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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XXIX - Religious Aspects of the Rebellion of 1885


Religious Aspect Generally Ignored—Riel a Prophet and His Followers Religious Reformers—Christening the Names of the Days of the Week—Restoration of the Sabbath to the Seventh Day — Extracts From Riel's Commonplace Book— Riel's Conception of Religion—The Rebel Councils Hampered by Riel's Visions—Lepine's Report of the Battle of Fish Creek—The Rebels a Band of Misled but Sincere Fanatics.

To an extent, realized by very few, the insurrection of 1885 was a religious rather than a racial or political movement. This aspect of the rebellion has hitherto been so generally ignored or treated so briefly and superficially, that the serious attention of the thoughtful reader is specially invited to the facts set forth in the following chapter.

Despite their crimes and follies, the Halfbreeds associated with the insurrection were to a large extent simply a group of misled religious fanatics. All their official documents bear evidence of this fact. During the winter preceding the rebellion Riel had gradually alienated them from their priesthood, but be was very far from assuming an attitude of enmity to religion itself. Indeed, to a marvelous extent, he succeeded in imbuing these simple people with the idea that they and he were specially called by God to effect not merely a political but a religious reformation. They had no idea of allying themselves with Protestantism, but, through their instrumentality, they hoped that the Holy Church of their fathers would be rendered purer and more alive to the rightful liberties of its children and to the ancient faith, as they understood it. Their confidence in the divine mission of their leader was profound and touching. Indeed, the minutes of the rebel council at Batoche1 are more suggestive of a conference of child-like theologians than a Council of War. Take the following extract as an example:

"Moved bv Air. Boucher, seconded by M. Tourond, That the Canadian Halfbreed Exovidat acknowledges Louis Riel as a prophet in the service of Jesus Christ, and Son of God, and only Redeemer of the World; a prophet at the feet of Mary Immaculate, under the powerful and most favourable protection of the Virgin Mother of Christ; under the visible and most consoling safeguard of St. Joseph, the beloved patron of the Haltbreeds. . . the patron of the universal church; as a prophet, the humble imitator in many things of St. John the Baptist, the glorious patron of the French Canadians and of the French Canadian Halfbreeds.

"Ayes:—M. Henry, Mr. Parcnteau, Mr. Dumont, M. Tourond, M. Jobim M. Trotlier, M. Boucher, M. Lcpine, Mr. Carriere.

"Mr. Ouellette did not vote at all. but said that after a time, if his views changed, he would record his vote."

With the thunder of Middleton's guns almost audible in the distance, we find the Council calmly considering the appropriateness of changing the names of the days of the week from the present ones with their pagan associations to others of a more Christian character:

Sunday was to be Yire Aurore.
Monday, Christ Aurore.
Tuesday, Yierge Aurore.
Wednesday, Joseph Aurore.
Thursday, Dire Aurore.
Friday, Denil Aurore.
Saturday, Cahne Aurore.

The Sabbath they determined to transfer back to the seventh day:

April 25, 1885.

Moved by Mr. Parcnteau. seconded by D. Carriere:

"That the Lord's Day be put back to the seventh clay of the week, as the Holy Ghost appointed it, through his servant Moses; and that if there be any members who are not as yet prepared to vote for this resolution, those of their brethren who this day take the lead cordially invite them to join as soon as they can conscientiously do so; and that, though their adhesion be declared it shall be accepted when it comes, as freely as if it had been given today. Alay these adhesions soon render unanimous the act by which the Canadian Halfbreed 'Exovidat' restores, in God's Name, the Holy Day of the Lord's Rest.

"Ayes:.—Messrs. Boucher, Dumont, Trottier, Parcnteau, Jobin, Carriere, Henry, Tourond, Bte. Parcnteau.

"Nays:—Alessrs. Ross, Ouellette, Lepine."

Riel's Commonplace Book, written at Batoche. throws much interesting light upon these religious aspects of the rising. It is a curious melange of piety, puerility, posing and mad pride, but in general it offers unquestionable internal evidence of sincerity. It is full of dreams and visions, which were evidently believed to be prophetical of future events, and it throws light upon the difficulties experienced by the rebel chief himself in controlling his colleagues and followers. Frequently the entries are very pointed prayers for or against particular individuals. The following extracts are characteristic and some of them evidently bear upon the debates in connection with the theological questions referred to in resolutions quoted above:

"I have seen Gabriel Dumont. Me was afflicted and ashamed, lie did not look at me. lie looked at his table stripped of everything. But Gabriel Dumont is blessed. His faith will not fail. He is firm by the Grace of God. His hope and confidence in God will he justified. He will come out of the conflict loaded with the spoils of his enemies."

