Opening Ceremonies Back to Batoche. Photo credit: Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

By: Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder

Back to Batoche Days kicked off on Thursday, July 20, but people began arriving at the site long before the official kick-off. Vehicles with campers, recreational vehicles, and tents claimed their spots for probably the biggest Métis gathering in the world. It wasn’t just Métis people who gathered to join in the cultural celebration either, international visitors came through the gates as well from as far away as England and India. President of Métis Nation-Saskatchewan Glen McCallum said of the gathering, “We’ve watched generations grow up at Batoche and look forward to seeing them bring their children to the festival.” Ninety-nine-year-old, Margaret McCallum and her daughter made the trip from Île-à-la-Crosse to attend Back to Batoche on Friday, July 21. The Métis village of Île-à-la-Crosse sits at the end of a peninsula that stretches into Lac Île-à-la-Crosse and is located 685 km northwest of Saskatoon. Although they only came for one day, Margaret’s daughter said they have wanted to come for some time and decided that this was the year. Île-à-la-Crosse’s location made it important to the fur trade by being connected to the Churchill River, Beaver River, and Canoe River systems and it has strong connections to Louis Riel, whose grandparents were married in Île-à-la-Crosse and his sister, Sara, was part of the convent there and is buried in the local cemetery.

The opening ceremonies Friday morning welcomed the entire nation to Batoche with dignitaries from all levels of government representing Métis, First Nations, and non-Indigenous citizens.  Present in the grand entry along with President of Métis Nation Saskatchewan Glen McCallum were Elders, veterans, members of the RCMP, special dignitaries including Vice-Chief of the FSIN Aly Bear, President of the Métis National Council Cassidy Caron, MN-S Minister of Youth and Provincial Métis Youth Council President Autumn Laing-LaRose, RCMP Commissioner Michael Duheme, Saskatoon City Police Chief Troy Cooper, and invited elected officials including Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, Leader of the Opposition Carla Beck, Member of Parliament for Carlton Trail-Eagle Creek Kelly Block, Parliamentary Secretary of Environment and Climate Change Terry Duguid, MLA for Batoche Delbert Kirsch, Chief of One Arrow First Nation Janine Baldhead, Rosthern Mayor Dennis Helmuth, and RM of Fish Creek Reeve Ryan Sawitsky. Wakaw Mayor Mike Markowski, CAO Melissa Dieno, and  Recreation & Community Development Manager Dwane Burke were also at the event representing the town.

Following the opening ceremonies, Premier Scott Moe answered some questions from the media and spoke of how he would like to see collaborative conversations happen on how to make the communities, the province, and the nation a stronger place. He added that “as we’re moving forward, we are being as inclusive as possible as we can be in this Province.” Friday afternoon the Premier and President McCallum met to carry out private meetings. The two leaders met earlier this year when the Premier visited the MN-S head office in Saskatoon where they discussed how they could come together and establish a permanent bilateral process to address priority issues. This 51st Back to Batoche Days was the first time a currently sitting Premier attended the event.

President McCallum also spoke with the media commenting, “It’s beautiful to see the amount of children here and for the young people to be recognized in an assembled audience like we have today, and to be able to tell our history. It’s important for our young people to know [that].” He went on to say that having the young people see that communication and cooperation with the provincial government is possible and it isn’t always about politics, it’s about doing the right thing. “I believe that we’re on the right page with the Premier,” McCallum added. President McCallum is a strong advocate for the youth of MN-S. As he fulfills his role as leader of MN-S, he takes every opportunity to speak to the youth and share his knowledge with them whether they be a group of Saskatoon Grade 4 students touring MN-S as part of their study on Governance, or participating in a culture camp at Rossignol High School in Île-à-la-Crosse. Sharing on his Facebook page he says, “As leaders in this province, it is our responsibility to continue to meet with our citizens, share the stories of the challenges and successes in our communities, and keep working together.” Additionally, President McCallum and the MN-S government welcomed 26 post-secondary students to join them for the summer to learn the inner workings of their governing body. This is the second year in a row they have opened that door to the Métis youth of Saskatchewan.

The grounds at the Back to Batoche site continue to develop and offer activities to fill the days of children and adults as well. Autumn Laing-LaRose in her address during the Opening Ceremonies told of her days as a child at Batoche running amongst the tents and trying not to trip over tent pegs and ropes. Tents have been replaced with travel trailers and RVs, and a Children’s Village offered supervised activities and games for young people along with a recently completed playground complete with a huge slide and climbing apparatus, and a zipline. Also on-site for the kids were a petting zoo and pony rides.

Many vendors were open for business near the main stage building, while food trucks formed a street between the Children’s Village and sports areas. Various live dancing and music performances took take place over the course of the festival along with traditional events like chariot and chuckwagon races, a slo-pitch tournament, a beach volleyball tournament, horseshoe tournaments, a singing contest, and much more.

Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron said being able to “come home, reconnect with the land and connect with the South Saskatchewan River” at Back to Batoche Days is always a moving experience, and the atmosphere at Back to Batoche is definitely that of a homecoming. Common questions as people meet for the first time are ‘Where are you from’ and ‘What’s your family’. Organizers said this year’s four-day event had record-breaking numbers of attendees and yet it never felt crowded. “Yesterday, I think we had somewhere around 47,000 people here come through the gates,” said Michelle LeClair, Métis Nation Saskatchewan vice-president on Saturday. “That doesn’t include the people that are already here. The day before, I think there was about 30,000 people.” Back to Batoche is about connections, connections to the land, connections to one’s people, and connections to the past and the future. As Aly Bear, third vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, “Together we learn, together we grow, and together we rise.”