While driving through Saskatchewan near Prince Albert, I was surprised to notice that, although there is a sign at Batoche, there is not a lot to tell passers-by about the history of what took place there.
Growing up in Manitoba, I learned about what was called the Riel Rebellion of 1885 and the trial and hanging of Louis Riel that followed. On a recent visit to Winnipeg, I saw that a monument to Riel, with information about his life, has been erected near the Legislative Building, alongside the Assiniboine River.
But I recalled that Batoche had played a role in that 1885 uprising. So I looked for something to read on the subject, and found Joseph Boyden’s book, Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. It is an excellent book, extremely easy to read. What Boyden does is deal with each of the two men almost as if he is quoting them, or perhaps reciting their thoughts would be a better way of explaining it. So we end up on a tension-filled trip through the Métis uprising, according to the very different calculations and approaches of two powerful Métis leaders who each want to see their people retain their homes and farms near Batoche and persuade the Canadian government of Sir John A. Macdonald to recognize them. But their approaches certainly differ.
Boyden introduces us to Gabriel Dumont by writing,
“Gabriel wakes before the sun. All real hunters do.”
He ends Gabriel’s part in the saga of the rebellion and the Métis with his funeral in 1906 by saying that “…each morning, as the sun begins to rise, the spirit of Gabriel will rise with it. He is a real hunter, a real leader, after all, and so he will always have no choice but to rise with the sun.” Dumont, Boyden tells us, was the leader of the buffalo hunt before the buffalo disappeared, a man highly respected among the Métis people. In 1884 he owns a property and runs a river ferry and a store on the South Saskatchewan River near Batoche. A practical, and highly competent man who has built a successful life for himself and his family in the harsh world of this part of the Canadian North-West. We are also told, at the beginning of his story that, capable and respected as he is, Dumont, like many in his time and place, cannot read and write.
On the early morning when Boyden begins his story, it is the summer of 1884, and Dumont is setting out on a journey south to Montana to meet with Riel. We are provided with some of the background to this journey. He describes the Métis as half-bloods, a mixture of Indian and European ancestry, with much of the European side being French, but also possibly Scots, Irish or English, and the Indian inheritance coming from many of the tribes who had long lived in the Canadian North-West. He briefly mentions the 1870 founding of Manitoba, when Riel led the confrontation with the Canadian government over the rights of the Manitoba Métis to the land they inhabited. The issue in 1884 was the building of the railroad across Canada and the surveying of the land west of Manitoba. By then many of the Métis had moved further north and west from Manitoba and were living near Batoche and the Saskatchewan River. The experience of 1870 has taught the Métis, that if they do not have title to the land they live and work on, the government in Ottawa will sell it to others, and there are a lot of interested speculators, including the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company. So far the Métis’s petitions to Sir John A. Macdonald’s government had not received an answer.
Although Macdonald is often credited by historians as the Canadian Prime Minister responsible for building the first railway across Canada, he does not come well out of Joseph Boyden’s story of Dumont and Riel.
Dumont and three other Métis men meet Riel in Montana on June 4, 1884. Dumont lays out his plan that Riel should accompany them back to Batoche, so that he can help convince the government to deal fairly with the Métis.
At this point, early in the book, Boyden introduces the differences between the two men that he will continue to emphasize. Riel responds by mentioning God, and then noting that four men had arrived to see him on the fourth of June, and that, if he returns with them, there will be five men. So that he will give them his answer the following day, June 5. Boyden has Dumont wondering about whether he has made a mistake in having faith in a man “who might not be totally sane” to lead the Métis. He thinks of many options. For example, could Joan of Arc, or possibly the Biblical prophets, have been seen as insane? He ponders the fact that Riel is one of the few university-educated Métis, that he has dealt with the Canadian government and Parliament before, and that he did get some results for his people. These themes form the difference between the two men, Dumont the practical, competent man who knows the North-West and its people and Riel, educated by priests as a boy, prominent in the founding of the province of Manitoba, elected to Parliament and familiar with Canadian government people, even though he had gone into exile in the US. Riel had also spent time in a mental hospital, and the question of his sanity, combined with his very religious statements, can make him appear to be very far from practical. Boydon later introduces two other factors. First, that Riel also wants to collect money that he claims the Canadian government promised him previously. Second, that Riel truly believes that God has given him a mission to create a New World in Saskatchewan, and that he has been given the name of “David” to do this.