"I entered the meeting with Maxime Lepine and another. I saw myself in the mirror of justice. Wisdom shone forth from inc. It illuminated my countcnance. Lepine did not appear to be paying attention. He kept away from me. He did not leave me. but did not follow me very closely. Maxime! Maxime! It is human opinion and your self-love which destroys you, and which estranges your good will."

"O God! I pray Thee in the Name of Jesus, of Mary, of Joseph; be pleased to sustain me when alone: support me in the enterprise and in the army! Since Thou art my support, help me! Thou alone art able! Oh! grant to guard the army and the entire council against Maxime Lepine! Give me grace to treat him gently and with humility, hut sincerely and frankly, so that he may change his conduct and he may cease to have a feeling of repugnance and hostility against us. On account of the kind feelings which he has had towards me, grant him the opportunity to turn with a good grace to all those ideas with which Thou hast inspired me."

"Oh! my God, grant me grace to re-establish Thy Day of Rest; to restore to honour the Sabbath Day as arranged by Thy Spirit in the person of Moses, Thy servant."

"O Jesus! O Mary! O St. Joseph! O St. John the Baptist! Pray for us. Pray for me to the Almighty that the Metis people and myself may do the will of God. our Father, so that I may accomplish my mission in all details."

"O my God! make me to see that I do nothing of myself. O Jesus! work for the glory of our Heavenly Father, and at the same time cause that I speak His Word with all boldness."

"O Mary! I do not deserve that God should direct and assist me, but for the love of Jesus Christ, pray that lie may continue to me His perfect direction and His victorious and triumphant assistance."

"O Jesus, Alary, Joseph, and St. John the Baptist! change the evil disposition of Moses Ouellette, and cause, through thy piety, that he shall voluntarily and with good grace, receive carte blanche to turn back from Rome. Pray God to graciously soften his heart, so that he may entirely devote himself to the heavenly reform of worship and of everything that is not right in the religion which Rome has inculcated upon nations and peoples. Grant unto me, grant unto all the Metis French Canadian Exovides, and to all who volunteered for the support of Thy cause, grace to act from this time forward without ceasing, and to the end steadily, expeditiously, immediately, with rapidity and all together, for Thy greater glory, for the honour of religion, for the salvation of souls, for the good of society, and for our greater happiness, both in this world and the next."

Occasionally the entries indicate expected revolutions within the church itself, and the choice of a new Pope:

"On the sixth of April, during the night, the Spirit of God said to ine, 'In eight days, Taillefer, the Great Captain of the Eternal City, will bring his arms to Ste. Therese, and twenty-four hours thereafter he will be at Montreal, at nine o'clock in thc morning.' "

"The Spirit of God, through the intervention of His Angel, informed mc that the appearance of Captain Taillefer was a providential act in celebration of the inauguration of Ignatius Pierre Bourget as Universal Bishop."

Riel's anxiety regarding the attitude which the Indians were to assume is reflected in a number of the visions and prayers:

"I see a great number of oxen and wagons, which are going toward Fort La Corne. They are the Indians who have forsaken us."

"O, my God! I pray That in the Name of Jesus Christ, of Alary, of Joseph, and St. John the Baptist, pardon me thc sins I have committed among the Crees, the Sioux, the Blackfeet, the Blood Indians, the Saulteaux, the Sarcees, the Assiniboines, the Gros Ventres, the Piegans, the Nez Perces, the Redants, the Creilles, the Flat Heads, and deign to send them all to our assistance, so that Thy pity may cause them to come from the rising sun; that Thy charity may bring swiftly to us on the wings of the wind, those who come to us from the setting sun; that Thy power may send them quickly to us from the North ; that Thy providence may despatch them to us. from the South. O, my God! for the sake of Jesus Christ, of Mary, of Joseph, and St. John the Baptist, cause that they all come, to us speedily, armed with good weapons and with a great quantity of ammunition.

"April nineteenth—I hear the voice of the Indian. He comes to join me. He arrives from the North. His mind is for war."

