Depictions and Dispossession in The Diviners*

Norma Hall, “Cathy,” 1990.


For the visual artist the challenge in producing a portrait is to set down a recognizable, because at a fundamental level true, likeness that reflects both the external features and the inner essence of a subject’s character. Observation is key. In order to recognize inherent qualities, it is necessary to be open to the possibility of discovering something unique and unexpected. The artist attempts to capture this singular revelation and to impart the subliminal as well as the obvious. To communicate these qualities effectively requires engaging in a highly disciplined, at times tortuous, exercise that demands a precise combination of craft, digital dexterity and intellect. Though apparent ease of handling may belie it, constructing a portrait involves making conscious choices. Its success or failure depends on the artist’s ability to choose well [See, for example, “Cathy”, and “James Sinclair”].


Norma Hall, “James Sinclair c. 1850,” 1985.


It has been suggested that The Diviners can be interpreted as a descriptive “portrait of the dispossessed”.[1] The purpose of this paper is to argue that as a writer, Margaret Laurence actually perpetuates acts of dispossession, particularly on the Métis of western Canada; that she is not alone or original in holding a viewpoint congruent with her actions, but merely one of many who inhabit that particular continuum; and that her method exhibits a distinct lack of regard for the culture and heritage of Indigenous people. Ultimately questions are posed regarding her integrity as a writer.

In constructing her characterization of Métis personality, Laurence betrays a lack of direct observation. As with much of the detail that appears in the novel, she does not choose to fill this knowledge gap with pure invention but demonstrates a preference for second-hand information from written sources, freely interpreted. Neither the accuracy of a source, nor of her quotation, seems to concern her. A like view is expressed through the character of Morag, whom Laurence describes as “convinced that fiction was more true than fact. Or that fact was in fact fiction” (33). Thus, in Laurence’s world, a professed “lover … of red-winged black birds” — the actual male of which species conspicuously displays cadmium-red shoulder patches — can ascribe to them the attribute of a “concealed splendour” of “scarlet” that “you would not guess at” (66, 250).[2] Likewise the verse of Ecclesiastes 1:4 can be shifted, presumably as an improvement, to the Book of Job (186-187).[3]


Adapted from Walter Siegmund, detail, “Red-winged Black Bird.” Source: Wikimedia Commons


For her depiction of Métis character, Laurence appears to have turned to the “balanced interpretation” tradition of Canadian history first attempted in The Birth of Western Canada of 1936.[4] Its author, historian George F.G. Stanley, “…. adopted a tragic stance. While praising the New Dominion for its zealous expansion … he still expressed sympathy for … the tragic losses of the Indians and the Métis. The tragedy was their ‘doom’ as a people.”[5] Stanley’s work in Canada was followed by that of W.L. Morton, and finally by Donald Creighton. Once established, this version of “Métis-government relations as told by Canadian academics” proved difficult to dislodge.[6] Although it continues to reflect the Canadian government’s view and has been adopted, promoted and popularized by people such as Laurence, to the Métis and their supporters it remains repugnant, racist propaganda. But, “History is written by the victors.”[7] The following selections are offered as illustrations of the types of “ghosts of those who had never been” (264) that the historians chose to imagine:

[Stanley:] A primitive people, the half-breeds were bound to give way before the march of a more progressive people. It was the recognition of this fact and the gradual realization of their inability to adjust themselves to the new order that kindled the spark of half-breed resentment which unfortunate circumstances fanned into the flame of insurrection.[8]

If Stanley smoothed his interpretation by ascribing any wrinkles in his political argument to a “certain petulance” of the Métis, Morton found his rationalization in the inventions of [anthropologist] Marcel Giraud.[9] A précis of Giraud’s thought is given in Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 by Professor D.N. Sprague Ph.D. of the University of Manitoba’s History Department:

According to Marcel Giraud, the Métis were a ‘mixed-blood’ people incapable of responding to their own best interests. Well-intentioned agents of civilization had tried to educate and mould them to greater competence but had failed. The Métis rejection of proper educational and moral instruction resulted in their decline, ruin, and extinction as a people … The proof of Métis inferiority was in their inability to fight an effective defence. “The attacks, the violent acts of every kind that were now directed against the Métis … aggravated the inherent weaknesses of their nature, of their upbringing and their antecedents, and precipitated the disintegration of their group … Métis reluctance to take up full-time farming was proof that they were “incapable of understanding any plan of life other than nomadism.”[10]

