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Batoche: Sacred grounds of the Métis

For the week of Monday May 8, 2006

From May 9 to 12, 1885, at the Métis community of Batoche, a group of 300 Métis fighters resisted a force of 800 Canadian regulars and militia sent by the Dominion Government to quell what it called the ‘Northwest Rebellion.’ The four-day battle, ultimately a victory for the federal forces, marked the Métis’ last armed response to years of futile petitions and open hostility with the federal government.

Gabriel Dumont, Batoche, 1885
© Canada Post Corporation. Reproduced with permission.
In the 1870s, many Métis, upset by the handling of promised land grants, left Manitoba and founded new settlements in present-day central Saskatchewan. However, by 1884, they were encountering familiar problems. In anticipation of increased immigration westwards, federal land surveyors had arrived, but had refused to survey their Métis lands according to the traditional river lot system. In addition, Métis appeals for assistance in transitioning to an agrarian lifestyle and for their children’s schooling went unanswered by Ottawa. These grievances resulted in the events of 1885, culminating in the Battle of Batoche.

Red River Cart
© Library and Archives Canada / 1963-97-1.11R:A
The Métis – offspring of European fur traders and First Nations women – had developed a distinct cultural identity. They had hunted buffalo like their Aboriginal brothers, ran stores and businesses like their European relatives, valued education for their children, cherished independence, developed Michif – their own French-Cree language, embraced Roman Catholicism, and enjoyed a rich cultural life of festival, song and dance.

York Boat
© Canada Post Corporation. Reproduced with permission.
However, eastern Canadian politicians viewed the Métis as uncivilized ‘half-breeds’ and a hindrance to their nation building. They disregarded the important contributions the Métis had made to the historical fabric of Canada. By the late 1800s, they formed the largest segment of the fur-trade population, where they acted as intermediaries between two cultures and as provisioners to all. They adapted European technology through innovations such as the Red River Cart and York Boat. They blazed trails that opened up the western provinces to new immigrants. For each buffalo hunt, they elected interim governments to enforce the law of the hunt, an activity that increased western political consciousness. Métis leader Louis Riel was an integral part of the negotiations that led to the establishment of Manitoba as Canada's fifth province in 1870. In 1885, the Métis gave the nascent Canadian army their first taste of guerrilla warfare as well as their first victory.

The Métis community at Batoche, a place symbolizing the clash of aspirations in Canada’s early west, was designated a National Historic Site in 1923.

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