Last September long weekend, I drove from Saskatoon with my daughter Amy to Batoche National Historic Site. It’s an easy drive, only 88 kilometres, and far quicker to travel now by car than it was in 1885 when the Marr Residence in Saskatoon served as a hospital during the Northwest Resistance.
Back then Saskatoon was a village barely two years old. Batoche, on the other hand, was a thriving community with several businesses, a church, a school and a ferry. It had been founded in 1872 by Xavier Letendre (aka Batoche), a very successful Métis merchant, and his wife Marguerite. Other Métis people soon followed. Most had left Red River in Manitoba, heading west where they hoped to be able to continue to live a traditional lifestyle.
The Métis culture was an amalgamation of French and Cree traditions. It had developed over the past century as French fur traders formed alliances with Cree women. The Métis at Batoche were devout Catholics, skilled hunters and trappers, and shrewd businessmen. They spoke a language called Michif, a combination of French and Cree.
The Métis followed the Quebec-style of land allotment known as the river lot system. It was designed to give each family access to the river and its water, so necessary for agriculture and transportation. Lots were narrow and stretched back from the South Saskatchewan River. You can see some of these river lots when you visit Batoche.
It wasn’t long before the Métis of Batoche encountered the same problems that had caused them to leave Red River. Namely, the Canadian government surveyors, following the dominion system in use in Ontario, began dividing the land into large, square, 160-acre parcels. As in 1869-70, the people of Batoche and area protested, writing letters to Ottawa. And as before, their pleas went unanswered.
In 1884, the people at Batoche decided to ask Louis Riel, the former leader of the Métis Provisional Government at Red River, to come from Montana, where he had fled after the Red River Rebellion, to lead a similar government at Batoche. Riel came. With Riel as political leader and Gabriel Dumont, a well-known buffalo hunter, as military leader, the Métis took a stand against further incursions by the federal government. The North West Mounted Police (NWMP) and government troops were sent to oppose them.
An initial battle at nearby Duck Lake on March 26, 1885, ended with the Métis victorious over the NWMP. Another battle between the Métis and the federal soldiers at Fish Creek on April 24, ended in a stalemate. Finally, on May 9, 1885, 300 Métis armed with rifles dug in to defend Batoche from 800 approaching soldiers with rifles, cannons and a Gatling gun. The battle lasted for four days. When it ended, Batoche had fallen together with 25 men from both sides.
When we visited Batoche, Amy and I saw bullet holes from the battle in the wall of the rectory and rifle pits scattered around the settlement. In the graveyard lie buried the Métis men who fought bravely and died trying to defend their way of life. Dumont, who fled to the US after the battle, later returned and was buried here, as well. A trail leads to another grave overlooking the river. It is that of Gunner Phillips, a young man from England. Far from home, he lies forever amongst the trembling aspens.
At the reception centre, visitors can watch an excellent film that recounts the history of Batoche and the famous battle that was fought here. A museum houses furniture, tools, houseware and clothing used by the Métis settlers. Children can dress in traditional Métis clothing, and delicious bannock is available for purchase at the café.
Batoche is a large site and in the past that meant a lot of walking, something I love to do. Now, you have the option of taking a tram. It will deliver you from one part of the site to another with the exception of the river lots and eastern townsites, to which you have to drive.
When Amy and I visited the church, the tour guide asked if anyone present could play the piano. Well, I used to teach piano lessons and, even though I haven’t played in several years, I put up my hand. Turned out, he was looking for a volunteer to play the old 1892 harmonium that sits in the church’s loft. As the church is no longer in use, except for once each year, this is the only way to keep this historic instrument in working order.
Wow! What a workout it must have been to play an entire service on the harmonium. In order to produce any sound, I had to continually pump two big pedals as I played. Not quite as difficult as rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time, pumping the pedals and playing on the keyboard at the same time is a bit of a challenge. I am not sure I could keep it going for an entire service.
The rectory next door is also quite interesting. This building served not only as the living quarters for the local priest but also as the post office and school. I was shocked to see how small the beds were. People are definitely much taller today than they were then.
The other building to see at Batoche is the former farmhouse of Marguerite and Jean Caron Sr. As the family’s original homestead was destroyed in the Battle of Batoche, the house that now sits on the site was built in 1895. It is a bit of a walk from the townsite and as it was getting later in the day, Amy and I took the tram to see it. Situated near a beautiful bend in the river, it is filled with old furniture and artifacts from the time period.
Batoche is a site that every Canadian should visit if possible. As Batoche is a National Historic Site, there is no entry fee to visit in 2017. If you go between July 20 and 23, check out Back to Batoche, the largest celebration of Métis culture in Canada, which is taking place nearby.