London Free Press Review - Honoré Jaxon

Reviewed by: Debora Van Brenk

Riel's main man

He was born into a devout Methodist family, raised in conservative Wingham and educated in the classics in Clinton and Toronto. William Henry Jackson went on to become a champion of Metis rights and personal secretary to Louis Riel during the Rebellion of 1885. But Jackson, who would change his name to Honore Jaxon and become a celebrity in Chicago and New York, has all but vanished from local records, writes Free Press reporter Debora Van Brenk.

It was 1884, and William Henry Jackson of Huron County was writing a petition that would be pivotal in stitching together the pieces of Canada.

The North-West Territories, he wrote to the governor-general of the time, must become a province. It must have representation in federal Parliament and must have control over its own natural resources. Settler and Metis rights must be acknowledged and respected.

Louise Riel was the driving mind behind that petition. Jackson was Riel's right-hand scribe and idea- polisher.

The petition didn't work. Riel was hanged for treason after he formented the Rebellion of 1885.

For 100 years, Canadian schoolchildren were taught Riel was a traitor and possibly crazy.

Only recently has he been recognized as a nation-builder, the man whose convictions led Manitoba to become Canada's fifth province. 

On Monday, Manitoba will celebrate a new holiday, its first-ever Louis Riel Day.

And what became of Jackson, the faithful secretary and confidante who preached for the rest of his 90 years that Riel was an icon for the rights of the oppressed?

A jury deemed him insane.

Then, under a name and identity he had invented for himself, he advocated for people without a voice until he died in poverty in New York.

His name has all but vanished in his Huron County home.

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Wingham celebrates short-story writer Alice Munro with a literary garden. The Barn Dance Museum chronicles the history of CKNX broadcasting.

But of Will Jackson, Wingham has only scattered records -- census and tax records, the kind of data you'd find in a generic genealogical search.

"We all kind of know of him in the county," says Elizabeth French, assistant curator of the Huron County Museum in Goderich. "But we don't have anything on him."

A search for local honours accorded to Jackson leads fruitlessly from museums to archives to historical society records and back again.

No plaque mentions him.

There's no Jackson display at the North Huron Museum (which is fighting for survival because of a municipal budget crunch), although local historican Jim Currie compiled a small folder of Jackson information that is housed there.

The Blyth Festival, a specialist in regional, original drama, hasn't taken notice. 

And although there are Joseph, James and John streets in Clinton, where he attended high schools, there's no boulevard for Jackson.

North Huron Reeve Neil Vincent, a history buff, said this week he only recently heard the name Will Jackson.

But now he has begun polling council to find an appropriate way to honour this extraordinary hometown boy -- whose thoughts and actions were a century ahead of their time.

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The surge of interest is largely a result of a new biography by University of Calgary historian Donald B. Smith.

It's called Honore Jaxon: Prairie Visionary. Published last fall by Coteau Books, it's in its second printing. 

"There wasn't a lot known about (Jackson)" in town before Smith began his research, says Jodi Jerome, Wingham historian and former curator of the North Huron Museum who did research for Smith.

Jackson's story is not taught in schools, either, although Smith says it might liven up a lot of dull history lessons. 

"Kids would love him. He's totally against authority."

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It was staunchly Methodist Wingham -- conventional, conservative obsessively anti-Catholic -- that became rich soil for cultivating young William Henry Jackson's unconventional notions.

He attended his first political rally at age 11 and was enthralled, Smith writes.

His English mother and shopkeeper father valued ideas and urged their children to ask educated questions.

At Clinton high school, Jackson's teacher, linguist Horatio Hale -- who does have a plaque in his honour -- sympathized with aboriginal people and had close ties with the Six Nations natives near Brantford.

Jackson studied Latin and Greek and Plato's Republic at the University of Toronto. 

When the Jackson family moved to the Prairies to seek better fortune, Will joined them and found an outlet that combined his passion for letters, debate and democracy.

