This day in History: Largest public hanging in Canada
The speed of the course of justice was astounding. The so-called siege of Battleford took place in late March of 1885 and the Canadian militia’s attack on Chief Poundmaker’s camp was May 2. Six months later, all the trials had concluded and the sentencing was complete.
The court proceedings were conducted in English, with no translation or legal representation allowed for the warriors. It was a kangaroo court in every aspect.
But as horrific as the public hanging was, it was just the tip of the iceberg. The colonizers would go on to demonize and oppress the First Nations for years to come. In fact, it can be argued that the results remain with us today.
Hayter Reed, the Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs, reported directly to Edgar Dewdney, who was the Commissioner. After the events of 1885, Reed was charged with the responsibility of straightening things out.
Instead, he identified about 25 bands that he classified as disloyal. There was no appeal or consultation process involved — Reed simply made a list based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence.
His second task was to develop a list of policy suggestions that he labelled as “the future management of Indians.” These 15 points formed the basis of the administration of Indians under the Department of Indian Affairs.
His draconian list included the suspension of chiefs and councils, annuity payments and denial of treaty rights for all the First Nations that he had deemed disloyal.
He further recommended that all dances and religious ceremonies cease and be outlawed.
The warriors of the “disloyal” First Nations were disarmed and all firearms, knives and any implement that was deemed to be a weapon was seized. The horses and livestock belonging to the “rebels” were also seized and sold. This left the people unable to hunt for food. They became destitute and had to rely on the parsimonious handouts from the department.
In the Battleford area, the weapons were seized and transported to Fort Edmonton on a riverboat. Researchers with the Poundmaker Cree Nation have evidence that the weapons were jettisoned into the river at an area north of Maidstone known as Pine Island. Apparently, the riverboat was caught in the shallow water and the weapons were thrown overboard.
Reed also recommended that no “rebel Indian” be allowed off the reserve without a pass signed by the Indian Agent. This was later expanded to include all Indian people on the prairies. He was the architect of the public hanging and he went on to a successful career in Indian Affairs, attaining the position of commissioner.
The result of this repression was that many First Nations people, particularly around Battleford, sought sanctuary in the United States and a large group of refugees camped on the east side of Great Falls Montana.
Meanwhile, Patrick Laurie continued to publish the Saskatchewan Herald, the only newspaper in Saskatchewan at the time. He used it as a pulpit to write against any settlement of the west by anyone other than white Protestants. He saw no future for the First Nations and never forgave them for looting the town of Battleford.
His poisoned pen harangued the citizens of the Battlefords and he continued to edit the paper until his death in 1903.
The result of this “journalism” was that his racist rants and reporting created racial disharmony in the Battlefords and surrounding area that exists to the present day.
The story of the public hanging and the repression that followed has not been taught in history classes. People have to talk to First Nations people or research old copies of the Saskatchewan Herald to gain an understanding of the events and the colonial attitude that has created a modern-day society that is badly split along racial lines.