Thomas Flanagan, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, is no stranger to controversial topics, and it doesn’t get much more controversial than his book Louis ‘David’ Riel: Prophet of the New World. The revised edition of the book, published in 1996, is at first deceptively simple, but the very fact that the publishers chose to make it red speaks to the reader about the subject matter they will find within: red is a very bold colour choice and not one that engenders calm. Riel, possibly one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history, is likewise not a force for peace. Flanagan’s relatively short work presents Riel, not as a mad rebel, but as a disappointed man living in a time of great turbulence for the Metis people, and a man who tried to create hope for those same people. The state of his sanity, Flanagan says, should not be at issue in this work, but even he is hard pressed to present evidence that does not beg the question of insanity on almost every page.
Louis Riel would hardly have been less of a controversial figure if his sanity was not an issue. It is hardly surprising that Riel was having issues with the new federal government of Canada, when he joined the rebellion, and as president of the provisional government of Rupert’s land, he ordered the killing of a civilian man in the company of delegates from the federal government. And this was only the first of many such instances of conflict with government officials. It was not only the government that he had issues with, however. Interspersed among his actions as president, and his incarceration in insane asylums, Flanagan provides a wealth of detail about Riel’s attempts to create his own religion. Starting with a mental break where he started calling himself David Mordecai, a French Jew sent to save his people; Riel began to see himself as a Prophet for his people, leading them into a better time.
Flanagan does an excellent job in presenting his case that Riel was not a mad man (or perhaps not just a mad man) but someone who saw himself as singled out for a special purpose. And in the structuring of his narrative, Flanagan seems to have drawn a straight parallel between his chapters and those of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Preparation in Flanagan’s book could easily be compared with Campbell’s the Call to Adventure, right down to spiritual intervention. In the very first pages of the book, we hear of Riel’s mother’s refusal to marry his father, until she sees a vision that refers to her as a disobedient child. While this could certainly be seen as an argument for mental illness running throughout the family, it is presented in the context of a differentiation between Louis Riel and other mere mortals. A second example, explicitly stated in Flanagan, was a miracle cure of Riel’s sister who was thought to be on death’s door. Flanagan says that Riel would certainly have seen this as a sign that he was destined for greater things. Each hero, says Joseph Campbell, goes through similar trials and tests. Whether we think that Riel’s own journey as presented in this book as just a figment of his imagination, the presentation by Flanagan is compelling. In actual fact, the presentation of Riel as a special man is interesting, and certainly tallies well with the Hero’s Journey – Riel as a sort of Christ figure, but it does not account Riel’s mental state which, despite Flanagan saying he is not looking at that, is pervasive throughout the text.
If there is a fault with the book, however, it is that Flanagan tends to show a touch of sympathy, almost to the point of grasping at straws. Evidence does show that Riel suffered a great deal of disappointment in his life: the loss of his father at a young age, the denial of his marriage to a secret fiancé, being kicked out of the College of Montreal., and his fruitless attempts to gain employment in the federal government would be enough to weigh on anyone. For someone with such initially great prospects, and obviously active mind, these losses may have felt greater than they were to others, particularly when coming in a relatively short period of time. And Riel, already frustrated, has further trouble when he is elected to parliament several times but is never able to take his seat. This evidence as presented by Flanagan, most certainly speaks to a man frustrated, and provides understanding of why he would turn rebel, but it speaks more specifically to why he might be mentally unstable. Given his erratic and apparent mad behavior, it makes sense that he would be placed somewhere where he would not be able to harm himself or others. Here, Flanagan’s attempts to be objective almost seem to turn sympathetic. Riel was committed without the necessary signatures, we are told. This is presented at a time when we see that Riel is completely unhinged, so it makes sense that his friends who cared about him would want to see that he didn’t hurt himself or others.
Thomas Flanagan faced a difficult task when he set out to write about Louis Riel’s religious convictions. It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty that someone is a Prophet. In his book, Flanagan deals with this problem by wrapping everything up in Riel’s beliefs. He believed he was a Prophet, and therefore set about establishing a new religion. The evidence presented in this book supports this position very well. As a reader, however, it is harder to ignore Flanagan’s request in the preface, to ignore questions of Riel’s sanity. Yes, it is easy to see, given the evidence presented, that Riel believed himself to be a direct disciple of God, and acted accordingly (right down to his statement about having to perform miracles. The evidence certainly proves the thesis that Riel believed himself to be a Prophet, but it leaves the reader wondering not whether he was a Prophet, but whether he would have met the psychological definitions for psychological disorders.