Riel does return to Saskatchewan with Dumont and this conflict of character between the two men continues as events unfold. Dumont remains more practical, a better hunter and prairie fighter. Possibly, Boyden suggests, he may have had a strategy that could have defeated the army the Canadian government sent out to the North-West on the newly-built railway. Riel, in spite of his belief in a God-given mission consistently hesitates to make serious moves for the Métis cause, and Dumont, in awe and admiration of his hero, seems to let opportunities slip by.
Boyden describes the events that unfolded after Riel arrived back in the Canadian North-West. Riel prepared another petition to be sent to the Canadian government to give land rights to the Métis. Then on March 17, 1885, a group of Métis riders encountered Laurence Clarke, the Hudson’s Bay chief factor at Fort Carleton. Clarke said he had just come back from Ottawa, and when the Métis asked him about an answer to their petition, Clarke apparently responded that, “The only answer you get will be bullets”, and went on to exaggerate the number of police coming from Ottawa with the aim of capturing Riel. So Gabriel decided that it was time to attempt to arm the Métis and prepare for an attack from the anticipated police. There are different views of what happened next, but Boyden quotes historian Maggie Siggins, who has written that “what he [Clarke] accomplished was to jump-start the North-West Rebellion.”
Boyden further takes us through the battles at Duck Lake, the actions of some Cree men under Wandering Spirit at Frog Lake, and the actions of the Indian leaders, Big Bear and Poundmaker, the argument between Riel and the priest Father Moulin on Easter Sunday, when the Métis learn that the Catholic Church does not support them, and the news that General Middleton’s army, partly through traveling on the new railway, has arrived in Saskatchewan and is preparing to attack the Métis. We learn about the strange American, who is using the battle to analyze the actions of his new invention, the Gatling gun. We follow the steamer Northcote, which Midleton is using to transport men and supplies to attack Batoche, in what Boyden describes as “the first-and only-naval attack on the Canadian prairies”. But the Battle of Batoche ends with the destruction of the town and the surrounding farms and homes of the Métis. Many of the Métis surrender, and Riel is captured. Dumont flees to the US, and Boydon goes on to describe the trial of Riel and his hanging in Regina on November 16, 1885.
He also tells us about Dumont’s life between then and his death. He returns to Canada and attempts to further petition the Canadian government. He moves around the U.S., goes to Quebec, where the priests will still not support him, and finally returns to Saskatchewan. He writes his memoirs, and, in 1902, he is finally granted title to his property at Gabriel’s Crossing. Where he had once run his store and river ferry. He continues to hunt and survive on the land until his death in 1906.
What goes continuously through all this is Boyden’s contrast between the two men who attempted in two very different ways to fight for the rights of their people in the nineteenth century. He cites Gabriel’s memoires, where he explains that “I yielded to Riel’s judgment although I was convinced that, from a humane standpoint, mine was the better plan; but I had confidence in his faith and his prayers, and that God would listen to him.”
And Boyden writes of Dumont that during the battles “Gabriel doesn’t like second-guessing himself, which is what he’s been doing. Does he do this simply because he can’t read and write and Louis can? Gabriel knows how to deal with the Métis; he understands their culture and politics. What he fears, what he’s always feared is that he doesn’t understand the workings of the Canadians, of their politicians. But Louis does. He’s already changed the course of the country’s history once. And so Gabriel won’t questions Louis’s actions and decisions anymore. Louis understands, obviously, in a way that Gabriel can’t.”
In his introduction, John Raulston Saul describes Dumont as “a great buffalo hunter and guerrilla fighter, and one of Canada’s most remarkable military leaders, …always a mysterious figure…” Could things have turned out differently? We can only know that they didn’t. However, I say that we do know that Joseph Boyden has written an excellent book on an important chapter of Canada’s history.