David Adams Richards,
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2011

304 pages

Incidents is a profound and remarkable novel. Ostensibly, it is a murder mystery in which the title character, a Mi’kmaq RCMP officer named Markus Paul, seeks to unravel the truth behind a mysterious death that has remained unsolved for more than 20 years. The story weaves back and forth through time as Markus struggles to discover who actually caused the death of a teenage Mi’kmaq boy in the hold of a ship loading pulpwood on the Miramichi River. This event set off a cascade of events beginning with the wrongful accusation against a non-Aboriginal man, Roger Savage; it climaxed with a blockade and further tragedy in the community.

This murder mystery serves as a lens through which David Adams Richards illuminates complex contemporary issues: the lingering effects of colonization, band council governance, systemic racism and the invidious nature of prejudice. A masterful storyteller, Richards has created a narrative that confronts what is arguably the most pressing sociopolitical issue in Canada today – the tenuous nature of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations.

Often labelled a regional writer, Richards is better described as a modern-day Dickens or Tolstoy. Like them, he creates nuanced and complex characters through whom the reader is obliged to grapple with major themes common to human experience. Like the best 19th-century realist writers, Richards has a deep understanding of place. So much so that the Miramichi Valley becomes almost another character in the novel. His characters are shaped by the Miramichi; however, his weaving of universal themes into the story allows him to escape the boundaries that limit parochial authors.

One such theme is seen through Markus Paul’s reflection on C.S. Lewis’s notion of the “Inner Ring,” the idea that all human beings struggle to be accepted as part of a community, whether it be the workplace, school or reserve. The desire to be included can warp judgement and compel us to decisions that we would not make otherwise. Throughout the novel, the fear of exclusion drives the characters. Some characters withstand this pressure; they suffer from isolation as a result. Markus Paul’s grandfather, Chief Amos Paul, resists the pressure from other members of the reserve to accuse Roger Savage as the murderer. Amos Paul’s decision to search for the truth leads to his being ostracized and isolated within his reserve community. His choice resonates within his grandson, and Markus is driven to discover the truth behind the murder.

In their desire for social acceptance, other characters do not resist the pressure to conform. Max Doran, an ambitious young journalist, accepts the band consensus that Roger Savage was guilty. That, plus careerism, leads him to distort the story surrounding the murder. By focusing on the choices made by individual characters, Richards frustrates the reader’s expectations of who are good, who are not. Richards has created a novel that effectively illustrates the idea that all human beings, regardless of race or other constraints on our lives, have the capacity to exercise agency.

The idea of individual agency permeates the novel. Richards is preoccupied with how his characters navigate the consequences of their actions: “It is not the Conibear trap that kills the beaver, but the drowning that follows.” Individual integrity and character are tested throughout the novel. And the characters found wanting suffer the consequences of their actions. This sounds bleak. However, another universalist theme resonates throughout the novel – the idea of redemption.

Several of the characters who have made poor choices are offered a second chance. Once he has discovered the truth behind the murder, Markus Paul offers Max Doran an opportunity to write, to cure his writer’s block and redeem his career. For the former journalist, this olive branch is an opportunity to set his life on a new track. Markus’s offer is a window into a greater theme. This opportunity for redemption, offered by an Aboriginal man, signals an opportunity for healing the centuries of broken trust between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Canada. The first step to healing a broken relationship is recognition by one party that it has wronged another. Only then can redemption be offered, sins forgiven and a new relationship forged.

At one level, Incidents is a simple story of one man’s search for truth about an unsolved murder. However, on another level, it is a masterful novelist’s exploration of the unwieldy, often fraught, relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. Tolstoy wrote that truth can be found in fiction. David Adams Richards has created a novel that speaks truth.

Mouseland was a place where all the little mice lived and played, were born and died. And they lived much the same as you and I do. They even had a Parliament. And every four years they had an election. Used to walk to the polls and cast their ballots … And every time on election day all the little mice used to go to the ballot box and they used to elect a government. A government made up of big, fat, black cats … And because they were cats, they naturally looked after cats instead of mice.

— Mouseland, a parable told by Tommy Douglas

 In many respects, the political history of New Brunswick resembles Tommy Douglas’s fabled Mouseland. Since Confederation, voters have elected either Liberal or Conservative governments. Predictably, the winning party has been the one most strongly supported by the economic elite in the province.

