Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Nicholas Flood Davin

Nicholas Flood Davin

Davin was a significant figure in nineteenth-century Canada, whose work as a writer, newspaper journalist, and politician brought him into contact with many of the key figures in post-Confederation Canada––among them Métis leader Louis Riel (just prior to his execution in 1885) and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Macdonald commissioned Davin to write what became known as the Davin Report (its formal title was "Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds"), submitted in Ottawa, March 14, 1879, which led to the establishment of the residential school system in Canada.

Davin's loose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, The Fair Grit, attacked political hypocrisy. Yet Davin's apparent progressive thinking was mitigated by the tone and content of the "Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds" and the Riel interview, as readers can see for themselves via the links to these texts CASP has established below. The Davin Report was typified by statements such as the following:

"The importance of denominational schools at the outset for the Indian must be obvious. One of the earliest things an attempt to civilize them does, is to take away their simple Indian mythology, the central idea of which, to wit, a perfect spirit, can hardly be improved upon. The Indians have their own ideas of right and wrong, of 'good' Indians and 'bad' Indians, and to disturb this faith, without supplying a better, would be a curious process to enlist the sanction of civilized races whose whole civilization, like all the civilizations with which we are acquainted, is based on religion." (14)

The conflicted tone here, which acknowledges the integrity of aboriginal belief systems, is belied by the notion that "they" are uncivilized while "we" are civilized. Elsewhere in the CASP Spotlight one can see the importance of using theatre as a means of reclaiming the "Indian mythology" stolen from aboriginals as part of their education in white culture (see the comments made, for example, by Yves Sioui Durand in relation to Sakipitcikan and to the Production comany he heads with Catherine Joncas, Ondinnok, whose "mission is to create an Amerindian mythological theatre integrating traditions of initiation with contemporary theatricality" (Ondinnok).

Davin, as discussed elsewhere on the CASP site, was at the center of a remarkable historical incident involving Louis Riel's last interview––Riel being the Métis leader of the short-lived 1885 Rebellion, tried and executed for treason in Regina, Davin's home town, on November 16, 1885.

In CASP's 2010 correspondence with Ed Hird, Hird came forward with information about his great-grandmother Mary McLean, who worked as a reporter for Davin at the Regina Leader and who was also sympathetic to Riel's cause. According to Hird, "Davin carried on the British tradition of not listing as a byline the names of the reporters who write for the Regina Leader. This was helpful for my great-grandmother Mary in protecting her from arrest by the RCMP when she snuck in disguised as a Roman Catholic priest confessor to obtain an interview with Louis Riel. Mary McLean quotes Davin [as saying] … 'An interview must be had with Riel if you must outwit the whole police force of the North-West.' Because Davin protected her anonymity, some writers like C.B. Koester have popularized the myth that Davin … disguised himself as that priest … I spent a week with my late Uncle Don Allen who carefully explained to me about his grandmother's interview with Louis Riel. 'When I first saw you [at] the trial, I loved you' was said by Riel to Mary McLean, not to the man [Davin] calling for his hanging." For the complete account of this incident in Mr. Hird's own words, please click here.

The interview was published in The Regina Leader, November 19, 1885 three days after Riel's execution, and creates yet another astonishingly clear insight into nineteenth-century patronizing attitudes toward aboriginal culture. Significant portions of the interview have to do with the trickery involved in getting past Riel's guards and the questions seem more to elicit predictable (and highly conventional) Christian language from Riel regarding his impending death. It is unclear the extent to which Davin's editorial control over the content of the interview played a factor in what was published effectively as Riel's last words. As such, the "interview" (and readers must be warned that we cannot necessarily take the interview at face value with regard tothe veracity of Riel's own words as they were ostensibly transcribed and then edited for publication) reinforces a rather safe notion of Riel and his revolutionary zeal. In addressing himself to John A. Macdonald, for example, the most Riel is represented as saying is to "not leave yourself be completely carried away by the glories of power. In the midst of your great and noble occupations take every day a few moments at least, for devotion and prayer and prepare yourself for death." Riel's last interview, in which Davin played such a key role, accomplishes the contradictory function of establishing a hagiographic reading of Riel's last words, while reinforcing the values of settler culture Riel was fighting.

Perhaps the most intriguing question is how the apparently progressive politics evident in Davin's Shakespearean adaptation are to be reconciled with the backward thinking displayed in the Davin Report and the Riel interview. Could it be that the appropriation of a Shakespearean context served what were effectively fairly conservative ends that involved gathering authority to the authorial persona of Davin, while the writing Davin produced in relation to aboriginal culture displays a disturbingly familiar bigotry? The two forms of writing inform each other and CASP has sought to reproduce the apparent contradictions Davin generated in his varied writings as a way of thinking through the historical, political, and ethical issues related to the encounter between aboriginal and settler cultures.

Documents:

The Davin Report

Link to "The Davin Report: Shakespeare and Canada’s Manifest Destiny" by Sorouja Moll

"His Parting Messages to Mankind."
Mary McLean's interview with Louis Riel before his execution: published by Charles Davin in the Regina Leader 19 November 1885.

The Regina Leader 19 November 1885
Front page of the paper in which the last interview with Louis Riel appeared.

Link to Online Anthology: The Fair Grit


Link to Database

 

 

 

 

 

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