Morton wrote a hearty endorsement:

Giraud presents the Métis four square, in all his vivacity, colour and historical significance, depicts the first beginnings of the mixed race, its swift rise to ‘national’ consciousness, its half century of coherent life, and demonstrates the inevitability of its doom.[11]

Sprague offers this description of Morton’s subsequent progress in fabricating a comprehensive stereotype of the Métis:

Thus Morton abandoned his previous celebration of the “autochthonous” people settled in their neat little “white washed houses clustered on the points and bays of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.” Following Giraud, Morton began to think of the Métis as the misfits of the West, distracted from civilization by hunting and voyaging, activities that “bound them to nomadism and barbarism.” Their riverfront habitations were just “rude log cabins,” places for keeping their “few possessions … But the hunt, the trapline … drew them seasonally away.” They clung stubbornly to their “primitive barabrism: and followed the “easier course” away from field agriculture to the end of their wandering life, defeat, and the scaffold … If the Métis were victimised, they were willing victims, defeated finally by their own defects of character. “it was their tragedy that the instability and violence of [this] … uncertain people, ruined [Riel’s] achievement and destroyed his nation” …. the Métis were incurable nomads …[12]

Virtually concurrent with Morton’s Manitoba – A History, Creighton added his “hostile rendition,” John A. Macdonald, to the record.[13] In it the Métis are found to be a “notoriously suspicious, impatient, and stubborn people.”[14] There remains a comfortable accord with Stanley:

By character and upbringing the half-breeds, no less the Indians, were unfitted to compete with the whites in the competitive individualism of white civilization, or to share with them the duties or responsibilities of citizenship. They did not want to be civilized; they only wanted to survive. To the half-breeds and the Indians, unable even to maintain the advantage of numbers, civilization meant demoralization, decline and ultimate extinction.[15]

Laurence’s Métis characters demonstrate not only her complete compatibility with this view but her debt to it as well. She adopts the interpretation without challenge and adds nothing new to enhance dimensionality. “The myths” are her “reality” and her Métis basically serve as the mouthpieces of Stanley, Giraud et al (415). The tale of Riel’s “ruined achievement” is presented to the reader by Jules: “Well, so here is our guys, not knowing what the hell to do, and the Prophet is trying to tell them, but all they’re actually doing at the moment is hunting, drinking and screwing” (162).

Lazarus presents as the most blatant embodiment of supposed Métis non-adaptability.[16] The various tragedies of Val, Paul, Piquette, her two children, and Jules underscore the point and are entirely compatible with the historical projections cited above.[17] In accepting and perpetuating the stereotype, Laurence ignores the legions of blood and bone Métis who had begun the process of demonstrating the ridiculousness of such assertions generations earlier, “… so that go where one may in all these regions [throughout the territories, Canada and Columbia] the ubiquitous descendants … may be found, many occupying leading and influential positions. [Including such notables as ] … Sir Edward Clouston, Bart, of the Bank of Montreal”; John Norquay, premier of Manitoba; Alexander Logan, longstanding mayor of early Winnipeg; and Nina Cameron Graham, “the first woman to graduate as a civil engineer”.[18]

Although it is observed that there is much that “is not passed on with the genes,” Laurence has Morag and Jules endorse the concept of racial peculiarity for the Métis (231). They willingly interpret Pique’s wanderlust as the uncontrollable, compulsive and inherited nomadism of her father. Although her mother also travels extensively as the novel unfolds, apparently a distinction lies in its purposeful nature. Morag is beset by worry because she can discern no clear purpose behind Pique’s travels, and perceives her to be unlike other people’s children who “did not wander to God knows where” (107, 109). Jules, a Laurence Métis, serves to lend credence to a stereotype that denigrates actual Métis: “Well, I guess she had to go. She comes by it naturally. I guess it isn’t your fault” (69). Pique is like her father, “moving through the world like a dandelion seed carried by the wind” (293, 464, 470). “I can’t stay in one place forever … I stay for a while, then I want to move on. Women like to stay put. But I can’t. I just can’t”(293-294).

