If someone tells you that history (particularly Canadian history) is dry, then hand them a copy of Chester Brown’s biographical comic Louis Riel. To put it simply, Brown brings Canadian history to life in his comic, a format that succeeds in creating an engaging reading experience for learning about Canada’s sordid past.
Brown’s comic tells the true story of Louis Riel, a nineteenth century Métis leader. His struggle with the Canadian government – to secure rights for his people –takes the reader back to a time of much violence and uncertainty in Canadian history.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Canada was made up of four provinces: Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia; and the Canadian government had its eyes on expanding its boundaries into the Red River Settlement – which today is Manitoba. At that time, the Red River Settlement was part of Rupert’s Land, which the King of England granted to the fur-trading enterprise, the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Louis Riel opens in 1869, when Prime Minister Sir John A. McDonald makes a deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company to govern the Red River Settlement. The residents of the Red River Settlement, of which 80% were Métis, were dissatisfied with the news and concerned about governance.
Eventually, Louis Riel emerges from the confusion, anger and uncertainty, as the leader of, and to some a revolutionary for, the Métis people.
The fight for the Red River Settlement’s independence and self-governance is brought to life by Brown’s clean, simple and charming illustrations. The black and white graphic novel is done in an artistic style reminiscent of Serge’s Tin Tin stories (though Brown insists he got his inspiration from another source). Brown’s style is also similar to the Persepolis graphic novels.
Brown pulls us into Louis Riel’s life with a series of vignettes that focus on the integral moments of his 16-year struggle with the Canadian government. Brown keeps the narrative quick and focused throughout the story. The reader never has to wait long for the significant, emotionally charged moments to reach their climax. Even with the fast pace, the narrative never feels rushed, and none of the story’s important moments feel underwhelming.
Throughout the story, Brown portrays Riel’s highs and lows, and his inspiring – and contentious – moments. This is one of the book’s best qualities: it paints an unbiased portrait of Riel. Is Riel a good man, or is he a bad man? Was he a clever leader, or was he madman? Like any revolutionary, Riel does not perfectly fit the pristine image of a hero. Brown puts both sides of Riel on display, and leaves it up to the reader to make their own judgement on Riel’s character.
Whether you like Riel or not, Brown’s comic will certainly entertain you, while shedding light on an intriguing man, and his involvement in a struggle between two cultures that is not talked about too often in Canada.
Why this is good for students
Brown’s comic isn’t 300 pages of dates, names and places that students have to memorize for a test. Louis Riel brings Canadian history to life.
In one sitting, a student can learn about the important moments of Louis Riel’s struggle with the Canadian government in the same way they can read about Batman’s latest confrontation with The Joker.
Why this is good for teachers
Chester Brown’s Louis Riel is great for teachers who are looking for innovative ways to teach Canadian content. Not only is the engaging text by a Canadian author, but it also covers a chapter in Canadian history that teachers can use to discuss today’s social studies and current events.
While Canada continues the process of reconciling old, but harsh, truths about how indigenous people were persecuted in this country, students can discuss the treatment of indigenous people today, civil and human rights, and Canadian politics.
Louis Riel is a great comic for introducing students to the turbulent relationship between the Canadian government and indigenous people of Canada. Brown highlights many issues, like ownership, land distribution, governance, language, and cultural erosion. The book is thematically rich, and will give any classroom many avenues towards interrogating the treatment of indigenous people in Canada.