On Friday afternoon, July 8th, John and I stopped at the Fred Light Museum in Battleford (on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River, across from North Battleford). I was looking for Douglas Light, son of the museum’s founder and author of Footprints in the Dust. I had misplaced my copy somewhere, sometime, and needed another.
Reception informed me that Douglas had died, but that his brother Don had inherited the remaining copies of his book. I got his phone number and address; nobody responded. (I subsequently found a copy online.)
In Saskatoon we planned Saturday’s itinerary: the village of Duck Lake, the battlefield of Batoche, and the city of Prince Albert. The first shots of the North-West Rebellion were fired at Duck Lake. We arrived at the museum at 10:15 a.m. The parking lot was empty. I had visited the modern facility in 2001, so I noticed the improved exhibits. We browsed the gift shop. The three teenage girls (summer students) left off tweeting to catch up on vital news face to face. If they were expecting crowds more people, they hid their anticipation well.
There were three key “battles” in the Métis rebellion: Duck Lake, Fish Creek, and Batoche. People died in these “battles”, but “skirmishes” is a more accurate description. You would think that the Duck Lake Skirmish would feature prominently in the museum’s exhibits. Dream on.
I asked the adolescents for directions to the battlefield. No one could pinpoint the location, although one believed a friend of hers lived next door to it. So, drawing on my memory, I found the site 4 km west. Of course there were no directional signs . . . because . . . there is no other reason for anyone to visit Duck Lake today. Make sense?
The site is still a small mowed field on the north side of the highway. There are now two cairns, not just the one, but still no interpretive signage. As I study the photos I took, I see that one is topped by a map or diagram of some sort, just conveniently out of eyeshot.
The visitor is helpless in the face of such vast historical indifference. The Mounted Police from Fort Carlton and the Prince Albert Volunteers (weekend soldiers) approached from the west, accompanied by cannon. The Métis enfiladed the column from a log cabin. Gabriel Dumont’s fighters used a hill and a hollow as defensive positions. Unless you are clairvoyant, you will never guess where all this action occurred.
The plaque on one cairn reads: Duck Lake Battlefield – Here, on 26th March, 1885, occurred the first combat between the Canadian Government Forces, under Major L.N.F. Crozier, and the Métis and Indians, under Gabriel Dumont. I recently checked the museum’s website for information – nothing.
Wikipedia has an account of the battle. It reports 12 whites killed and 6 rebels – no names given. The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan reports 12 whites killed and 5 rebels – again, no names. Douglas Light’s history records the names of 10 whites killed and 5 rebels. Whom would you believe?
The 125th Anniversary booklet that a visitor can pick up at the museum, records the thoughts of a high school student who visited the battlefield: More often than not, I had driven by ‘The Monument’, as the people of the community would call it, and not once has anyone told me about what happened on that small piece of land located on the outskirts of Duck Lake. I am taking History 30 right now, and learning about community history, but what happened here 125 years ago today? . . . Finally, an honest critic.
Someone has thoughtfully and generously provided a modern building and two solid stone cairns, but the question remains: Who has failed that student? Who has failed the residents of Duck Lake? And who shamefully neglects and cheats every single cultural visitor to Duck Lake?
We scooted south, then east, and crossed the South Saskatchewan River on the Gabriel Bridge. In ’01, I was so thrilled to discover this bridge, with that name, for in 1885, this was a ferry crossing known as Gabriel’s Crossing. Dumont had his home there, and ran the ferry. If you visit, good luck finding the cairn and historical plaque.
We noted the presence of the One Arrow Reserve (Chief One Arrow was a participant in the Batoche Skirmish – alright, I’ll concede that the fighting approached the proportions of a battle). We drove north on a narrow, bumpy hardtop, past struggling little farms still worked by Métis. A huge property is devoted to the National Historic Site of Batoche.
We turned left, towards the river, and stopped in the paved parking lot.