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M?tis remember historic battle

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BATOCHE, Saskatchewan - Quietly proceeding on a rural highway, 13-year-old Owen Worsley carries the Canadian Maple Leaf along with other flag bearers who stretch across the pavement's two lanes.

This procession of about 200, following a Sunday Mass, gathered for a one-mile march to pay tribute to nine fallen warriors who died more than a century ago. En route to the cemetery where these men lay in eternity, the opportunity exists for participants to reflect upon the historical significance of what was a rare occurrence of violence in Canada's history; an armed battle against the federal government.

Expressing no torn emotions or inner conflict when holding the country's colors, Worsley crisply walks along. The deadly rebellion he seeks to remember symbolizes the nadir of relationships between his M?tis ancestors and Ottawa.

"I'm proud to be M?tis. This feels good because I'm proud to be a Canadian and proud that this day has come," the teenager from Winfield, Alberta said.

Batoche was the site of a four-day battle in May 1885 when an under-equipped militia, numbering no more than 300, fought an army regiment about triple in size that was moved in by Ottawa to protect federal interests such as the extension of the national railroad. The nine resistance fighters who died in the cause include two full-blooded Indians and their sacrifice, towards protecting the lands that were being encroached, is honored with an annual ceremony at their mass grave during the final day of the Back to Batoche festival.

The burial ground exists on the Batoche National Heritage Site, protected by Parks Canada. Huddled around the grave, marked by nine wooden crosses and a picket fence that show their century-old age, dignitaries from the M?tis community paid their respect stating the importance of always remembering these men, this battle and above all, never to forget what it is to be a M?tis.

"We are on sacred grounds. Let not their blood be shed in vain," Father Guy Lavall?e said, adding these fighters were justified in their beliefs. "Whoever gives their lives for someone else are saints and that's what they did."

During the early days of Confederation after Canada became a nation in 1867, the traditional lifestyles of M?tis and Indians in what is now southern Manitoba were threatened, including land subjugation. The Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 forced Ottawa into creating Manitoba later in July 1870.

Although the original size of 14,000 square miles of Manitoba was only a fraction of its shape today, the deal to end the rebellion included the M?tis to receive 1.4 million acres, about one-eighth of the province, plus the right to hunt, trap and fish in areas west of Manitoba then known as the Northwest Territories (an area incorporating present-day Saskatchewan).

These guaranteed provisions however were rarely delivered and as the M?tis emigrated westward to continue to live off the land, the mistrust against the government lingered. Fifteen years after Red River, M?tis hero Louis Riel was persuaded to take up arms once again, emerging from his exile in Sun River, Mont. and fight at Batoche.

"This wasn't a rebellion as the government said it was. This is what M?tis call a confrontation," M?tis Senator John Boucher said. "This confrontation was about our rights to land and self-government as negotiated by Louis Riel with the federal government when Manitoba entered Confederation."

In addition to the nine deaths, Riel was captured, tried and executed for treason, an action that also divided eastern Canada between the English and the French. His 1885 hanging was the last one in the nation for crimes against the state.

For as rare as the loss of lives were in a politically domestic Canadian dispute, the historical significance of Batoche has slipped under the radar screen within the education system. While the Red River Rebellion is studied because of how the event re-shaped the country's geographical landscape, Batoche, with the exception of Riel's execution, has almost become a footnote. That's why the M?tis elders continue with these annual marches to make sure younger generations don't forget.