by Joanna Seraphim
When people talk about the Métis resistances, the debate tends to focus on battles or on the accomplishments of the provisional government. The part played by Métis women, on the other hand, is rarely mentioned. Nonetheless, Métis women were affected by these conflicts, and played an active supporting role in these events.
Where were the women during the Red River Rebellion?
The Red River Rebellion began in 1869. During this uprising, women encouraged their husbands and sons to defend their land and their rights. However, while the men were on the battlefield, Métis women remained alone at home, sick with worry. They were in charge not only of taking care of the household and providing for their children, but of supplying the rebel camp. Firewood and food were supplied first to the men who were fighting. As well, the women sewed them moccasins.
On April 25, 1870, the Red River Colony joined Canadian Confederation as the province of Manitoba. The federal government sent troops to ensure that the Métis complied with federal authority. Many of these soldiers exacted revenge for the recent events by persecuting the Métis. Some soldiers entered houses while the husbands were away and threatened the wives to force them to reveal their husband’s actions. Thus, men broke into Louis Riel’s mother’s house, insulting her and her children while holding them at gunpoint.
What role did women play in the North-West Resistance?
In the face of increasing discrimination, many Métis left Manitoba and settled farther west or in the northern United States. However, the territorial conflicts between the Métis and the federal government resumed. The North-West Resistance escalated on March 19, 1885, at Batoche, with the creation of the provisional government of Saskatchewan, headed by Louis Riel. An army was mustered, led by Gabriel Dumont. A few Métis women expressed their opinion of the resistance to the men. Mrs. Josephte Lépine (née Lavallée) declared to her husband and the other leaders, “You undertake some things that are too big and that you do not understand.” Nevertheless, when the resistance started, women supported their husbands and sons. Mrs. Marie-Anne (Caron) Parenteau declared, “If the police come, I will kill them myself. I will treat them as we do the prairie buffalo.”
The women lived in a camp with the elderly and the children. Within the camp, families shared food with their neighbours and took care of the elderly and the children. Gabriel Dumont’s wife, Madeleine (Wilkie) Dumont, and the elder Marie (Hallet) Letendre also cooked for the provisional government and looked after the sick and wounded. When Michel Desjarlais was wounded, Mary Letendre and Madeleine Dumont were the ones who cared for him. Unfortunately, they discovered that part of his skull was missing, and he soon died of the injury. During the armed conflict, Madeleine also helped the wounded to run away from the battlefield.
The women supplied the men not only with food, but also with bullets. They melted down the metal lining of tea tins and tea kettles and the lead wrapped around Hudson’s Bay Company goods, and poured it into molds. If the bullets were too big, they scraped them down with knives. Besides making bullets, Métis women collected used bullets and re-used them.
During the battle of Batoche, soldiers plundered and demolished the Métis’ houses. Some of them went so far as to steal Mrs. Blanche (Ross) Henry’s wedding ring. Many families lost everything in the looting and destruction and had to start over from scratch.
What happened to women after the North-West Resistance?
Between May 9 and May 12, the Canadian army defeated the Métis at the battle of Batoche. Everyone suspected of having participated in the resistance was arrested. Gabriel Dumont was forced to flee the country and settle in Montana. Louis Riel surrendered and was condemned to be hanged. Poverty, cold, hunger, despair, and fear made women more fragile, more vulnerable to illnesses like influenza and tuberculosis, and more likely to have a miscarriage. For example, when Madeleine (Wilkie) Dumont decided to join her husband Gabriel in the United States, she arrived in poor health and died a few weeks later. Louis Riel’s wife Marguerite Monet suffered a similar fate. During the Batoche events, Marguerite was pregnant with her third child and suffering from tuberculosis. Riel’s sister Henriette reported in a letter to her brother, “Marguerite is skinny and changed. Apparently, at Batoche she spat blood for three days.” Their third child lived for only two hours. Shortly thereafter, Marguerite died of the consequences of malnutrition, tuberculosis … and grief.
Women whose husbands were killed or imprisoned during the conflict needed to find a way to provide for their family. Some, like Judith Parenteau, widow of Isidore Dumont (Gabriel’s older brother), and Catherine Delorme, wife of Donald Ross, asked for food assistance from the government to feed their children. Others requested compensation after the Battle of 1885 for the loss of their personal property, claiming that their possessions (cattle, furniture, wedding trousseau) had been destroyed. Their requests were denied, because at that time a woman’s property belonged to her husband. Some moved back in with their parents; others remarried. Some found jobs as domestics. Josephte Gervais, Calixte Tourond’s widow, managed to become a schoolteacher. A few Métis women succeeded in running a farm without a spouse’s help, and sometimes with their children’s help. Thus, Mrs. Josephte Tourond was able to keep her farm thanks to her children, who helped with the farm chores and animal husbandry. Marguerite Caron and Marie Champagne also managed to survive despite their husbands’ death by taking over a farm.
Women may not literally have taken up arms during the Métis resistances, but they nevertheless showed bravery and resilience. They had to look after their families, alone. They also played an active role behind the scenes, supplying food, firewood, moccasins and bullets and caring for the wounded. By the end of the North-West Resistance in 1885, Métis families had lost everything. Some women succumbed to illness and grief; others chose to fight for their family’s survival, despite their status as widows or prisoners’ wives. Overall, during the two resistances, women stood out for their affective and logistical role.
Joanna Seraphim has a PhD and a master’s degree in anthropology from the École des Hautes Études de Sciences Sociales in Paris, France. She teaches in the General Education Department and in the MBA Program at the Canadian University of Dubai. Prior to joining the Canadian University of Dubai, she was a lecturer at the Université de Saint-Boniface in Winnipeg. Previously, she served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Canada Research Chair on Métis Identity. In her articles, she examines the use of technology in the preservation, transmission and revival of traditions and languages. She also focuses on social issues such as métissage and ethnic and gender discrimination and inequality.