“The red coats we know, but who are those little black devils?” This was the question posed by a Métis prisoner after the Battle of Fish Creek. Thus was born the nickname of the military unit that would later be known as the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, one that had been sent west to help crush the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.
A memorial to the dead that battalion suffered at Fish Creek and Batoche was erected in Winnipeg in 1886. It still stands in front of the Centennial Concert Hall, largely ignored by the pedestrians and drivers who pass by on Main Street.
But it has not been ignored by Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, for whom the Volunteer Monument and uncounted other statues, streets names and assorted historical memories pose a dire threat to the city’s well-being. For that statue, you see, is not inclusive enough: it doesn’t honour the rebels. Complains Bowman: “That commemorates the loss of life in the Battle of Batoche … for everybody but the Métis.”
Of the new Winnipeg commission that will examine problematic memorials and nomenclature, much opposition has already been expressed and much ink has been shed about the inadvisability of the project.
To this debate I will only add that the sin of presentism, of judging our history by the fashions of the day, is a shallow obsession unworthy of our elected leaders. In the words of philosopher David Bentley Hart, “to live entirely in the present, without any of the wisdom that a broad perspective upon the past provides, is to live a life of idiocy and vapid distraction and ingratitude.”
What I wish to take the mayor to task for is something else entirely, and that’s his misreading of the events of the Northwest Rebellion and his romanticizing a nasty moment in our country’s history.
In 1885, the Canadian West was boiling with discontent. The native hunter-gatherers on the prairies and parklands had been hit hard by the loss of the buffalo hunt and were on the verge of starvation. White settlers along the North Saskatchewan River were anxious about the path of the Canadian Pacific Railway and poor harvests, while the Métis in the beautiful valleys of the South Saskatchewan River fretted about land title and the possible loss of their unique lifestyle.
These groups had co-operated in sending urgent messages to the federal government but were unhappy at what they perceived as stalling tactics by Ottawa.
Louis Riel, who had successfully engineered a happy outcome for his people in their 1869-70 standoff with the Canadian government, was summoned from Montana to perform a similar miracle.
Unfortunately, the Riel of 1885 was not the brilliant young man of 15 years earlier; he had become an unhinged messianic who fancied himself as God’s prophet for the New World. He soon alienated the support of many of the Indigenous tribes, the white settlers and the Catholic Church, and he opted for a policy of ultimatum and violence.
Riel put himself at the head of a provisional government and Gabriel Dumont at the head of his military. An early victory over the North-West Mounted Police at Duck Lake prompted some natives into open rebellion as well.
Riel’s delusions and ambitions made him a disastrous leader, miscalculating the Canadian troops at every turn. The Battle of Batoche ended the brief war, a conflict that wrecked his community and doomed the possibility of a greater francophone presence in Western Canada. His conviction for treason was well justified, but Prime Minister John A. Macdonald should have heeded the jury’s recommendation of mercy on the grounds of insanity.
Despite this, Winnipeg’s mayor believes our statuary should honour those who took up arms against their country. I would hate to think it was ethnic chauvinism (the mayor terms himself “Winnipeg’s first aboriginal mayor”) that led him to this conclusion but, whatever the reason, he seems to think that’s justified to settle quarrels with government policy by violence.
Those who carried out the Frog Lake Massacre, burned down the town of Battleford, took hostages at Fort Pitt, and fought our government’s troops at Cut Knife, Duck Lake, Fish Creek, Frenchman’s Butte, Steele Narrows and Batoche are the bad guys in this story.
The monuments to our army’s dead in Winnipeg should no more mention the rebels than the D-Day memorial on Juno Beach should honour the Wehrmacht.
There are two statues to Louis Riel in Winnipeg: one a semi-abstract embarrassment that portrays a tortured visionary and one that shows him as a prosperous bourgeois statesman. On neither of those monuments is the name Thomas Scott, who Riel judicially murdered in 1870. If the mayor is interested in inclusion, he might start by making that correction.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.