In June, 1998, Manitoba Liberal MP Reg Alcock introduced a private members bill to pardon Louis Riel for his role in the Northwest Rebellion of1885. The bill would also declare Riel to be a Father of Confederation for helping to create the province of Manitoba in 1870. Polls show that a majority of Canadians support these measures. But in his newly published Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy, Macleans Senior Writer DArcy Jenish argues that the preoccupation with Riel has overshadowed other injustices.
One ofthem was how, in the aftermath of the rebellion, the Canadian government used the criminal justice system to crush the last vestiges of Cree resistance to surrendering their ancestral lands. In this excerpt, Jenish recounts the long-forgotten conviction and mass hanging of eight Indians on Nov. 27, 1885, at Fort Battleford, in what is now Saskatchewan.
A weak Crown case against Cree Chief Big Bear, on trial for felony treason in Regina, made no difference to the jurors. They deliberated for 15 minutes before returning with a verdict of guilty. Two weeks later, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced Big Bear to imprisonment in the penitentiary at Stony Mountain for three years.
Mounted police officers then filled the dock with 17 other
native prisoners awaiting sentencing. Most were members of Big Bear’s band and their trials had been a travesty. At one point, exasperated defence lawyer Beverly Robertson told the court: “Since the conviction of Big Bear, I have felt that it is almost a hopeless task to obtain from a jury in Regina a fair consideration of the case of an Indian. It has seemed to me only necessary to say in this town to a jury, there is an Indian, and we will put him in the dock to convict him.”
The courts helped crush Cree resistance
The sentencing of Big Bear and the 17 other men to prison terms of varying lengths brought to an end the Regina Indian trials. But legal proceedings against 25 natives in Battleford
Reprinted with permission from Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy, copyright D’Arcy Jenish, published by Viking a division of Penguin Books Canada Ltd, Toronto.
were just beginning. Judge Charles Rouleau presided over the trials. Most of them lasted only a few minutes. The Indians appeared without defence lawyers and pleaded guilty.
Big Bears war chief, Wandering Spirit, appeared first. He pleaded guilty to the murder of an Indian agent, Thomas Quinn. Rouleau then imposed the penalty: “The sentence of the court is that you, Wandering Spirit, be taken to the scaffold and there be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Before the day was over, Rouleau had sentenced seven others. Four Sky Thunder got 14 years for burning a Catholic Church. Toussaint Calling Bull and Little Wolf each got 10 years hard labour for arson. The Idol and Old Man were convicted of horse theft and sentenced to six-year terms. God’s Otter got four years for the same offence because his accuser, the Rev. Charles Quinney, spoke well of him. And Little Runner also received four years for stealing a horse.
All told, 11 men received death sentences and one got 20 years for manslaughter. A few days before the executions, the government granted reprieves to three prisoners and commuted their sentences to life imprisonment. The condemned men spent their last days seated on the floor of the guardhouse at Fort Battleford, blankets draped over their shoulders, balls and chains shackled to their ankles. They could hear the hammers and saws of the workmen building the giant gallows— 20 feet long, eight feet wide and 10 feet high.
On Nov. 26, Supt. Leif Crozier, the mounted police commander at Battleford, allowed newspaperman R G. Laurie and trader William Cameron to interview the prisoners. They were naturally interested in Wandering Spirit, the once flamboyant and fearsome war chief who now lay wasted and
‘The executions ought to convince the Red Man the White Man now governs’
emaciated. He remained silent a long time, but finally spoke.
“Four years ago, we were camped on the Missouri River in the Long Knives’ land,” he said, referring to the United States. “Big Bear was there, Imasees, Four Sky Thunder and other chiefs of the band. Riel was there, trading whisky to the Indians. He gave us liquor and said he would make war on this country. He asked us to join him in wiping out the Canadians. The government had treated him badly. He would demand much money from them. If they would not give, he would spill blood, plenty of Canadian blood.
“Last fall, Riel sent word to us that when the leaves came out the half-breeds would rise and kill all the whites. The Long Knives would come. They would buy the land, pay the Indians plenty of money for it, and afterwards trade, too, and help rid the country of Canadians. André Nault, a half-breed, told me he had in his pocket a letter from his cousin, Riel, telling him to stay with Big Bear’s band and he would be safe. We would never be tried for what we did. Anyway,’ he said, ‘the Canadians can’t beat us.’ ”
Wandering Spirit told Cameron there was only one thing
bothering him: the thought of dying and having to make the long journey to the Sand Hills with a ball and chain attached to one ankle. When he learned that the shackle would be removed, he was relieved. “Then I will die satisfied,” Wandering Spirit said. “I may not be able in the morning, so now I say again to you all—Goodbye. How. Aquisanee.”
The executions were set to take place at 8 a.m., and the condemned men were up early. Outside, it was cold and a sharp wind blew. The prisoners ate their last meal. They said their goodbyes. And they bowed their heads. Mounted police officers cut their hair, removed the shackles and fitted each man with a black veil. Then the men began to sing. Death chants filled the air as they prepared to march across the square from the guardhouse to the gallows.
One hundred and fifty mounted police stood at attention around three sides of the square. Dozens of Cree and Stoney people squatted on the grass below the gallows where eight nooses swayed in the wind. Natives were no longer welcome around Battleford. But this was a special occasion. They had been summoned from the reserves around the town to witness the deaths of their brethren.
The square was utterly silent as the prisoners marched out of the guardhouse, each with a mounted police officer to the right and left. One by one, they mounted the steps and took their places. The executioner, Robert Hodson, bound their hands and feet. The short, chubby Hodson had been a prisoner of Wandering Spirit’s that spring and an object of ridicule. Now, he would be sending his tormentors to their deaths.
Hodson worked quickly as the condemned men sang. He pulled the veils over each man’s head. He tightened each noose. He drew the bolt. “There was a sharp sound of grating iron, the trap dropped and eight bodies shot through it,” Cameron later wrote. “The bodies were dropped into rough wooden boxes and buried in a common grave on the hillside below the police barracks. Thus closed the last tragic event in the occurrences of the year 1885.”
The hangings brought to an end a much larger conflict: the Canadian government’s long fight to assert its control over the North-West, the vast territory it had acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Co. in the winter of 1869-1870. As Sir John A. Macdonald put it in a letter to the Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney: The executions ... ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man now governs.” ES]
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