Sask. residents fighting for Fort Battleford’s future

Sask. residents fighting for Fort Battleford’s future

A slump of visitors from Batoche to Fort Walsh and across Saskatchewan suggests that historical sites other than Fort Battleford face peril — as residents fight for Fort Battleford’s future.

THE BATTLEFORDS — Months after Fort Battleford opened its gates in 2023 with doors locked, windows boarded shut, an infestation of gopher holes and the sound of lone flags waving over the landscape, a picture was painted of the oldest national historical site in Saskatchewan facing distress alone. But Fort Battleford isn’t alone.

At the end of July, a drive down a stretch of cracking black asphalt in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan, climbing steep forested hills and passing over cattle grates would take a traveller to another of Saskatchewan’s federal historic parks. By 11 a.m. one would be parked in one of three empty parking lots — 35 minutes before Fort Walsh opens for the day to an imaginary swell of tourists. 

By noon, one family and a few stragglers would be apparent. A staff member would say they used to have 100 people visit before lunch; now they’re lucky if they get 100 in a day. They aren’t sure when the special brigade is coming, two actors sit outside the fort in relative silence, and on the drive out a few cars can be seen heading to the Fort Walsh National Historic Site

This is a reality faced not just by Fort Battleford and Fort Walsh, but by every National Historic Site in Saskatchewan, and sprinkled across Western Canada.

According to attendance data published by Parks Canada online, Fort Walsh, Fort Battleford, Batoche, and the Motherwell Homestead have seen at least an approximate 30 per cent drop in attendance since 2001 and before the COVID-19 pandemic — and this is while attendance at non-historic National Parks was climbing.

On average, from 2001 to 2022, attendance has dropped by 44 to 85 per cent at all National Historic Sites in Saskatchewan.

  • Fort Walsh by 44 per cent, 
  • Batoche by 50 per cent, 
  • Motherwell Homestead by 56 per cent, and
  • Fort Battleford by 85 per cent — the winner by a large margin.

Fort Battleford specifically has gone from seeing approximately 12,113 visitors on average from 2001 to 2005, down to 6,597 from 2006 to 2018, and most recently 1909 from 2019 to 2022 — a far cry from the hopeful 5,000 per year listed in the 2017 management plan. 

The sharpest decline is noted in 2006 — years before the collapse of the Friends of the Fort volunteer base or the pandemic — dropping by over 10,000 visitors and never recuperating. Four years later and after years of battle, the now late Tyrone Tootoosis would be successful in changing the story presented at Fort Battleford from one of siege to one with Indigenous perspective included. 

But, this wasn’t the first time Fort Battleford’s future was called into question.

The Birth of the Battlefords Historical Society.

Tara Scaglione, a staff reporter for the News-Optimist, wrote in 2010 that Battleford’s ‘extensive’ history played an important part in defining the community and even the nation at large. 

“But every so often, the fire that is our heritage wanes and threatens to slip into the darkness of forgetfulness. Sometimes, we lose these pieces of ourselves, but sometimes we are fortunate enough and someone steps in to save what would otherwise be lost,” she wrote, going on to explain Campbell Innes’s role in saving Fort Battleford.

She wrotes about his birth in Ontario in 1886, his schooling at both McGill and Queen’s University and, briefly, his tenure as principal at what was then known as Battleford High School. In 1961, Irwin McIntosh, Saskatchewan’s 15th lieutenant governor and then-publisher of the News-Optimist, wrote an editorial after Innes and his wife were killed in a car accident.

“As a result of his prodding and vision, Fort Battleford was turned from a wheat storage depot into a provincial memorial museum and finally a National Historic Park,” wrote McIntosh. “Without Campbell Innes and his vision, such a transformation would not have been possible.”

Fort Battleford National Historic Site at the time was just a ramshackle group of disintegrating buildings, having been used for grain storage and other menial uses since it was abandoned in 1924 by the RCMP.

It was Innes, along with the help of other worried citizens who petitioned and raised funds to have the buildings at the site restored and saved from abandonment. He would go on to start the Battlefords North-West Historical Society in 1924, and perhaps usher in Battleford’s slogan of Historic Battleford.

And now, 99 years later, residents of the Battlefords are hoping to save the fort one more time as staffing struggles, no volunteer base, and funding issues are floated as possible reasons for the fort’s shuttered reality in 2023 as Parks Canada remains dedicated to reconciliation — 100 years since Fort Battleford’s establishment in 1923.

The Future of Fort Battleford rests in the hands of residents

Debi Anderson, the chair of the historical society, doesn’t just think it’s possible, she thinks it’s necessary. And since the days of P.G. Laurie’s frightened, inflammatory, and noticeably biased perspective of the 1885 rebellion from behind the walls of the fort, she says a much-needed perspective has been sorely missed and frankly, not taught.

