May 23 a red-serge letter day

NWMP trek

May 23, 1873, the Dominion of Canada created the North West Mounted Police. Many were misfits. Quite a number of the first recruits were sent home, some went home when they saw the conditions. But they proved themselves, acting bravely, often honourably and occasionally even nobly, despite bureaucratic bungling and sometimes terrible direction from a far-away government.

The NWMP were poorly equipped, fitted out with red coats (Macdonald didn’t want the Americans to think they were a military unit, but rather a police force), and had to go through the States to get to their Canadian posts, because there was no railroad. Their first task was to trek to the North West Territories so recently acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to take advantage of the temporary power vacuum in the west created by the American Civil War’s effects, to seal the border against the United States (a number of the American “wolfers” were themselves Civil War vets and perhaps sufferers from what we would now call PTSD). They were to gain the trust of the First Nations, which they for the most part did, a trust that their political masters later occasionally asked them to betray, a turnaround that deeply disappointed and forever marked some of the first recruits.

Canada would not be the country it is without the red coats. But we could do a lot of learning from their first years, still. Or again.

govt sign three

Why Canada and Finland are Secretly Siblings, Separated at Birth

photo-3

Hockey. Need I say more?

But just in case: Finland’s huge telecom communications company, Nokia, is responsible for a large chunk of the country’s economic activity. Nokia had some trouble with its handset business and now, seems almost invisible. Our telecommunications giant – Nortel – actually did disappear.

Reason #3: winter.

Finland knows what it’s like to live close to overbearing, powerful neighbours. Think the United States makes life difficult? Try the Soviet Union, which Finland had to fight off in its terrible Winter War in 1939-40. Or the Russians, recently flexing their military muscles in the far north. Or even the Swedes, with whom the Finns have a love/hate relationship not so different from our own with the Americans. Recently, the Finns concluded a deal with the Swedes to share military hardware. ‘That’s smart. If anything were to happen,’ I said to a Finn at the time, ‘you would have the Swedes here to help you.’ ‘Are you kidding?’ this Finn replied, only half-jokingly. ‘For Sweden, we’re just a handy buffer zone.’

#5: forests. Birch trees. Lots of them.

Finns are polite to a fault. When I was recently in Finland, they would – almost without exception, apologize to me for how unfriendly a country Finland is. Then, in the next breath, they’d invite me for dinner. Like Canadians, Finns probably even apologize for being so polite.

#7: lakes and rivers (rivers are called ‘joki’ in Finnish). Lots of them, too.

Finland is a country with a future. The land in Finland is actually rising up out of the sea, an effect of the rebound since the last ice age, as the land ‘springs back’ from the weight of tons of ice no longer there. As the ice melts, there’s more land to Canada too. Unfortunately.

#9: our poutine, their karjalan piirakka. Just as unusual, just as tasty.

Finland is a safe, relatively happy country with a small population, largely ignored by the world. It has a winter that’s not as bad as its reputation (I was north of the arctic circle in February and it was warmer there than in Montreal). It struggles to do justice in relationship to its aboriginal population (the Saami). It has a linguistic minority in one part of the country and official bilingualism (Swedish-Finnish). Finland has blueberries and black bears, good universities and friendly people. Both countries have a history of social democratic movements that, occasionally, overlap: the most famous Finnish pancake house in Canada is the “Hoito” (Finnish for ‘care’), opened as a workers’ co-operative in Thunder Bay.

There you are: ten reasons why Finland and Canada are siblings separated at birth. I could go on. But of course, like any siblings, sometimes it’s the differences that are also interesting. Whatever else you can say about Finland, you’ve got to love a country that invented the sauna. Imagine visiting during a midsummer’s evening when it stays light into the early hours, and when there are bonfires waiting, with a sauna, perhaps some singing, a cold beer and a swim in the ocean or a shivery northern lake. That’s not just any sibling. That’s a sibling worth getting to know better.

Every Day a Bit More Real

Pine Cree Park 2014

While I plan conferences and teach pilgrimage classes here in Montreal, my colleague Hugh Henry has been doing the heavy lifting of contacting folks along our planned walking route in Saskatchewan. Some of the on-the-ground details remain to be determined. But the route is set, and those who would like to walk with us for a day, a few days, or longer, are encouraged to contact the SK Historical and Folklore Society, at http://shfs.ca/contact/   for more information and to register their names for the walk.

Today I met with two young film-makers who would like to be part of the project. Some of you may hear from them soon, as they are setting up a crowd-funding site.

