Friday, July 15, 2011

Reflections on the site of rebellion

Rob O'Flanagan
Guelph Mercury
July 15, 2011

"The Women of Batoche"
Walking through the battlefield of the Riel Rebellion a few days ago, legs stiff from cycling against the wind on a gravel road, and trying desperately to quench an unquenchable thirst, I was reduced to insignificance by the soft, eloquent beauty of the Batoche, Saskatchewan area, and saddened by the intense sense of loss and injustice that hangs in the dry air over that historic region.

A kind of Utopian dream was once draped over that small patch of Canada. Looking out into idle fields painstakingly cleared over 125 years ago from the dense brush and forested banks of the South Saskatchewan River, I caught myself thinking that vision is not dead, but simply dormant, waiting for its time. One can always dream.

There’s a better way to live, a new kind of community out there in the future, and the stymied and failed attempts of the past – for which Saskatchewan’s history offered many examples – may hold some of the seeds of that brighter future.

In the soils of Saskatchewan’s socialist past, in which state-owned agencies and industries thrived and co-operative movements and model farm practices flourished, there may yet rest the compost for a different kind of society. For now, the roots of Tommy Douglas’s idealism are just barely clinging to the land.

Big agribusiness with its colossal, diesel-guzzling tractors and monster herbicide/insecticide sprayers—producing preternaturally clean and uniform fields of oil and cereal crops—currently hold sway over Saskatchewan’s undulating landscape. But that system is a slave to debt and market speculation, and it has failed more people than it has enriched.

Who can say what that land will hold 125 years from now?

I can see why the Metis—forced out of Manitoba’s Red River Settlement in the 1870s by federal authorities that saw them as a less desirable occupant than new white settlers—alighted on this glorious spot in central Saskatchewan. Who wouldn’t want to live there?

One can see in the beauty of the place why they wanted to establish their own little civilization on that sweet spot, complete with the river-plot system they had known for decades, and the hunting, trapping, freighting and small-scale farming they engaged in for a living. Their God was there with them, and their religion and culture brought them together. They woke every morning to the sight of those rolling hills and the sound of that great river flowing. They awoke giving thanks to this extraordinary place.

But ideals often die brutal deaths, and the mood of a walker through this hallowed landscape takes a turn for the fatalistic thinking about what befell the Metis. Yes, Batoche as a town was economically unsustainable as it entered the 20th century, with the buffalo gone, freighting by river ceasing to be a going concern, and with jobs with the Hudson Bay Company becoming increasingly scarce. Batoche folded up, as though sunk into the land itself. All but two of its buildings remain as relics.

In the great onslaught of nation building that swept across the Northwest Territories of the late-1800s, a Metis settlement with its very own system of land organization was a threat to the square, range-and-township format used in central Canada, where the Anglo powers-that-be made the rules. Pepper the political ambitions of the Government of Canada with the racial prejudice that tarnished attitudes towards the Metis, and any notion of a Metis-run settlement would have been intolerable.

And so on this small patch of earth less than an hour’s drive from Prince Albert or Saskatoon, a dominion army of about 1,000 marched on about 250 buffalo hunters, trappers, farmers and freighters, and put a swift end to the Metis dream.

One wonders while walking there—peering into a rifle pit now overgrown with shrubbery or stepping solemnly through the graveyard where Gabriel Dumont is buried—what it would look like, what it would have become, had the ideal come to fruition. One thing for certain, it would certainly look different from any other town.

In the nearly 18 years since I last lived in Saskatchewan, a new demographic phenomenon seems to have emerged. And it, in time, will transform the province and rekindle Metis and Aboriginal ambitions. The Aboriginal population in Saskatchewan towns has, in the course of two decades, become much more prominent than ever before. It is the fastest growing population in Saskatchewan, and they appear to be taking more control over the economic and social life of the land. Who can say how things will look in 125 years?

The Back to the Batoche Days festival is coming up next week. I encourage anyone going out west to take a side trip to the Batoche National Historic Site of Canada and absorb some of the spirit that lingers there. Expect to be filled with one kind of awe or another, whether over the raw beauty or the tragic past.

Rob O’Flanagan is a Mercury staff writer. His Free Form column appears Saturdays. He can be reached at

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