Canadian mystery novel provides truth about Aboriginal life

Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul

David Adams Richards

Doubleday Canada, 304 pages, $32.95

Reviewed by Joseph Quesnel

Sam Gualtieri is a good example of how innocent bystanders are caught up in a seemingly unstoppable “picking sides” mentality that often leads to tragedy.

Gualtieri is a non-Aboriginal man who built houses, four of which were in a subdivision on contested First Nations lands in Caledonia, Ontario. The parcel of land has been under occupation/reclamation (depending on your interpretation of history) since 2006 by Six Nations protesters.

In a confrontation with natives occupying his building site, Richard Smoke, an Aboriginal, beat Gualtieri with a two-by-four, inflicting permanent brain damage and nearly killing him. The Six Nations land claim may or may not be vindicated. But as Ontario Superior Court Judge Alan Whitten said in his ruling: “There was no necessity for this crime… it didn’t advance any ideology or idea.”

Gualtieri was the wrong person, at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul by David Adam Richards is a similar tragedy where a young Micmac youth is killed and his death is quickly capitalized upon by forces beyond him. The other tragic figure in this book is Roger Savage, a white man who lives on land the reserve claims as its own and is quickly blamed for Penniac’s death.

What happens to Roger Savage is similar to Gualtieri’s experience.

Richards is a Canadian novelist known for his sense of realism. In this case, he writes what he knows best: the Miramichi River Valley of northern New Brunswick.

Incidents takes place in the summer of 1985 when Hector Penniac dies in the hold of a ship when a load of pulpwood falls on him. The ship is called the Lutheran, implying virtues and sins of Protestant theology. Roger Savage, a loner living on contested reserve land, was at the dock and becomes the main suspect. In due course, he too is killed. At one level this is a detective story: Chief Amos Paul develops a hunch that Savage is innocent and the story follows his private investigation into the murder as conflict envelops the small reserve community. The story shifts from 1985 to the present, as RCMP officer and Chief Amos Paul’s grandson, Markus Paul, deciphers the detective work of his grandfather.

Richards re-introduces the conservative conviction that Man is fallible and we should entertain a healthy distrust of grandiose schemes that aim to change or improve the state of things. Many mistakenly view conservatism as being only about free markets and individual rights. Historically, what divides conservatism from liberalism is that the latter views man as “perfectible” and institutions as the source of evil. The character in the novel closest to Richards’s view of the world is Amos Paul:

             “All of this made Amos feel uncomfortable. Especially how this man said the word progress. For Amos was one of those old-fashioned men seen in every race, who do not believe in progress when it concerns the hearts of men. He saw that every generation believed they would be the generation to set things straight, and no generation did.”

As the crisis over Hector’s death evolves, the demand for action and moral clarity leaves no room for complexity or nuance. Many within the reserve gravitate away from Chief Amos Paul as they want easy answers, not Paul’s wisdom.

The novel depicts the problems inherent in missing nuance and complexity in search for a social cause. Blinded by what is known as “white liberal guilt,” protesters and academics are depicted as “useful idiots” in the hands of those who have manipulated the death of Hector Penniac for their own ends.

Richards is very unsympathetic to the media, as seen through the character of Max Doran, an ambitious liberal reporter. At the beginning, Chief Paul becomes nervous when the media become involved. Media preference for easy narratives and good guys and bad guys is a problem when the real story is more complicated. Biased coverage of Aboriginal – or any other issue – can distort the discourse. This reviewer can sympathize as he is an experienced print reporter, with a background in Aboriginal coverage. However, Richards conflates all media too easily. He is guilty of the charge he levels against others, as he ignores nuance within media coverage itself.

The author is not insensitive to First Nations struggles. But in literary terms he is screaming to bright-eyed idealists to give their heads a shake and realize Aboriginals are human beings, flawed and prone to bad conduct like everyone. Supporting indigenous struggles does not mean that Aboriginal peoples are never the “bad guys” who manipulate their own. It is a moral tale directed to the naïve who romanticize Aboriginal peoples.

All humans are flawed. Why romanticize one group over another? In modern Canada, one group that is romanticized and over-defended is indigenous people. “White guilt” due to sins of the majority in centuries past requires overlooking Aboriginal humanity for the sake of supporting particular high profile struggles. First Nations have been treated very badly historically, but that does not require their “white supporters” to deny Aboriginal agency and humanity, to pretend that historical sins explain all present-day Aboriginal politics and individual behaviour.

But, one should resist the temptation to view all First Nations struggles this way. There certainly are rogues exploiting causes, but there are many indigenous peoples motivated by good causes. Justice for indigenous peoples often gets obscured by automatically assuming the issues (notably land claims) are solely about money or power. Certainly some do benefit, but this ignores the larger question of whether the land claim is just to start with.

Incidents is about history and how to correct past injustices. Many reserve residents want to blame Roger Savage for the sins of colonial Canada. In one part, Markus Paul is discussing the explosive situation with Chief Paul and young Markus recounts all of the racism of the past to his grandfather, to demonize the white community. Markus mentions how apartheid in South Africa is modeled after reserves, but Chief Paul quips, “Well, yes – but we can’t blame apartheid on Roger Savage, can we?” Individuals do not deserve punishment for the wrongs of their ancestors. One can see how blaming the past can interfere in the present, especially with a tendency of some First Nations to blame the residential schools experience for every bad thing that happens.  Similarly, corrupt conduct by some chiefs cannot be dismissed by referring to colonialism. It is bad conduct, pure and simple.

Knowing the past is critical and acknowledging past wrongs is important, but it does not excuse the descendants of those wronged from dealing with their own issues. Or, as Chief Paul puts it:

         “I am an old man. I don’t know what to tell you about letting things go – but how could we ever get revenge without burning the entire roof off the world? We are the only  people who can make peace now. No white can do it – it is in our our power only, and so we have to, in order to live.”

But, Incidents fails to grapple with dealing with contemporary justice for Aboriginals. Many modern problems of First Nations (such as being located on isolated reserves and undermining of indigenous governments and cultures) are rooted in the past. In Bad Medicine: A Judge’s Struggle for Justice in First Nation Community, author John Reilly, a retired Alberta judge, struggled to educate the public on how many First Nation personal dysfunctions, including crimes, are rooted in dysfunctional home environments. Reilly flipped sentencing provisions in the Criminal Code calling for sensitivity towards Aboriginal offenders on their head by saying that dysfunctional governance, nepotism, and stealing money earmarked for healing programs should be included in the analysis of the sentencing guidelines when evaluating an individual Native’s life circumstances.

Incidents is a highly readable and excellent novel. It teaches us about the human condition while entertaining us. It is a good read for those interested in murder mysteries and the joy of discovering “who did it.” The unfolding of what actually happened in the fourth hold of the Lutheran reads like a page turner. Chief Amos unravels the “case” of Penniac’s death, leading to some key confessions in the end.  A less capable author wanting to convey the themes of Machiavellian politics, universal human frailties, or a complex moral universe, would have thrown together a far less interesting novel. There are times when Richards’ themes become too obvious, but they are by and large hidden in a good story.  At the same time, it should be required reading for those seeking to understand the misunderstandings inherent in relations between Aboriginal peoples and newcomers.

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