East side story
St. Boniface cemetery tells the story of area's early French and Métis settlers
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/07/2016 (2380 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Elzéar Goulet, who is buried in the St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery, went from mailman, to Louis Riel aide, to martyr in a matter of months in 1870.
As letter carrier, Goulet delivered mail between the Red River Settlement and Pembina in the Dakota Territory.
In Riel’s provisional government, Goulet sat on the seven-person tribunal that sentenced Thomas Scott to death. Scott was an Orangeman from Ontario who Riel had executed for insubordination and armed revolt.
He became a martyr to the French and Métis community while walking down Main Street in early September. Four members of the Wolseley Expedition, which had been sent to capture Riel, rushed out of a saloon intent to punish Goulet for his role in Scott’s death.
Goulet fled and ran into the Red River. His pursuers hurled rocks and stoned him to death. No action was ever taken against the perpetrators.
You hear a different story about early settlement days on the east side of the Red River, where the French and Métis settled, than on the west side, which was inhabited by Selkirk settlers and British mixed bloods. (Last week we highlighted the St. John’s Anglican Cathedral cemetery, which is on the west side.)
People on the two sides of the river co-existed peacefully for two generations. That changed when Hudson’s Bay Co. sold the land to central Canada. Canadian surveyors suddenly descended on the region. People feared they would lose their properties, which had been developed into long river lots and were owned by right of occupancy only.
The story you hear on the east side is of the summer of 1870, when Maj. Garnet Wolseley led a brigade of 1,200 militiamen into the Red River Colony to squash the Métis uprising led by Riel. Since Riel had left by the time they arrived, Wolseley’s soldiers exacted revenge on the Métis people. Women were raped, homes were pillaged, buildings were burned, people were randomly assaulted and some people were murdered.
“Look up ‘Reign of Terror’ in Dr. Google,” said my tour guide, Philippe Mailhot, former director of the St. Boniface Museum.
There’s also a difference of opinion when it comes to claiming which is the oldest European cemetery in Manitoba: St. John’s or St. Boniface. People on the east side say St. Boniface Cathedral. Father Joseph-Norbert Provencher of the Roman Catholic Church arrived here in 1818, and consecrated the land for a cemetery. Anglican clergyman John West didn’t show up until 1821. (Some people maintain burials at Hudson Bay Co. posts such as York Factory and Churchill mark the first European cemeteries in Manitoba.)
Of course, many people buried in St. Boniface have streets named for them, similar to at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral cemetery. Provencher and Taché, the first two Roman Catholic bishops in the colony, for example.
But the divergent views explain why Watt Street on the north side is named for a former landowner, James Watt, while it’s renamed Archibald, after Adams G. Archibald, the former lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, once it traverses St. Boniface. Archibald was English but sympathetic to French and Métis people, said Mailhot.
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There’s a quality about the St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery much like Sunday in the Park with George, the musical inspired by the famous Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
St. Boniface is almost more park than cemetery. A tour group of mostly seniors gathers at Riel’s gravestone, while school-age children for another tour mill around the basilica steps. Young couples walk slowly between the rows of headstones, stopping and pointing. Three youths are on their cellphones, possibly playing Pokémon Go.
The cemetery isn’t fenced, so people enter and exit freely from all directions. A nun from the nearby Grey Nuns’ quarters walks briskly by, dressed in an all-white habit. The hollowed-out ruins of the basilica, which burned in 1968, gives the scene a grand but also meaningful backdrop. The basilica is a relic of Winnipeg’s optimistic building boom at the turn of the 20th century.
The cemetery’s story begins with its three statues along Tache Avenue. In the southwest corner is Jesus Christ on the cross. The statue is all white stone, set on a wooden rood. It was salvaged from the old basilica.
Jesus is angled to view the cathedral, explained Mailhot. “It’s watching the cathedral to protect it, and watch for any additional fires.”
The centre statue is a memorial to French soldiers who immigrated to Manitoba, then returned to Europe to fight in the First World War. The monument was donated by France. It now honours Second World War veterans, as well.
The third statue — the Blessed Virgin in the northwest corner — is perhaps the most intriguing.
During the devastating 1950 flood, the basilica’s congregation prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect St. Boniface. Ultimately, St. Boniface fared better than most of Winnipeg. The congregation of the basilica, which held up to 2,000 people, showed its gratitude by erecting the Blessed Virgin statue.
It helped that St. Boniface was well-prepared. An engineer for the then-City of St. Boniface witnessed the flood devastation south of the border in Fargo and raced back with instructions for the community, said Mailhot.
The cemetery’s feature headstone is of Louis Riel. It’s located on the north side and surrounded by a low, stone parapet. Also buried nearby are Riel’s parents, and his grandparents, Jean-Baptiste and Marie-Anne Lagimodière.
Most people have heard those names. Less well known is Ambroise-Didyme Lépine (1840-1923). His headstone is right next to Riel’s. In fact, Lépine has the distinction of having two headstones in the cemetery.
Lépine was Riel’s right-hand man, his military lieutenant in charge of enforcement. He led the proceedings that passed the death sentence on Scott and presided over his execution. He stopped Canadian-appointed governor William McDougall from reaching Red River and halted Capt. Charles Boulton’s troops, who designed to overthrow Riel, and took 48 prisoners.