According to Laurence, Pique’s progress must be a source of anxiety to Morag because she is ‘other’ to her, one of those “mysterious” Métis headed for “Unknown destinies, far and probably lethal places” (79, 107, 180). Pique is like the “Ancient-seeming” Heron, “unknowing that it was speeding not only towards individual death but probably the death of its kind” (380). Morag has doubts about the wisdom of having had the child: “maybe I should’ve seen it would be too difficult for her,” but appears resigned to the fact that nothing can be done to help Pique minimize the risks: “I’m not God and I’m not responsible for everything” (111). Pique’s future is determined by her “blood” (27, 69, 378). The implied hope seems to be that something like a “strength of conviction” existing in Morag’s blood will cancel the ‘doom’ conferred by the Métis quotient and the ‘tragedy’ will be forestalled (61).

Thankfully, the actual Métis of Canada are normal human beings, no more prone to an excess of dangerous travel, or mass decimation, than any other population. Consequently their friends and relations are not subject to the type of torment Laurence supposes. The myth of Métis nomadism was developed to support an historical argument that adopted a “working assumption of government good faith” and remains politically expedient.[19] According to Sprague, one of the historians demonstrably “committed to exposing the racism and injustice inherent in Canada’s intent”[20]:

The principle difficulty with the myth [of Métis nomadism] is its failure to account for the amendments that transformed sections 31 and 32 of the Manitoba Act. Another of the myth’s inadequacies is that the Métis were in no sense “nomadic” before 1870.[21]

Pique’s character also furnishes an opportunity to advance an argument for cultural homogeneity. Laurence attempts to demonstrate that a Métis, or presumably any other person from a culturally composite family, is liable to experience inner conflict and feel “split” (373). At the same time Laurence promotes the misconception that a Métis’ perception of self includes that of being “part-Indian” (373). In fact the Métis constitute a distinct group, “A native population unlike any of the others,” hence their designation as a “New Nation.”[22] To be a Métis is to welcome the opportunities that cultural diversity offers.

To be a Métis is to be eminently educable and aware of one’s heritage. Michif, the “French-Cree” that Laurence alludes to, is a “marker of ethnic-group identity”; a unique, completely separate and complex language that combines French nouns with Cree verbs and includes English, Saulteaux and Ojibway words as well. No loss of language is indicated if speakers of Michif cannot converse in either Cree or French.[23] To be Métis is to reject characterizations that include having “tainted blood”, being morally or physically “dirty”; mentally unstable; inordinately susceptible to self-destruction by alcohol or other chemical agency; licentious; irresponsible parents; or deserving of being subjected to gratuitous, stale racism expressed as third-person second-hand so as to seem innocuous.[24] Laurence has Pique say, “I don’t guess you would know how it feels” (373). The description of the hatred directed at “kids hitching” would have been an apt description of what encounters with racism are like:

They’d like you to be dead. Really dead, for real. It’s the anger that scared me … Because they don’t know it’s there inside them … They think they’re sweet reasonableness, and it’s you that’s in the wrong, just by being, and not being like them, or looking like them, or wanting their kind of life. It’s the anger you can feel, even if they don’t lay a hand on you. It’s like-well, visible. You can see and taste and smell it (252).

In the novel, Laurence makes reference to numerous other writers and works — primarily European — Hopkins, Dostoyevsky, Milton, Kipling, Woolf, Das Kapital, The Clans and Tartans of Scotland, Elected Silence etc.[25] The official histories that deal with the Métis of the Canadian west are acknowledged, albeit obliquely, through the character of Morag.[26] The unofficial sources that Laurence must be suspected of having mined are not. Principal among these is Women of Red River, a collection of oral histories told by Métis women and compiled by W.J. Healy in 1923.

