In our noisy, wired age, the bit players of history are consigned to oblivion
Brisebois Drive curves through a dull and bucolic section of Calgary. The dwellings on either side maintain a ’60s bungalow squat, and the trees, while shady and pleasant, demarcate nothing but more houses surrounded by aprons of grass, as characterless as any lazy suburban byway. Without historical resonance, the street appears to be named whimsically, or after someone of no importance.
The booming and busting city of Calgary, magnet for newcomers and buffalo hunters (migrants who move to the city determined to make as much money as possible before decamping to more civilized places), has no time for historical markers. The pace of change in this town is too swift, the turnover too high. If buildings are subject to razing and revision, the same is true of historical characters. And so Brisebois is just a name, a short street connecting one boulevard with another trail (trails are freeways in Calgary), and beyond that of no relevance.
So who was Éphrem Brisebois? His given name is spelled variously, Éphrem or Éphraim; even historians cannot agree, although the Dictionary of Canadian Biography portentously and correctly spells it Éphrem-A. As a personage he is peripheral: the first French-Canadian officer in the North West Mounted Police. So what if he made the trek west? So what if he was the Mountie in charge when a rudimentary fort was established at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, a site that would become this gleaming, postmodern Calgary? He didn’t start a war or finish an execution. He was a competent civil servant, although there was considerable dissatisfaction with his leadership, and the men under his command, F Troop, almost mutinied. He was replaced after a year, returned east and ultimately became a relatively invisible administrator, a registrar of land titles in Manitoba.
But that summary tells us nothing, nothing at all.
Embedded in Brisebois’s story is the temptation to use history—fragments of reality complete with documentation, lies, disputes, rumour—to resuscitate our failing relationship to a moribund aesthetic. We plunder it for examples of what we now do wrong or right. We would prefer the past to reassure us, and so enter into a false exchange with its fragments. Hardest of all for us to imagine is history as a dynamic space that hindsight cannot stop shape-shifting. So we read backwards, hunting for those turning points that impinge on who we have become. Here in twenty-first-century Calgary, a place much of Canada dismisses as raw and bare knuckled, I lazily exhume Brisebois, desultory in my interest but always encouraged by his absence.
The winter of 1875–76 was brutal, the cold unrelenting as only cold on the prairie can be. Ice crackled in the frost-coated fescue and even the swift-flowing Bow froze solid. The fifty men who comprised F Troop worked long and dogged days during the building of Fort Calgary, and as the winter advanced, it settled in their bones and their dispositions, making tempers as raw as the air. While the fort was under construction, they huddled in trenches, and once it was completed in December, spruce and pine logs upright in the ground, pole roof covered with earth, logs chinked with clay, floors hard-pounded earth, its rudimentary comforts proved comfortless.
The early tradition of the Mounties was that commanding officers worked as hard as their men, but Inspector Éphrem Brisebois seems to have thought of himself as above such democratic patterns. First of all, the men did not have enough buffalo robes to keep themselves warm, and because they had not been paid they were not able to purchase more from the Metis traders camped nearby. Brisebois, however, had a few good robes, and appropriated a few extra from his shivering men. Although fireplaces had been constructed in the crude quarters, they were drafty and provided less heat than smoke. Only one iron stove was available to heat the rooms, and Brisebois commandeered it for his individual use. Last, but possibly most galling, he had also managed to persuade a comely Metis woman to share the buffalo robes and the heat of the stove in his private quarters.
Éphrem Brisebois had it all: the stove, the buffalo robes, and a woman. These three essentials—heat, warmth, and intimacy—conjoin the most crucial of all historical tensions, those moments that pivot not just survival but a version of legacy. But Brisebois had pushed his luck too far.
In the heart of this bitter winter, isolated and nervous, far from home and without any of the pleasures they had imagined serving as mounted police would bring—no skirmishes with Indians, and not even much illicit American liquor—the men of F Troop were enraged to the point of mutiny. They compiled a long list of grievances, which they sent down to headquarters at Fort Macleod. To underscore their dissatisfaction, they refused to work—the first labour unrest in Calgary, which was not yet even Calgary, since Brisebois had seen fit to christen the fort Brisebois, after himself.
The little outpost had been temporarily called Bow River Fort, but Brisebois seemed to think there was a precedent for naming the rough palisade Fort Brisebois, and proposed a Christmas toast to that effect. The men’s subterranean rumbles grew more vocal, and Mountie command, aware that Brisebois was hardly a model of decency or decorum, began to view him with overt disfavour. Colonel James Macleod (the golden Mountie who embodied all the traits of exceptional Mountie-ness) decreed that the fort would be called Fort Calgary, with reference to a Scottish ancestral connection of his own. Although the men’s complaints were not entirely assuaged, their combined ill regard coupled with his demonstrable lack of leadership finally persuaded Brisebois to decamp. In the summer of 1876, another man assumed command.
