“We must cherish our inheritance. We must preserve our nationality for the youth of our future. The story should be written down to pass on.”
The 1880′s were a tumultuous time in the Canadian North West. European and American settlers were venturing into what would become the three prairie provinces; Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Several years previous, the Canadian government already had problems with an uprising at the Red River Settlement. This uprising was lead by a man named Louis Riel.
Riel was a strange one to be certain. On the one hand, he help found the province of Manitoba and lead a provisional government in the province’s infancy. Militia sent by Ottawa managed to push back the first uprising in 1869 to 1870. Riel fled to Montana where he married and had children. During his time in exile, voters actually elected him to the House of Commons three times.
He returned in the early 1880′s to what is now the province of Saskatchewan.
The events that follow lead to the bloodiest battle between First Nations, Metis and the Canadian Government in this country’s history.
Louis Riel’s main quest was to find equality and rights for all Metis people. Being of First Nation and either French or Scottish decent, the government did not recognize them as Treaty Indians. Nor did they recognize them as members of the Crown. It was common place for Metis settlers to find their own land being sold off to European settlers without any compensation.
Riel has been described as both a Father of Confederation and a traitor. In Quebec, he was held in high regard as a hero and there were many out cries of injustice when Riel was hanged in Regina after the Rebellion of 1885. Riel’s commitment to justice and equality for Metis people cannot be questioned. Even his high regard of all fellow human beings, whether they be friend or foe. As is written in his own memoirs and written by others who knew him, he did not speak ill toward anyone.
So what does all of this have to do with ghosts. Batoche, Duck Lake and even nearby Battleford were the scenes of the bloodiest battle for rights and privileges in Saskatchewan’s history. It is not surprising that along with that history there remains spirits to help keep it alive.
Batoche was established in 1872 as a Metis settlement and named for Xavier Letendre dit Batoche. By 1885, 500 people lived in the village. There were several stores and a Roman Catholic church. Batoche was also the seat of government for Riel’s Provisional Government of Saskatchewan. The village was populated by not only Metis, but by French Canadians, and had a strong Catholic faith. The Catholic church, which still stands in the now Nation Heritage Site of Batoche, is a clear indicator of the battle long since past. It’s walls still bullet ridden.
The villagers fled Batoche during and after the battles, leaving the site a true ghost town. Many of the buildings still stand today, and as it is a Heritage site, it is a reminder of the blood that spilled in the days before Saskatchewan became a province.
Riel’s execution in Regina was reported on in newspapers all over the world. Britain defended the decision to execute him, stating that treason was still a crime. French newspapers called it a slap in the face to the French by British hands, and continued to show the contempt that the United Kingdom had for France. Papers in Italy reported that the Catholic church was very worried about the decision to hang Riel, as he was a very devote member of the Church. In the United States, the reaction was mixed, some heralding Riel as a hero, others as a halfbreed terrorist. However, The Philadelphia Inquirer had the most accurate comment on the matter.
The ghost of Louis Riel will haunt Canadian statesmen for many a day.
And in truth, it did.
As recently as 2006, Bills have passed through the House of Commons, some demanding that a national holiday in recognition of Louis Riel be announced, others demanding that Riel be pardoned and his mark of record to show that he was not a traitor of Canada. To have this kind of affect almost one hundred years after his death is truly amazing.
Since 1905, the year Saskatchewan became a province, buildings have been named for Riel, highways, dorm areas, statues erected, and even a play written dramatizing the trial of Louis Riel. Metis people have acquired similar rights and freedoms as those of First Nation decent and of European ancestry.
But what of the battle sites themselves?
Stories linger that there can be voices heard, apparitions of soldiers from both sides of the war, from the battles sites in Batoche all the way to Fort Carlton and Battleford. The fort in Battleford is also an historic site, and many of those who work there as tour guides dressed in period costume have confirmed some strange goings on.
Perhaps it is the ghost of Riel come back. Logic would dictate no. Logic even discards the thought that the spirits could be others with close ties to Riel, such as Gabriel Dumont. Dumont escaped Canada, and lived in the States for a few years before the Canadian government granted him amnesty. Dumont lived out his days near Batoche, hunting and farming.
But between the various battle sites there are strange and unexplained happenings. Possibly and most likely, some of these events that go unexplained may have some direct connection to the battles of 1885 in the heart of the Canadian Prairies.
“I am more convinced everyday that without a single exception I did right… and I have always believed that, as I have acted honestly, the time will come when the people of Canada will see and acknowledge it.”