The presence of the French Canadians among thc Government forces was viewed as something horribly unnatural:—

"O, my God! I pray Thee in the Name of Jesus Christ, Mary, Joseph, and St. John the Baptist, condescend to remember Alderic Ouimet and all French Canadians who are with Middleton. O, dispose their hearts and minds in my favour, in favour of Thy doings, and in the midst of battle have them love without limits to save them and to save us by breathing into them that greatness of soul which will lead them either to lay down their arms or to make peace with us."

At the Battle of Fish Creek the Halfbreeds lost a large number of horses. This is made the occasion for some curious moralizing:

"Oh, my Metis nation! You have long offended me by your horse races, by your bets on this detestable matter of horse races, by your stubbornness, by your hateful contention over these bad horse races. It is on this account that the Eternal Christ said that 'yesterday, while sparing you, I have killed your horses.' "

"April twenty-sixth. The Spirit of God, in speaking of the Metis nation, has said to me, 'I have come to be annoyed at it, for it is too negligent. It is not sufficiently vigilant and obedient.' "

"O, my God, for Christ's sake have pity on it. Behold how charitable it is, how pleasant, how easily guided. Consider favourably, O great God, the great works which the Metis nation has done for Thy greater glory, for the honour of religion, for the salvation of souls, and for the good of society."

On the twenty-seventh a general fast seems to have been celebrated from which the best results were hoped:

"O, my God, consider in all kindness that Thy people give themselves to fasting and prayer in order to gain Thy good graces. O, lead it to repent bitterly of the fault which it committed in saying 'Yes' too quickly. O, bless the fasting of Thy children, inspire the prayer of Thy people, accept the desire which it has to please Thee. O, pardon Thou its sin. Introduce this day into Thy Paradise, and at once, those whom Thou has chosen in the conflict, and whose spirits Thou has called to Thyself."

"The road of the Metis which they follow to victories here below is also the heavenly road which conducts to Paradise the souls which the Saviour has chosen on the field of battle."

"April twenty-ninth—The Spirit of God made me look upon the Metis nation under the resemblance of Genevieve Arcand. It was not altogether so large as Genevieve. Its countenance had a rather bad appearance. One could read there certain marks of a good deal of carnal baseness. It loved the pleasures of the flesh. The thought, the desires, the calculations of the flesh were the things to which it gave the most attention. Still its line of progress was towards the right. It did not wish to turn aside from that. It took a great deal of pains and gave itself a great deal of trouble to prove to me its love of justice, etc. Oh! who shall tell me the changes which fasting and prayer can bring around in a nation of good disposition. Four days of fasting, well attended to, can cause so much good that there is no reason why it should not change a nation that is a dwarf to one that is a giant."

"O, my Metis nation, take courage! Your four days of fasting, prayer, and mortification have produced in you the admirable points of conversion. I see your change. It is grand."

"O, my God, grant me, for the love of Jesus Christ, etc., the grace of soon and surely making a good arrangement with the Dominion of Canada. Mercifully so arrange all things that this may be accomplished. Direct me. assist me, so that I may assure to the Metis and the Indians all advantages which there is presently any means of obtaining by treaty. Accord us the favour of making as good a treaty as Thy Charitable and Divine Protection and the favourable circumstances permit us to make. Cause that Canada consent to pay me the indemnity which is my due; not a little indemnity; but one just and equitable before Thee and before men."

On May 2d the prophet shows an unusual tendency to self-criticism. His prayer and reflections regarding the extension of priestly functions and characteristics are of special interest in the entries of that date:

"The Spirit of God shows me that my righteous actions were mingled with certain feelings and opinions which tarnished the whiteness and innocence of my soul."

"May second—The Spirit of God has given me His Holy Approbation and has praised me for having explained religion by setting forth that in which it consists:

"First—To have great confidence in God, through Jesus Christ, Alary, Joseph, and St. John the Baptist.

"Second—To keep this commandments faithfully.

"Third—To pray without ceasing and to be devout. Priests have been appointed to sustain the spirit of religion. They have power only so long as they are faithful to their mission. As soon as they turn aside they have no more place or usefulness. Priests are not religion. The Spirit of God has told that this was, is, and always will be true."

