While browsing the shelves of a second-hand book store in Vancouver, Gregory Scofield was recognized.
The owner of McLeod’s tapped his shoulder, said hello and asked what he was looking for.
A collector of all-things-old, the Maple Ridge Métis poet was on the hunt for lithographs of Fort Garry, which served as the centre of fur trade within the Red River Settlement and occupied in 1870 by Louis Riel.
Scofield was led to a store front across the street. From the dusty shelves, he was handed a thin book.
“As soon as he put it in my hand, I immediately felt this energy,” says Scofield.
The book was a first edition publication of Riel’s poetry, simply titled – Poésies Religieuses et Politiques.
It was in French with etching of Riel’s family and his homestead.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with this book but I was glad to have it.”
That night, Scofield placed Poésies Religieuses et Politiques on the night stand beside his bed.
In the morning, he began writing the first of more than 30 poems that would eventually become Louis: The Heretic Poems, his latest collection.
“It was the strangest thing,” Scofield says of the impulse to tell Riel’s story in verse.
One of Canada’s leading Aboriginal writers whose five collections of poetry have earned him both a national and international audience, Scofield took more than three years to complete The Heretic Poems – the longest it’s ever taken him to write a book.
The collection is a departure for Scofield whose previous body of work has been solely autobiographical.
Scofield, whose maternal ancestry can be traced back to the fur trade and to the Metis community of Kinosota, Manitoba, browsed through history books, parliamentary transcripts and research papers to learn about Riel.
Instead of the rebel, patriot, prophet, mystic, defender of rights and revolutionary, Scofield became interested in Riel simply “a man.”
“I became so fascinated about who he was as a friend, a father, a student, as this boy who was taken from Red River and given this opportunity to go to Montreal and become part of the priesthood.”
Using lines for Riel’s diaries, poetry, prayers and events from history, Scofield took on the Métis leader’s voice to write the poems Riel never wanted anyone to read.
“That’s why it’s called The Heretic Poems. It’s him really being able to say his piece on the church and how he really felt about the government at the time, about love, romance, friends and himself.”
Known for his unique and dynamic reading style that blends oral storytelling, song, spoken word and the Cree language, Scofield is still figuring out who he’s going to read many of The Heretic Poems out loud.
The poems are filled with footnotes, paragraphs from newspaper articles as well as references to contrition [“sorrow of soul, and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future] and attrition or imperfect repentance that readers who grew up Catholics will be very familiar with.
Scofield hopes readers learn something new about Riel through the poems.
“I didn’t want to be presumptuous with his voice,” says Scofield.
“Because as a poet this is my interpretation of him. I really felt that it was important people were able to have another perspective of Louis besides this very misunderstood, sometime demonized man, a martyr, a traitor. It was important for me that the reader was able to go away with a sense of him as a man.”