The reasons people choose to settle in any given area vary greatly. The South Saskatchewan River valley near Batoche, Saskatchewan, drew people for millennia. The fertile bottom lands, the game in the transitional parklands zone between the boreal forests to the north and the prairies of the great Palliser Triangle to the south, and the river itself offered reason enough.
St. Laurent, a ferry crossing, just to the north hosts a steep-sided ravine on its western bank. This served as a buffalo jump, which attracted early peoples in their seasonal round of prime hunting sites. Their traditional gatherings drew early Oblate missionaries. The French priests’ presence, their native cousin’s traditions and the often unfriendly pressure of new immigrants into their former lands along the Red River in Manitoba offer some reasons for the Metis’ choice to settle there in the 1870s. Its placement along on a century-old fur trading route and the Carleton Trail towards Ft. Edmonton didn’t hurt.
Years before the federal government took an active interest in developing the Batoche National Historical Site, I recall walking down from the surviving St. Antoine de Padoue church and neighbouring rectory along a grass-covered lane towards the river. The foundations of buildings once lining the main street of Batoche could still be seen. No one even thought of stopping the curious visitor from wandering through the ruins and picking up a squared, hand-forged nail or other artifact in those days.
The quiet pastoral setting belied the violence this area witnessed in the spring of 1885. Threatened Metis and early settler land rights, as well as unresolved recognition of First Nations claims pitted against the MacDonald government’s financial problems and fierce resolve to build the transcontinental railway created a potent confrontational brew.
Conflict at Duck Lake, Fish Creek, Frog Lake and Cut Knife led up to a final confrontation at Batoche. Louis Riel’s vision of a New Jerusalem for the Metis on the Prairies could not withstand the onslaught of General Frederick Middleton’s troops and the new war technology they brought to bear on them, such as the Gatling gun. The General’s troops, despite his niggling caution, overwhelmed the underequipped Metis resisters. Soldiers stripped the church’s bell from its tower as war booty and carried it with them back to Millbrook, Ontario.
In the aftermath of the Northwest Rebellion, the marginalization and dispersal of the Metis deepened. Many became ‘road allowance’ people, squatters on unused portions of their former land until forced to move off again. This didn’t end their determination to defend their rights. A recent landmark court decision recognizing historic injustices and last week’s return of the Bell of Batoche mark a vindication and celebration of their struggles. It should be a cause for all the rest of us to celebrate as well.
The Metis roots historically go back to the Quebecois voyageurs and Hudson Bay workers from the Orkney Islands marrying ‘country’ wives from Cree and Athabaskan peoples whom they met in the early fur-trading period of European expansion into the western half of the continent. Creole, mestizo, mulatto and scores of other peoples around the world share similar stories of blended bloods and new emergent cultures as different nations came into contact and often conflict with each other.
Ideas of race, discredited scientifically, long separated us. Cultural diversity, though, like biodiversity strengthens our global community. In a time of great global challenges, like climate change, which call into question our ability to survive as a species, the more cultural lenses we have for examining the issues before us the better the probability is of our finding solutions to them.
Humanity is rapidly mixing. Increasing global appreciation of cultural diversity and new communications technologies blend us in previously unimagined ways. We, in a real sense, are becoming something new. Will this allow us to break out of old patterns in place since the emergence of the nation-state in the mid-1600s and realize a dream of Julian Huxley? In his 1957 New Bottles for New Wine he wrote, “The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself-not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity.”
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.