Calgary stayed Calgary, branded by Macleod not only in name but in spirit, the main artery into the city from the south still called Macleod Trail, Macleod’s extended family still part of its gentry, Macleod’s legendary sense of fairness and camaraderie with his men a continuing myth, one that Calgary celebrates to this day. Brisebois is virtually forgotten. Incompetent and erasable, he’s been wiped off the map of time. His men rebelled but did not shoot him. He stumbled off into a forgettable future, not even ignominious.
So why do I harbour this fleeting affection for Brisebois? I imagine him out here, far from his French-Canadian home, expected to perform as leader to a group of men who were probably a combination of idealists and roughnecks, intransigent, intent on making him look bad. I imagine him acutely homesick. I imagine that none of his men spoke French, and that they mimicked his way of talking behind his back. I imagine that he always had a cold, that his nose ran from October to March, and that his moustache trapped the moisture in an endearingly repulsive track. I imagine that he suffered fierce headaches when the occasional chinook unfurled its thick flannel arch across the sky. I imagine his dark eyes in contrast to his pale skin, and the frustrated bulge of his receding forehead. I imagine that he yearned for heat and comfort, and so stumbled into misguided behaviour, hoarding buffalo robes and annexing a stove and sleeping in the arms of a woman. Some days I imagine him a dextrous and tender lover, some days half hearted and perfunctory. Why did the Metis woman stay? What did he offer her in the early economy of a Mountie outpost in sight of the shining mountains? His real story, bare and unvarnished, can be readily displaced by what I imagine.
In her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s narrator observes the extent to which the past can become inconvenient: “People have never had a problem disposing of the past when its gets too difficult. Flesh will burn, photos will burn, and memory, what is that? The imperfect ramblings of fools who will not see the need to forget. And if we can’t dispose of it we can alter it. The dead don’t shout. There is a certain seductiveness about what is dead. It will retain all those admirable qualities of life with none of that tiresome messiness associated with live things. Crap and complaints and the need for affection. You can auction it, museum it, collect it.” And erase it completely. If it does not suit the story of the moment, if it does not entertain or play into the accepted mythology, the past’s characters can be rearranged, relegated to the midden heap of scrap.
We expect the past to sing for its supper, provide entertainment and enlightenment in equal measure. We look for piquant details, the button on Napoleon’s sleeve, the ribald uses of parsley, riveting moments of choice. Brisebois’s pragmatic alignment with a Metis woman interests us more than the fact that F Troop actually fomented serious labour unrest.
In a brash new West, reinventing itself with every economic corkscrew, Brisebois ghosts our restless relationship to history. The very absence of absence delineates our uneasy recall of the past, our utter oblivion to the shadow of the past. Familiarity breeds our contempt. Is that why cities like Calgary appear to be stripped bare, buildings springing out of tomorrow’s forehead, all glass and steel, wireless, and climate controlled? The reconstructed Fort Calgary (not at all resembling the rough palisade that F Troop constructed) is now the site of Stampede tent parties, huge sexual mosh pits with hardly a cowboy or Mountie in sight. No one at those 5,000-person-strong events could even pronounce Brisebois’s name, let alone identify him.
But why does this disappoint me? Why do I expect the denizens of a booming city to dip into a reservoir of vanished time? Why do I hope that they will nourish a little curiosity about the paved-over secrets of the concrete grid they drive through every day? Will it contribute to civic spirit, give Calgary more character? Will it make a difference to our wilful pursuit of immediate gratification, slaked desires, quick mercantile exchanges, surface attraction? Hardly.
And yet this naked and needy city produces a constant archive of arrivals and accommodations. In this respect, we are no different from any other metropolis, ancient or recent. We take for granted our over-documented and over-documenting age. Trivial emails are kept and archived, security camera tapes hold images in an endless loop of coming and going, cellphone records inscribe the time and length of quotidian conversations. Every moment is confined, numbered, and dated, photographed and Facebooked. This amassment of detail is destined to overwhelm itself—on what virtual garbage dump will so much unselective data end up? The technology that gathers it becomes obsolete as quickly as the minutes roll by, and even retrieving these details will pose a challenge, not in 100 years but in ten. How will the future make a narrative out of our narcissistic noise? And in such an obsessive hyperbolizing of experience, where will cheerless Brisebois and his extra buffalo robes end up? Forgotten, of course.
Our contemporary story is overwhelmed by brutally tangential detail. Even while we obsessively document and hoard, we cannot remember what happened five minutes ago, let alone 100 years ago. Contexts change so swiftly that even a shared vocabulary cannot be assumed. My twenty-something fitness trainer, overhearing a discussion about South Africa, asked curiously, “What’s apartheid? ” Her question was not so much ignorant as a marker of an age so saturated with information that even political urgencies are replaced more quickly than paper can be recycled. Is it this culture of rabid immediacy that makes us so strenuously avoid the past, cultivate a selective amnesia? Or does it make us yearn for a romantic past? In that past, Brisebois would be an existential hero, writing poetry by the light of a dripping candle, exquisitely miserable but determined to forge a legacy. So far as we know, he wrote no poetry at all, although he was well educated and had unusual experiences. Before the Great March West, he had fought with the Union Army in the American Civil War. And most distinctively and romantically, he had served for almost three years in the Devils of the Good Lord unit of the Papal Zouaves in Italy. That one is worth searching out in a history textbook.
