by Lori Stewart
French language lessons took me to St. Boniface in the early part of the summer, where I picked up a small brochure that unfolded to a good sized map of the prairie provinces titled “Sentiers de 1885” or “Trails of 1885. It showed sites that were significant in the Northwest Resistance of 1885.
At the same time, my partner, Paul, was reading a novel called Lord of the Plains: the story of Gabriel Dumont, his wife Madelaine, and the great Northwest Rebellion by Alfred Silver (published by Ballantine Books in 1990), which I also read.
These two converging experiences led us to focus our one-week holiday around the events of the Northwest Resistance of 1885 in what we dubbed the “Rebellion Road Trip”. We wanted to learn more about this part of Canadian history that had been hidden from us.
In her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong urges readers to get to know the stories of people who are different from you in order to expand your depth of human understanding and ignite compassion for them. We discovered as we travelled that the prairies are rich in historical museums; however, the perspective that is presented often focuses on the importance of settler history with only brief nods to First Nations and Métis. I think we noticed this because our preparatory reading helped us view the events of the 1885 resistance through the eyes of the Métis who were being pushed off of their land.
We saw evidence that Métis communities are still active, in Binscarth and Russell. We learned that C. A. Boulton, the man credited with founding the town of Russell, was granted a military commission in 1885 and assembled troops made up of area residents to respond to the escalating resistance movement in Saskatchewan. We weren’t very sympathetic when we learned that two of Boulton’s Scouts died in the fighting at Batoche. We were already rooting for the Métis.
When we visited the site of the original Humbolt telegraph station just outside of Humboldt SK, the interpretive centre at Batoche, and the small museum at Duck Lake, we discovered exhibits that did a good job of presenting competing viewpoints of what led to resistance and why it happened. A write up on “the politics of resistance” pointed out that this “was not a conflict between old ways and new, or between ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ cultures. Many of the frustrations expressed by the Métis and First Nations were shared by settlers: all three groups demanded more political representation and economic opportunities…they were demanding full and equal participation within a new nation.”
I couldn’t help thinking that if the Hudson’s Bay Company hadn’t assumed they owned the land in the first place (which they then sold to the Government of Canada without consulting its inhabitants) and if John A. MacDonald’s government of the day had paid attention to the concerns of the people in both the Red River Rebellion and the Northwest Resistance, our country wouldn’t be still dealing with land claims, the devastation of residential schools, and contemplating ongoing resistance now.
At the time, Riel’s petition sent to Ottawa with an eloquent and unified plea drawing together the interests of First Nations, settlers, and Métis people was disregarded. Tensions grew. The government responded by sending the Northwest Mounted Police and military to impose order. Despite putting up a strong resistance in defense of the land, the Métis led by Gabriel Dumont, were defeated at Batoche. Gabriel fled to the States, was later pardoned, and returned to Saskatchewan. Riel gave himself up, and though he had been advocate of peaceful solutions, he was convicted and hanged as a traitor.
The Rebellion Road Trip was a pilgrimage in the sense that it was “a journey to a shrine or a sacred place”. We found out that Riel and Dumont were deeply spiritual people steeped in the Christian tradition. Their faith led them to stand up for their value as a people of God. We stood on holy ground when we visited the grave of Gabriel Dumont and looked over the valley of the South Saskatchewan River.
We knew we were in the company of saints when we viewed an exhibition portraying Great Métis of My Time by Christi Belacourt at the Gabriel Dumont Institute. Our hearts were broken by the harsh punishments dealt to First Nations people by the government of Canada even when they were not active participants in the Resistance. We were excited to know that the bell from the church at Batoche, that was taken as a spoil of war in 1885, had made it back to the site on the very day we visited.
At the end of his book, Silver cautions that history should never be taken from a single perspective because it is always embedded with theory and interpretation. Before the Rebellion Road Trip the history of the 1885 Resistance had been hidden from us. We were able to glimpse some of what we hadn’t known from a viewpoint we weren’t aware of.
The journey continues—we not only have two more sites we want to visit in Winnipeg, but many more stories to hear on the road to a compassionate life.
Lori Stewart is the Development Coordinator at CCS.