October 25, 2017
By John deWolf
As Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations unfold this year, it has been important not to overlook pre-Confederation history and Aboriginal people’s heritage. By way of example, in an effort to help strengthen ties between the federal government and Saskatchewan’s Métis Nation, Form:Media recently ‘dressed’ Lot 47—site of the once-thriving village of Batoche in central Saskatchewan—with an environmental graphic design (EGD) project, which uses signs and related components to tell the tale of the settlement’s history.
The history behind the project
At the centre of this history is a dispute between two opposing methods of landholding: (a) a linear, river-oriented allotment by an agrarian people versus (b) a less natural grid-based system devised and imposed with a lack of regard for local geographic features. The story proceeded from non-issue to conflict to entente to formal collaboration.
For millennia, the Plains were traversed by Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Nakota, Dakota and other First Nations. The South Saskatchewan River region, in particular, came to be seen as the physical, cultural and political home of the Métis Nation, which was formed through the mixing of Indigenous and European peoples and, as such, was distinct from Canada’s other Aboriginal peoples. In the late 19th century, a decline in the bison population diminished hunting for the Métis, forcing a transition from a semi-nomadic to an agrarian way of life. The consolidation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company also meant fewer Métis traders were employed, so they made do by settling on the land.
In 1872, a small number of Métis from the Red River area near Winnipeg (then Fort Garry) established Batoche at the junction of the South Saskatchewan River and the Carlton Trail, a 1,500-km (932-mi) overland route connecting Fort Garry with Fort Edmonton. It was also near a third major trading route, the Humboldt Trail.
The town’s name was derived from its founder, Xavier ‘Batoche’ Letendre, who established Lot 47 with his home, a store and a ferry across the river. The approach taken to land division accounted for the importance of trade routes and the relationship of the settlement to the river.
Inspired by French methods, the Métis divided the land so every family would have some river frontage. Most lots were about 200 m (656 ft) wide at the riverside and up to 3 km (1.9 mi) long. The settlers used just the riverside land at first for agriculture, then expanded inland to graze cattle, grow larger crops and tend woodlots.
Batoche quickly developed as the commercial centre of the overall settlement area, which was home to 800 residents by 1883 and 1,200 by 1885. It had come to be considered the heart of the Métis Nation.
After developing their own unique culture throughout the 19th century, the Métis were a strong, politically organized force in defending their rights. Throughout the 1880s, they came into confrontation with the newly established government for the Dominion of Canada over a variety of its policies.
In particular, the Métis—along with First Nations and white settlers—became concerned about their allotted properties being resurveyed and potentially redistributed under the federal government’s grid-based land survey, which was being conducted across Western Canada. After the government ignored their concerns, the Métis declared a provisional government of Saskatchewan—essentially an independent nation—in March 1885.
In response, the federal government dispatched the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), the forerunner to today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RMCP), to bring an end to what it considered a rebellion. Several battles, including a decisive one at Batoche in May 1885, led to the defeat of the short-lived provisional government.
Some Métis families dispersed as Batoche was subjugated and appropriated by a government that saw the village as a commodity over which to exercise its authority. Most left later due to disease and economic factors, such as the building of the railway, which bypassed the village altogether.
Yet, even as the Dominion tightened its control of Western Canada, the linear lots on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River remained, as a testament to the community’s resistance. Similarly, the Métis have flourished throughout Western Canada following their dispersion. Today, more than 400,000 people identify themselves as Métis.
Investing in infrastructure
Shortly before the completion in 2015 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), Parks Canada undertook an interpretive design process for the national historic site, to help support the Métis’ sense of pride by honouring the pre- and post-battle story of their time in Batoche, in the interest of improving cultural relations. As the federal government agency suggested in its management plan, the site conveys a strong sense of place and importance to both the past and the present, but while it is rich in history and ecology, it has become grossly underused. Given the agency’s mandate to increase visits and revenue for national parks and historic sites across the country by 2017’s Canada 150 celebrations, there was a desire to establish Batoche as a must-see destination for both locals and tourists in central Saskatchewan, with the understanding doing so would require a substantial investment in infrastructure.
Over the years, the agency had increasingly found common ground with Aboriginal peoples regarding the establishment and management of areas of natural and cultural significance through constitutionally protected land claim and cost-sharing agreements. In the case of Batoche, the settlement area was designated a national historic site in 1923. Today, it is Crown land managed by Parks Canada in conjunction with the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan, with a shared management board serving as an advisory council.
The 955-ha (2,360-acre) landscape of aspen forest and remnant fescue prairie has revealed pre-contact Aboriginal cultural resources dating back more than 6,000 years, though it remained best-known for its evidence of Métis history and the village of Batoche. Several buildings were restored, helping to depict where the village’s inhabitants lived, travelled and fought, but while both Parks Canada and the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan agreed the site conveyed the battle story quite well, they also agreed on the need for a more comprehensive account of Batoche’s culture. So, they commissioned a large-scale outdoor interpretive exhibit.
Following symposia and community discussions, a program called ‘Story on the Landscape’ was developed, encompassing a number of related projects, including the acquisition of a shuttle bus, a series of interpretive rest stops, a viewing platform and an interpretive play area. A collection of documents for these projects formed the foundation for a request for proposals (RFP), issued in January 2015.
