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“November 27th marks a dark day in the history of the Battlefords. It is the anniversary of the executions which took place at Battleford in 1885, which were also the largest mass execution in Canadian history.

Six nêhiyawak (Plains Cree) and two Assiniboine men were hung at Battleford and their bodies dumped into an unmarked grave that remained undiscovered until the 1970s when erosion on the riverbank exposed some of the remains.

The men were named:

Kah – Paypamahchukways (Wandering Spirit)
Pah Pah-Me-Kee-Sick (Walking the Sky)
Manchoose (Bad Arrow)
Kit-Ahwah-Ke-Ni (Miserable Man)
Nahpase (Iron Body)
A-Pis-Chas-Koos (Little Bear)
Itka (Crooked Leg)
Waywahnitch (Man Without Blood)

Some facts about the hangings at Battleford:

1. Judge Rouleau, the man who sentenced the eight men to die at Battleford, had his house in Battleford burned during the Resistance: The local newspaper at the time reported that Judge Rouleau: “is reported to have threatened that every Indian and Half-breed and rebel brought before him after the insurrection was suppressed, would be sent to the gallows if possible. In view of all the circumstances, and particularly as Judge Rouleau was a heavy loser pecuniarily by the Indian outbreak at Battleford, it is contended that he should not have been allowed to preside at the trial of the prisoners. A memorial has been received by the Department of Justice asking that the matter be investigated.”

2. Although the men spoke Cree – not English, none were provided with a translator at their trials.

3. Almost all of the historical writings about the hangings were written from the perspective of settlers. Blood Red the Sun and other narrative accounts paint the men as criminals. Barry Degenstein, local author of In Pursuit of Riel, as one relatively recent example, has continued to assert the men were “cold blooded murderers of innocent civilians.” (See: https://www.newsoptimist.ca/…/grave-not-that-of-heroes-and-…) It is important to remember that the North West Mounted Police (now Royal Canadian Mounted Police) played a major role in colonizing the region around the Battlefords and committed serious violent acts against Indigenous people here. The history of the Battle of Cut Knife Hill and other major events are primarily told in history books and other accounts from the perspective of the colonizers and settlers. (See also: Views from Fort Battleford: Constructed Visions of an Anglo-Canadian West https://archive.org/details/ViewsFromFtBattleford)

4. Hayter Reed, the Assistant Indian Commissioner in 1885, wanted a public execution. He asked the Lieutenant Governor to send any Indians who were sentenced to death during the second series of Regina trials so they could be executed with those sentenced to die in Battleford. He insisted that “the punishment be public as I am desirous of having the Indians witness it – no sound thrashing having been given them, I think a sight of this sort will cause them to meditate for many a day and besides have ocular demonstration of the fact.” This was echoed in the local newspaper. The Saskatchewan Herald’s P.G. Laurie understood the importance to the government of making the hangings a public spectacle. “We are not in favor of public executions as a rule,” wrote Laurie, “but we believe that in this instance it would have a wholesome influence on the Indians at large to have the extreme penalty of the law so carried out on those whom the court may find guilty.” Laurie viewed the hangings as a type of deterrence to further violence, arguing that the calm administration of punishment would impress the Native population more than further battlefield bloodshed. Laurie also agreed with the government that the executions should happen at the place of the capital trials, in Battleford. Laurie argued, “[I]f the Department of Justice will.. .permit the executions to be public, the sight will have such an effect upon the native beholders as will make them think twice before they again take up arms.” (See “A Lesson They Would Not Soon Forget” Chapter 3: https://drive.google.com/…/1yvqkd4LfbfO4YC5mWcQS0QfCPVEWNo_k)

5. The biography of Senator John Tootoosis notes at page 77 that among the witnesses at the hangings were “the Indian children from the Battleford Industrial School who had also been brought to see the eight men die. It was a part of their education that none of them would soon forget!”

