David Adams Richards,
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul

Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2011
304 pages

When the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network unveiled Blackstone in 2011, it drew support but also controversy. The show portrays realities on a fictional First Nation, warts and all, including corrupt governance. For many indigenous observers, the depiction struck close to home.

Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul is similar: it shows the good and the bad among both First Nation and white communities in the Miramichi Valley, a corner of northern New Brunswick.

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

An oft-repeated admonition to aspiring writers is to write about what you know. David Adams Richards took this advice to heart. For Richards, home is the Miramichi River valley. His novels are known for realism, a keen sense of place and the weight of family histories. He can lay claim to being Canada’s Thomas Hardy. In Incidents, he applies all this to First Nation peoples.

A central tension in the story is how up-and-coming band leader Isaac Snow and recently returned from jail Joel Ginnish – half-brother to Hector Penniac – use Hector’s death to undermine the leadership of Chief Paul and assume control of the community for their own ends.

How innocent individuals get caught up within agendas much larger than themselves defines Incidents as a tragedy, a tragedy wrapped up within a compelling murder mystery. It is also a moral tale directed to the naive who romanticize Aboriginal peoples. Just as Lutherans can conspire in Machiavellian politics, so too can First Nation leaders. Finally, the novel is a detailed study in the unfolding of crises, how they are manipulated and how they escalate.

Richards is not insensitive to First Nation peoples and their struggles. Quite the opposite. But in literary terms he is screaming to the bright-eyed idealists to give their heads a shake and realize that Aboriginals are human beings, flawed and prone to bad conduct like everyone else. Supporting indigenous struggles does not mean that Aboriginal peoples are never the “bad guys” who manipulate their own.

In death Hector Penniac quickly becomes the “poster child” in political causes that he was never part of, nor would have supported if he were alive. Penniac’s death becomes “racialized” and is successfully used by others to advance their agenda. While alive, Hector was not a “poster child” Aboriginal. He was teased for being different; perhaps he was gay. Now dead, he is a symbol.

If Hector is a victim, so too is Roger Savage, who brings to mind the Caledonia standoff/occupation in Ontario where innocent bystanders – non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal – were caught in a seemingly unstoppable “picking sides” mentality. Like Savage, Sam Gualtieri was a white man. He built houses, four of them in a subdivision on contested reserve lands. 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.”

A central theme in the book that rings true is how machinations and agendas on all sides produce unintended and often tragic consequences. The book is a not-so-subtle indictment of non-Aboriginal activists who often become “useful idiots” in a struggle. As a non–First Nation individual who has worked in Aboriginal media (I was lead journalist at the Drum/First Perspective, an Aboriginal newspaper based in Winnipeg, for more than three years), I have personal experience of all this. Richards has accurately nailed the complexities within First Nation communities, particularly those arising at times of political conflict.

Too often a naive “progressive” reporter (like Max Doran who turns up to report on the fallout from Hector’s murder) misreads the conflict and fails to speak to relevant actors who could provide nuance. A nuance that Richards misses – and here my personal experience comes into play – is a failure to allow for the plight of reporters, especially those writing for community papers, who are asked to do too much in too little time. Most such journalists have little understanding of Aboriginal politics, so they talk only to vocal leaders, the logical sources.

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 toward Isaac Snow and Joel Ginnish. They want easy answers, not the wisdom of Amos Paul: “Before Amos sounded wise and reasonable; now he only sounded old. So Joel Ginnish turned away and went over to Isaac’s house.”

Complexity is the reality in so many areas, including politics and public policy. Slick advertising and sound bite rhetoric gloss over nuance. Things get dangerous when the pursuit of the truth is sacrificed on the altar of agendas and interests. Both Snow, the wannabe chief, and drug-dealing Ginnish had motives for keeping the focus on Roger’s alleged guilt. If Roger was guilty of a racially inspired crime, all the more reason that three small fishing pools that had been in Roger’s family for three generations should become reserve property.

