Storyboard on the Landscape
At the heart of this history is a land dispute. Two opposing methods of landholding: a thoughtful allotment by a semi-nomadic turned-agrarian people versus an unnatural grid-based system imposed on one nation by another. Herein lies a testimony of a land that follows from non-issue to conflict, through an entente to a formal collaboration between a First Nation and a government. This is a biography of a culture whose past is evidenced by a few foundations in the landscape, a people who have since flourished and dispersed throughout the land.
Only the land can narrate this story of occupation: a brief history of settlement on an eras-old resource along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. The landscape is a century-and-a-half old portrait of remains once cultivated for settlement: potted and scarred by resistance. It is here that the land witnessed subjugation and appropriation: viewed as a wellspring revered by a people, seen as a commodity by a government exercising authority. In a time shortly before Truth and Reconciliation, this undertaking—an interpretive design—is on one level a process aimed at strengthening ties between the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan and the Federal Government of Canada; more important however, this is about supporting the sense of pride by honouring the pre- and post-battle story of the Métis in Batoche.
The Plains cultural area is a vast territory respected by Plains peoples for millennia. It is an area once traversed by peoples including Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Nakota, Dakota and other First Nations. Many consider the Plains—particularly the greater South Saskatchewan River region—as the physical, cultural and political home of the Métis people.
The late-19th century decline of the buffalo meant the diminution of the buffalo hunt; for the Métis, this forced a move from a semi-nomadic to an agrarian way of life. The Métis are Aboriginal-European, developing their own unique culture in the 19th century, and became a strong politically organized force with the view of defending their rights, which eventually lead to a confrontation with the recently established Dominion government of Canada. Today, the Métis are one of the three Aboriginal peoples of Canada—the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis.
Complex political and cultural landscapes are a few of the intricacies the federal government’s Parks Canada Agency faced with this project. For design firm Fathom Studio (formerly Form:Media and Ekistics Plan & Design), this essay is an account of interpretive planning and design, architecture, landscape architecture, and graphic design disciplines collaborating to use the landscape not merely as a setting but rather as a lead character in a project aimed at improving cultural relations.
Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence in Architecture
Azure AZ Awards - Experiential Graphic Design - Award of Merit and People’s Choice Award
Society of Experiential Graphic Designers - Global Design Awards finalist
A National Historic Site of Canada since 1923, this 955 hectare property is an impressive cultural landscape in a setting of aspen forest and remnant fescue prairie. In this place, the landscape lays bare pre-contact Aboriginal cultural resources dating back more than 6,000 years, but is perhaps better known for the evidence it bears of Métis history and the village of Batoche.
In 1872 a small number of Métis from the Red River area (near Winnipeg) established Batoche at the junction of the Carlton Trail, a 1,500km overland route connecting Winnipeg (then Fort Garry) with Edmonton (then Fort Edmonton), and the South Saskatchewan River. The name of the town was derived from the nickname of its founder, Xavier Letendre, who established his home there, a store, and a well used ferry across the river. The settlement quickly developed along the river with Batoche as the commercial centre. By 1883, the area was home to 800 residents, and in 1885 there were 1,200.
In conflict with the Canadian government over various policies through the 1880s, the Métis were particularly concerned about their river-lot properties
being resurveyed and potentially redistributed under the grid-based Dominion Land Survey conducted by the federal government across western Canada. The Métis were not the only dissatisfied: First Nations and white settlers in the area were also concerned about new government policies.
The Dominion government continued to ignore the issues, and the Métis declared the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, essentially an independent nation in March 1885. In response, the federal government dispatched the Northwest Field Force to bring an end to what they considered a rebellion. Several battles followed, leading to a defeat of the short-lived Provisional Government, with the decisive battle occurring at Batoche 9–12 May 1885.
The Métis as a people and the community of Batoche were not decimated in the battle, but some dispersed after the rebellion was put down and the federal government tightened its control of the west. The linear river-lots in Batoche remain to this day as a testament to the community’s resistance. Lot 47, Xavier Letendre’s plot, plays key role in this story.
Year designated as a National Historic Site
Number of hectares dedicated to Batoche National Historic Site
Storyboard on the Landscape
According to the federal government, the Parks Canada Agency has increasingly found common ground with Aboriginal peoples on the establishment and management of areas of natural and cultural significance—National Parks and Historic Sites—through constitutionally protected land claim agreements and cost-sharing agreements. Batoche National Historic Site is Crown land managed by Parks Canada in conjunction with the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan. Today, Parks Canada works with an advisory council named the Shared Management Board to manage the site at Batoche. Both parties agreed that the site conveys the battle story very well but should give a more comprehensive account of Métis culture. The East Village (Lot 47) where the village of Batoche used to stand is the place to do this.