The tradition of clientele politics, in which the mice are promised expensive pieces of cheese in return for their votes, is alive and well in New Brunswick. In September’s election, as had happened frequently in the past, the Liberals and Conservatives put forward platforms full of empty promises such as new laptops for university students and a freeze in utility rates. These promises were designed to attract the mice at the polls, but the parties had no real intention of implementing them in light of the province’s dire financial situation. In this culture, third parties have had little success because no one believes they can form a government. For example, the NDP has elected only three MLAs in the province’s history, and its popular support has never exceeded 12 per cent.

Nevertheless, given the NDP victory in the 2009 Nova Scotia election, many anticipated a breakthrough in New Brunswick in 2010. The NDP Provincial Council gave priority to electing party leader Roger Duguay in his Miramichi riding, which overlaps with the federal riding of NDP MP Yvon Godin. Generally, the campaign was a good one for the NDP and the party received extensive media coverage for the first time in living memory. The party’s focus on the economy and its promise to bring greater fiscal responsibility to government contrasted with the cynicism of the Liberals and Conservatives. The NDP’s message more accurately reflected the perilous state of the province’s economy. It also echoed a return to traditional CCF-NDP values in which the development of important social programs such as medicare is inextricably linked to good fiscal management.

However, this message did not connect with the electorate, and the anticipated breakthrough did not materialize. The NDP received only 10.4 per cent of the popular vote and failed to elect Duguay or any other MLAs. Once again, the voice of the NDP will only be heard from outside the legislature.

So why did the NDP fail to capture the imagination of New Brunswick voters? In our opinion, there are a number of reasons.

The departure of charismatic leader Elizabeth Weir, who sat as the sole NDP MLA from 1991 to 2004, left the party with a leadership vacuum that was poorly filled by subsequent party leader Alison Brewer. In the 2006 election, the party received a disappointing 5.1 per cent of the vote. The selection of Duguay as leader in 2007 marked a return to stable leadership; however, the party was not well organized and was deeply in debt.

The fundraising efforts of the two major parties dwarfed the efforts of the NDP. For example, in one evening the Conservatives raised more than $400,000, while the entire budget for the NDP campaign was approximately $125,000. (The unions donated some $20,000 to the NDP.) Further, the NDP’s ability to raise funds was limited by the fact that its finances had been so mismanaged that it could not borrow funds without providing personal guarantors.

The party’s poor showing of 5.1 per cent in the 2006 election had greatly reduced the formula-based funding received from the government. As a result, the party organization had suffered and half the provincial constituency associations had disintegrated. Information such as names of past volunteers and donors and previous sign locations was simply not available. And other third party campaigns, the People’s Alliance and the Green Party, added to the difficulties of mounting a successful campaign. However, as a result of this campaign, the NDP machine has been rejuvenated. This is largely due to the efforts of campaign director (and Inroads contributor) Dominic Cardy.

In addition to the financial and organizational problems, the NDP message was also to blame for the party’s poor showing at the polls. As part of its electoral strategy, the NDP adopted the slogan “The Voice of Middle Class Families.” This slogan heralded an attempt to shift the party away from its traditional position as a leftist third party. Throughout its history in New Brunswick, the role of the NDP has been to provide a moral voice in the public sphere rather than a mainstream electoral machine. As exemplified by the prodigious efforts of Elizabeth Weir, the role of the NDP has been to keep the other parties honest.

The decision to market the NDP as a potential government alienated traditional NDP supporters. The centrist shift was seen to offend a main tenet of the party’s political philosophy – that democratic socialism is about equitable redistribution of income and services. Furthermore, the focus on fiscal responsibility is only part of the equation. The NDP missed an opportunity in this election to convince voters that austerity measures are important, but not an end in themselves. Austerity can provide the means by which effective government programs and infrastructure can be developed to service the needs of smaller-scale economies.

The recent election campaign was not so much an electoral failure for the NDP as a missed opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the potential of social democracy in New Brunswick. By pushing to the centre without engaging in the dialogue, the party alienated many community and social activists, union members and other traditional supporters. This cost the party dearly in terms of fundraising and volunteer support.

In our opinion, the way forward involves a re-engagement with traditional grassroots methods of organizing and coalition-building to develop common political ground. An effective way for a third party to establish itself is to offer the electorate an alternative in both its structure and its platform. And many New Brunswickers have an appetite for an alternative voice in politics.

The large-scale and successful protests against the Liberal government’s proposed sale of New Brunswick Power to Hydro-Quebec and the proposed changes to French immersion schooling illustrate that New Brunswickers are not suffering from a “culture of defeat” as Stephen Harper declared in 2001. Rather, it appears that the citizens of New Brunswick are more than willing to protest when their government makes decisions that do not reflect popular opinion. The future of the NDP depends not so much on its becoming another species of cat, but rather on its ability to create an effective voice for the mice.