Kel and Ed journey back to Batoche

My interest in Canadian military sites has taken me all over the world to walk the land where history and suffering took place. There are Canadian sites of military struggle that we sometimes forget or overlook. One such location is in Cape Breton, where the Battle of Louisbourg took place at the strong fortress and the outer defensives. If you have the chance, visit the wonderful city of Quebec, and the Plains of Abraham where British General Wolfe and French General Montcalm both died in a battle that made Canada a British colony.

There is one historic battle site not so far from home that I had over looked for too long – the Batoche area in Northern Saskatchewan where the final struggle took place between the eastern-based government of Canada and the Metis people of the North West Territories. 

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The battles of 1885 were led by Louis Riel, his military commander Gabriel Dumont and members of the Cree and Dakota people. Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald sent a military force known as The North West Field Force (NWFF), under the leadership of Major General Fredrick Middleton.

In the world of coincidences, one of the military units in his force was The Halifax Rifles, my former regiment; no, I was not there in 1885. I just look old from years teaching high school students!

The three-day road trip was with Kel Smith, a recently retired teacher, former army cadet officer, well known community member in the Virden/Westman area. Captain Kel Smith (ret.) is Metis and actively involved with the Man./Sask. Metis organizations, so he was the perfect choice as a guide. It is said of any travel adventure that the best part maybe the travel and not the destination. With this trip both parts were great with over 1300 kms on the best of roads and the worst of roads.

Of course, part of this was due to the travelling habits of Cpt. Smith. He is of the school of thought that one should take the road less travelled. We did, getting lost a few times.

A tall grain elevator with a community name on it, or someone who would stop, helped us out. We discovered many communities that I had never heard of as I seldom go north of the TransCanada in Sask. However, these small, out of the way places, offered needed community services.

But what even impressed me more were the crops throughout the area. I have never seen so many fields of bright yellow Canola in the sunshine. During the whole trip we had nothing but bright warm sunshine. 

We made many photo stops along the way. When we came over one hill there was a grand herd of Bison, a definite photo opportunity. I took several shots and zoomed in to get some close-ups of their heads that have so much character. Then the romance went poof, as on each ear was a bright orange ear tag.

We would stop in Humboldt for lunch, seeing throughout the community memorials to the hockey bus tragedy a few years ago. So many fine young lives lost, just as in times of war.

We drove on to Fish Creek, AKA Tourond’s Coulee, along the banks of the beautiful South Saskatchewan River. Here, I get my first revised history lesson: the federal government at the time called the Metis people’s provisional government action a revolt and a rebellion. However, the Metis would rather use the term “resistance”.

They were resisting the loss of lands they lived on, because of growing western expansion of new settlers and immigrants. The metis people of the area were now dependent on farming as the bison herds shrank and the fur trade diminished due to prices and styles.

The Metis fighters of Dumont had the advantages of knowing the land, the use of harassment techniques, and the use of well dug-in, covered rifle pits with escape exits.  However, the sheer number of federal soldiers, their artillery and the use of the newly invented gatling gun overwhelmed the Metis.

Historical records show that when the metis ran low on bullets, they resorted to using nails, small rocks and even digging up bullets that Middleton’s troop shot at them. In order to keep the federal troops on their toes the metis warriors and their supporters would fire into the federal camps late at night to put them on guard. At times they would set fire to the tall prairie grass to hold off the federal troops.

Dumont had no way to replace fighters he lost in the conflict. At the Fish Creek site are a number of life-size metal cut outs of Metis fighters on horseback and in the bush getting ready to ambush federal troops.

Most of the fighting took place at Mission Ridge and after four days the NWFF took Batoche, destroying and looting most of the village. Because of the brave efforts of the local church priest the community church and rectory were saved. With most of their community gone, many of the settlers left. New government rules and regulations made it difficult for those remaining for many years.

When we arrived at the Batoche museum and interpretive centre last summer, it was in the early stages of the COVID pandemic, so there was no one there except the staff. With no crowds, the staff went above and beyond in helping us, giving us time to see the wonderful collection of historic artefacts in the museum.

Touring the few remaining buildings and grave yard was interesting and peaceful. The guides were on hand to answer questions or just to let us wander. The St. Antoine de Padoue Church interior was beautiful … some bullets holes can still be seen on the outer walls.  

The Bell of Batoche was taken as a war trophy in 1885 and held in a Legion hall somewhere in Ontario until it was liberated a few years ago and now is with the Metis people in Western Canada.