6. One week prior to the hangings, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald wrote in a confidential letter to the Indian Commissioner: “The executions… ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”

7. Little Bear continued to assert that he was innocent until his death.

8. Loyal Til Death (a thoughtful account of the true history of this period by Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser – https://www.amazon.ca/Loyal-Till-Death-North-West-Rebell…/…/) discusses the terrorizing effect the hangings had on Indigenous people in the region: “As for the Indians assembled in front of the gallows, they watched in quiet horror as the men dropped to their doom and then silently moved off once the bodies had been placed in the coffins. Nothing was said or done. They simply returned to their reserves, trying to put behind them the shock of the executions. But to this day, the executions have remained a numbing event, comparable to an old scar on the soul of a people. Elder Paul Chicken of the Sweetgrass reserve recalled how the Indians of the area lived in morbid fear of being picked up and tried before "Hanging Judge Rouleau.” Dressyman’s grandson, meanwhile, related how his reprieved grandfather and several other men were forced to watch the executions and threatened with a similar fate if there was any more trouble. “My grandfather was there, he saw them hung, he watched it all,” he recounted. “They didn’t like the hanging… the law overdone it.” Don Chastis, a descendent of one of the Cut Knife warriors, said that he often heard the Elders speak of the bravery of the condemned men, how they all sang on the platform in the face of death. He also speculated that the police refused to release the bodies for a traditional burial because the government did not want the men glorified as braves. “So they were forbidden to have anything to do with them. That’s why they buried them right there in a mass grave,” Chastis said. “It would have defeated the whole purpose of the hanging if they let these people [bodies] go.” The Battleford trials and executions accelerated the exodus of Indians to the relative safety of the United States.“ (At page 226-227 of Loyal Til Death.)

9. There are almost no artistic works or photographs that depict the hangings other than the attached illustration from "Loyal Til Death” by Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser – https://www.amazon.ca/Loyal-Till-Death-North-West-Rebell…/…/

We remember the eight men who were executed at Battleford, and encourage people to consider the perspective of the historical accounts and begin working to decolonize the accounts of this history.

Is it time to consider exonerating or posthumously pardoning the eight warriors executed at Battleford?

(See: https://www.cbc.ca/…/pm-trudeau-exonerate-tsilhqotin-chiefs…)”

– from the Battleford Residential School Facebook page

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historicaltimes:

The “Gallows” fire prevention sign in Manning Park, British Columbia. 1947 From Vancouver archives. A prop cigarette shown being hung in attempt to prevent forest fires.

via reddit

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“Bailiff Is Hanged In Effigy In Etobicoke,” Toronto Globe. July 21, 1933. Page 10.

Scene in front of the home of Fred Braithwaite, Albany Avenue, Etobicoke, yesterday afternoon, when a crowd of over 400 sympathizers were on hand, with the avowed intention of upsetting the proceedings. Although he had announced that sufficient police would be on hand to see the affair properly through, the bailiff failed to put in an appearance. Had he done so, he would have been confronted with an effigy of himself suspended from a noose in front of the house, as pictured above.

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Barry Philp, “[Parade of pickets carrying signs protesting capital punishments walked for four hours outside the Don jail in 22-degree cold. Mostly of university age; they dispersed; some crying; moments after the notices of the hangings were posted on the jail door. About 100 pickets took part in the demonstration.]” 

Toronto Star archives, 1962. Toronto Reference LibraryBaldwin Collection. Call Number: tspa_0119750f

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“By the time the Joint Committee met, it had been close to a century since
the federal government had determined that public executions were to be
prohibited. Consequently, official concern shifted from monitoring crowd
behavior to considering the feelings of institutional witnesses, namely the
condemned person’s fellow prisoners and the men who carried out the
procedure. Committee members were disturbed to discover that these were
not the only observers, however. In some provinces, notably Ontario, Quebec,
and the Maritimes, executions were carried out in local jails that were
typically located in city centers. In smaller locales, where executions were
infrequent, scaffolds had to be built from scratch, and the sawing of wood
and hammering of nails provided a percussive prelude to the ceremonies.
In towns like Woodstock, buildings surrounding the local jail supplied rooftop
vantage points, and towering trees provided perches for impromptu
observers eager to peer inside jail yards. Even at larger city jails, like
Montreal’s Bordeaux Prison and Toronto’s Don Jail, both of which had
permanent, enclosed execution chambers, knowledge of an impending
hanging could draw hundreds of spectators whose only visual reward was
a death notice pinned to the jail door. None of these unofficial participants
was interviewed, but criminal justice personnel uniformly depicted onlookers
not simply as “curious” but always as “morbidly” interested in proceedings. Unruly crowds-uncivilized witnesses who scandalously derived
pleasure from death-presented a considerable problem for witnesses and
committee members.

