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Manitoba History: Review: Diane Payment, Batoche (1870-1910)

by J. E. Foster
University of Alberta

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Batoche (1870-1910). Diane Payment. Saint Boniface, Manitoba: Les Editions Du Ble, 1983. ill., maps. viii, 157 pp. ISBN 0-92064-041-9.

With the centenary of the 1885 Saskatchewan Rebellion, it is appropriate that a study which has addressed a major weakness in the Rebellion literature should be published. Diane Payment’s book avoids the shrillness creeping into scholarship on topics associated with the Rebellion and addresses more fundamental historical questions.

The “Canadian” or “centralist” bias in the literature is the historical perspective which sees the major significance of the Rebellion in terms of Canada’s expansion into, and increasing control over, British North West America, rather than in the attempt of one community of the Plains Métis to find the political and other means of ensuring their survival as a corporate entity. The influence of the centralist perspective has not encouraged studies of the Métis before the “Transfer” in 1869-70 or after the 1885 Rebellion. As a result the “primitiveness,” “ignorance” and “innocence” of the Métis become the factors of causal explanation, and not the cultural values and practices that arose out of a century and a half of adaptive experiences in the fur trade on the western plains. It is in breaking with the myopic view of the Métis, implied in the centralist perspective, that Payment’s study offers its most noteworthy contribution.

The historical study of Batoche, from its emergence out of the wintering camps of the hivernants in the region of the forks of the Saskatchewan River to its inclusion as part of the mosaic of the settlement experience in Western Canada, provides a perspective for the events of the Rebellion that is not frequently encountered. The critical issue in the early years is the shift in the resource base from the hunt to agriculture. But, as the author readily indicates, it is more than a simple story of evolution from a primitive to a more sophisticated economic and social system. The hunt was a part of the world of the fur trade which by the middle of the nineteenth century supported an extensive entrepreneurial structure of freighting and commerce amongst the Métis. Even with the disappearance of the buffalo herds, agriculture was not a simple self-evident answer. The exigencies of the weather, distance from markets, and government tariff policies combined to suggest a diverse agricultural strategy which included stock-raising and contract employment rather than the emphasis on grain farming familiar in later years. The uncertainty as to what the appropriate economic strategy was, and thus the means necessary to realize such a strategy, influenced all the issues to come before the community, including relations with the clergy.


Batoche, (reportedly) in 1885, after the Rebellion.
Source: Saskatchewan Archives Board, #R-A2517

Payment’s discussion of the relationship between the Roman Catholic clergy and the Métis is perhaps the strongest part of her study. She demonstrates that, in matters of a religious nature, except for the period of the Rebellion, the Métis at Batoche accepted the leadership of the clergy. But as they passed from the religious sphere to other interests, the Métis were much less accepting of clerical influence. The author suggests that the clergy had a “primitive to civilized” view of their missionary labours, one that was attended by an appropriate “superior-inferior” perspective that the Métis could not help but sense and probably resent. In addition, the personality deficiencies of some of the clerics compounded the problem. Lastly, the Church’s interests in establishing a sound institutional foundation suggested a relationship with the territorial and federal governments different from that of the Métis. A current of acrimony between the clergy and some members of the Batoche community would survive into the settlement era.

The author is properly cautious in her interpretation, particularly in terms of their implications for other Métis communities. Yet, in her discussion of the land issues and political activism at the time of the Rebellion and in later years, she perhaps under-states the significance of the continuity that is apparent. For the Métis, “justice” was government action that reflected their historical sense of themselves as a community of consequence. Equitable treatment in facilitating settlement was not a Métis criterion for evaluating government action. It is this altered political circumstance, together with uncertainties about an appropriate economic strategy, that weighed most heavily on the people of the Batoche region in the years following the Rebellion.

Batoche (1870-1910) constitutes a significant scholarly contribution. Printers’ gremlins make their appearance, but in only two instances do they momentarily interfere with the reader’s comprehension of the text. The absence of an index is to be regretted. Perhaps when a second printing is contemplated an index could be included. An English translation is also to be encouraged. Payment’s contribution is such that a wider audience is indicated.

The history of the Métis constitutes one of the first and most enduring adaptive experiences in Western Canada. In coming to understand this experience we are coming to understand ourselves. This study offers much to that process.

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