Mike Evans.

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