It is not difficult to see how the collection could have functioned as a source of inspiration, equal to if not surpassing that of The Backwoods of Canada, for much that is pivotal to the novel. Healy’s observation that,

What the women suffered, coming in closer and more wounding contact than the men with the cruelly hard realities of life in such conditions, was known in its fullness to themselves alone, and can be realized only in part by the pioneer women of later times,

seems the obvious point of departure for Morag’s musings on the “Appalling,” “unthinkable” lives of the women “Pioneers oh pioneers” (106-107).[27] Then there is Heally’s description of the tales told by the dispossessed of Scotland:

Held as family memories by their descendants, the recollections of the first Selkirk settlers are cherished traditions of fortitude and unconquerable faith. Men and women who had been evicted from their small holdings in the Highlands, had to gather their children and their few belongings, and bid farewell to their native glens and hills. Men and women still living remember their grandfathers and grandmothers telling off the evictions as children in the clearing of great areas in Sutherlandshire, that sheep might take the place of crofters. Families were turned out of their homes, their household things put out of doors, and the little shielings burned to the ground to leave the people roofless and unsheltered and thus compel them to go away.[28]

Laurence’s description of McRaith’s painting is easily visualized as a transposition of The Scream into Healy’s setting:


Edvard Munch, “The Scream,” 1893. Source: Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia


Some of the human eyes seem distanced, distorted — no, not distorted; the flesh mirrors the spirit’s pain, a greater pain than the flesh even if burned could feel. A grotesque of a woman, ragged, plaid-shawled, eyes only unbelieving empty sockets, mouth open in a soundless cry that might never end, and in the background, a burning croft (402).

Laurence’s alter ego, Morag, expresses frustration over another author’s effort, “How come this guy doesn’t have more imagination … Plenty of good names in the telephone directory” (311). It seems Laurence’s “imagination” led to Women of Red River. The names of prominent Métis families that it features — the which do not appear among the lists of Selkirk Settlers — were assigned by Laurence to her Scottish characters.[29] It is difficult to know whether this rearrangement was deliberate. As these are reminiscences of Métis women about their families and community, for their families and community, distinctions of race were not considered as being worthy of note. Possibly Laurence missed the fact that she had run across actual Métis because she had so completely accepted the fictitious image.

Logan is a Métis family name.[30] The Logans featured in Women of Red River were descendants of Hudson’s Bay Company traders who married First Nations and Métis women “à la façon du pays.[31] Gunn is also a Métis family name. The Gunns were Scottish and Métis furtraders who married Métis daughters of other furtrade era families.[32] Alisdair Gunn, “Morag’s grandfather, who came here a long time ago and built the house and started the farm when probably nothing was here except buffalo grass and Indians” (16), had a book collection that can also be found in the actual Métis household of Donald Gunn.[33] Interestingly, Janet Gunn, Donald’s daughter, born 1846, “after her marriage … lived at Riding Mountain.”[34] Her memories provide a marked contrast in lifestyle to that of the Laurence Métis:

… from her childhood she had lived in an atmosphere of education and was surrounded by books. She was her father’s constant companion and helper. “I went with him on his botanizing and geologizing expeditions. I was always fond of learning. I began studying Latin and French when I was quite a young girl.”[35]

Other Métis family names found in Women of Red River and transmuted in The Diviners include: Cameron, Christie, MacLeod, and Macpherson. Duncan also appears in both books but not as a Métis name. Cummings and McRae do not appear in Women of Red River but are Métis names.[36]

The name Tonnerre, which translates into English as “thunder,” although identified as belonging to a “halfbreed from the valley,” in The Diviners, is not an authentic Métis name — “there is no Tonnerre listed” (159).[37] Laurence may have derived it from that of John Tanner, an explorer and fur trader named by Healy. The Tanner family was Métis. Jules’ nickname, ‘Skinner,’ derived from his ability to prepare animal hides efficiently, sounds a resonant echo.[38]

Women of Red River, also supplies authority for “Bois Brulés” being “… a nickname which the French-speaking people of mixed blood used themselves, proud of their ‘burnt wood’ hue of skin …”[39] Oddly, Laurence has Morag react negatively to her child’s name, “she cannot actually call the child by the name Piquette. She calls her, instead, Pique,” presumably because of associations with the incredibly insensitive play on words that Laurence inserts into Morag’s thoughts at the fire scene.[40] Yet Morag is credited both with naming the child and with feeling that names are “important”: “I don’t know why names seem so important to me. Yes, I guess I do know. My own name, and feeling I’d come from nowhere” (311).