A unique design approach
The historic land dispute served as the primary source of inspiration for Form:Media’s concept for the EGD project, with the goal of guiding visitors to a better understanding of a wider cultural story, of which the 1885 battle was just one component.
The design firm, which is based in Dartmouth, N.S., and specializes in signage, exhibits and other systems for museums and interpretive centres, set out to unite Lot 47’s landscape through the architectural integration of a small number of conspicuous exhibitry placements, rather than imposing a larger number of insertions of smaller signs and graphics throughout the 1,650-m2 (17,760-sf) project area. The surviving relics of the past, including building foundations and cellars, would still do most of the storytelling; it was simply a matter of curating the visitor experience with interpretive touches to explain the story further.
The client, Parks Canada, required the project to be unique, architecturally interesting and interactive, incorporating historic themes and activities of Batoche in ways that would engage adults, children, families and caregivers. Instead of treating the land as inanimate and placing EGD elements at points along a route, Form:Media worked with the client to showcase the landscape—including the river, the land and the sky—as the central character in the story, reflecting the sacred relationship between Indigenous cultures and nature.
Parks Canada’s design brief also emphasized construction using environmentally friendly processes and materials as appropriate. There were also early discussions of making the exhibit ‘period appropriate,’ but as the project progressed, Form:Media chose instead to contrast the site with a contemporary palette. Durable materials, including weathering and galvanized steel, cedar and stone, were chosen to evoke themes of permanence and help minimize the need for future maintenance.
“We didn’t look at it as just a signage project, a landscape project or an architecture project,” explains Chris Crawford, lead architect. “As a team, we used each of those disciplines to work together.”
A simple mowed/burned strip motif was chosen to reinforce the linearity and direction of the seigneurial river lots. An innovative cedar batten joinery was developed to significantly reduce the size and quantity
“Like a woven textile, the inset battens act as structural support, minimizing our need to rely on fasteners,” says Crawford.
A wooden panel system was chosen to finish the interiors of the structures, providing an armature for the mounting of the interpretive panels. Visually, it also serves as a reference to the red and white weave of the ceinture fléchée (arrowed sash) of Métis culture.
Skyline Atlantic Canada fabricated the interpretive panels and wooden liners, Elance handled steel fabrication and Mennie Design & Build installed all of the components. The structures themselves were raised up on piles, to reduce direct impact on the historic site.
“There was good planning on the part of the client,” says Crawford. “They had done extensive research beforehand and knew precisely where to place the structures.”
The visitor’s journey
The first structure a visitor encounters when travelling to the village site is the ‘viewing lens,’ where cedar planks represent a series of river lots running parallel to each other. This interpretive node sits atop a hill, providing a vantage point to introduce the landscape. A two-panel informational sign on one of the walls provides context.
A 730-m (2,395-ft) walk west down the linear path—or ride on the shuttle bus—toward the river leads the visitor to the next structure, the ‘platform,’ which comprises two bodies of weathering steel connected by a wooden stage. Stairs take the visitor up into the first chamber, an open-air enclosure where a pair of interpretive panels set to the left side—combining clear acrylic with screenprinted aluminum—describe how Batoche was chosen as a place to put down roots and what early life was like there. Illustrations show how the river lots were used.
After reading those panels, the visitor turns and walks along the stage as a bridge to the second steel chamber. A 6-m (20-ft) long and 300-mm (12-in.) wide handrail uses screenprinted and clearcoated aluminum to illustrate Batoche’s central position among the trade routes over land and water. It allows the visitor to visualize what the village would have looked like, by superimposing photos of buildings on the landscape.
In the second chamber, which opens to the sky above, a 5.3-m (17-ft) tall timeline provides an overview of the settlement’s history, with bent metal strips screenprinted with dates and information in English and French marking 50-year spans. By projecting up through the opening, it is meant to suggest an infinite future for the Métis. In addition, the Métis flag—which features the infinity symbol—flies above the tower.
After exiting the platform, the visitor returns to the land and ends the journey in the family garden. At the centre of this area is the trade route playground, a three-dimensional (3-D) scaled map that demonstrates how people and goods would have moved across Northwestern Canada. Major trading posts and Métis communities are indicated with large, upright log markers, which also serve as beacons above newly introduced saskatoon berry hedgerows. Horizontal half-sawn logs symbolize the main trails.
In the family garden’s picnic area, raised countertops feature ‘placemat’ graphics of the foods that were eaten in Batoche. These panels are evocative of 18th– and 19th-century posters, but provide modern cooking techniques and ingredients for traditional fare, including boulettes, bannock, chokecherry syrup and Saskatoon berry crumble. A nearby sandbox demonstrates food preservation techniques, including root cellaring and the use of a pemmican stone to pulverize dried meat.
Fulfilling the vision
Parks Canada’s multi-faceted goal for this project was to allow the landscape to tell the story of a thriving culture, strengthen ties and serve as a destination. Through a combination of interpretive planning, graphic design and architecture, Form: Media found a way to fulfil that goal.
The site opened in August 2016. The following June, it was honoured both with a People’s Choice Award in the inaugural experiential graphic design category of the seventh annual AZ Awards and as a finalist for the annual Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) Awards in the U.S.
John deWolf is vice-president (VP) of Form:Media in Dartmouth, N.S. For more information, visit www.form-media.ca.
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