Ghosts of a Nation
The Louis Riel rebellion still haunts us today
WILL FERGUSON | Nov 17, 2003
IT'S NOT every day that someone draws you a road map to a ghost train. But it's not every day that you find yourself in St. Louis, Sask., home of hockey players, spectral lights and a bridge to nowhere. When you drive into St. Louis, two things stand out: one is the sign proclaiming the town as "the home of NHL player #47 Richard Pilon," the other is the massive iron grid work of the town's train trestles. So massive is this span, and so heavy is its presence, that St. Louis, at first sight, seems to be a bridge with a town attached. But there is more to St. Louis than its bridge, and the surname of its NHL star provides a clue.
St. Louis was founded in the 1880s by Metis settlers who arrived in Red River carts: the Boyers, Bouchers, and later the Légarés, the de Laviolettes, the Ouellettes, the Pilons. Of mostly mixed Cree and French heritage, the Metis had been migrating west into the Saskatchewan River Valley since the 1860s. The CNR bridge wasn't built until 1914. Jerry-built "wings" were later added to either side of the trestles to allow automobiles across, but as a rail link, the bridge today serves no practical purpose. The town's CNR line is long gone, and the trains no longer run through St. Louis. "Ah, but they do still run," the lady at the local coffee shop said with adamant sincerity. Out where the tracks used to be, a few kilometres from town, the Ghost Train of St. Louis is, indeed, running still. "You can see the train's lights most nights," she said. "It starts off as a yellowish glow and then turns red. It comes right toward you . . . and then suddenly disappears."
So off I went, crossing the "ghost bridge of St. Louis" and then following the highway down and around, onto a gravel road and then up alongside a field, where the abandoned rail bed lay: a narrow lane, bushy with forest on either side. As darkness fell, I rolled to a stop and turned off the headlights. A twisted metal barrier -- wilfully ignored to judge by the number of tire tracks rutted around it on either side -- warned with ominous illiteracy: NO TRESSPASSIG.
The moon rose. I saw lights, faint glimmers at the end of the lane, but I couldn't tell if they were the ghost train's, or simply distant flickerings from the highway. The abandoned rail bed naturally points toward St. Louis, as well, so perhaps I was seeing the headlights of cars passing over the bridge, bouncing off the atmosphere. Either way, it didn't matter. These are haunted lands nonetheless, and there are ghosts aplenty in the Saskatchewan River Valley; there is no need to concoct new ones.
I WAS HERE to retrace the battles of 1885, when Metis resistance to eastern rule broke into armed rebellion, and at times it felt as though I was swimming in ghosts. Led by Louis Riel, the self-proclaimed "Prophet of the New World," and his able adjutant general, Gabriel Dumont, the Metis had engaged the Canadian forces in a series of bloody skirmishes that pitted British-style regimentation against the frontier tactics of the buffalo hunt. Dumont, a hunter-turned-ferryman, was already a legendary figure. He spoke five native languages as well as French(but not a lick of English), and had seen battle against the Sioux. He was held in such mystical awe that it was said he could "call the buffalo." But the buffalo were gone, the Indians were being forced onto reserves, the Metis were fighting for land rights and the steel spear of a southern railway was even now pushing its way into the Northwest.
The 1885 Rebellion has been portrayed as one of the roots of western alienation and as a clash of cultures. It has been elevated to the level of a political struggle and has been dismissed as little more than a misguided religious crusade. The 1885 Rebellion was all of these things and more. It began as a western protest movement, it grew into an act of political defiance and soon became a matter of cultural survival. And as Riel grew increasingly delusional, it took on the characteristics of a religious movement. Riel was going to create a New Jerusalem on the plains: the Metis were the chosen people and he would be their "infallible pontiff." With God on their side, how could they lose?
RIEL SENT petition after petition to Ottawa outlining Metis grievances. They were duly acknowledged -- and then ignored. Frustrated, he proclaimed a provisional government in Batoche, and in mid-March his Metis followers clashed with a contingent of Northwest Mounted Police officers. There could now be no turning back. At Duck Lake, in a hail of gunfire, the police were forced to retreat, leaving their dead where they lay in the snow. The Metis had lost men as well, including Dumont's brother Isidore, and Dumont had come within an inch of death himself when a bullet creased his scalp, spurting blood down his face. But Riel emerged unscathed -- even though he rode about on horseback the entire time, unarmed and exposed to enemy fire, waving a crucifix as he urged his men onward. "Fire! In the name of the Son and the Holy Ghost! Fire!" It was the Metis' first victory; it would also be their last.
The railway defeated them. In 1885, the Northwest was no longer a remote, inaccessible hinterland, and within 10 days of the initial shots, Maj.-Gen. Frederick Middleton, head of the hastily organized Canadian Field Force, was unloading thousands of armed men at Fort Qu'Appelle as he prepared to lead them 320 km north toward Riel's headquarters at Batoche.
While the Metis had urged the Cree and Blackfoot to join them in their battle, the violence that did erupt further west was not part of a coordinated Native uprising. It was the result of simmering anger and starvation conditions. Cree warriors of Big Bear's band, led by Wandering Spirit, attacked settlers at Frog Lake, now in Alberta, killing nine unarmed men, including two priests -- even as Big Bear desperately tried to stop the massacre. Wandering Spirit's followers then surrounded nearby Fort Pitt, taking women and children prisoner as the police fled downriver in a leaky scow, abandoning the captured civilians. It was not the noblest moment in NWMP history.
