Manitoba History: Michael Barnholden, Gabriel Dumont Speaks

by Diane Payment
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 26, Autumn 1993

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Gabriel Dumont Speaks, Michael Barnholden (trans.). Vancouver: Talon Books, 1993, 79 pp., illus. ISBN 0-88922-323-8.

The publication and translation of Dumont’s second set of memoirs or recollections of the 1885 Resistance is important for the Métis people and the academic community which has too long based its interpretation of these events on Euro-Canadian military accounts. Métis sources such as The Complete Writings of Louis Riel / Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel, published by the University of Alberta Press in 1985, more specifically Volume 3, is an invaluable primary account but Riel does not describe the day to day events of the battles.

Although military adjutant Gabriel Dumont was a man of action rather than words, he embarked on a political career or spoke in defense of Métis rights in the late 1880s and 1890s. He enjoyed the support of prominent Quebec liberals or “rouges” such as Honore Mercier and L. O. David and formed important friendships with Franco-Americans such as Major Edmond Mallet who tried to get him an audience with President Grover Cleveland. Dumont was fluent in Mitchif-French, Cree, Siouan and some Athapaskan languages but it is believed that he spoke no English. His 1893 homestead declaration is laboriously signed but he did not read or write. Dumont used the spoken word of one immersed in an oral tradition and sought the “pen” of friends and supporters to produce a number of letters and accounts between 1886 and 1903. He dictated his first memoirs to B. A. T. de Montigny in 1887 (published under the title La Vérité sur la question métisse in 1889 and reprinted in 1979). He “wrote” letters to his compatriot Maxime Lepine of St. Louis, Saskatchewan (which were subsequently turned over to the North West Mounted Police) and to Major Mallet of Washington, D.C. (letters in Archives of the Union St. Jean Baptiste d’Amerique in Woonsocket, R.I.). His “writer” during those years was E. Riboulet of Staten Island, New York with whom he was photographed on two occasions (along with Mrs. Riboulet).

Gabriel Dumont the statesman with his “writer”, E. Riboulet and Mrs. Riboulet (not Madeleine Dumont as sometimes identified), Staten Island, N.Y., 1887.

Gabriel Dumont the statesman with his “writer”, E. Riboulet and Mrs. Riboulet (not Madeleine Dumont as sometimes identified), Staten Island, N.Y., 1887.
Source: Union St. Jean Baptiste d'Amerique

Mr. Barnholden’s presentation of Dumont’s second memoirs, dictated around 1902-03, is highly speculative as to the circumstances surrounding this event as well as Dumont’s “secretary”. However, other papers in the same collection (La Societe Historique Métisse), the Riel Family papers at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba and the Minutes of the excutive of the Union Nationale Métisse de St. Joseph du Manitoba confirm that the Union of St. Vital sent a committee to Batoche in 1902-03 to collect the accounts of the veterans of 1885. Among them were Gabriel Dumont (this publication), as well as Patrice Fleury, Edouard and Elie Dumont (Gabriel’s brothers), Moise Ouellette, Isidore Dumas, Emmanuel Champagne, Jean Caron Sr. and Charles Thomas whose testimonies cover another 100 pages. Although we do not know specifically who travelled to Batoche, the members of the executive of the Union St. Joseph (as it was called between 1887 and 1909) at the time were Simon St. Germain, (president), Martin Jerome, Joseph Riel (Louis’ brother), Pierre Dumas, Roger Marion and Joseph Hamelin. Dumont had visited Joseph Riel in 1893 and the Union was imbued with a sense of “mission” regarding the vindication of Riel and the actions of the Métis who were not “rebels” but “patriots.” It is most likely that the transcriber of the interviews was Métis, possibly the well-read and educated Martin Jerome who was the Liberal MLA for Carillon from 1886-96 and 1899-1903. Other members of the Union who produced written accounts were Charles Sauve and School Inspector Roger Goulet who became president of the Union in 1910. A Frenchman, Auguste-Henri de Tremaudan, was commissioned to write the Histoire de la Nation Métisse Bans L’Ouest Canadien which was published in 1935 (reprinted in 1979 and published in English under the title Hold High Your Heads: History of the Métis Nation in Western Canada in 1982) but he did not become associated with the Métis historical committee until around 1913. Although not cited specifically in de Tremaudan’s book, the Métis recollections of 1902-03 provided the basis for his account of the events of 1885.

The original text preserves old Canadien or Mitchif French words such as piller (steal), jongler (think), trompeur (type of horse buggey) and écors (land ridges) and uses expressions such as rester froid (unconvinced), faire un tour (visit) and marcher avec eux (following them) which have been misinterpreted by the translator. There are a number of translation errors and omissions in this publication which in some cases alter the original meaning and some key people have been wrongly identified. For example, on page 52 Dumont is reported to have taken a Canadian government grey horse while the original text confirms that he was not talking about a government or enemy horse but a “Canadien grey”, a breed of horse, which he mounted a poil (without a saddle). In the account of the battle of Fish Creek page 60-61 one reads that “At the news of Middleton’s arrival, Riel wanted to stay and defend Batoche, but my plan was to go out and meet the enemy, because they were already showing weakness by hesitating to advance. Besides we had nothing to lose”, whereas the original text reads “... because those who are already weak and hesitant when they hear the cries of women and children will be good for nothing” (translation). There are omissions on pp. 38, 40, 46, 54 and 60 and George Ness is wrongly identified as Jardine, Gilbert Berland (Breland) as Gabriel Bertrand, Louis Schmidt dit Laferte as Laforte (Louis Smitte), [Ludger] Gareau(lt) as Jarreau and Joseph Halcrow as Acroix. It would also have greatly assisted the general reader if the translator had provided some of the missing first names of individuals.

A conscientious editor should also indicate that the original text has been reorganized. I think many of these problems and discrepancies would have been avoided by the publication of both the original text and the English translation, as in journals of the Champlain Society series and Recollections of Inuit elders published by the Inuit Cultural Institute. This approach reproduces the primary document or provides the reader with both the original text and the translation. In the case of this translation, we are “twice removed” from the original author, Gabriel Dumont. The translation of a transcribed oral account is a painstaking and possibly impossible task, requiring both language proficiency and knowledge of comparative or supportive historical data. Nothwithstanding its shortcomings, the reading of Dumont’s translated account offers important perspectives on the events of 1885. Contrary to government accounts which have been the “accepted view” until recently, Dumont’s (and other Métis accounts) state that it was the North West Mounted Police who fired the first shot that resulted in the death of the Cree Achewiyin, and that the Métis did not need to lower the ferry cable to immobilize the steamer Northcote at Batoche. The use of explosive bullets by the North West Field Force comes as no surprise. Although officially censured it was “accepted practise” in the Boer and First World wars, much like the looting and burning of “enemy” property. It would be interesting to check and compare evidence with the archaeological record from Batoche National Historic Site.

Gabriel’s account of his earlier exploits reveal a man speaking for posterity, yet humble and generous with both friend and enemy. His sense of humour is also in evidence as he comments that after Riel and some of the men returned to Batoche while they were en route to Fish Creek, “on ne disait plus le chapelet, et on avancait plus vite” (we weren’t saying the rosary, so we were able to advance more quickly). Riel made the army stop periodically to say the rosary much to Gabrie’ls frustration and perhaps amusement although he would never have said as much to “mon chef” whom he admired and respected.

It my sincere hope that other accounts in the Papers of La Societe Historique Métisse and memoirs such as those of Louis Schmidt will one day be published but in their original Mitchif French language along with a translation. They are an invaluable cultural and historical legacy.

Page revised: 21 May 2023