Rabble.ca Review - Honore Jaxon

Reviewed by: Rick Salutin

Monday is Ontario's first Family Day. In Manitoba, they're calling the day off Louis Riel Day, which I think is a better idea.

The Metis leader led an 1870 uprising that resulted in Manitoba being a province instead of a fiefdom of the Hudson Bay Co. In 1885 he rose again, which led on to Saskatchewan and Alberta. He was hanged for his contribution to nation-building. A day in his honour is a nice gesture. A single day for family seems chintzy. It's like setting one day aside for love and affection. Oh, right, that was yesterday. 

I thought about it this week while reading historian Donald Smith's book on Honore Jaxon, Louis Riel's "secretary." He was born William Henry Jackson, a Methodist, in 1861 in Toronto. He went to school in Southwestern Ontario and University College at the University of Toronto. 

Then he joined his family out West and soon identified with the Riel vision: a society uniting the strengths of aboriginals, settlers and Metis, both French and English. When fighting broke out in 1885, he was arrested, like Riel, tried, found insane and jailed. He escaped, went south and wound up in Chicago, a booming, seething city. He segued easily into the anarchist, labour politics of the age. He changed his background to Metis and his name to Honore Jaxon (Henry + Jackson). He became a late-19th-century type: the left-wing agitator, lecturer, gadfly, public figure. He travelled to Europe on that ticket and moved in the 1920s to New York, where he became a local character and failed businessman. 

In 1951, he was evicted from a basement apartment where he'd been, aged 88, the janitor. Photos in the New York press showed him on a sidewalk before a mountain of books and papers he'd accumulated on the Metis cause. They were sold for scrap. He died in Bellevue hospital soon after.

I imagine he could get tedious, like anyone with a colourful shtick, after hours or years of peddling it. He was probably a bit crazy and deluded, although I'm not sure that faking an identity was part of it.

It was an era of less documentation and more tolerance for personal reinvention, that's what migration was often about - think of Grey Owl, about whom Donald Smith also wrote a book. And on one point I think Jaxon/Jackson was superb; relations between Canada's original inhabitants and its newcomers. He felt no group's rights negated any other's. He thought all could contribute to a bright, new, inclusive Canada. He didn't believe in the superiority of "our" civilization over that of the "savages." What could have been more savage than 19th-century capitalism? Yet official policy then was "to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no department."

I know that policy is long gone - or has it just transmigrated into the Afghan mission? We are there on a "noble undertaking" (Derek Burney in The Globe, citing the Manley report). We come from afar: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. We will save them from being a "failed state" - as if every state, including Canada, with all our advantages, isn't a seriously failed project. There is no real sign of mutuality or respect for their achievements, like their hisotyr of resisting foreign occupation, from which we could learn a tad. And consider the context: a renewed "clash of civilizations." Honore Jaxon might have had some thoughts, as he hauled out his well-worn spiel.

Or maybe it's more personal. I once lost a stash of books myself, in New York, as a student. The super tossed cartons of my treasured volumes when he cleaned up after a sublet. They took the garbage scow to Staten Island and joined acres of trash there.

At the time, I'd gladly have given my right arm to get them back. I can identify with that forlorn figure, slumped on a Manhattan sidewalk, lamenting the fate of his beloved library.


Originally published in The Globe and Mail, Rick Salutin's column appears every Friday

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