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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.
Louis Riel
- courtesy RCMP Centennial Museum
Louis Riel
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.

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 endeavors.

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.

Major General Frederick Middleton's North-West Field Force built a 'zareba', or fortified encampment, south of the church/rectory.
- courtesy Heritage Canada
Major 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.

The church and rectory of the Mission of St. Antoine de Padoue came under fire during the first day of fighting.
- courtesy Heritage Canada
The 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 attack.

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 short order.

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 historical site.

The church is interpreted to the period 1897.
- courtesy Heritage Canada
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 surveyors.

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 ago.

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.

The rectory was far more than a home for the clergy.
- courtesy Heritage Canada
The 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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