Manitoba History: Review: Diane Paulette Payment, The Free People - Otipemisiwak: Batoche, Saskatchewan 1870-1930
by Calvin Racette
Batoche, Saskatchewan lies at the core of the Métis identity in Western Canada. This place is revered as the place where, in 1885, the Métis last made a stand to protect what was theirs. To write of this place takes courage, diligence and respect. The people living in that area are not entirely willing to pass on the stories that they have heard from their parents and grandparents. These stories are personal, they are of their forefathers and heroes. To gain access to this history requires someone special, someone who will treat the stories with respect and place the history into a qualitative context where it can be understood and appreciated.
In a book review, one is expected to point out strengths and weaknesses. Because the former far exceed the latter, I will state what I perceive as the shortcomings. I see one and one-half faults in this study. There is no index, and this stops this volume from being a highly efficient research tool. A future printing can remedy this fault. The half fault is the title. The study runs for sixty years and for only a few of those years were the Métis free. For the most part, they were free and independent in their lifestyle but were not free from government policies, oppression, immigration and church domination.
The first section of the book deals with “Society and Way of Life.” This section is excellent because it brings a very human perspective. Its strength is that it portrays the daily interaction and gives remarkable insight into family roles and how these roles worked in conjunction with each other. There is no dramatization of the lifestyle but a very practical portrayal of a lifestyle that depended upon creating a balance and unity necessary for cultural and family survival. Many family names and nicknames emerge in this section. For people interested in genealogical information, this book can be a valuable asset. “Parishes are thus the best sources of information on population. In fact, parish registers allow us to establish birth, marriage and death rates” (p.33). The sources available at the end of each section are extensive, accurate and well-documented. These sources and the connections that can be made from them for family histories can save a huge amount of research time and money.
The church played a key role in Métis history. In the section dealing with “Relations with the Clergy,” there is a very good explanation of the role of the church and how the clergy fulfilled their role. “The clergy’s primary objective was to civilize and Christianize the Métis” (p. 115). They were willing to use whatever means were necessary to achieve the goals of the church. “Father Moulin for his part did not hesitate to use religion as a means of intimidation. However, he declared that despite their faults, my dear Métis give me enough satisfaction” (p. 118). This double sided relationship has played a key role in the development and ongoing struggle of Métis nationalism. Payment captures the essence of this relationship on page 131. Friction occurred because the Métis were demanding and would not accept the unilateral approach taken by the clergy. But, despite their prejudices and paternalistic viewpoints, the clergy were often the only support that the Métis people had from government officials and other outside agencies. The church was caught in the middle, especially during the struggle of 1885, and the reader is able to gain much insight into the relationship between this institution and the Métis.
The section dealing with political action gives a concise overview of the petitions to the government by the Métis of the Batoche area. The events leading to the Resistance of 1885 are depicted in a manner that portray the situation as it was: a process by which the federal government marginalized the Métis people to fulfill the National Policy of populating Western Canada with immigrant farmers. The events of 1885 created a great deal of hardship for the Métis people, but as Payment points out, “the defeat of 1885 acted as a kind of stimulant ... While political action was often isolated and sometimes marked by deep internal divisions, it was all the more resolute” (p. 162). This has carried through to the present and certainly leads to an exciting brand of political activity.
The federal election of 1886 (outlined on pages 164165) provided me with a piece of new information. The Métis voted to support the Liberal candidate in the federal election. A victory in the riding by the Conservatives under D. H. Macdowall caused the Métis to lose any support that they might have received from the federal government. This alone put them into a very precarious position as they attempted to re-establish their communities. To his credit Macdowall did try to represent all his constituents.
The section on the economy can be seen in many different ways. I found it depressing. All of the viable forms of making a living by the Métis were displaced by outside influences. Much of this change was directed by the government. The federal government’s policies on immigration, land ownership, refusal to protect the buffalo, agriculture and railway construction were the root causes of the resistance and the Indians and Métis of Saskatchewan were destined to be at the wrong end of transactions to allow economic benefits to the federal government. Whether the government cared or not is of little importance. The results a little over a hundred years later are worth noting. The government has continued to be non-supportive of Indian and Métis issues and well-being. This is obvious with all the unsettled land claims, the justice system, the lack of equal educational and training opportunities and the biased curriculum of the schools. The farmers that came as immigrants did not have it easy, but the descendants of these immigrants who are on the family farm are being squeezed out as the economy shifts away from wheat. They are experiencing the same hardships that the Métis faced when the economy was drastically shifted in the late 1800s.
I find a bit of a contradiction in the storyline in this section. On page 215, Xavier Letendre is doing very well and it says he did a flourishing business until the turn of the century. On the bottom of page 234 and the top of 235, we find that Xavier Letendre’s children took refuge in the hills and lived on dog meat. There also were no crops planted for two years. It is my feeling that as a general rule, when the economy of an area is suffering, the merchants suffer as much if not more because they have creditors and higher taxation to deal with on the one hand and customers wanting credit and discounts on the other.
The last section that deals with land claims is excellent. The survey, homestead and scrip issues in Saskatchewan are very complex and hard to understand due to all the restrictions, regulations and changes made to them. To fully understand the complexity of the land claims issues will require much additional research. Although a bit technical, the work done on this topic for this book is excellent. The charts and family names are good starting points for people looking for their family homeland. The section on scrip in Manitoba is very interesting, but is too short and merely whets the appetite.
One study cannot be the definitive answer to the history of a people. I agree with Payment when she states that much more work is needed in this area and many different types of studies should be done. I would like to think that this book has done one thing well. It has put to rest the ideology put forward by Giraud and Stanley, which is that the Métis were on the low end of the economic structure because they were culturally inferior.
One thing that is never stated but which still is there is the language issue. It is obvious to me that because the author was able to conduct her interviews in the first language of the people she was able to put them at ease and was able to get information that would not have been available otherwise. This is an important consideration for people wishing to conduct oral histories. I am an instructor of classes in Métis history. I have used the book several times already for my classes. I feel that this book is a must for any library or course dealing with Métis history. On behalf of the Métis people of Saskatchewan I would like to thank Diane Payment for the work she has put forward and the way it was presented. She has seen us as a people, not as objects to be studied, and has written from the information, not from a preconceived notion.
Page revised: 11 April 2010