Both supporters and opponents of the death penalty were embarrassed

to admit that executions frequently inspired undignified behavior. Representatives
of the Welfare Council argued that “the brutalising presence of
the death penalty… [produced] an atmosphere fouled by the morbidity,
melodrama and horror associated with executions.” The carnivalesque
crowd was hardly a thing of the past, according to newspaper writers who
covered hangings. For instance, while the committee was deliberating in
1954, a man was executed in the town of Cornwall, Ontario. The Toronto
Star
reported that a crowd of approximately five hundred could see the top
of the scaffold from the street. The reporter dismissed any hope that they
registered the deterrent message: “‘The crowd, most of them teenagers,
including many young girls, was in a holiday mood, shooting off firecrackers,
joking and laughing for more than two hours before the execution took
place.”’ The emotional impact of executions on other prisoners was no
less worrisome. Warden Christie of British Columbia’s Oakalla Prison, a
man who had officiated at three executions, observed the death penalty’s
decivilizing effects on other prisoners. When a hanging was conducted, he
commented, prisoners “tend more to identify with the person being hanged,
and feel an increased welling-up of a morbid and repressive hatred against
authority and society and all it stands for." 

And finally there were the feelings of prison workers to consider. A longserving
jail surgeon, Dr. Maclean, told the 1954 committee members that
the pronouncement of a death sentence "converts the county jail from a
reform institution to a house of death. A pall of depression from that moment
falls over staff and inmates alike. .. .” Morbid crowds gathered voluntarily
to satisfy their curiosity but officials were forced to witness the
proceedings. To illustrate his point, he told the committee about his experience
of having attended a double execution, after which he had to “pick
his way around the evidences of physical revolt left by the small audience
of police[men]…. This spectacle was too much for them-for me also it
was four or five days before I felt able to resume my work.” The jail
surgeon’s stomach-churning story graphically illustrated that retaining old style
punishment in a supposedly modem country was literally revolting
to those with refined sensibilities.”

–  Carolyn Strange, “The Undercurrents of Penal Culture: Punishment of the Body in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada.” Law and History Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 378-379. 

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“By the 1950s, totalitarian states emerged as the barbaric dystopias against
which Canada’s progressiveness could be measured. Thus, a lawyer representing
the Canadian Welfare Council appeared before the 1954 committee
and quoted at length from an article by Rabbi Feinberg, a passionate
opponent of the death penalty. “‘Our civilisation is challenged by communism,”’
Feinberg had declared. “’In contrast to the amorality of the Soviet
state … the western democracies claim that they are identified with ethics
and religion… .”’ It was not enough for states to operate rationally; in
fact, fascist states had shown what the apotheosis of modem efficiency
could produce. The rabbi feared that Canada would pursue a similarly regressive
course if it retained capital punishment: “’Once the Canadian
people begin to regard the state as an impersonal, inhuman, monolith apart
from themselves, the state ceases to be a servant and becomes the masterand
we are psychologically on the road to totalitarianism.’ ”

While only a few 1954 committee members advanced religious arguments
or made contemporary political observations, most critics of corporal
punishment and the death penalty connected retentionism with retrogressive
thinking. During an exchange with a doctor who had witnessed
executions, for instance, an MP asked whether he considered hanging a
“merciful death” or “an archaic way of execution.” The doctor replied that
he found it archaic. “And perhaps actually inhuman?” the MP pressed.
“Actually, yes,” was his reply. Such exchanges, in which old-fashioned
styles of punishment were discursively linked with less civilized approaches
to criminal justice, came up repeatedly in the Joint Committee’s deliberations.
Of course, imprisonment was “archaic” compared to modern therapeutic
ideals of healing and reform. But the death penalty, and hanging in
particular, had acquired a uniquely antiquated image by mid-century, when
many U.S. states had switched to lethal gas and electrocution. As one opponent
to hanging boasted, “We as a dominion have progressed too far in
the forefront of world leadership to retain this method from the dark ages.”
Thus, if Canada wanted to claim membership among the world’s most civilized
nations, then it had to confront the fact that retaining the death penalty by hanging appeared to leave the country with one foot in the past and
the other in the camp of dictatorships.

