Petitot by Susan Haley
By Wendy Elliott
The new historical novel Petitot, written by Black River resident Susan Haley, grew out of lived experience in a community of 500 Sahtu Dene people.
Haley got a warm welcome recently when she visited Tulita in the Northwest Territories. Tulitia was known as Fort Norman when she lived there.
Her plot, which stretches over 160 years, is based on research completed in 2004 while she was writer-in-residence at the museum in Yellowknife.
The central character is a French Oblate priest, Father Emile Petitot, who arrived in the Canadian northwest in 1862. An avid diarist, he was also a linguist who anticipated more conversions if he spoke the local language.
Petitot worked on five different dictionaries. Always more interested in exploration than missions, he developed intimate relationships with several young males and suffered bouts of insanity. In fact, he believed the Dene people were remnants of the lost tribes of Israel.
In 1881, while living in northern Saskatchewan, Petitot claimed he was married. His behaviour became so unpredictable that the Oblates sent him to an asylum near Montreal. He returned to Europe the following year.
Petitot’s missionary life was logged in four books with his own illustrations that were published in France with notable success between 1887 and 1892.
Hard to write
Petitot was a hard book for Haley to write, unlike her novel, Getting Married in Buffalo Jump. She says she found telling the unvarnished truth was easier in a fictional guise.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Hudson’s Bay Company don’t come off as positive factors in the development of Canada’s North. In fact, they brought disease, cultural destruction and, later, institutionalized child abuse at residential schools.
As one reader remarked after reading Petitot, “She takes a whack at just about everybody, doesn't she?" That’s what makes this such an important novel.
While living at the junction of the Great Bear and the Mackenzie Rivers, Haley first heard the name Petitot.
“Someone from Northern Affairs sent us this book. I thought it was fantastic and this character was so interesting that I (had) to follow up,” she said.
Despite the fact his books were in French, Haley concluded Petitot was fascinating. Although victimized himself, in the end, “he was not one of the good guys.”
A lot of his story had been concealed for over a century, leading her to take the view that written history can be one big lie.
The novel Petitot also takes a fictional perspective on modern-day characters living in the North. Her central character is a present-day teacher who is totally unprepared for life in the classrooms of the North. This educator, Marcus, is faced with teens who are slipping through the cracks and the suicide of an aging, abusive priest. Reading Petitot by chance and visiting a painted chapel, Marcus becomes obsessed with his story.
Petitot actually played a major part in designing and decorating the interior chapel of Our Lady of Good Hope in Fort Good Hope. The church was designated a national historic site in 1977.
Difficult life in the North
Today, Haley says, in communities like Tulita community members conduct their own Latin Mass, along with communion. They haven’t had a priest since the last one committed suicide in 1992.
She had a first-hand opportunity to view the educational inadequacies of the North as a substitute teacher after various educators bolted. There were 11 principals in a decade while Haley lived in Tulita.
“Writing this book,” she said, “was a grim experience. I hope my next is a little more uplifting.” Yet her wide compassion for the people of the North is constant throughout 360 pages.
Unlike many historians, she doesn’t leave the women or ethnography out. Strong females, like Little Beaver Belly and la Grosse-Truie, who existed prior to the deathly scourges the white man brought to the North, kindle much of the joy in the book. Even Hyacinthe, who was used badly by Petitot, resolves in the end to pity him.
Haley spent over a dozen years in the NWT, where she and her partner owned a charter airline. Like her well-intentioned character Eleanor, she worked on a town plan in Tulita.
Whatever change comes to Northern communities, Haley has come to believe will come from within. As Eleanor states emphatically, ‘history doesn’t have to repeat itself.’
Petitot is Haley’s eighth novel. Gaspereau Press in Kentville made this a beautifully-produced book. With solid pages, a double jacket, and hand-sewn binding, Petitot has a wonderful feel. It is worthwhile fiction that finally tells the truth about our North.