"May third—O, God, spread over me and my wife and children, over the Exovidat, over all my nation, the waves and torrents of Thy amiable and compassionate benedictions. I pray Thee for this for the love of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, etc. O, my God, I humbly ask of Thee in the name of Jesus Christ, of Mary the Immaculate, whom we especially honour during this beautiful month, and in the name of Joseph, that Thou wouldst condescend to enroot in the hearts of our French and dear Metis the most perfect faith and the greatest confidence in Thy Holy Catholic, Apostolic, and Loving Church in the New World."

"Cause to descend upon each member of the Metis French Canadian Exovidat all the charitable gifts of the priesthood, all the evangelical graces of the clergy, all the admirable fruits of Thy Holy Spirit, that each of them may be acceptablc in Thy Sight, that each may celebrate in a gracious manner the solemn and consoling offices of the true religion. Come to all of them! Dwell in them !"

"Establish Thyself in the very midst of their spirits. Take entire possession of their very beings, that they may receive from Thee power to forgive the sins of those who shall confess to them, and that they may relieve from the weight of his transgressions every one who shall, to their satisfaction, perform acts of penance by asking Jesus Christ the spirit of repentance."

As Middleton's army approaches Batoche, Riel more and more realizes the difficulties of his position. He perceives that his "men were nothing more than little boys and their wives little girls, good only for fooling," and trembling between hope and despair he foresees on May 6th the coming capture of Batoche, which, in his vision, is called De Bonne Chairville. This event, it is to be noted, is to occur not because of the strength or wisdom of the victors, but on account of the sins and folly of the Metis.

"May sixth—The place, De Bonne Chairville, formerly well situated, is now abandoned. The town of Bonne Chairville—but yesterday in good condition—has no longer anyone to protect it. I ask for help. I wish to rouse up those who slumber in the deep sleep of their sins. They don't understand. They don't hear. They don't obey me. The enemy comes up the river. He arrives. He proceeds to bombard the town. How is it going to resist? Nobody takes its interests to heart. It is going to fall into the hands of the conqueror, for having first abandoned God. God also abandons it. It is all over with it.

"Oh, how many times hast Thou, O Prophecy, revealed Thyself? How many times in a century? How many times in a generation?"

On May 9th, the day of Middleton's first attack upon Batoche, the following entries occur, of which the second quoted is the last in the journal:

"O my God, assist me. Very charitably direct me, that I may properly arrange our people, and that I may superintend their movements without uselessly exposing myself and without pusillanimous fears. O condescend to sustain me that in the hands of Thy Providence I may be as tranquil and calm as a little child on its mother's breast."

"O my God, I pray Thee for the sake of Jesus, Alary, Joseph and St. John the Baptist, grant me Thy Holy Spirit of foresight and prudence, Thy Holy Spirit of courage. Thy Holy Spirit of power and of good designs, from this time forward without ceasing, till the very last sigh, that we may come to the end of all our good undertakings, and may have the happiness of completing them with an entire regard for Thy Holy Will."

From the minutes of the Council we see now the military operations of the Metis were shaped and at times hampered by the interpretations placed upon the signs or omens occurring in Riel's disordered visions. On the twenty-second his lieutenants were strongly desirous of attacking Middleton. To this Riel was opposed, though his reasons seem like the incoherent ravings of a mad man. Nevertheless, something of the spirit which seems to have been behind the movement is indicated in the following quotation from Riel's written protest against the plans of Dumont and his warriors :

"Respectfully and in the frankest spirit of friendship, I offer these considerations to the attention of the 'Exovidat,' so that they may weigh my reasons. What I wish is that my reasons be examined; but be convinced, sirs and dear brothers in Jesus Christ, that when you have examined what I now submit to you, if you adopt a course contrary to my views, I shall look upon it as an expression of permission of God, and I will help you with all my strength to carry out your views as though they were my own to the greater glory of God."

Nothing could be more pathetic than the simplicity and evident sincerity of the religious spirit animating many not only among the leaders, but among the rank and file of the rebel party. Passages from Dumont's story of Duck Lake, which were quoted in the preceding chapter will occur to the reader's mind in this connection.