The union representing dock workers and the Lutheran’s foreign owners had their own motive for accepting Roger’s guilt: “Testifying would mean an unending delay in a court none were familiar with … The shipping company too feared a lawsuit and had instructed the captain not to speak and not let his men speak.” Not everyone on the reserve subscribes to groupthink, but those who harbour doubts remain silent: “Mrs. Francis was old-fashioned – that is, she secretly distrusted the young men now saying they were working valiantly on her behalf, and so did two dozen families who never once had any say about the blockade but were now obliged to say they approved it.”

The moral message in Incidents is that life is much more complex than we realize. All human beings are flawed. Why romanticize one group over another? In modern Canada, one group that is romanticized and overdefended 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.

Viewing things in binary terms is a problem. Throughout Incidents Richards inverts the expected. In a complex world there are some Aboriginals doing well and some whites facing problems at least as severe as life on reserve: “Roger’s house wasn’t half as nice as Isaac’s.” Richards writes about Savage, “Roger’s father was dead, his mother had deserted him; he was alone in a house he had a deed to that his own mother had tried to take from him because she had had an offer from the band to buy it for twice what it was worth. That is, she had tried to cheat her own child.”

Richards writes with the conservative conviction that human beings are fallible and we should entertain a healthy distrust of grandiose schemes to change or improve the state of things. The conservative tradition is not only about the free market and individual rights. Historically what divides it from the contemporary liberals is a theory of humanity. Liberals view human beings as “perfectible” and view institutions as making people “bad.” 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.

First Nations, like any human group, use crises to their advantage. Isaac Snow uses the uncertainty surrounding the death of Hector Penniac as leverage with federal officials in obtaining commercial lobster licences – “if he would assure the government there would be no problems that summer.” More destructive are the actions of Joel Ginnish – whom many on the reserve did not actually want in their community because of his past criminal acts. Ginnish turns “inaction” over solving Hector’s murder into a blockade that serves as a cover for his own activities:

Joel stored his marijuana bales in the old cement store on the other side of the reserve, and sold it to boats coming in off P.E.I. He made thousands a year from this and complained he was poor. He sold fish to the Monk brothers, who constantly demanded more fish. The RCMP were well aware of this, and had planned a raid. Joel knew this, and Isaac knew that Joel would press for a barricade to claim sovereignty. This is what he had been trying to promote since the first band meeting about the crisis. If they put up roadblocks, the roadblocks themselves would protect the marijuana until he could get it moved away.

This is an obvious allusion to the controversy surrounding contraband tobacco produced on some Mohawk reserves and shipped to reserves across Canada. Arguments about self-government and sovereignty and Native rights become instruments to hide profits. Richards’s message is to be careful not to mistake rogues for folk heroes. I have witnessed this dynamic, particularly among academics. During the Caledonia standoff, respected constitutional scholar Peter Russell, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto, was invited to speak by an indigenous scholar at the University of Manitoba. He simply refused to condemn any of the law-breaking by Mohawk protesters. The only relevant issue for him was the honouring of outstanding land claims.

Where I part company with Richards is his particularly harsh criticism of the media in Incidents. Near the beginning, Chief Paul worries about the situation getting out of hand as soon as the media get hold of it. The baleful role of the media is a strong current throughout the book. Richards is right that journalists rely on conflict and controversy. It’s true that simplistic narratives – like Roger’s guilt – can be sustained by compliant journalists. However, Richards conflates all media too easily. He is guilty of the charge he levels against others, inasmuch as he ignores nuance within media coverage itself.

Incidents is highly readable. The unfolding of what actually happened in the fourth hold of the Lutheran is riveting. Chief Amos unravels the “case” of Penniac’s death, leading to some key confessions in the end. A less capable writer 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’s themes become too obvious, but they are by and large hidden in a good story.

To sum up, Incidents is an excellent novel. It is a good read both for those interested in murder mysteries and the joy of discovering “who did it” and for those interested in the human condition. It should be read by journalists covering Aboriginal communities. Lastly, academics should get over Richards’s attacks on their naiveté, and make this required reading for their introduction to Aboriginal politics courses.