by Dave Yanko
BATOCHE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE – Bullet holes above the doorway
to the church/rectory complex are the most tangible evidence of
the historic Battle of Batoche that occurred here in May of 1885.
There was no steeple on the church at the time, and Major General
Frederick Middleton and his North West Field Force of 800 men apparently
didn't know they were firing on a place of worship as they attacked
the much smaller rebel forces of Louis Riel.
The fighting at Batoche was over in four days. Middleton was victorious,
Riel was hanged for treason, and other rebel leaders were imprisoned
or disappeared until a general amnesty was proclaimed.
But the political and social repercussions of what occurred here
shake Canadian institutions to this day. Riel soon may be posthumously
pardoned by the Government of Canada - perhaps even officially named
a father of Canadian confederation.
Gabriel Dumont, his military
commander, has become a folk hero revered for his brilliant guerrilla-warfare
tactics and commemorated, among other means, by a provincial educational
institution wholly owned and controlled by the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan.
And Métis-rights issues remain simmering on the front burner at
court houses and legislative assemblies across the country.
RCMP Centennial Museum
The best way to begin a tour of Batoche - really, the only way
if you're not well familiar with the background - is to experience
the award-winning, audio-visual presentation in the visitors centre.
It's a moving and informative historical presentation that adds
meaning, perspective and color to the self-guided tour that follows.
Métis people of what's now western Canada came into existence as
a result of the fur trade. They were the offspring of European fur
traders and First Nations women, independent in spirit with a lifestyle
that mixed hunting, trapping and freighting with trade and commercial
Batoche was settled in the early 1870s by Métis of mostly French
and Indian blood. They were forced to leave Manitoba's Red River
Settlement by federal government policies that ignored their rights
in order to accommodate the anticipated flow of 'white' settlers
to the region. The Red River Rebellion of 1869-70, also led by Riel,
was touched off by federal surveyors who refused to acknowledge
traditional Métis land holdings in the district.
General Frederick Middleton's North West Field Force built a
'zareba', or fortified encampment, south of the church/rectory.
Riel is credited with leading negotiations that led in 1870 to
the establishment of Manitoba as Canada's fifth province. But ill
feelings from the rebellion, fueled by an influx of white settlers,
extinguished a government pledge to give the Métis a 1.4-million-acre
land base. Riel, who eventually moved to the U.S., in 1875 was granted
amnesty for his role in the rebellion on condition he remain in
exile for five more years.
By 1884, Métis who had moved to the Batoche settlement on the South
Saskatchewan River were encountering some of the same problems they
experienced at Red River. In anticipation of white settlement, federal
land surveyors were dividing up the Métis' traditional, narrow,
river-front lots using the square, range-and-township format employed
in central Canada. While the buffalo had disappeared, Métis calls
for help in their transition to farming life, and in the education
of their kids, were ignored by Ottawa. A delegation from Batoche
asked Riel to return from the U.S. to lead them in an effort to
resolve these issues with Ottawa.
The Métis weren't alone in their grievances with central Canada.
Cree Chief Big Bear, the last of the Plains Indian leaders to take
treaty, was trying to establish a coalition of First Nations to
negotiate more favorable treaty terms for Indian bands of the North-West,
many of whom were starving and having trouble adjusting to a new
way of life on the reserve. White settlers of the region, meanwhile,
were angered at what they viewed as unfair treatment by the federal
government, especially its decision to construct the new national
railway more than a hundred miles south of the proposed route.
Through the fall and bitter winter of 1884-85, Riel's attempts
to negotiate with the federal government on the behalf of all these
groups failed to resolve outstanding issues. On Mar. 19, 1885, he
established a provisional government at Batoche, naming himself
president and Gabriel Dumont military commander. The Métis pressed
their cause by taking prisoners in the Batoche area and occupying
the nearby community of Duck Lake.
The first battle of the North-West Resistance - between Métis forces
augmented by First Nations warriors, and North-West Mounted Police
assisted by civilian volunteers from Prince Albert - occurred on
Mar. 26, 1885. Nine volunteers and three police were killed. The
rebels, who lost five Métis and one First Nations, forced their
opponents to retreat. Riel, as he would do several times during
the course of the conflict, limited casualties by forbidding rebel
fighters from pursuing the fleeing enemy.
church and rectory of the Mission of St. Antoine de Padoue came
under fire during the first day of fighting.
While aggrieved white settlers never got involved in the fighting,
news of the rebel triumph at Duck Lake spurred action from First
Nations bands to the west. They converged on Battleford, killing
two whites and forcing about 400 residents to take refuge in Fort
Battleford for a month.
In all, there were five significant battles and numerous skirmishes
associated with the conflict. A debate continues to this day regarding
the degree of cooperation between First Nations and Métis leaders
during the resistance. Whether or not the actions by the two groups
were largely independent of each other, Ottawa felt compelled to
send more than 5,000 troops to deal with the threats in the North-West.
Middleton's attack on the Métis' home base here at Batoche brought
an end to the resistance.