Among the papers seized by Middleton at the capture of Batoche is Lepine's report of the Battle of Fish Creek. It is so full of pathos in its naivete and transparent piety as to deserve sympathetic reading:

"I corroborate the report of Air. Dumont up to the moment of the departure of Air. Riel, for Air. Riel left it to the choice of the people whether he was to go away or stay. The answer he received was to go and assist the women and children. About half-past eight in the morning I started to get something to eat at the house of the widow Tourond, and about nine o'clock we left, Pierre Henry, Isidore Dumas and I. to come to the coulee. Our people made signs to us that the police were coming. Then we took up our position to wait for them, and we had hardly taken our places when shots were heard at the other end. As soon as we heard the shots we rushed to that side. When we got there our people were already all scattered and the battle had commenced. Not long after I saw that Jerome Henry was wounded, and we then took up a position in the coulee nearly on the bank, and I spent nearly the whole day there. The time seemed so long that I thought it was already evening, but on looking at my watch I saw that it was only noon. Before noon we heard shots all around us; but we heard shots also from the direction of Touron's, showing that there were still some of our people in that direction. In the afternoon we heard no more shots there, and I thought that our people on that side were all dead. Near us, and towards All". Tourond's, we beard shouts, and I think it was Gabriel Dumont and his people who were there. I know that Alec Gervais was there, for I saw him come from that direction, and then we saw that we were surrounded, for we saw men on all sides; we then heard the bugle to the right of our position and we heard the soldiers coming in the wood of the coulee, for we heard the branches breaking, and there were others along the wood to the left; and we heard voices speaking all around us and in front on the prairie, and then I thought we were lost. When they came into the wood we heard dreadful firing on every side. It was then between three and four o'clock in the afternoon. After that they retreated, and it seemed to me that the volleys were less frequent; and about five o'clock all was quiet for a good while, only a few sentinels seemed to be stationed at intervals watching us. During that period we thought they were getting ready to come and take us. After that we said to one another, 'We must try somehow to kill one each if they come, and we must each of us fire a good shot.' And Charles Trottier counted the men there, and out of one hundred and sixty that were there at the beginning there remained but fifty-four. I do not know whether he counted the wounded. And then we consulted as to how we were to get away, and we decided to wait until night and then to run the risk of breaking our way out. But we knew that many of us must be killed in that undertaking. And then we also thought of our wounded and it seemed to me that the only assistance I could leave them was the crucifix I had held in my hand all day, but when 1 spoke of that no person answered me; and we were praying all that time and I had the crucifix and I said, 'We shall commend ourselves to God and pray that we may have perfect contrition, so that if we die we may save our souls.' And then I prayed; for I thought we were about to die and I had doubts as to the justice of our cause. And I thought all our people were dead and that our small party were all that remained. But Delorme did me good when he said to me, 'We must pray to God to take us out of this.' And almost immediately they again commenced firing, not many rifle shots, but four cannon shots, and two or three out of the four seemed to me to burst over our heads. And all the balls seemed to fall like hail. And after these four cannon shots all became quiet, and we heard a man from among the police shout to us, speaking in the Cree tongue.

He said, 'His name was Borie,' and, it seemed to mc, 'that we must be hungry,' and he asked to be allowed to visit us. He also asked us to tell him how many we were. And some of the others answered him, but I do not remember what they said to him. But they would not let him come. I was inclined to let him come, and felt tempted to tell him to come, but I thought it better to say nothing for fear of making a mistake and being blamed afterwards. It occurred to me that while he was with us the police would not fire, and meantime night would set in and we should be able to get away. But almost immediately afterwards our people came up and the soldiers fled and did not lire again and we came away.

"We prayed all the day. and 1 think prayer did more than bullets. Often when the soldiers appeared on the hillcocks our people fired and that made them fall back and others came to remove them."

Such was the religious spirit, largely by virtue of which a handful of ignorant Halfbreed peasants withstood so long and so successfully Canada's bravest soldiery. It is the same spirit that sustained the Covenanters, hunted to the death by Claverhouse on the bleak hillsides of Scotland: that made Cromwell's Ironsides invincible; and that has inspired with heroism ten thousand humble hearts in every land where men have truly believed themselves in immediate contact with the Divine. Poor, simple, mistaken fanatics! In the failure of their plans, the sacrifice of their lives, liberty or properly, and the ruin of their hopes for the establishment through their prowess of the Kingdom of God upon earth, the rebel Halfbreeds in Saskatchewan learned the same lesson that many others, wiser and better instructed than they, have had to learn before and since.


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