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'Warden of the plains’ honured at celebration

By Kathleen Teillet


ST. FRANÇOIS XAVIER, Man. — Cuthbert Grant was the first leader of the Métis. Reviled by many and denigrated in older history books, he has always been a hero to the Métis.

On June 19, hundreds of Métis from various points in Canada congregated here to celebrate the life of Cuthbert Grant. The date was the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Seven Oaks, a battle known to the Métis as The Victory of Frog Plain.

In 1816 a small band of Métis, led by Grant, were carrying pemmican from Fort Qu'Appelle to a settlement at Frog Plain when they were intercepted by armed Selkirk settlers commanded by Robert Semple of the Hudson's Bay Company, governor-in-chief of Rupert's Land.

Semple's predecessor, Miles MacDonell, had seized control of the pemmican trade and declared it illegal for export. The pemmican trade was vital to Métis survival.

A battle ensued during which 20 settlers and Semple himself were killed. Only one Métis lost his life. Although this battle has been called a massacre, no women or children were involved, and the first shot was fired by a settler. The Métis, who were crack marksmen, shot back.

Eight years after the Battle of Seven Oaks, the two rival fur-trading companies merged and, in 1828, the Hudson's Bay Company appointed Cuthbert Grant as “Warden of the Plains.” In that capacity, Grant worked to stop illicit fur trading in the North West.

On the anniversary of the Seven Oaks confrontation, Métis gathered in St. François Xavier, the town Grant founded and called Grantown. The day began with mass in St. François Xavier Parish church, the second-oldest Roman Catholic parish west of Lake Superior.

Church records date Cuthbert Grant's death to July 16, 1854. These records also say he is buried “in the church along the wall on the side of the epistle.”

However, current parish priest Rev. Michel Nault says no one knows the exact location of Grant's remains. The original church, built in 1828, was subsequently moved and dismantled. Some say this first church burned down, but that information is unproven. What became of Cuthbert Grant is a mystery.

After mass, Nault ceremoniously blessed and dedicated a memorial gravestone located next to the grave of Grant's daughter Maria. Nault reminded those in attendance that Cuthbert Grant “left a historic legacy” and is rightfully remembered with respect.

Following the cemetery service, everyone dispersed to the site of Grant's Old Mill on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. Built by Grant in 1829, this was the first gristmill west of the Great Lakes.

The present mill is not water-powered. It runs on electricity but otherwise has been reconstructed to look and work as the original mill did. Flour milled there is available as are copies of original Grant-era recipes.

Attendees were entertained by Métis fiddler Jim Dutiame and guitarist Tom Dutiame. Dancers in colourful costume presented a series of lively dances. All the dances featured the basic step of The Red River Jig.

Next, the gathering dispersed to the Seven Oaks monument on north Main Street, a site recently renewed by Parks Canada. A ribbon-cutting and speeches marked this part of the day. When Will Goodon of Boissevain, Man., a descendant of Grant's sister, addressed the gathering, he reminded everyone, “The Métis, as the people who founded this province, have a right to be proud.”

Teillet is a freelance writer from Winnipeg.

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