Led by the cunning Dumont, the Métis excelled at what's come to
be known as guerrilla warfare. They knew the terrain well. They
were highly mobile and able to strike quickly, by surprise. Dumont
would have preferred to fight Middleton away from Batoche, using
the guerrilla tactics he employed to good effect in previous battles.
But Riel, who believed God sided with the Métis, chose to make a
stand at Batoche.
On the first day of the battle, the Métis and their allies scored
a victory by disabling a riverboat seconded by Middleton for the
'naval' portion of his two-pronged attack. By lowering a ferry cable
across the South Saskatchewan, Métis forces critically damaged the
smokestacks and wheel house of the Northcote, cleverly scuttling
Middleton's plan to attack by water and land.
No apparent advantage was gained in sporadic fighting over the
following two days, however, the rebel force of fewer than 300 Métis,
Cree and Dakota (Sioux) used up most of their ammunition. In the
waning hours of clash, they resorted to shooting stones and nails
from their old muzzle loaders. By contrast, Middleton's 800 troops
were well equipped with good rifles, several nine-pound field guns
and a Gatling gun borrowed from the United States.
On the final day of the battle, Middleton hoped to trick the Métis
by drawing them towards his small attack force while assaulting
with the majority elsewhere. The officer in charge of the larger
force was to launch his attack when he heard gunfire from the Middleton's
smaller group. But due to a strong wind, he didn't hear Middleton
The irate Middleton withdrew to his camp and began eating lunch,
unaware his scheme was working precisely as planned, albeit in a
delayed fashion. The Métis and their Indian allies were routed in
The military strategy and tactics employed in the battle are set
out through interpretive plaques around the site. But visitors with
a keen interest in battlefield tactics should pick up the brochure
that uses maps with translucent overlays to illustrate the course
of the four-day fight. The pamphlet, which also provides good, general
background to the tour, can be purchased for several dollars at
the visitors centre.
Middleton launched his attacks on Batoche from a base to the south.
The site of his 'zareba', an encampment used as a base of attack
and defense, is an efficient starting point for those wishing to
do the entire 4-kms (2.5-mile), 4- to 6-hour-walking tour of the
church is interpreted to the period 1897.
Although little remains of the temporary camp, rifle pits used
by militia sentries are still visible. A short walk from the zareba
is the former home of Jean and Marguerite Caron Sr., which was constructed
after Middleton's troops destroyed their first home for fear it
would be used for cover by rebel attackers. Middleton, a Sandhurst
graduate one historian labelled 'competent but not brilliant', took
the same precaution with a number of Métis homes in the region.
A beautiful, panoramic view of the South Saskatchewan River and
valley lies just a few steps west of the Caron house. From the lookout
platform, visitors have the option of proceeding directly by gravel
road to the church/rectory complex, or taking the 20-minute hiking
trail that meanders northwards through the willow and aspen stands
near the top of the picturesque river valley. The trail opens onto
the Batoche cemetery, where Dumont and others rest high above a
sharp bend in the river.
The interiors of the nearby St. Antoine de Padoue church and rectory
are interpreted to the 1897 period. Constructed in 1883-84, the
two buildings formed the spiritual and social centre of the community.
The rectory was used as a post office, hospital, school and hostel
for itinerant priests, or anyone else who needed a place to stay.
But it was primarily the living quarters for parish priests, nuns
and the teacher, and the many original artifacts it contains illustrate
a surprising degree of formality in their day-to-day lives.
Commerce at Batoche was carried out at the village, about a half-hour
walk north of the church/rectory complex. Hikers can view more rifle
pits along the way, and a height of land provides a good view of
the narrow river lots favored by the Métis and frowned upon by federal
There's an east and west village, but only the east is open to
the public, and all that remains of it are several overgrown foundations.
Interpretive signs illustrate how the community appeared 100 years
It was located right on the Carlton Trail, for decades the main
overland trade route between Fort Edmonton and Fort Garry. Portions
of the trail are still clearly visible, especially the section that
leads down to the river crossing where, in peaceful times, Dumont
earned his keep as a ferryman.
rectory was far more than a home for the clergy.
The east village is also accessible by road. But since visitors
must leave the site and re-enter north of the main gates, it's a
good idea to ask for directions from staff at the visitors centre.
The Métis were a people who hunted buffalo (while they lasted)
like their aboriginal brothers, created stores and businesses like
their European relatives, valued the education of their children,
cherished their independence, developed their own language incorporating
French and Cree, embraced Roman Catholicism through their patron
saint, St. Joseph, and enjoyed a rich cultural life of festival,
song and dance.
Today, they're making significant strides in their long struggle
to be recognized as a distinct people, with land, economic and social
rights similar to their First Nations counterparts. Long after the
final volley, the Battle of Batoche continues.
Visitors to Batoche
may walk up to 4 kms (2.5 miles) over trails and grassland, and
spend four to six hours touring the four featured areas of the site.
A minimum of two hours and a 1.4-kms walk (less than a mile) is
required to tour the visitors centre and church/rectory complex,
the most popular areas. Food and crafts available; limited wheelchair access. Visit the Batoche website for information on fees, and hours and dates of operation.
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