“I grew up in the Battlefords, and … we were never ever told the story when we visited the Fort [and] not in school,” Anderson said.

“I don’t think that this story has been told well … we [don’t] need to dwell on the stories as much as the opportunity it presents to learn and move forward.”

She feels that beyond reconciliation and a more involved presence from an Indigenous perspective, the missing volunteer base and the staffing struggles Parks Canada has referenced play a large role as well. Anderson hopes that federal, provincial, and municipal partners have a chance to work on Fort Battleford together as it will draw people to the Battlefords.

“When the Historical Society met with Mayor Ames, we were very much on the same trajectory around it needing to be better staffed … some base level staff need to be there to ensure that the doors are open, that they’ve got somebody focused on engaging the schools. And I believe the town and the spirit group and organizations like the historical society can get around supporting that in a big way.”

And as Parks Canada plans to re-write certain, ‘unsavoury’ plaques in a move labelled as ‘woke’ or the recently signed agreement between Parks Canada and two First Nations to open Jasper National Park to harvesting and traditional hunting — all roads point back to reconciliation.

“Certainly what we learned in our meeting with Mayor Leslie and the town manager is that it’s {Fort Battleford] a valuable asset to the community. And a lot of people have fond memories of it … a fuller history has to be told and we’re just happy to participate in that.

“And, you know, there’s a lot of education that still needs to go on throughout the community.”

When asked what Fort Battleford will look like in the future, Anderson said, 

“Well, I think we’d have to find some common ground on what that looks like … I don’t think any solutions in this whole thing can be crafted without those [Indigenous] voices at the table and them being another level of government.”

And it’s not just the historical society looking forward.

Minutes from the Fred Light Museum’s July meeting noted that board members were encouraged to write letters to local politicians to support Fort Battleford’s reopening. Mayor Ames Leslie of the Town of Battleford mentioned in an October meeting that he planned to meet with the Battlefords North-West Historical Society to see what could be done about the historic site south of Battleford.

The mayor went on to note that local First Nation chiefs, the Mayor of North Battleford, and Landon Chambers [CAO] representing the Town of Battleford, would be meeting with Parks Canada on Oct. 25 to discuss what the future of Fort Battleford should look like.

“Hopefully we can have something in place for the spring,” he told the council towards the end of the Oct. 6 meeting.

When asked if the mayor could speak further to this, he said over a text message with the News-Optimist, “Ultimately from the town’s perspective, it’s a matter of opening up to be a drawing card for Battleford,” he said, adding that working together will make Battleford a better location for tourism.

He said that the fort has not lately been something that people want to visit and that the Town of Battleford is hoping that can change.

“We hope to work with local Indigenous chiefs and as well as other regional partners to come up with a plan that mutually tells a story of the history of the Battlefords [in a] respectful manner.” 

He added that the future may again see events, Canada Day celebrations and possibly fireworks at the boarded-up site that focused on a self-guided tour model in 2023.

But, do we need Fort Battleford, a place of tragedy? 

But as Battlefords voices fear the loss of the fort and move to save it, Floyd Favel, a historian from Poundmaker First Nation and curator of the Poundmaker Museum and Gallery — recently involved with the exoneration and repatriation process for Chief Poundmaker — wonders if too much stake has been placed on the historic site. 

When asked if he was anticipating a successful consultation process going forward, he said that due to the National Historic Site’s resistance to telling an accurate history of the events that unfolded in Battleford in 1885, and the tragedy that permeates the fort, he would not be working with Parks Canada.

“I don’t feel I need Fort Battleford’s support to lend legitimacy, as we have been involved in the exoneration and repatriation process since the winter of 2016, with then Councillor Milton Tootoosis. And since that time, we have accomplished a lot of things.”

Favel said, “We prefer to stand on our own merits.” 

Poundmaker Museum and Gallery was successful in the repatriation of Chief Poundmaker artifacts in 2017, and again in 2022. In 2019 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the museum to exonerate Poundmaker for the act of treason he was charged with in 1885 — blamed for the ‘Siege of Battleford,’ as Fort Battleford used to mention before 2010.

And though Favel believes Fort Battleford is moving in the right direction, he says it’s still a place of suffering and tragedy for Indigenous people.

“Fort Battleford is essentially a place of tragedy and colonialism and no effort has been made to mark [where] the eight warriors were hung, for example.”

“It is a tragic place and I refuse to be involved with them,” he said, noting that he’s done everything at the museum without Fort Battleford’s help. 

“Any consultation process will slow me down … it is colonial to give any power to Fort Battleford,” he added.

But as for now, it seems maybe spring will bring a brighter future for Fort Battleford — if there is a need to bring it back at all — as the site hunkers down for the first snowfall of the year and the impending winter months in darkness.

Note: All figures and averages are an approximation, using Open Canada’s park data for 2001 to 2005 as an average. Data from the Covid-19 pandemic is included in the figures.


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