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House Page 18

Great Canadian Houses

NWMP Commanding Officer's House, Fort Battleford, SK - 1876

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fine example of a government house built for important people during the opening of the Canadian prairies to white settlers from eastern Canada.

Like the Battle of Batoche Church, it has Parks Canada's highest priority classification rating, for a Canadian heritage building.

Meaning it speaks for the people, places, and events of an important period in Canada's evolution as a country.


NWMP Commanding Officer's House, Fort Battleford - 1876
Orig. classical revival frontier frame
Found - Fort Battleford, SK






















Frontier Frump!
The North West Mounted Police commandant's house was built here when the fort was established in 1876, to oversee the settling down of the Indians, the implementation of the treaties, and the peaceful distribution of the land to white immigrant settlers.

The building was not a pretty thing in any sense of the word; a carpenter, not an architect, designed this, and a blind one at that! It has all the charm of an institutional house, which is what it was, a frontier policeman's building, one step up from a barracks. Note the stable-like summer kitchen ungracefully tacked on the rear, featuring a badly interfering roof, and windows that should be on a barn. The same for the neighbouring window - short and squat from the dining room below - that is completely out of symmetry with the house and the other windows. Not that a frontier Mountie would notice... or care.










In style it is a classical revival house (1830-1860) - harkening for its design to inspirations from Classical Greek and Rome architecture - which is supposed to get its grandeur from a main entrance through the gable end - the so-called Greek "temple end."

But the magic of the nicely balanced proportions of this style is lost on this house. The top two windows are out of sync with the front, being too far to the sides, and not lined up, either with the lower window or the door, so giving the entrance a jarring note, as if two design contracts were handed out, one for the upper storey, one for the lower; with the results then pancaked over each other...


Gothic revival accents are added for decorative effect, but these are minimal; just a bit of cutout at the peak, and minimal drop finials (pendants) at the corners, and pointy pediments over windows and door. So no decorative bracketry; no wonderful bargeboard tracery lining the gable roof; no resplendent finials trumpeting on the roof line.

The doorway has a minimal neo-classical (late Georgian) surround, but again, a plain Jane, meat and potatoes entrance, with its door framed with "poor man's" Public Works transom and side lights to bring light into the centre hall of the house.

The only decorative feature that is noteworthy is the bay window in the living room right, showing the view you would have seen looking into the front window above..

During the summer of 1885, these rooms were jam packed with scores of white women and children, scrambling over each other for space. The commanding officer had cleared out to make room for the fairer sex of the hundreds of refugees from the town of Old Battleford, who, fearing Indian attacks, sought refuge in the fort.

The bay window, a favourite Victorian addition, is no beauty either. Its job is merely to bring light into a largish living room which has only two windows.

Clearly back east the consensus, among government building designers was, that with no one out there in the wild west of Canada, capable of recognizing beauty, even when they see it, let's just not bother.

Clearly the government was not interested in spending money on housing, beyond basic shelter, even for its fort commander.

 





But then this fort was all about business; the business of putting the Indian in his place and making sure that none of them would interfere with the rightful settlement of the vast prairie lands by white settlers who had the urge and the know-how to do just that.

Treaties had been signed; Indians had given up the land in return for deliverables which were seldom on time or in the amounts promised. It let to loud protests from Métis and Indians alike, some of whom were literally starving. The army, under General Middleton, was called in; no not with bread, with guns!

A hundred years later, the same group is still in charge, sending ten times the amount of Canadian tax payer's money for guns. bombs - and now our heaviest tanks - to General Hillier to bomb the world's fifth poorest country, where else, back to the Stone Age, instead of providing food to starving people, there or in Darfur.

But then Generals have always preferred war to peace, and shooting to peacekeeping, a chance to try out men and materiel in real conflict with mankind instead of sand bunkers, and wooden targets on sticks.


Said Tacitus, some time ago, after seeing generals in action - "They make a desert and they call it peace."

So Hillier and General Middleton - the highest ranked officer to visit the fort during the troubles of 1885 - are heirs to a long tradition; they'd rather shoot a poor Aboriginal or Muslim, than feed him... The reasoning being, apparently, that it solves the feeding - and poverty problem - permanently...

It's not posted anywhere but beyond the house, against the far wall between the tree trunks, the largest mass hanging in Canada - outside Quebec - took place in 1885.

Superintendent Crozier right, who lived in this house at the time, oversaw the proceedings, when eight Indians, convicted of murder during the Riel troubles, where dropped together before hundreds of Indians and whites in a government show to teach the community what happens to Indians who don't behave right.

As the Riel disturbance came to an end, Métis and Indian groups gave up the fight and surrendered to the Mounties.

At Fort Battleford, Chief Poundmaker - in striped coat below - came into the fort, and was snapped by a candid photographer, with the Commandant's house in the background. He is talking to Lt. Col. Van Straubenzee, staff officer for British General Middleton whose North West Field Force was sent west to impose peace, military style, on the area.

The spot, where one of Canada's greatest Indian leaders was photographed as he stood to discuss his surrender, is not marked but should be. No Canadian Prime Minister worked harder for peace and for his people than did this noble Chief for the Cree of the Poundmaker Reserve.

All he got for his efforts was a fatal sickness in a white man's prison, and an early death, when he deserved an absolution of sentence, a postal issue in his honour, and the Order of Canada, as a champion for one of Canada's founding peoples.

Beside him is Wandering Spirit, the Cree war chief, who was found guilty of murder, during the uprising, and a few months after the picture was taken, was hanged amid a vast crowd that gathered above.












 










Left the grave of the man he killed, the cantankerous and unfeeling Indian Agent Thomas Quinn, and the cross on the spot where he did it, at Frog Lake, in remote north eastern Alberta.

Go to Battleford Registry Office


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