Prairie Fire Review of Books - Honoré Jaxon
Prairie Fire Review of Books
Reviewed by: Mary Barnes
The photograph gracing the cover of this book shows an old man sitting with his belongings--boxes and piles of newspapers, magazines and books. Wearing a blanket about his shoulders, his face sculpted by age, he stares unwaveringly into the camera. He has just been evicted from his basement apartment. It is the winter of 1951.
Who is this man and why is he so important that Smith wanted to write about him? Last in a series of books about men who adopted the Native way of life--the other books being From the Land of Shadows: the Making of Grey Owl and Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance: the Glorious Imposter--this book examines the unusual and remarkable life of a man whose contribution to Canadian history is worth noting. Smith's portrayal of Honoré Jaxon is a vivid one. Jaxon's story begins in Wingham, Ontario, where his name was William Henry Jackson. Raised in a Methodist household with his siblings, Eastwood and Cicely, William is a bright boy with scholarly intent. As a young man, he studies the classics and literature at the University of Toronto. About this time his parents leave Ontario to join Eastwood who left for the West several years before. With little money to pay for further studies, William leaves the university in 1882 and, armed with the education he has attained, follows his parents out west.
It is not long before he familiarizes himself with his surroundings. He sees and sympathizes with the plight of the Métis--a people who want their own land and to be recognized as a distinct people. Because of his education, William is able to win the admiration and alliance of first the settlers, and then the Métis and the Natives. A vibrant speaker, he appeals to authorities to end the misfortunes of the Métis and Aboriginals, but his pleas fall short. The Canadian government is not interested. He meets Louis Riel and makes a choice that will change the course of his life. He becomes Riel's 'secretary.' Compassion for Riel and the Métis is so strong that he even converts to Roman Catholicism against the protests of his staunch Methodist family.
Why does Jaxon choose such an unconventional path? As Smith says, 'brought up and encouraged by his parents to work for a better world, Will saw his moment emerging in 1884: he could act as a bridge between the Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian settlers in the northwest' (32). Later he is arrested and, in the course of the trial that follows the Resistance of 1885, his champion, Riel, is hanged. Jaxon is declared insane and committed to an asylum. Two months later, he escapes, his flight bringing him to the United States. Eventually, he settles in Chicago, where he assumes a new identity. He adopts a Métis persona.
The question that arises is: why? What prompted him to embrace a way of life so different from his own? The author writes that 'In the face of oppression, he now identified fully with the Aboriginal peoples. In exile in Chicago, he presented himself as Honoré Jaxon, a Métis. Outspoken, independent, and free of conventional society's constraints, he challenged the status quo. He opposed all forms of authority. He was obsessed with liberty. For over three decades in Chicago, he used his invented identity to champion the underprivileged.' (204) During his stay in the United States, he meets with prominent individuals - one of them is Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect. But it is the ordinary individual Jaxon relates to the most, and thus he throws himself into helping the American labour movement. He does not forget the Métis, though, and returns to Canada with his wife to visit family and to gather information for a book he intends to write about Riel and the Métis.
Smith's book is intriguing and very readable. His rendition reflects that Jaxon's story is one biography of many that contributed to the shaping of our history. And since this individual was attracted to the oppressed and the downtrodden whose lives were interdependent on one another and who had respect for all living things, Jaxon may have seen that modern society with its progress is not the only method to existence. Perhaps in looking into the traditional way, he saw a way of life that must not be forgotten, and one that modern society may need in the future for its survival. Article by Mary Barnes.