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Wednesday, May 12, 2010 

Battle Of Batoche - 125th Anniversary

(Town of Batoche set on fire by Canadian troops after the battle)

(The bodies of the 51 Metis soldiers killed were dumped unceremoniously into a mass grave by Canadian forces)

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British General Middleton was very cautious after his defeat by Metis troops at the Battle of Fish Creek (in what is now Saskatchewan). Middleton stopped all military action for two weeks in order to rest his men. The final major battle of the Northwest Rebellion took place from May 9th to 12th, 1885 at Batoche.

The Métis forces had dug in and trenches stretched around the perimeter of Batoche. General Middleton decided to attack the town of Batoche from two sides at the same time. He planned to have a boat sent down the river to Batoche where it would attack from the west. Meanwhile, Middleton would lead his soldiers in an attack from the east. The steamer "Northcote" was prepared for battle by changing it into a gunboat. To provide protection from the Métis gunfire, the army used boards from Dumont's house and barn, part of Dumont's pool table and some food sacks. Dumont's house was then looted and burned. Thirty-five soldiers took up positions on th the gunboat, and it started down the river towards Batoche.

As the gunboat reached Batoche, many of the Métis and Indians left their rifle pits and ran to the riverbank. There was an exchange of fire. As the boat passed Batoche, the Métis lowered a ferry cable they had strung across the river causing the smokestacks, spars, and steam whistle to be knocked over. The gunboat drifted out of control, on down the river. It did not return. This was Canada's first and only inland Naval war in her history.

Middleton and his soldiers marched towards Batoche. They arrived an hour late, so the gunboat had already passed and the Métis and Indians were back in their rifle pits. Middleton had field guns and fired at the village of Batoche. The women and children fled in terror. Middleton began to attack with his soldiers. But the Métis men were fairly safe in their rifle pits which had been carefully hidden in the bushes. Once again, Middleton's soldiers fought from higher ground where they were easy targets. At the end of the first day of fighting, Middleton believed he was losing.

The next morning, Middleton decided to delay a major attack. His men needed a rest, and he hoped that the Métis defense would weaken with time. For the next two days, Middleton made use of his field guns and the gatling gun, but he avoided a major attack. The Métis continued to use up their ammunition.

By the morning of the fourth day, some of the Métis had realized that the battle was hopeless, so they left. Many of the Métis that remained were old men. They were running out of bullets. Some were firing stones from their shotguns. As the armies fought in the distance, a group of Métis in the town asked Riel to work a miracle. Middleton's army became over anxious and while Middleton was indisposed, they began a frontal attack. The attack was poorly organized and allowed many of the Métis to escape to the safety of the bushes. Riel and Dumont fled as well.

For three days the Métis defenders battled innumerable odds and superior weaponry. With ammunition running out, the defenders had to resort to using nails and other metal fragments in place of bullets. Badly outnumbered, the Métis were driven from their trenches and forced to surrender on May 12, the fourth day of the battle.

With the May 12 defeat of the Métis, Batoche was lost, families were scattered and the people lived in fear for themselves or their relatives who might be wounded and prosecuted(as had occurred 15 years earlier when the Red River Resistance came to its conclusion). Suddenly Batoche, the last great vestige of Métis dominion and the old way of life on the Western Plains caved in to military control.

One by one, women and men began to turn themselves in to General Middleton's forces. In the process their weapons were confiscated despite protests that it would leave them without a means to hunt for food. As in past battles "To the victor go the spoils". Batoche was no exception. With the disappearance or imprisonment of the Métis; their cabins, farmlands, and possessions were ripe for the taking. Neither Middleton or the clergy were above reproach as they too participated in the looting.

The impact and influence of the clergy in the community quickly vanished. During the battle the priests had attempted to talk the Métis out of fighting for what they believed in were their rights. When the Métis would not do what the Clergy wanted, the clergy acted as informants and passed on vital information gathered by the English Métis (in particular Charles Nolin) to the military. The priests also tried to blackmail the people by refusing to adminster the sacraments (holy communion) to those taking up arms and following Riel. Accidently, they denounced Riel as a heretic and when it came time to give up, they too collected Métis weapons as if they themselves were the military. With little faith left in the community for the church, members of the clergy such as Fathers Fourmond and Vegreville were finished. The parish at St. Louis was abandoned, and Fourmond hightailed it to Prince Albert.

