At the margins Review - Honoré Jaxon

At the margins
Reviewed by: Daniel Francis

William Henry Jackson was born to English parents in Toronto in 1861, and migrated westward as a young man. He settled in what is now Saskatchewan and was soon swept up in the protest movement against the federal government's mismanagement of the western territories. In the process he became a confidant of Louis Riel. Jackson imagined a grand alliance between new settlers like himself, the First Nations people and the Métis, but his ideal collapsed during the Northwest uprising of March-June 1885. He was arrested by Canadian troops and taken to Regina, where he stood trial for treason. Like his friend and leader Riel, Jackson was declared insane. Unlike Riel, he escaped execution. Instead the authorities tucked him away in a mental hospital, he easily absconded after three months and fled to the United States. In Chicago, where he settled, William Henry Jackson, British settler, transformed himself into Honoré Jaxon, Métis freedom fighter. He identified so closely with the Métis struggle for justice that he became one of them. He had no trouble convincing others that he was a Native and probably had no trouble convincing himself either. For many years he spoke out forcefully for the rights of workers and Aboriginal people. He moved eventually to New York City, where, as he got older, he declined into senility and isolation. Over the years he accumulated tons of research material for a history of the West that he never got around to writing. Near the end of his life, at ninety years of age, he was evicted from his basement apartment, and this vast archive of books and papers was dumped on the sidewalk. Some of it was torched, and the rest was sold off not long before Jaxon died in obscurity on January 10, 1952. And there the story might have ended, were it not for the efforts of Donald Smith, a University of Calgary historian who has spent many years tracking Jackson/Jaxon.

Now he has published his findings in a new book, Honoré Jaxon: Prairie Visionary (Coteau). Smith evidently has a soft spot for marginal characters. Honoré Jaxon is the third in a trio of biographies of Canadian misfits that he has written. One of the three, Grey Owl, is well known and arguably had a major impact on the country. The other two, Buffalo Child Long Lance and Jaxon, are not nearly as well known. But Smith doesn't care. 'Occasionally,' he writes, 'those on the fringe may see things more clearly than those in the mainstream.' As with Grey Owl and Long Lance, death ought revelations about Jaxon's true identity: he was unmasked as the Englishman that he was rather than the mixed-blood crusader that he claimed to be. But what is interesting about all three of Smith's biographical subjects is not that they were charlatans, which I suppose they were, but that they were all non-Aboriginals who adopted Aboriginal identities in order to advocate for the rights of indigenous people. To my mind, this makes the three men central, not marginal, characters. Each enacted his own version of a primal Canadian story, the story of 'going Native.' Whites have always wanted Aboriginal people to assimilate to the Euro-Canadian mainstream, but there has also been a strong impulse among Whites to transform ourselves into Indians. One sees it in movies like Dances with Wolves, in summer camps where our children dress up in buckskin and feathers and learn to shoot bows and arrows, in new-age movements where we seek the wisdom of the shamans. By 'going Native,' we try to tap into the special connection with the New World that we believe is the unique experience of Aboriginal people.

High on Honoré Jaxon's list of enemies during his years in the Canadian West was the prime minister, John A. Macdonald. Coincidentally, a new biography of Macdonald by the journalist Richard Gwyn also appeared last fall. John A: The Man Who Made Us (Random House) is the first of a projected two-volume set. It ends at Confederation in 1867, so we don't yet know how Gwyn will treat the events of 1885 in the Northwest. I think we can assume, though, that Macdonald will come off looking like the nation builder he is always cracked up to be. Macdonald, a Scottish-born politician, represents a counter-story to Jaxon's. Rather than adapting to the situation that he found on the new continent, he wanted to impose a European-style society on the indigenous one. As Gwyn writes, Macdonald's objective with Confederation was 'to create a new nation that might actually survive in North America without becoming American' i.e., a nation that would remain British in its culture and values. This was antithetical to Jaxon, who wanted to preserve the values of indigenous society, as he understood them, from the greed of land developers and big monopolies like the CPR. Macdonald, as Gwyn presents him in his readable and often insightful book, was a pragmatist, artful at dispensing patronage and wielding power. Jaxon, on the other hand, was an idealist who thought that local residents of the Northwest should enjoy self-government, not have an administration forced on them from Ottawa. It was a collision of two worlds and, as we know, Macdonald's blueprint triumphed over Jaxon's dream. It was eminence for one, the madhouse for the other. Macdonald emerges from history as the far-sighted nation builder, Jaxon the unstable crank. But thanks to Donald Smith's excellent biography, we get a chance to look down a road not taken and to wonder how things might have been different in western Canada if the voices of the indigenous people had not been silenced by the representatives of Old Europe intent on commodifying the land and pacifying its people. Article by Daniel Francis.

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