Names are of central importance in the traditions of the Métis. They function in one sense as a means of expressing the clear certainty of origin; the where, when, how and why of a nation. One of the earliest distinguishing characteristics of an emerging Métis culture was the phenomena of the first-generation children’s consciousness “… of their paternity. The father’s name was remembered, even if the father was long gone.”[41] Today it is not unusual to find the given and family names of ancestral Métis, passed down as a means of preserving genealogical information by way of oral tradition, eight generations later. Métis names are Métis history.

The act of naming holds tremendous appeal for Laurence’s Morag who credits a white settler with ordering the wilds: “Imagine naming flowers which have never been named before. Like the Garden of Eden. Power! Ecstasy! (186). Significantly, the statement contains an absolute negation of thousands of years of human habitation. Likewise Laurence’s act of “naming” her characters — in reality an act of renaming by appropriation of Métis ancestry — is a denial of heritage; a cultural insult. It is an act of aggression. The words of a Wendat speaker from the 1600’s are an apt comment on the genocidal aspect of this sort of ethnic chauvinism: “It is not those drinks [alcohol] that take away our lives, but your writings; for since you have described our country, our rivers, our lands and our woods, we are all dying, which did not happen until you came here.”[42]

Laurence’s appropriation is not limited to the Métis culture. It appears also in her attempt to embrace the “immeasurably ancient” (402). In one example, Morag’s misapplication of the concept of totemism indicates either disdain or lack of interest in the original set of beliefs.[43] This serious portion of a larger set of spiritual understandings is wrongly equated with the quite different concept of ‘sympathetic magic,’ a favourite notion of the culturally ‘superior’ looking to ascribe and interpret as ‘superstitious’ the behaviours and belief systems of ‘primitive’ populations. In terms of Aboriginal culture, a more accurate assessment of Morag’s collection of photographs, “kept for what is hidden in them”, would be to identify them as “aides-mémoire.[44] Fittingly, Morag expresses the typical European distrust of the oral means of recording and recalling history, citing as “crazy,” “quite untrue,” and “invented,” her own memories, until the hesitancy of “I must’ve made it up” gives way to the assessment of: “totally invented.”[45]

Ironically, Morag reject’s Christie’s stories as being inventions as well. All versions of the past become suspect. “A popular misconception is that we can’t change the past — everyone is constantly changing their own past, recalling it, revising it. What really happened? A meaningless question. But one I keep trying to answer, knowing there is no answer” (70). Yet a comparison with Margaret McWilliams’ account of the Selkirk Settlers’ experience indicates that Christie’s tale has in fact changed very little “in the telling” (362). In her unsophisticated but colourful treatise, Manitoba Milestones, of 1928, McWilliams provides a romanticized tale complete with unsubstantiated embellishments that seem to have lent much to “Christie’s first Tale of Piper Gunn” and especially “Christie’s Tale Of Piper Gunn and the Long March” (94). As in the first story, McWilliams outlines the “strenuous efforts made to hinder the work of recruiting,” and the “many wild, exaggerated stories of the new world” that fail to faze Christie’s protagonist. Her description of the third party of Selkirk settlers supplies for the second tale: the vessel plagued with typhus, “the dreaded ship fever”; people dying en route; and the nervous captain debarking the settlers, “With a disregard of duty and orders rare in the Company’s service,” at Prince of Wales’ Fort instead of carrying them to York factory as per the terms of his contract. The overwintering is described and the difficulty of procuring food. Even Christie’s estimate of the distance for the long walk begun in April to the supplies can find its origin here.[46] If the distance McWilliams furnishes to York is combined with that given for the journey to Red River then it would indeed have been “maybe a thousand or so miles.” The most telling parallel however is that of “The pipes.”[47] McWilliams writes, “No hardships could daunt these courageous Scots … We read with a thrill that in the middle of the long procession there marched a Highland piper playing to keep their spirits up.”[48] It is only when Morag asks, “Did they fight the halfbreeds and Indians, Christie?” and he replies, “Did they ever. Slew them in their scores, girl” (97) that the tale varies from McWilliams’ version. The stories of the “extreme kindness” of the Indians and Métis at Pembina are omitted.[49]

