Raymond J.A. Huel,
Archbishop A,-A. Taché of St. Boniface: The "Good Fight" and the Illusive Vision
Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2003
xxv + 429 pp. Paper. £21-99. ISBN 0-88864-406-X.
By a paradox, Archbishop Taché owes his place in the textbook narrative of Canadian history to his absence at a key moment. In 1869, as the francophone, Catholic population of the Red River boiled into revolt, he was on his way to the Vatican Council in Rome. Bereft of the natural leadership of a pastor who was the nephew of the premier who had led Canada's Great Coalition in 1864-5, so it seemed, the Métis turned instead to Louis Riel, the young man whom Taché himself had packed off to Lower Canada to train for the priesthood. Raymond J.A. Huel is well equipped to write this biography: he has edited both the collected outpourings of Riel and a series of histories of the Oblate missionary order. The result is a study which is strong on the organisational aspects of re-creating Catholic structures in the North-West. But I am left wondering whether Taché's absence in 1869 was so important after all. He had been fast-tracked into the episcopacy: coadjutor at 26, bishop (and later archbishop) at 31. The combination of personal inexperience with spiritual authority was hardly conducive to learning political skills on the job. His contribution to “solving” the Red River problem after his return was a crude attempt to bounce the Dominion government into overlooking Riel's murder (as Protestants saw it) of Thomas Scott. His mishandling of the amnesty issue left him generally distrusted in Ottawa. From then on it was all downhill, both politically and demographically. The vision of a French Manitoba, even of a serious francophone enclave, quickly disappeared, and Taché fell back on hopes that Irish immigration might at least preserve a Catholic presence. In 1885, he failed to save Riel from the gallows, but discouraged full-scale denunciation of his grisly fate for fear of an anglophone Protestant backlash. The deluge descended soon afterwards in the form of the Manitoba Schools dispute that darkened his final years. In some respects, the strength of Huel's focus on Taché as an administrator is balanced by its relative narrowness. Both the 1869 and 1885 crises receive bald treatment, while the founding of the dynamic and intolerantly anglicising city of Winnipeg in 1873 seems mentioned almost in passing. (Although Taché's missionary church claimed to depend on the offerings of the Quebec faithful, detractors alleged that his archdiocese made indecent amounts of cash from the resulting property boom.) While the failure to develop a French province in the West is a central theme, there is no mention of the work of A.I. Silver on this subject. Even Taché's initial dedication to missionary work among Aboriginal people (as a young priest he learnt to preach in Chipewyan) vanishes in the density of the subsequent narrative. Perhaps this was for the best: in 1855, he administered the last rites to a native woman who was six months pregnant, and then demanded a posthumous caesarian section so that he could baptise the dead foetus. Huel's massive and detailed prose reads easily, except where he uses “brochure” for “pamphlet”. Indeed, it is not always clear when and why the author thinks French phrases should be translated or left in the original. When Taché modestly wrote that he had been ordained “despite his indignity” (p. 17), he was almost certainly using a French word that better translates as “unworthiness”. Overall, although (or perhaps, because) Huel distinguishes his approach from that of Jean Hamelin, his book is best read in parallel with Hamelin's more economical (and nationaliste) essay in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The DCB would also confirm that Etienne-Paschal Taché, the famous uncle, was the grandson, not the son, of the founder of the family in Canada.