At Battleford, Chief Poundmaker's Cree band looted homes and torched buildings while the settlers cowered inside the police post. In response, Middleton sent one column, some 325 men, in pursuit of Big Bear and another column to Battleford to lift the "siege," but the real fight for the Northwest would occur at Batoche. Middleton marched a third column north -- and straight into an ambush. At a wooded coulee near Fish Creek, Dumont staged a surprise attack. Instead of following the standard military approach, Dumont took the low ground, a deadly tactic in the rolling hills of the prairie parkland. Middleton's men were silhouetted against the sky as they came over the lip of the coulee. It was, as Dumont said, "like shooting buffalo."
The Metis fought Middleton's men to a standstill at Fish Creek. In all, the Metis would fight three battles against the Canadian police and military -- at Duck Lake, Fish Creek and Batoche -- and their record would stand at a win, a tie and a loss. But given the way that the Battle of Fish Creek unnerved Middleton, while bolstering the morale of the Metis at the same time, it might be more accurate to move Fish Creek over to the Metis "win" side. Not that it mattered. In any war, the only battle that counts is the last one, and the Canadians won that.
I WAS staying at Jack Pine Stables, north of Duck Lake, at a lodge run by Lawrence Mullis and his wife, Darlene. Lawrence is the great-great-grandson of Patrice Fleury, who fought at Batoche under Gabriel Dumont. Like his wife, Lawrence has an unabashed love for horses. Lawrence and Darlene run trail rides out of their lodge. "We have all kinds of horses," said Lawrence. "We have skinny horses for skinny people. Fat horses for fat people. Shy horses for shy people. Spooky horses for spooky people. And for people who have never ridden a horse, we have horses that have never been ridden."
My approach to Batoche began at Duck Lake. The town, with its wide dusty streets and modest homes, has been turned into an open-air art gallery. Historical murals depicting Dumont and Riel and Big Bear adorn the storefronts and curling rink, but the battlefield itself is north of town, on the Beardy's Indian Reserve. There isn't much to see. A gopher-riddled, packed-dirt parking lot. A cairn in poor repair, some poplars in a grove. Broken glass. I was pacing out the field, trying to sort out where the two sides had lined up and where the initial skirmish had occurred, when a pickup truck appeared. It was one of the men from the reserve. "You look lost," he said.
"Not lost," I replied. "Confused."
He tried his best to help, pointing out where he thought the police officers might have stood and where the Metis might have taken cover, but it wasn't his battle and it wasn't his history; the Cree on Beardy's reserve had remained neutral. "They should do something with this," he says, looking across the battlefield, and the use of "they" is revealing. They being the government. They being the Metis. This land is Cree, the battle was not.
Fort Carleton on the northern branch of the Saskatchewan River has been reconstructed -- it burned to the ground as the beleaguered NWMP fled to Prince Albert after their defeat at Duck Lake. This was once the hub of the Carleton Trail, a trade and transportation corridor that ran from Fort Garry(Winnipeg)all the way to Fort Edmonton. Today, like the buffalo that first fuelled it, the Carleton Trail has vanished. Ghost trails, ghost herds, ghost trains.
And at Fish Creek, a ghost town. Fish Creek's towering church, built after the 1885 Rebellion by white settlers, has been abandoned, its grounds overrun with weeds, its square steeple stark against the sky. Further south lies the coulee where Dumont's men ambushed the Canadians. And north again, along a gravel road, lies Batoche, where the Metis made their last stand.
TODAY, only crumbling foundations remain of what was once the heart of the Batoche settlement. Grassy hills slope down toward the river and tangled berry bushes mark the rifle pits from where the Metis fired. Here are the hills and the fields, here is the rise of land where Dumont took note of the wind's direction and then lit the grass on fire, advancing toward enemy lines behind a wall of smoke and flames. Here is the church and the rectory south of the main village, still standing, with bullet holes still visible. Here are the earthworks of the Canadian defences. Here is where the Canadian forces pushed forward wildly on the fourth day, scattering the Metis and ending the rebellion. Near the end, the Metis had run out of ammunition and were firing rocks and melted buttons. God never intervened, and the dreams of a nation died at Batoche.
Louis Riel surrendered and was hanged. Dumont escaped and fled to the U.S. where he eventually became part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a sharpshooter on horseback, the "hero of the half-breed rebellion," dressed in buckskin and shooting glass balls from the air. He later returned to Saskatchewan under a general amnesty and he is buried at Batoche beneath a giant boulder. Big Bear and Poundmaker were imprisoned. And in Battleford, eight Cree warriors, including Wandering Spirit, climbed the gallows steps and dropped to their deaths in what would be the largest mass execution in Canadian history. It was a public event.
Back at Jack Pine Stables, Lawrence greets me with warm bannock and strong coffee. "I'll put you in the teepee," he says, as he lugs out a wolfskin for me to sleep under. "This'll keep you warm."
And so it does. I grew up in a largely Metis community in northern Alberta, and I had forgotten how calming it is to sleep inside a circle. Alone at the bottom of a canvas cone, the sides moving on night breezes -- slow inhalations, long exhalations -- looking up at the small circle of stars above, as coyotes yelp and scuttle about outside, I sleep deeply, a dreamless slumber untroubled by ghosts.
In the Saskatchewan Valley, the prairies roll into parkland, a river wends its way through and iron bridges lead into thin air. This is haunted land.
Will Ferguson is the author of several books, including the award-winning Canadian History for Dummies. For the final word on the St. Louis Ghost Train, visit www.virtualsk.com/current_issue/mystery.html