There is a problem with Laurence practicing the “Weaving” of “fabrications” out of other people’s history (33). In many indigenous cultures there are stories you cannot tell because they are not your own. It is not necessarily a numinous taboo. Sometimes it is just considered rude. These are not Laurence’s stories. In order to inject into her fictional world “the irony of the Scots and Métis fighting, since both were dispossessed,” Laurence commits the faux pas of inflicting insult on the people to whom the stories still belong.[50] Laurence’s description: “A daft profession. Wordsmith. Liar more likely,” indicates a cynicism regarding story-telling that gets at the root of what leads to her commission of this type of cultural transgression (33). People reliant on oral traditions do not share her point of view. There is another way of telling ‘tales’. In a culture where it is recognized that life is tenuous and often short, and that physical possession is not necessarily a permanent condition, it is crucial to make an honest attempt to preserve and communicate orally that which it is important to know. It is a matter of survival. A story is something to be respected. From this perspective, it is one thing for Laurence or Morag to invent their own memories and stories but quite another to twist those of others. As MacLachlan warns: “They don’t want it rewritten Morag. They want it as it is” (170).

Laurence does not provide a portrait of the Métis. She fails to supply accurate detail or correctly identify their essence. Like the First Nations of Canada, it can be said of the Métis that they “were not wedded to their past nor were they blind to the future.”[51] They chose many and varied routes to accomplish their own destinies. Just as in any other population there were successes and failures and lots of room for debating which was which. The defeat of Lazarus is not representative of the Métis experience. It is representative of the type of proof that the ‘victors’ of Canadian history needed in order to feel benevolent. The perpetuation of offensive stereotypes exhibits a disregard for the actual Métis that is hurtful. Laurence does not allow actual Métis history to exist even as an under-drawn palimpsest of her work. It is completely wiped away to be replaced by what is a best a caricature, like the fantastic illustrations made by European artists of the ‘wonders’ communicated to them of the new world, where beavers could be found constructing whole cities.[52] What Laurence fosters through her

Herman Moll, map detail, “A New and Exact Map of the King of Great Britain on ye Continent of North America,” London, 1715, copied from Nicolas de Fer’s map of 1698.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons See also Library and Archives Canada. “Map Imitations,” Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery,” Collections Canada,


work is the effective razing of the Métis heritage; dispossession of the past as effective as that which the character Brooke imposes upon Morag.[53] To accept that Laurence is trying to create a sense of Canadian identity and that the Diviners should be seen as a ‘Canadian Romance’, is to allow “The realities of purposeful dispossession [to] recede from view — just as the perpetrators of the original frauds intended.”[54]

Morag wonders whether she is a “scavenger” or a “diviner … if either” (230). Which was Laurence? Timothy Findley describes how she once read aloud: “She ended with the piece about Christie’s First Tale of Piper Gunn … This is how books are made … speaking entirely from the heart …” (494). Had he been misled? Did he understand her work to be fictive as in “creating a world of imaginary fictions,” or only in the sense of adopting and perpetuating a “conventionally accepted falsehood”?[55] Was Laurence guilty of resorting to “magic tricks … of a different order” than anyone expected (447)? If Morag’s musings are any indication, then Laurence seems full of self-doubt. An “Escapist, Wordsmith, forging screens,” she wishes to be a “diviner,” but like Morag, something is missing: “Do I only pretend to see, in writing? (268, 438); “I guess with one part of my mind I find it hard to believe in, but with another part I believe in it totally” (34). How deep is the cynicism of the “Black Celt” (246)? In answer to “What means scavenger?” does she own any of the definition that includes feeding off the dead and dealing in filth (40)? When confronted by Findley’s judgment: “The only kind of book that daunts … is a book that lies: a book that clouds or obscures the truth with sentimental claptrap or mind-eating platitudes” (492), does Laurence “feel like a murderer concealing the victim” (357)?

It is as though the portrait we are left with is actually one of Laurence, like

… a snake shedding its skin every so often, but with all the old skins still bunched around it. You live inside the creature for awhile, so it comes as a shock to find you’re living now in one of the husked-off skins, and sometimes you can touch and know about the creature as it is now and sometimes you can’t (186).