Parks Canada and the Shared Management Board commissioned a large exhibit on the landscape, starting with symposia and community discussions. Rather than recreating the East Village, a practice discouraged by Parks Canada, the agency instead chose to tell the story of community at Batoche by suggesting new outdoor interpretation. The Parks Canada program, “Story on the Landscape”, was divided into a number of related projects, including the acquisition of a shuttle bus, a series of interpretive rest stops, and an interpretive play area and viewing platform. A collection of documents of the same name formed the foundation for their January 2015 request for proposals (RFP).
population of Batoche in 1883
Population of batoche in 1885
Responsibility and Ambition
While the site at Batoche NHSC is rich in history and ecology, it is grossly underutilized. The site however is not alone. The agency as a whole has a current mandate to increase both revenue and visitation by 2017 for many national parks and historic sites across the country. For this site, Parks intends to establish Batoche as a leading “must-see tourist and community destination for central Saskatchewan”. To do so requires a substantial investment in infrastructure, and a product worthy of attracting new visitors.
Summarized in our design brief, Parks Canada’s requirements for the project include: be one-of-a-kind, architecturally interesting, interactive, and unique; incorporate historically significant themes and activities of Batoche; allow the families, caregivers, and children to be inspired and engaged to interact; and be constructed using environmentally friendly processes and materials when appropriate. The project brief also suggests thinking of the project as an exhibit with compelling physical elements that respect the natural and built environments, designed to guide visitors to a higher understanding of Métis history with the 1885 battle being just one component of a wider cultural story. To “make the East Village come alive” was their primary goal.
Living with the Land
The RFP suggested series of rest stops, each node to interpret aspects of Métis culture—a storyboard on the landscape. Indigenous cultures in Canada,
however, have a sacred relationship with the land, the water, and the air. Instead of treating the land as inanimate and placing elements at points along a circulation route, we worked with the client to use the landscape as the primary character in this story: to treat Lot 47 not as the stage, rather as one large interpretive experience of which the landscape—the land, the water, and the sky—is a character in the portrayal of a culture.
Parks Canada’s “Storyboard on the Landscape” refers to the way in which the land at Batoche is riddled with relics of our past. We consider it axiomatic that those existing elements—hedgerows and foundations—should do most of the storytelling, along with the land and the river. It is a matter of curating, guiding a visitor’s experience with architectural and interpretive touches to explain what the land is already telling us.
Our Living with the Land concept tells the Métis story in Batoche using the seigneurial river-lots as the conduit—the land being primary character. Not ignoring the conflict of 1885, our approach uses the East Village to portray a greater story of a Métis culture. A dramatic structure of sorts, our plot uses physical structures—an interpretive node, a raised platform, and a play zone and picnic area— to deliver the story of Métis culture.
Context—Subdividing Land into River-Lots
Métis of the 1870s had brought with them the French way of dividing up land so that every family had some river frontage. Most lots were about 200m wide at the river side, and up to 3km long. Settlers used just the river-side land for agriculture at first, but quickly expanded inland to graze cattle, grow larger crops and tend woodlots. Subdividing land into river-lots was purposeful, whereas the imposed grid-based Dominion Land Survey did not respect the land and inhabitants. This is an interpretive thread woven throughout the visitor experience.
The viewing lens is the first encounter a visitor experiences in the landscape when traveling to the east East Village. Here, visitors are introduced to the central message through a design that incorporates form, material, didactic content, and the landscape to communicate the issue of a land dispute. The interpretive node sits atop a hill. The vantage focuses the visitor and introduces the role of the landscape in this story: a single didactic panel gives context; a cut-line in the landscape framed by the viewing lens leading from the land to the river. All stress the connection the Métis have with the river and river-lots, and emphasize the notion of land as a primary character.
River frontage of each lot
Maximum length of each lot
Conflict—Settling Down (1873–1885)
Métis moved from a semi-nomadic to an agrarian way of life, and consolidation of the two Canadian powerhouse trading companies, the Hudson’s Bay and the North West Company, meant that fewer Métis traders were being employed. The settlers of Batoche (and elsewhere along the South Saskatchewan) made do by settling on the land when they couldn’t travel, hunt and trade.
For the visitor today, a contemplative westward walk down the linear path, or via shuttle bus, leads to the next encounter: the platform. Conceptually, the platform represents the singular cultural heritage—ethnic, linguistic and geographical—of dual origins. Floating over the landscape—overlooking the East Village and the river—the structure is comprised of two CORten steel bodies connected by a stage. A short flight of stairs takes the visitor up into the first chamber (stage East), an open-air enclosure. Here, a vertical opening—a portal—from the floor skyward directs the visitor’s gaze back to the viewing lens along the cut line towards the hillcrest. A pair of interpretive panels are set to the left. One panel introduces the early days of Métis in Batoche; another tells the story of how this former wintering area became a chosen place to put down roots. Interpretation again uses the wooden slats as a metaphor, this time vertically—a furrowed field—to aid in describing what a typical farm looked like in Batoche in the 1880s, and relationship of the river lots to the water. The portal frames Lot 47, a river lot similar to that being interpreted.