The ones who truly suffered, though, were the Métis. The human misery and suffering created by the conflicts along the valley of the South Saskatchewan was staggering. Families lost track fo their children. Many women, left behind when their men went to support Riel and Dumont, were without food, shelter or adequate clothing. They dared not return to their homes as those were being ransacked by soldiers; who, they thought, might imprison them as well as their men folk. Many had fled to the security of the woods and the caves that the women of the Métis Nation created a flag (the original Métis flag) in support of the battle.

One of the familes Dumont assisted was Louis Riel's. Nobody knew where Riel was. For three days Dumont looked high and low for Riel. Finally thinking that Riel may have already turned himself in, Dumont took Riel's wife, Marguerite, and her two children to his father's home, Isidore Dumont. Isidore advised Gabriel to abandon his fight, to cease his hunt for Riel and to strike out for Montana where it was safe. He had no choice. Leaving behind his wife, Dumont bid farewell to his family and rode south with Michael Dumas. About a year after reaching the safety of the United States, Dumont joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. After that, thousands of people paid to see Dumont demonstrate his riding and shooting talents. In 1886, the Canadian Government declared a general amnesty. Eight years after the fighting, Dumont returned home where he spent his remaining years hunting and farming. Gabriel Dumont died in Saskatchewan on May 19, 1906.

The two leaders reacted differently to this defeat. Both were hidden in the woods and ravines around Batoche. Riel withdrew into the woods to pray. He made no attempt to flee. When Middleton demanded that he surrender, he replied that he would give himself up to fulfill God's will and that he wanted freedom for all his council and his people. He would surrender so that he could continue to defend the Métis cause. Riel's destiny was to be played out in a trial in Regina.

The resistance was nearly over. Poundmaker surrendered on May 23, but Big Bear was still at large. He was attempting to restore the military unity of Metis and First Nations which had existed on the plains. By the time that Big Bear's people reached Loon Lake, some camped there while others, including their prisoners went on. Shortly after this Colonel Strange's soldiers caught up with them and attacked the camp. Five Cree warriors were killed. This was the last of the fighting in the Northwest Rebellion. With his forces dying of hunger and no more ammunition left, Big Bear finally gave himself up on July 2. Louis David Riel was executed by the Government of Canada in Regina on November 16, 1885.

The execution of Riel and other Métis and Indian participants continues to be controversial in modern day Canada. It has entrenched negative attitudes toward not only Métis people, but all of Canada's Aboriginal people. As well it further exacerbated the widening rift between English and French Canadians.

John Diefenbaker's family regularly hosted Gabriel Dumont at their home when Diefenbaker was a child.

Diefenbaker would later recount that Dumont was quite candid in how he outlined how close the Metis came to wiping out the Mounties during the battles prior to Batoche. Riel himself wound up preventing it when he came out to the battleground and declared "stop! Stop! God says that's enough killing for one day!"

Had Dumont been left to finish his task, it may not be unfair to wonder how different Canadian history would be today.

Patrick, thanks for these comments. I had heard that Riel had held Dumont back .. but this puts it in context. Again, thanks!

You're very welcome.

Here's what I consider to be a fair question: Riel waged what was a fairly just battle for what I would deem the natural rights of the Metis.

But he clearly suffered from a mental illness of some sort. Should that in any way be used to question Riel's motivation?

We are on shaky ground when we look at Riel's extremist religious beliefs and wonder if he was just a fanatic or delusional. That young Canadiaqn fundamentalist religious woman, Fantene, speaks endlessly about how 'the Holy Spirt told her' and the "Holy Spirit has directed her' towards her political activism. Is that crazy or is it just off the wall fanatacal? Riel had been in a monastary for awhile and was clearly off the deep end with his religious convictions. But I would venture to say that so is Pat Robertson and many others of the Christian Right.
Crazy or just fanatical?

I figured you'd bring this up, but I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing.

A lot of religious people talk about having God or the Holy Spirit talk to them, but most of them mean it metaphorically.

Louis Riel believed God was speaking to him directly.

My experience has been that the vast majority of people who claim that God speaks to them directly are either mentally ill, philistines or outright frauds.

The defining factor is that only one of these groups only believe God speaks directly to them.

I'll put it to you this way: I know God isn't speaking to me directly.

Concerning your "Battle of Batoche": You are a great writer. Thanks for posting your keen observances. What a great benefit you are to the Exovede peoples - and the Metis, in general. Looking forward to reading more from you...

In a biography of Dumant, George Woodcock says that Dumont and Riel met in the woods outside of Batoche shortly before Riel surrenders and Dumont went to Montana. Your writing says they never met. ??

Thanks for the information. Let me look at the Woodcock book and I will gladly mention what he says as a revision here. Thanks again!

Riel Lives!

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