He immersed himself in a movement by settlers to gain a voice in Ottawa. He became their secretary and leader.

Then Metis leader Louis Riel came to town.

Jackson quickly embraced the Metis cause -- even converting to Catholicism. 

He was Riel's valuable link to the white world, Smith says, and became Riel's personal secretary, someone a police inspector at the time called Riel's "right hand man."

The two of them crafted that petition to the governor-general, seeking provincial rights for the territory.

The government promised to investigate.

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But Riel couldn't wait. 

Believing he was on a liberation mission from God, Riel seized a church in 1885 and used it as headquarters for his provisional government.

He was captured, jailed and hanged for treason.

Jackson, too, was arrested for treason and was eager to argue the Metis case at trial.

His family had other plans.

As the trial began, his elder brother testified, "From the time he was christened in the Roman Catholic church, he has been insane."

For a white man to espouse the Metis cause was one thing; for a Methodist to turn Catholic proved to the court he was unhinged.

In the asylum, Jackson was an ideal inmate -- until he escaped and fled to the U. S.

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There, he reinvented himself as a Metis: Honore Jaxon (Honore, a name with Latin origins, means honoured one. It's believed Jackson chose it in recognition of his time with the Metis). 

Smith describes how Jaxon's next decades became an extended lecture tour to enlighten people about the plight of the underdog, especially Metis people.

Chicago was his epicentre and the labour movement became his cause. He was "little less than a demi-god" among the labouring classes, the Chicago Tribune sarcastically said.

Jaxon studied a bit of medicine, flirted with law, worked in construction, fell in love, changed religion again and then again, got married, briefly returned to Canada, where he became a key figure in Saskatoon's first labour strike, researched a book on the 1885 Rebellion, befriended architect Frank Lloyd Wright and bought property in New York -- in between lecture tours, anarchist rallies and employment crusades.

Writes Smith: "Life with Will was like trying to hold on to the tail of a kite in a full wind."

But in his later years in New York, Smith writes, Jaxon was "no longer a psychologically coherent personality." His fact and fantasy melded together.

He was evicted from his basement apartment in midtown Manhattan in December 1951 -- that, and his death at age 90 a month later sparked stories in the New York Daily News and elsewhere.

Two tonnes of his archives -- he was a notorious pack-rat -- were later sold as waste paper.

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You could call Jaxon an eccentric, and he was.

But he was far-seeing in a way his contemporaries weren't, Smith argues.

Witness a letter Jackson wrote his family from the asylum: "The oppression of the aboriginals has been the crying sin of the white race in America and they have at last found a voice (in Riel)."

And still later he said: "Louis Riel died a patriot. . . The rebellion was forced upon us. What we wanted was justice for the half-breeds and justice with the white settlers."

Treason then -- but very nearly the words used by politicians and historians today.

Says Smith, "Sometimes in life, the person on the fringe sees things more clearly."

He calls Jaxon's disappearance from collective memory an unfortunate case of "historical amnesia."

Jerome remains intrigued.

"He had that belief in something bigger than himself and his own times. I think he was a romantic idealist. Romantic, in the sense that he was in love with big ideas."

She wonders whether those papers -- long-ago burned or buried as landfill -- might have cast new, and earlier, insight into Riel's thoughts.

Although her job at the North Huron Museum was a casualty of budget cuts, she hopes the museum can mount an exhibit of Jackson/Jaxon.

Maybe something in Huron County just motivates people to broker change, Vincent says. "Being a county that doesn't have a city, we are still possibly of a mind-set where we believe one person or a small group can have an influence."

Col. Anthony Van Egmond and Tiger Dunlop carved communities from Huron woods. Seaforth's William Aberhart founded the Social Credit party and became Alberta premier.

And now, Vincent has learned, Jackson was a prescient human rights advocate, whose role in nation-building is only being discovered.

"We haven't put a system in place as well as we should have" to recognize those people, Vincent says.

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