One of the opportunities that the new CBC Western series Strange Empire presents is the chance to explore aspects of North American Western history that may not be as well-known to an audience beyond a given group or region. Within the plot-line to the show’s fifth episode, which aired November 3rd, the lead character of Kat Loving (Cara Gee) created a connection to historical Métis resistance in the Canadian West. The series is set in 1869 in the Alberta-Montana border region and this with fifth episode was entitled “Lonely Hearts”.
While continuing her search for missing husband, Jeremiah (Richard de Klerk), and visiting with her Indigenous aunties, two men on horseback approach that camp. Warned by a medicine woman (Tantoo Cardinal), Kat deftly steps out of sight. The two men identify themselves as bounty hunters and declare they are looking for a Kateri Dumont. This Dumont is wanted for the murder of a surveyor in the Red River country (what is now Manitoba in Canada). After receiving no information from the camp, the men ride on but the question is left in the air: is Kat Loving this Kateri Dumont?
This aspect of Kat’s narrative arc creates an immediate link to the history of the Métis people (those of Indigenous & European descent). In 1869, the very year the series is set, a large area of what is now the Canadian West, claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, was sold by that corporation to the Canadian government without the consultation of its habitants, which included the Métis and various Indigenous nations. Many Métis lived in an area known as the Red River colony (present-day Winnipeg).
Prior to the land’s official acquisition by Canada, surveyors were sent to the Red River territory to re-map the region into a British square pattern (erasing the Métis “ribbon lot” style) and assess its agricultural potential for future settlers. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, the surveyors were stopped from entering the region. The French-speaking Riel and the Métis asserted control over the Red River colony and negotiations with Canada commenced. Those negotiations, fraught with tension between English Protestants and French Catholics in the rest of Canada, would conclude with the creation of the Canadian province of Manitoba on May 12th, 1870.
The historical context for Kateri Dumont is further deepened by the legacy of Gabriel Dumont (1838-1906), a Métis leader, famous buffalo-hunter, and key figure in the 1869 Red River Resistance. In addition to speaking French and English, Dumont was reported to have facility in six different Indigenous languages. He would be a leader in the later 1885 Métis resistance in what is now Saskatchewan. Will Strange Empire make a connection between the fictional Dumont and the historical one?
The potential for such a series to simultaneously entertain and educate is strong on two fronts: the characters embody various historical threads & the Internet allows a worldwide reach. Following the initial debut of each episode, CBC has been streaming the installments at Strange Empire. Westernsreboot.com has reviewed each episode to date, beginning with E1. Strange Empire, slated for a 13-episode run, airs each Monday night at 9E.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)