A wooden panel system was developed to finish the interiors of all structures. The wooden liner provides the armature for interpretive panels: a structure to provide support, and a trope to represent the long linear seigneurial land plots. The design mimics a traditional weave—long parallel wooden slats tied together by timber battens on 45 degree angles—and is rooted in another reference to Métis culture: the Ceinture fléchée or the Assomption sash.
After reading about a half-century of prosperity at Batoche, the visitor makes an about-face and enters the platform’s stage. Lined inside and out with wood, the long expanse of the bridge is parallel to the river-lot, open to the air above, elevated from the ground below. The view planes are purposeful. Ahead (stage West), the view is obscured by the second steel chamber. To the south, the visitor may see several restored buildings off in the distance and has a view to the South Saskatchewan River. To the north are the remains of Batoche’s East Village.The raison d’etre for Batoche as a community is a result of the confluence of the South Saskatchewan River with the Carlton and Humboldt Trails. All three were major trading routes in the Plains through which goods moved out and back to trading centres in Canada and elsewhere in the world. For today’s visitor, interpretation continues in the form of the bridge’s handrail. A section of panel illustrates the centrality Batoche had in trade routes over land and water throughout the Plains. It overlooks the interpretive trade route playground found in the family garden below and prefigures the flight of the Métis.
The East Village was Batoche’s main street. With several stores/trading posts adjacent to each other, this was the commercial centre of a bustling but widely spaced rural area. Currently all that remains of the buildings of the East Village are the cellars and foundations. Fenced off and barely visible at grade, the platform provides a clear view. In the absence of historic structures, the interpretive rail allows the visitor to visualize what the East Village would have looked like, to engage in the experience of seeing these buildings in the landscape. From the platform, interpretive panels allow the visitor to visualize what the East Village would have looked like, to engage in the experience of seeing these buildings in the landscape.
Number of intersecting trade routes at Batoche
Conclusion—The Thriving Métis Communities of today (1920+)
While the physical town now longer exists, it does remain the spiritual capital of the Métis in Saskatchewan—and Métis culture thrives in western Canada with over 400,000 identifying as such.
Visitors exit the bridge where they enter the second chamber (stage West). Here, the site at Batoche is obscured: the visitor is presented with an uninterrupted view of the river and the western horizon of the Plains. To the visitors’ right is a timeline, which starts at the floor and rises 5.3m, open to the air. The chamber celebrates a thriving culture. By design, the view to the South Saskatchewan River expresses the importance of the river and the sacredness of the earth; to the Plains where many of today’s the Métis inhabit, a flourishing nation; to the vertical skyward opening suggesting “forevermore” and an infinite future for the Métis.
Exiting the platform, the visitor is reconnected with the land. The final encounter is the family garden, the endnote of this essay, but no less important in terms of the visitor experience.
One of Parks Canada’s mandate priorities is to increase visitation especially in the family market: the family garden is means to do so. The play area interprets through implication and engagement rather than through didactic panels as elsewhere on-site. At the centre of the family garden is the trade route playground. This three-dimensional scaled map demonstrates how goods and people would have moved between communities across the Canadian Northwest. Major trading posts and Métis communities are identified by large upright log markers which also act as beacons above the berry hedgerows. Figuratively, Batoche is located at the centre of the installation to highlight its importance within the overall trade network.
The saskatoon berry was a staple for both Aboriginal people and Métis settlers. The berries were an important ingredient in many recipes, while other parts of the plant were used for a variety of medicinal purposes. The introduction of saskatoon berry rows are used to interpret these traditions while creating a contemporary ‘edible labyrinth’ that can be enjoyed by all ages. A sight to see in early June when thousands of white flowers are in bloom, the site can also play host to larger berry picking and cooking events at harvest time from mid to late July. Programmatically, with the help of Batoche interpreters, the trade route playground and the hedgerows connect the site with a thriving culture.
In the picnic area, counter-tops are adorned with the foods of daily life in Batoche. Nearby, the preservation sandbox, in addition to its inherent play function, is a place to demonstrate food preservation techniques. The sandbox features a large boulder representing a pemmican stone (a tool used when dried meat was pulverized), the sand represents a preservation method used in root cellaring.
The family garden combines play, picnic and interpretation into a unified, but varied public space with the potential for social interaction between families and between generations. Benches and tables are located throughout the picnic area to facilitate family relaxation and socializing. The focus of the picnic area is a single sheltered seating area which will double as a small stage from which to run demonstration workshops, telling stories and giving lectures, or as a locus for public cultural events such as festivals.
Parks Canada wished to use this project as a bridge to allow a landscape scarred by resistance to tell a story of a thriving culture, to create a destination, and to strengthen ties. Through interpretive planning and design, architecture, graphic design, and landscape architecture we hope to fulfill its goals.