Lépine was an imposing man, all 6-3 of him, and “built like a Hercules,” according to one contemporary description. He was a keen-eyed marksman and buffalo hunter. He left the politics up to Riel. Lépine’s brother, Baptiste, was another person murdered by the Wolseley brigade’s acts of violence.
Lépine and Riel fled Red River together. They were led to believed there was to be an amnesty, as promised to Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché by the Canadian government. That was before Scott’s death, however.
But Lépine became homesick after three years, and sneaked back into Manitoba, hearing rumours that an amnesty was near. He was arrested on a farm Sept. 16 and tried for Scott’s murder. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged Jan. 29, 1874.
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There have been more than a few burials at St. Boniface cemetery for people who died violently. David Butterfield, former provincial architect with Manitoba’s Historical Resources Branch, has documented several cases.
One was Father Jean Édouard Darveau, a new missionary in The Pas area in the winter of 1840-41. When a disease epidemic coincided with his arrival, local Cree began to suspect Darveau was a windigo.
(According to early aboriginal beliefs, a windigo is an evil ghost or spirit of someone who has eaten human flesh. The windigo inhabits human form and becomes a supernatural cannibal that kills and devours people.)
Darveau’s tombstone doesn’t just list the date on which he died — Feb. 21, 1841. It includes “massacré” to indicate the brutal nature of his death.
Another case involved Joseph Michaud, who was condemned to hang after he stabbed a man 32 times. The victim was a bystander who tried to break up a fight between an inebriated Michard and another man.
In the Aug. 25, 1874 edition, the Daily Free Press let it be known it held no quarter with Michaud’s bleeding-heart sympathizers.
“Joseph Michaud has been summoned by his Maker to answer for the greatest of human crimes,” the Daily Free Press said that day. “Public opinion is unanimous in believing that he merited the punishment which the law has inflicted. Silly fanatics and the advocates against capital punishment may believe as they prefer, but theirs is a sick sentimentalism which the practical world ridicules and repudiates.”
The newspaper continued with graphic details of Michaud’s execution. The hangman was “dressed in a suit of black alpaca, his head being completely covered, two holes being cut for his eyes and one for his mouth.
“Michaud at first kneeled upon the trap, and in this position after a brief prayer in French, he shook hands with those upon the scaffold.” The delegation on the scaffold included Fathers Dugas and Filion.
He stood up and a white covering was placed over his head.
“All was still save the condemned man, who lowly whispered and repeated the prayer ‘Jesus, Marie, Joseph.’ The bolt was driven back… the rope tightened with a twang and the sufferer’s soul had fled. His neck was broken by the fall… The only motions apparent from the fall were a spasmodic contraction of the muscles of the legs and a slight motion of the hands.”
Michaud is buried in an unmarked grave.
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Bishop Taché felt responsible for Lépine’s situation and worked desperately to prevent it. He presented a 1,800-name petition to Lord Dufferin, Canada’s third governor general. While Ontario strongly favoured the execution to avenge the death of Thomas Scott, Ottawa risked incurring the wrath of Quebec. It was Lord Dufferin who ultimately granted a pardon. Lépine’s sentence was reduced to two years in prison and perpetual forfeiture of his civil rights.
In April 1875, amnesty was finally approved for Riel and Lépine on the condition they not set foot in Manitoba for five years. Riel accepted, but Lépine decided to complete his sentence.
Few people were on hand to greet Lépine when he was released from prison Oct. 26, 1876, according to the Manitoba Historical Resources Branch. Red River’s Métis community was demoralized by the reign of terror inflicted by Wolseley’s men, as well as the lack of support from Ottawa. The loss of leaders Riel and Lépine also weakened the community’s resolve. So much of the Métis population had moved farther west by 1876.
Misfortune followed Lépine after his prison release. A fire in 1891 destroyed his home and left his family penniless. Lépine moved around after that, including stops in Grand Prairie south of Winnipeg and Oak Lake, west of Brandon. He spent the last four years of his life in the small village of Forget, Sask., near Weyburn. He died with little recognition of his role in founding Manitoba as a province.
But why does he warrant two headstones?
During the 1950 flood, the dike along Tache Avenue had sprung a leak. The reserve officer informed the priest he needed dirt and needed to take it from the cemetery right away. But the priest, according to Mailhot, replied he could not allow the desecration of the cemetery.
“The reserve officer replies, ‘You’ve got two minutes and then we blow the siren, and St. Boniface gets evacuated, and it gets flooded along with your church.’ So the priest says ‘OK.’”
The crew removed the headstones on the south side of the cemetery, stacked them in a pile, then scraped off dirt two feet deep. They plugged the hole and saved St. Boniface.
No graves were disturbed, but afterwards the crew asked to see the cemetery plan so they could put the tombstones back. The priest said there was no plan. Headstones had to be put back based on people’s memories.
However, no one knew where Lépine’s headstone belonged. Because Lépine was Riel’s right-hand man, someone decided to place it next to Riel’s gravesite on the north side of the cemetery. It’s a plain grave marker made of limestone.
But Lépine is buried on the south side. Likely in the 1960s or ’70s, the family came forward and quietly put down a gravestone on his actual burial site, Mailhot said.