The cultural critic Raymond Williams described history as a tale of “accidents, unforeseen events… often the frustration of conscious purpose.” How would he describe history now, I wonder, when we seem to have immersed it in a bath of some strange solvent meant to dissolve the verdigris of age but retain the patina of marketability? Of course, history is a shaped story, where inarguable facts and dates might serve any number of masters and persuasions. But like the disliked, ineffective, and seemingly arrogant Brisebois, it is the shadow stories haunting history that argue for its cornucopia of possibilities, multiple versions of the past always on the verge of being rediscovered or reordered or rewritten, scrutinized from a new angle or in a different light. Where once history was institutional, owned by priests and scholars, it is now ours, to shake and bake, to imagine, and to dream. We can crave and renovate history, worry it for answers and for apparitions, insist that it dance attendance on our pharmacological forecasts. And history obliges, willingly putting itself in the predicament of contrast and comparison, justification and footnote.
In truth, the temptation of history is rooted in its instability. Even though the past is presumably complete, its rich contingency is evidenced by our revisiting stories, shaping them into a tale or a dish to tempt contemporary palates. We are treated to another book on Napoleon, on Sir Wilfrid Laurier, on crinolines and creosote, new details previously overlooked. History does its turn on the cultural boards, then retreats, a shabby coat in the back of the winter closet, shoved there on a spring day wanting to be done with the weight of wool. There it hangs, a scarecrow with aphasia, holding the rag and bone shop of experience but unable to transmit that to a constant audience. And so I marinate and barbecue Brisebois, give him ulterior motives and base desires, try to make him more interesting than the ineffectual or dreaming busboy he doubtless was.
Hyper-history would sieve the past as a site of cumulative indeterminacy, readily cross-referencing virtual sources of information that tell us how to connect and disconnect the years between now and then. This past is still a foreign country, but one we expect discount tickets for, to visit in the Disney emporium of the simulacrum of experience. And Canada’s fraught relationship to history, a tension arising from many different histories competing with one another, reflects the extent to which we are dozens of different countries collaged together. It is impossible for contemporary Canadians to imagine the many nations of the people who lived here for thousands of years; this geography was home to at least fifty different aboriginal languages, which signals just as many nations, some of which vanished, while others adapted and flourished. And just to complicate that mélange, immigrants brought and bring their own cultural and historical baggage. So the peculiarly Canadian twist to history (we are remarkably oblivious to our history, even while we fixate on the dirty details of the past and yearn for grand outcomes) can be laid at the doorstep of our uneasy communal identity, our lack of monuments or institutions or even excavatable sites. The shadow micro-moments, the winters of Brisebois’s discontent, we ignore and forget, when through that curious and unusual crack a beam of light streams. It is in those sparsely documented spaces, the surprises of history, where we might discover what we do not expect to know about ourselves.
Brisebois was miserable because of the weather, the snow, the cold, the sparse firewood, the grumpy men, the predictable food, mostly bison varied by an occasional deer haunch. No vegetables for sure. He hoped to be a hero but found he had to dole out orders on guard duty and latrine digging. He remembered Italy, the quick and cooling heat of the sun and soil there. He remembered the taste of fresh figs. He retreated to his quarters in search of warmth, and slowly added to the layers of that warmth, first buffalo robes, then the one iron stove into which he could feed the snapping sticks of wolf willow, then the body of a woman. He was nervous, and he was cold. He had nightmares. He cried out in his sleep. He spoke both French and English but lost track of which was which. He fretted, he tugged at his shoelaces, he wanted to go home. He was a captive of the moment, the shabby fort, his pissed-off men, the oblivious and unimaginable city that shimmered on the horizon of the future. Forgotten and passed over, he did not want to be forgotten, but despite his determined toast to Fort Brisebois he was. He left us no charming ephemera, no pocket flask or pinkie ring, although he did sport a good watch chain and fob.
Gone, all gone.
I cruise up Brisebois Drive, an uninspiring street curving north on a flat stretch below the big hill that looms over Calgary. My hybrid pretends to be soundless; I am protected inside its shell from the drying Calgary wind, the harsh light. History is somewhere else. Buffalo robes inhabit museums, and iron stoves are no longer used, except in lakeside cabins. The Metis women I know are designers and university professors and artists.
I wonder what Brisebois would say if I could talk with him. Would we exchange the ritual weather and water, clothes and furniture? Would we be able to talk at all, or would we be separated by a chasm of computer messages, the price of gas, the quality of olive oil, prescriptions for drugs? Or would ordinary misery, the commonplace of daily bread, connect our conversation? That and the ghostly towers of a Calgary that does not yet exist.