What's in A Word? From Treason To Celebration

Today is Guy Fawkes Day in the UK and, although recognized increasingly less, also in Newfoundland. Guy Fawkes was a radicalized Catholic, who attempted to blow up King and Parliament in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. His treasonous actions resulted in his execution. It is celebrated tonight through the burning of bonfires, the lighting of fireworks, and the burning of the miscreant's effigy.

There is also a more modern connection as the Occupy movement have taken Guy Fawkes as a symbol of revolution. On a gentler note, the event imbues deeper meaning to the name of Professor Dumbledore's Phoenix; Fawkes

Treason itself is an oddity. Defined as an act of betrayal against one's government, it is an ancient crime still found in our Criminal Code, yet rarely used. Indeed, until repealed in 1995, high treason was considered in equal seriousness as first degree-murder, attracting similar penalties including the death penalty. 

Yet, how does such a terrifying event transform itself from terror to celebration, from revolution to praise, and from death to disuse? For an answer, we can turn to the Canadian experience and to an equally seminal historic event; Louis Riel and the Red River Resistance. At the time, Louis Riel was considered a radical, his provisional government was branded treasonous, and for his efforts he too was executed.

His actions have now been viewed quite differently as the founder of Manitoba and the protector of Metis rights. School-age children are not taught to expunge his memory but to embrace his vision and to appreciate the background story behind his revolutionary actions. Even the government has been asked to re-draw their perspective through Pat Martin's private member's bill, the Louis Riel Act, which, if passed, would commemorate Riel's actions and expunge his "crime."

History, therefore, is a fluid concept: as we navigate through time, differing perspectives colour the past, providing us with a richer present. As a result, you may never view a word or event the same again. Now that's something worth celebrating.