||A Backward Clance
by Douglas Fetherling
THERE WAS a vogue in the 19th century for lawyers to write verse; one of them is supposed to have begun a poem with the word Whereas. It was also the age of the lawyer-editor. Nicholas Flood Davin, an Irishman who lived most of his life in England before coming to Canada, was all three: a poetaster, a competent lawyer (though he lost the only case he ever took after immigrating to Canada -- that of George Bennett, who was hanged for shooting George Brown of the Globe), and a journalist.
In Fleet Street, Davin was thought one of the most dashing reporters of his time. He was wounded during the Franco- Prussian War and once used a hot-air balloon to escape from Paris during the Commune. He emigrated to Toronto in 1872. Later, seeking health and fortune, he moved to what is now Saskatchewan and in 1883 started the Regina Leader. His big scoop (one of the greatest in Canadian history) was a death-cell interview with Louis Riel on the very eve of Riel`s hanging. Perhaps because Davin was fluent in French, the two seemed to enjoy a special rapport, and Riel`s conversation, in which he reiterated his plea of temporary insanity and thanked his captors for their kindness, is one of the most important keys for trying to understand what went on in his mind following the collapse of the North West Rebellion. But there is another clue that is even more eloquent and powerful. It is a book to be found in the National Archives in Ottawa.
For Riel, the end of his dream came on May 12,1885, when 800 Canadian Militia stormed the village of Batoche,
where he waited with fewer than 200 of his Metis fighters. Riel himself escaped Batoche, which in his mind had become a kind of holy city, but he soon had second thoughts about slipping across the border; on May 15 he surrendered to the North West Mounted Police. In Ottawa, the government debated whether he should be tried at Winnipeg (where he might have been acquitted) or at Regina. The government chose Regina. On May 20 -- probably while stopping en route under heavy guard -- Riel took a pencil and jotted down a statement of his beliefs, using what was perhaps the only available paper: the few blank leaves at the end of his Greeklanguage copy of the New Testament. Writing in English, in a clear, rounded, almost adolescent hand, he made half a dozen points, and numbered them.
1. 1 have a passion: I love truth jus
tice and righteousness above all
other things. I pray to God that my
knowledge of truth, of justice and
of righteousness be certain and
2. The conscientious [word illegible]
of the scripture is full of life and of
3. The word of Christ purifies our
4. Let us live and die in perfect har
mony with the Redeemer; and we
will be saved.
5. A preacher who preaches humbly
for the benefit of Paradise is a pre
cious assistance before God.
6. 1 am an unprofitable Servant of
Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Then he signed his name: Louis "David" Riel.
"It`s one of the boldest of all Riel signatures that have survived," says Andre Marcoux of the Doughty Library at the Archives, where the volume is kept, part of the spoils of war.
It`s just a little book, about four by six inches, poorly produced and, at 852 pages, rather stubby. The second half of it is called "The Polymicrian Greek Lexicon to the New Testament; in which the various senses of the words are distinctly explained in English...." Riel probably learned some Greek at the Petit Seminaire de Montreal in the late 1850s and early 1860s. This was a book for someone who wanted to increase his command of the language while maintaining piety at fever pitch.
As a label inside now explains, it was donated to the Crown in 1943 by Isaac Pitblado K.C. of Montreal, whose father, Rev. Cecil Pitblado of Winnipeg, had been chaplain of the Halifax Battalion that helped to put down Riel`s rebellion. How the volume came into the elder Pitblado`s possession isn`t clear, but the Presbyterian minister made it his own by putting his signature in the front.
Perhaps only a quarter of the original binding still remains, but the book has been carefully restored and repaired, and a slip-case has been made to protect it: a reliquary for this relic of Riel to lie in. Handling the object leaves you with an eerie feeling. The words Riel jotted down were undoubtedly much of what he thought about as he waited, month after month, for the floor of the gallows to fall away beneath him, as it finally did, less than six months later.