Heritage interpreter Adele Gaudet plays her fiddle after a moment of silence to honour those who died in the Battle of Batoche 125 years ago Wednesday, as Ray Fidler of Parks Canada watches. Herald photo by Tessa Holloway
BATOCHE — The only sound just after 3 p.m. in Batoche on Wednesday was the sound of the wind — it swept up the grass and roared through the fabric of the flags.
It was likely the same sound the Métis soldiers and Canadian military heard when the gunfire finally ceased after four straight days of fighting on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, drawing the Northwest Rebellion to a close.
That was 125 years ago Wednesday. Stepping on the same soil at a ceremony to mark the occasion, Métis Nation — Saskatchewan president Robert Doucette was “filled with awe.”
“To say that I’m part of that history is awe inspiring,” said Doucette, who grew up just across the river from Batoche.
The battle marked the effective end of several decades of Métis resistance to the Canadian government, which began with the 1869 Red River Rebellion that founded Manitoba.
In 1885 settlers and surveyors were arriving in Saskatchewan in increasing numbers, and the Métis were concerned about their land rights.
The fighting broke out first in Duck Lake on March 26 and less than two months later the Canadian soldiers cornered the Métis fighting force at Batoche, where a group of 300 Métis held off 800 soldiers for four days until they finally ran out of ammunition.
The last 50 to 60 fighters were shooting rocks from their guns.
“Can you imagine what they were thinking of at the time?” said historical interpreter Lee Penner. “It wasn’t just one day of battle. That battle lasted a long time afterwards with the dispersal of the Métis people here.”
It’s a part of the country’s history that many are concerned isn’t fully understood.
“When I went to school, I studied the Battle of Batoche for 15 minutes,” said Ron Jobin. “And what I got out of it was that these were bad people and they shouldn’t have rebelled.”
One of those “bad people” was his great-grandfather’s brother, Ambroise Jobin, and over time he heard stories that changed his opinion of what happened, in particular how his family dispersed after the war.
His great-grandfather had five brothers, but they never saw each other after 1885. It wasn’t until the 1990s that all the relatives were found, scattered from Edmonton to North Dakota to Manitoba.
“They weren’t bad people,” said Jobin
The opportunity now exists, according to many at Batoche, to tell a fuller version of the story.
Stewart Prosper, an elder from nearby One Arrow First Nation, talked about the impact on First Nations, some of which tried to support the Métis without getting fully involved.
Canadian soldiers confiscated cattle from First Nations, he said, while two nearby reserves were completely eliminated following the rebellion.
“They never got any compensation for it,” he said, before adding: “Standing here is a very high honour for me.”
Doucette said they are still repairing the damage caused by fighting and the aftermath, when many Saskatchewan Métis were left landless and in poverty.
He said battles are still being fought today to win “equality and respect,” pointing out Métis people are still poorer and on average have less education than their non-aboriginal counterparts, a discrepancy he hopes to see erased.
But when asked what the legacy of the battle is, he said it is the people.
“Our culture has survived,” said Doucette, and he described a renaissance of Métis stories and culture in the last 20 to 30 years.
He heaped praise on previous generations of Métis, such as those who fought in Batoche, for keeping the culture alive, as well as the rest of the country for helping to break down barriers of racism.
“It really feels cool to be Métis again.