Four years ago, I walked into the museum at the Batoche Historic Site and was confronted by my great great grandmother’s lice comb, missing half its bone teeth, hanging in a glass display case, a lice comb that archeologists had excavated from her midden heap. I was pissed off, sure that when Marguerite Caron had thrown out the comb she’d dragged through the lice-infested hair of ten children, she didn’t think it would be dredged up by strange white people 100 years later. Isn’t garbage personal?
Then I found this section of rosary beads, also from her midden. I imagined she was rarely without these beads, thumbing them with ardent devotion as she prayed the rosary. Who did she pray for? What were her fears and her secrets?
It’s likely the same rosary that was in her pocket the afternoon of April 24, 1885, when Gabriel Dumont and a reduced force of 50 Métis men were trapped in Tourond’s Coulee by 1,000 Canadian soldiers 13 miles south of Batoche.
There are eyewitness accounts of Marguerite confronting Louis Riel as he knelt on the bank high above the Saskatchewan river, praying with his arms outstretched, exhorting God to save his Métis, the Children of Israel, from the army of Philistines that advanced on Batoche, the City of God.
I imagined this scene in Song of Batoche, the historical novel I wrote about the North-West Resistance:
Marguerite approached as Riel began to relate another vision and stood with hands on her hips, regarding him with disapproval. “What are you doing here when our men are fighting?”
“Asking God to help Gabriel.”
There was an increase in rifle shots from the direction of Tourond’s Coulee. “Do you have news?” Marguerite demanded. “They aren’t all dead since we can hear them firing. Aren’t you going to see?”
Riel told her she should say her Paters and Aves. She replied, “There’s no time for Paters and Aves.” Did I mention she was eight months pregnant with her ninth child at the time? He learned not to cross a pregnant woman whose husband and sons were under fire and sent reinforcements and ammunition to their men at the coulee. The Métis won that battle, but weeks later, the Canadian army pressed on and defeated Riel during a four-day attack on Batoche.
Here’s a picture of Marguerite with my great great grandfather Jean Caron Sr., two daughters and a grandson in front of the house they rebuilt after it was destroyed in that attack. I wrote Song of Batoche because I wanted to know this woman who had the nerve to face down the great Louis Riel, spiritual leader of the Métis. I wanted into the hearts and minds of the Métisse of Batoche. Women with secrets and opinions, who most assuredly questioned Riel’s sanity as he insisted the Métis would meet “Goliath” only in the City of God.
As I stood in that museum in 2013, I wondered if I could bring to life the divided loyalties and constrained passions of Métis women from a fragment of rosary. I grew up around such Métis women, women with profound fortitude yet poisoned by a terrible secret. Their hearts were still in the City of God. During those four days of battle and in the week afterward when Goliath camped in my great great grandparent’s back fields, soldiers looted houses and burned them, shot the Métis cattle, stole wedding rings off the fingers of the women, arrested the men.
When Goliath finally marched north to crush Chief Poundmaker and Chief Big Bear’s bands, the Métis were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Some men were imprisoned for treason. Others rode into exile. Many left their broken dreams there. And some, like Marguerite and Jean, rebuilt their houses, threw their moccasins into midden heaps and bought shoes and boots for their children, marking themselves as “French” on the next census.
All of this was in my mind as I stood in the museum honouring their resilience. Other visitors were looking at Caron family cast-offs too, peering through the glass at my great great grandfather Jean’s watch chain. One murmured, “how interesting” and moved on.
I looked into the next display case, tears blurring a still life of broken tea cup, a doll’s floating arm, and a child’s tattered moccasin. Fragments, whispers of what was lost: lands, identity, language, music. The words of John A. Macdonald rang in my ears: “If they are Indians they go with the tribe. If they are half-breeds, they are whites.”
Grief and then anger that my identity was stolen from me. In the years following the war, Marguerite’s and Jean’s children and grandchildren moved away from the ghost town of Batoche. In 1973, the last remaining Caron sold that house to the same government that destroyed its predecessor in 1885. Grief and then anger that I must prove my Métis identity to write a story about my own people, prove to this community that I belonged here.
Marguerite denied her Métis identity to protect her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren from racism, but the teacup, the child’s toy, the moccasin she had made with her own hands spoke against that denial and conveyed a fierce kind of love.
I walked out of the museum into a light misting rain. I knew the way to Jean and Marguerite’s house. The army did not move them from those lands. They still had a place there.
I officially launch Song of Batoche on my great great grandparents’ porch on September 30th. My father, who grew up in Batoche will wear his Métis sash for the first time. And I will, too.