What do the skins reveal? A powerful but benevolent Canadian Icon? A “Bitch Duchess” who destroys to build in her own image (58)? A writer terrified at the prospect of not living up to that image, desperate to provide what the public wants in order to continue to get what she needs? “She would never know whether [her writings] worked or not, or to what extent. That wasn’t given to her to know. In a sense, it did not matter. The necessary doing of the thing — that mattered” (477). Do the needs of the creatively driven confer a mantle of innocence to whatever is produced? If an artist is aware of “The Infinite capacity of humans to wound one another without meaning or wanting to,” is it their responsibility to care?

* Norma Hall, undergraduate essay on Margaret Laurence, The Diviners (1974; reprint, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988), submitted to Eng. 4.289 Canadian Literature (post 1967), University of Manitoba, 11 February 2000.  It appears here with only minor changes: while the page references to The Diviners have been retained (in reduced size), all other embedded references have been converted to footnotes to enhance readability. Here and there words have been added in square brackets to clarify. Otherwise it is as it was — the best I could manage as a first-year student pressed for time, as all undergrads know, and unfamiliar with the mysteries of syntax, punctuation, and literary criticism. In my shock at witnessing uncritical acceptance Laurence’s depiction of Métis character by classmates (and their hostility towards any suggestion that it was perpetuating an unfair stereotype — a hostility expressed covertly in unkind whispers and overtly by their adjusting the seating arrangement so as to leave empty desks between me, one courageous young woman who remained seated next to me, and them), I was perhaps less inclined to be sympathetic to Laurence that I ought to have been.  This was her last Manawaka novel, and her suicide suggests that she was in fact deeply tormented. The ‘sins’ of her characters appear to have been projections of her own. Oddly enough, Simpson and Wemyss are Métis names. See “Margaret Laurence: The First Lady of Canadian Literature, 1926-1983,”; As an instructor, David Cuthbert was brilliant, the seating arrangement affair was resolved swiftly, everybody picked up where we had left off without residual ill-will, and I was grateful for the opportunity to write out my angst without censure.


[1] David Cuthbert,  lecture, Eng. 4.289 Canadian Literature (post 1967), 403 Tier Building, University of Manitoba, 26 January 2000.

[2] See W. Earl Godfrey, with John A. Crosby, and S.D. MacDonald, illus., The Birds of Canada (Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1966; revised edition, 1986), pl. 67, 548.

[3] The Holy Bible: Old and New Testaments in the King James Version (New York: Regency Publishing House, 1976).

[4] D.N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 (Waterloo ON.: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1988), 2. Google Books limited preview: 2.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 13, 4-9.

[7] Cuthbert,  lecture, Eng. 4.289, 26 January 2000.

[8] George F.G. Stanley, The Birth Of Western Canada: A History of The Riel Rebellions (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1936; reprint 1978), 49.

[9] Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 4-5.

[10] Ibid., 5-6.

[11] W.L. Morton quoted in Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 6.

[12] Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 6-8.

[13] Ibid., 10.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Stanley, The Birth Of Western Canada, vii-viii.

[16] See Laurence, Diviners, 79, 83, 151, 156, 288-289, 294.

[17] See Laurence, Diviners, 173-176, 295-296, 362-363, 455-456, 472.

[18] Isaac Cowie, The Company of Adventurers: A Narrative of Seven Years in the Service of the Hudson’s Bay Company during 1867–1874, On the Great Buffalo Plains with Historical and Biographical notes and comment (Toronto: William Briggs, 1913), 110; see also reference to Sir Edward Clouston, W.J. Healy, Women of Red River, Being a Book Written from the Recollections of Women Surviving from the Red River Era (Winnipeg: Women’s Canadian Club, 1923), 145, 132, 261. “Family has Fine Scholastic Record,” Winnipeg Tribune, Friday, 17 May 1946. Manitoba Women’s Directorate, poster, “Engendering Change: Women Who’ve Made Sure Things Don’t Just Stay the Same(Winnipeg: Manitoba Women’s Directorate, c. 1990).

[19] Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 16.

[20] J.L. Finlay and D.N. Sprague, “Extinguishment of ‘Indian Title’,” Chapter 16, The Structure of Canadian History (1997), revised text “16:4,” posted online 15 November 1999, [no longer an active link, but the chapter can be accessed via (4 May 2010)].