Lest it seem thoroughly out of touch with modem penal methods, the
Joint Committee spent much time evaluating the relative humaneness of
new techniques of death. By the 1950s, lethal gas and the electric chair had
been in use for decades and lethal injection, a technique that the 1937 committee
did not consider, had recently made its appearance. While specific
tales of bungled hangings were not the prime focus of the committee’s
inquiries, as they had been in 1937, witnesses in the 1950s spoke more
philosophically about hanging as a penalty whose time had passed. Furthermore,
like stone cutting or other trades overshadowed by the rise of
modern machinery, hanging seemed to have become a lost art by mid-century.
According to Toronto’s sheriff: “Shortly we may… find ourselves
in the position of having a considerable number of condemned prisoners
on our hands with no one trained to carry out the orders of the court.” If
amateurs stepped in, he feared that prisoners would be “tortured as they
probably were in the dark ages. .. .” Anecdotal evidence from various
wardens, indicating that some of the condemned dangled for as long as forty
minutes before dying, suggested that the incumbent “Mr. Ellis” was no
master at the craft himself. In contrast, witnesses mentioned that in England
hanging was still conducted as a trade in which newcomers had to train
as apprentices. As the Final Report noted, skilled hangmen could conduct
executions “with less anguish to the condemned person” than either gas
or electrocution entailed; unfortunately, evidence of bungled executions had
“indicated that hangings in Canada were not conducted with the same degree
of precision as in the United Kingdom.” The rope, a penal tradition
so passionately defended by Gallagher before the 1937 Death Committee, had become outmoded in Canada by the 1950s. Even the death penalty’s
supporters concluded: “hanging [is] regarded generally as being an obsolete,
if not a barbaric method of execution.”

 

If Canada was to retain the death penalty (and the Joint Committee eventually
affirmed its necessity), then it required a more up-to-date, humane
method. Technology promised to link modernity to civility. The prize went
to the electric chair on several grounds, the chief of which was its scientific
advantages. Lethal gas was actually the more modem method but its
humanitarian appeal, so great in the 1920s and 1930s, had faded in the aftermath
of the Second World War. Aside from its tainted association with
Nazi mass executions, gas had two significant drawbacks. First, chamber
leaks had exposed prison staff to dangerous fumes; second, evidence had
mounted that condemned persons typically struggled to hold their breath and
thereby suffered a long and agonizing death. The electric chair was hardly
foolproof either. Although this execution method had been used since the
1890s, accidents still happened: flesh was burned, hair was set ablaze, blood
gushed out of orifices. Perhaps surprisingly, such “repulsive” results did not
outweigh its potential in the Joint Committee’s mind to deliver death in a
humane manner. Members were impressed that two independent medical
experts, one of whom was a neurologist, determined that electrocution was
“the most satisfactory method.” In keeping with the psychiatric profession’s
enthusiasm for electro-convulsive therapy in the 1950s, expert medical
witnesses assured the committee that “a series of shocks of alternating low
and high voltages” could deliver death without distress to the condemned
or, just as important, to prison staff. As the Final Report concluded, “it is
the only method of execution where it could be established that unconsciousness
was produced instantaneously and that death was painless.” True, the
administration of massive shocks had produced some egregious results, but
the committee was optimistic because “experts maintained that properly
conducted electrocutions would not result in any burning or mutilation of
the body.” Electrocution thus offered everything a civilized country sought
in an execution method: it lessened the margin for human error; the executioner
performed his duty from a distance; and the condemned was launched
into oblivion in a matter of seconds, painlessly and tidily. Even Thorsten
Sellin endorsed electrocution as a highly efficient method.  

This idealized image of machine-like efficiency, so appealing in an era
when streamlining dominated architecture and consumer product design,
exerted a powerful hold over a committee in search of a perfectly calibrated
execution technique. Simple efficiency was clearly insufficient for Canadians
eager to find the most civilized way possible to put criminals to
death, however. Death could be countenanced as a deterrent, but only if it
minimized suffering on the part of the condemned and those assigned to
carry out executions. To proceed otherwise would leave Canada on all fours
with the most barbaric retentionist countries.”    

– Carolyn Strange, “The Undercurrents of Penal Culture: Punishment of the Body in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada.” Law and History Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 375-378.

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