In the museum, artifacts showed the beauty and culture of the Metis people. One of the displays showed the skill of the Metis women’s intricate beadwork. I was told by Kel that their beadwork speciality was flower designs sewn on their handmade clothes. In fact, many items were handmade since was no local store to buy manufactured goods.

It was time to call it a day as it was a long drive to get here and we never planned to do it all in one day. Driving back to the community of Wakaw to stay the night, we make a few stops to view the unique Western Canada ikon, the beautiful Ukrainian/Greek churches with their onion top spiers. You could see them from miles away standing tall on the flat prairie plains.

Finding a hotel in Wakaw (27 kms southeast of Batoche and 60 kms south of Prince Albert) was no problem and a helpful manager/owner directed us to the town’s Chinese restaurant. Due to COVID it was takeout only, so as we waited, we walked along main street and to my surprise found a Chinese grocery store carrying products you don’t often find in small rural communities.

When we picked up the take-out food, the bag felt heavy. Back at the hotel, we discovered no rocks in the bottom of the bag, but a great deal of delicious Chinese cuisine. There’s so much! How much you ask? Enough for breakfast and some lunch the next day back at the Batoche museum. Kel skipped the Chinese leftover lunch in favor of the museum lunch counter special - bison burger.

Later in the day we left the museum, travelling north to what I would call a Metis cultural centre that Kel has talked of. It was closed at the time, but the gate was open. A number of small, well kept cabins held Metis culture, arts and crafts, displayed for a yearly celebration - an interesting week-long event.

Then, I got a pleasant surprise for in one section of the site is one of the most unique, beautiful war memorial cenotaphs I have ever seen in Canada. This cenotaph has a walkway of honour leading to a large circle with information panels on either side. In the centre of the circle is a display that looks like an eagle with information engraved on its side and the Metis flags. In the middle are carvings of Metis warriors over the years; the main image, a Metis horse and rider bearing the Metis Infinity banner. There’s a large outer circle and on it are large upright black granite stones with hundreds of carved names of Metis veterans who have fought for Canada’s freedom over the years. I took time to look at the names and since there was no one else there, I felt I was with them as I read the names and the conflicts.

The graveyard at Batoche is on a hill overlooking the South Saskatchewan River flowing slowly along the green valley hills. In the well-kept grave yard former foes now lie together. On the edge of this site, Gabriel Dumont is buried - a perfect spot for the man who fought on this ground for the rights of the Metis.

One of our final stops is at the Caron Family home, destroyed during the battle, but rebuilt by the family. They received no help in rebuilding, as some of the family members took an active part in the Batoche Resistance. The home was owned by the Caron family until 1971 when it was sold to Parks Canada. Inside, the house is filled with artefacts displaying the family’s life     throughout the house’s history.

We drove back for a final look at the museum and interpretative centre, well done with a balanced mixture of thought and comment to both sides of the four-day battle over western progress and Metis rights and traditions. We thanked the museum staff for the help they gave us.  

In 1923, it was declared a Canadian National historic site for people to learn about Canada’s struggles to become a country and the importance of our cultural and ethnic diversity.

Recently, I ran across this interesting fact:

Sir John A. MacDonald’s plan to unify Canada from coast to coast and avoid U.S. expansion into western Canada was to build the transcontinental railway which started in 1872. However, because of financial problems and political scandal at the time of the Batoche resistance, the rail was not that far west. So, the NWFF travelled part of the journey on U.S. rail lines with a long, overland forced march.

Sir John. A, a shrewd politician, brought up the Batoche event in Parliament to convince the government that this rail link across Canada was an important part of the country’s security, in light of the Batoche resistance. He got the money and the last spike was driven on Nov. 7, 1885, five months after the struggle at Batoche.

Time to go home, with a long drive over more roads untravelled by either of us and only a few wrong turns. We made it as far as Canora, Sask. in the early evening. Right outside our hotel was a large statue of a Ukrainian maiden in colorful traditional costume, offering a loaf of bread. Let’s go have a traditional Ukrainian meal. No such luck. COVID had closed all the restaurants so it would be takeout Subway sandwiches.

I was glad to have made it to Canora. For too many years I thought it was in northern Ontario. It is - spelled with a K.

The long trip was well worth the historic discoveries. The Batoche site, a moment in Canadian history, was well done with little political opinions. I have learned, in the world of history, one hundred years later the events are a bit easier to understand. The way I see it.

© Virden Empire-Advance