[21] D.N. Sprague, and R.P. Frye, The Genealogy of the First Metis Nation: The Development and Dispersal of the Red River Settlement, 1820–1900 (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 1983), 28 n. 69.

[22] Ibid., 11, 13.

[23] See Laurence, Diviners, 153, 264; Peter Bakker, “A Language of Our Own”: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Métis (Amsterdam: Drukkerij Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1988), 1, 3, 7-8, 12, 23, Sarah G. Thomason, Contact Languages, A Wider Perspective (Amsterdam: John Banjamins Publishing Company, 1996), 2-4.

[24] Cuthbert,  lecture, Eng. 4.289, 2 February 2000; and Laurence, Diviners, on Métis blood 469; Métis dirt 79, 148, 446; crazy Métis 363, 472; drunk or doped Métis 68, 111-112, 142, 173-174, 288, 302; lewd Métis 79, 155, 162; Métis parenting 79, 142, 173-174, 295, 463; racism directed at Métis 290, 316, 447.

[25] See Laurence, Diviners, 195, 203, 205, 210, 242. Robert Bain, The Clans and Tartans of Scotland (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1983).

[26] Laurence, Diviners, 145.

[27] Healy, Women of Red River, 5.

[28] Ibid., 4-5.

[29] See Ibid., 53.

[30] See Laurence, Diviners, 25; Healy, Women of Red River, 252; Sprague and Frye, Genealogy of the First Metis Nation, Table 1.

[31] Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670–1870 (Winnipeg: Watson and Dwyer Publishing, 1980), 4.

[32] See Laurence, Diviners, 15; Healy, Women of Red River, 158; Sprague and Frye, Genealogy of the First Metis Nation, Table 1.

[33] See Laurence, Diviners, 51; Healy, Women of Red River, 160.

[34] Healy, Women of Red River, 161.

[35] Ibid., 160.

[36] See Laurence, Diviners, 40, 38, 23, 98, 40, 176, 169; Healy, Women of Red River, 34, 25, 84, 63, 34; Sprague and Frye, Genealogy of the First Metis Nation, Table 1.

[37] See, for example, Sprague and Frye, Genealogy of the First Metis Nation, Table 1.

[38] See Laurence, Diviners, 77; Healy, Women of Red River, 6; Sprague and Frye, Genealogy of the First Metis Nation, Table 1.

[39] See Laurence, Diviners, 175; Healy, Women of Red River, 13.

[40] See Laurence, Diviners, 296, 327.

[41] Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties,” 97.

[42] Sebastien Cramoisy, “La Jeune’s Relation, 1636,” The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791 vol. IX, ed. Reuben Gold Thwaite (New York: Pageant Book Company, 1959), 207.

[43] See Laurence, Diviners, 14.

[44] Cuthbert,  lecture, Eng. 4.289, 26 January 2000; George F.G. Stanley, “As Long as the Sun Shines and water Flows: An Historical Comment,” introductory essay in As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows: A Reader in Canadian Native Studies, ed. A.L. Getty, and Antoine S. Lussier (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983), 1.

[45] See Laurence, Diviners, 16-19, See also Stanley,  “As Long as the Sun Shines,” 1.

[46] Margaret McWilliams, Manitoba Milestones (Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1928), 44-46; Laurence, Diviners, 94-96.

[47] Laurence, Diviners, 95.

[48] McWilliams, Manitoba Milestones, 45.

[49] Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State: With Some Account of the Native Races and Its General History to the Present Day (reprint, Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1972), 23-24; McWilliams, Manitoba Milestones, 43-44.

[50] Cuthbert, lecture, Eng. 4.289, 26 January 2000.

[51] Arthur J. Ray, I Have Lived Here Since the World Began: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Native People (Toronto: Lester Publishing Limited and Key Porter Books, 1996), 212.

[52] Ray, I Have Lived Here Since the World Began, 47.

[53] See Laurence, Diviners, 246.

[54] Cuthbert, lecture, Eng. 4.289, 31 January 2000; Finlay and Sprague, “Chapter 16,” Structure of Canadian History, [no longer an active link, but the chapter can be accessed via (4 May 2010)].

[55] “Fiction,” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English 5th ed. (1969) 449. See also Timothy Findley, “Afterword,” in The Diviners by Margaret Laurence (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988).

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