By: Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder
Next weekend the Back to Batoche grounds will be filled to overflowing with families from all over Canada as Métis people come to Saskatchewan for the biggest Métis cultural celebration in the country. Previously known as the Back to Batoche Festival, the four-day celebration began over 50 years ago in 1970. It welcomes people from all over Canada, and the world, to join in the celebration and learn about the history of the Métis and the significant role they played in our country’s history. It is an opportunity for Métis and non-Métis to gather together and share in a celebration of culture, reconnect with friends and family, and develop new meaningful relationships. Through storytelling, jigging, fiddling, dancing, food, vendors of traditional crafts and Métis products, voyageur games, chuckwagon and chariot races, sports, and games Métis culture and heritage are preserved and shared with all who gather there.
To say that Back to Batoche might be the world’s biggest family reunion wouldn’t seem like much of a stretch as the bonds of Métis culture embrace all who wish to join in the festive nature of Back to Batoche Days. Back to Batoche is a family-friendly event attended by people spanning the entire life span from newborns to Elders. When asked what the best part of Back to Batoche Days was, one Facebook user responded, “We enjoy all the entertainment and spending time with family and friends, also meeting new people. It’s all exciting.” Of course, it wouldn’t be a celebration if there wasn’t food. With two main kitchens and 13 food trucks, there should be plenty of opportunities to partake in whatever fare tugs at your taste buds.
Over 50 performances over the course of four days will fill two stages with music and entertainment. Some of the performers include Legend of George Jones with Duane Steel, The Story of the Hag with Jess Lee, and Shania Twin. Some of the fiddle players to perform include JJ Lavalee, Ryan Keplin, Dean Smith, Alex Kusturok, and Morgan Grace. The Ivan Flett Memorial Dancers will also be performing during the four days. Activities take place in all corners of the grounds and are not limited to ‘sit and watch’ events. People can sign up for a volleyball tournament or slo-pitch tournament; they can try their hands at the voyageur games; or they can join in evening horseshoe tournaments. The Louis Riel Cup Volleyball Tournament, which runs from the 20th-22nd, is open to junior teams ages 12-17 and to co-ed teams aged 18+. Prizes will be awarded to the top three teams in both divisions. The Louis Riel Cup Slo-Pitch tournament running from the 21st -23rd, will see the winning team taking home half of the total prize money available.
The Voyageur Games are based on the skills developed and needed by the Voyageurs as they paddled the rivers of this land during the fur trade era. The games are usually held during the afternoons and include events such as trap setting (timed event), log throw, log saw (timed event), fire making (timed to get a fire going and boil water), and animal calls. For those who want to try something less physical, ‘Batoche Idol’ will be taking place on the second stage from 1:00-3:00 pm Saturday, July 22 with the finals taking to the stage at 7:00 pm that evening.
Sunday, July 23rd will offer free admission and will feature a jam-packed afternoon at the main stage. Starting at 1:00 pm will be the Tribute to John Arcand. Arcand is the “Master of the Métis fiddle” and this tribute will honour his achievements. Emerging and professional fiddlers have been selected from the applicants to perform John’s original compositions. At 2:00 there will be a traditional jigging demonstration and workshop led by Yvonne Chartrand followed by a jigging contest at 2:30. At 3:00 jigging gives way to square dancing as the Northern Prairie, Creeland, and Qu’Appelle Valley Dancers give square dance demonstrations before the jigging contest resumes at 3:30. The finals of the contest will start at 4:30. The jigging contest has categories for Mini Michif (4 yrs and under), Junior (4-12 yrs), Youth (13-17 yrs), Intermediate (18-64 yrs), Senior (65 yrs +), and Professional (anyone paid to perform must compete in this category).
The theme of Back to Batoche Days 2023 is “The Year of the Youth”, in honour of the next generation of Métis leaders and knowledge keepers, coinciding with an announcement made earlier this year. In April 2023, Métis Nation-SK announced the building of a youth lodge at the site with plans to have it completed by this fall. Dumont Lodge which will sit on the Back to Batoche festival grounds, is designed and intended to be a multimillion-dollar hub for youth programming and land-based education. Located between the woods and the racetrack, once the lodge is open, it will serve as a base of operations for the Riel Scouts — a new Métis scouting organization for youth aged five to 18. Through the Riel Scouts program, leaders will work to instill pride into Métis youth, which they can carry forward and themselves become mentors and counselors in the program.
President of Homeland of the Métis Batoche Local #51, Victor Guillet, said, “There is such strong history in this place, it’s exciting to see things happening there.” The building that will become Dumont Lodge is being prefabricated in Saskatoon and will be moved to the site when complete, but artist renderings will be available for viewing during Back to Batoche Days.
The arrival of bison is another exciting development that many are hoping to hear more about. On November 18, 2022, the announcement came of the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Parks Canada and MN-S for the transfer of 24 bison from the Grasslands National Park to MN-S. At the time of the announcement, the transfer was set to be completed this fall once fencing and infrastructure to house and contain the bison had been completed. Bison were an important symbol of the political, economic, social, and cultural development of the Métis, and was important to their daily life. When the bison disappeared the resilience of the Métis people helped them adapt to a more settled lifestyle with the River Lot System, the remnants of which can still be found along the South Saskatchewan River for a few kilometres on either side of Batoche. This style of farming allowed for equal access to the river, wooded areas, and open land for cultivation and hay crops.
Batoche was more than just the site of the final battle of the 1885 Resistance; it was a strong and vibrant community of families. That community is reborn annually at the Back to Batoche Days as they acknowledge the past while celebrating the future that lies ahead.