In the meantime, here is the tentative itinerary:

NWMP Trail – Walk Schedule

July 17   arrive at Wood Mountain Post Prov. Historic Site  Accommodation: camp at Wood Mountain Regional Park (adjacent to Post – pool, showers, food service)  Activities: tour Wood Mountain Post; Rodeo and Ranch Museum; NWMP cemetery

July 18 trek ‘commissioning’ event in morning at Wood Mountain Post; walk through W. M. First Nation to Orthodox church south of Glentworth  distance: est 13 miles/21 km  Accommodation: tenting at church yard; hotel in Glentworth (food service)  Bike Hwy 18 – 19 mi./29 km to Glentworth

July 19 from church to McCord     distance: est. 12 mi /19 km Accommodation: tenting at campground next to McCord museum (store and service station in town)  Bike Hwy 18 – 8 mi./13 km to McCord

July 20 from McCord to Mankota   distance: est. 11 mi /17.5 km Accommodation: hotel in Mankota. or tenting in town; showersOther events: public presentation about history of NWMP Trail markers; reconsidering the history  Bike Hwy 18 – 11 mi. to Mankota

July 21 from Mankota to Walker farmyard     distance: est. 13 mi / 21 k Accommodation: tenting in Walker farmyard  Bike Hwy 18 – 41mi. to Val Marie

July 22 from Walker farm to farm at corner of Hwy 18, E of Val Marie. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tenting in farmyard    

 July 23 from farm to Val Marie. distance: est. 9 mi / 14 km  Accommodation: Val Marie hotel / convent / The Crossing, campground in town  

 July 24 rest day in Val Marie Activities – visit Grasslands N.P. interpretive centre; Prairie Wind and Silver Sage; etc. Program in evening – presentations at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage (Museum); campfire sing-along Note: `Sleep under the Stars` event at Grasslands National Park on July 25.

 July 25 from Val Marie to Range 15/16 road.       distance: est. 13 mi /21 km Accommodation: tenting in abandoned farmyard

 July 26 from Range 15/16 road to Jensen family ranch. distance: est. 13 mi /21 km Accommodation: tenting in Jensen Ranch yard

 July 27 from Jensen Ranch along Frenchman; detour to Bible Camp. distance: est. 8 mi / 13 km Accommodation: Riverview Bible Camp on Hwy #37, south of Frenchman (toilets, showers, campfire)

July 28 from Bible Camp to Gronhovd farm. distance: est. 13 mi / 21 k Accommodation: tenting in Gronhovd yard

July 29 Gronhovd farm to Wig farm (?) along Frenchman river. distance: est. 13 mi / 21 kmAccommodation: tenting at farmyard  

July 30 Wig farm (?) to Chimney Coulee. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tenting at Chimney Coulee  

 July 31 Chimney Coulee to Eastend. distance: est. 3.5 mi / 5 km Accommodation: Cypress Hotel, Riverview Motel, B&Bs, camp at Pine Cree Reg. Park

August 1 Rest day in Eastend SHFS-sponsored field trips and presentations (archaeology, geology, paleontology, local history, etc.). Communal supper (café or catered) Accommodations: hotel, motel, B&B, Park

Aug. 2  from Eastend to Ravenscrag corner, Hwy 13. distance: est. 13 mi /21 km  Accommodation: tenting in Arnal farmyard

Aug. 3  from Ravenscrag corner to farm near Robsart. distance: est. 11 mi /18 km  Accommodation: tenting in farmyard near Robsart

Aug. 4  from Robsart to Cypress Lake. distance: est. 15 mi / 24 km Accommodation: tenting at Cypress Lake (no facilities)

Aug. 5             morning at Lake; Cypress Lake to Brost Ranch distance: est. 6 mi / 9.5 km Accommodation: tenting at Clint Brost ranch.     NWMP patrol station (Cottonwood Coulee ?)

Aug. 6  Brost ranch to Parsonage Ranch. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tent at Parsonage Ranch

Aug. 7   Parsonage Ranch to Ft. Walsh distance: est. 5 mi / 8 km Event: welcoming celebration

 *Home*

 

Notes

  1. Walkers are responsible for providing all of their personal needs. A support vehicle will follow walkers to carry food, bedding and other supplies. Note the towns passed along the route and the possibility of booking motel or related accommodations. (On your own for this.)
  1. Suggested bike route at beginning of trek is on paved Hwy and parallels the NWMP Trail. There is the opportunity to join walkers during stops at Wood Mountain, McCord, Mankota or Val Marie. Daily travel distances and pace to be determined by individual bikers.
  1. There may be opportunities to trace the Trail on horseback, along dirt roads or through pastures. Details on dates and locations will be determined after landowners have been consulted, and may be affected by weather events.
  1. The daily walk schedule may be affected by weather, so distances and stops are approximate. Also, the number of walkers able to access cultivated fields may be restricted by landowners.

NWMPT map SHFS

A Stranger to These Parts

Porter arrival Sudbury

‘I can’t believe you almost stole that scarf,’ the woman in the airplane seat across from me says to an older woman who must be her mother. The two chortle. They like each other, clearly. ‘Well, it just got stuck on the end of my purse,’ the mother laughs back. ‘Is it my fault it was hanging there? I didn’t even see it until the alarm went off!’ She turns, maybe just a bit flirtatious with the giddiness of a weekend away in the big city with her daughter. “Look at me – I’m hardly the type!”

The cabin crew dim the lights shortly after our take off to Sudbury. How miraculous it is to hang thousands of feet above a huge city at night. To watch the glow of human achievement stretch away to every horizon in magnificent strings and squares of bright fires. However snide we Montrealers might sometimes be about Toronto, how impressive is this city on the edge of the Great Lake, how vast a plain of light, of movement and life. And how strange to be a descendent of savannah dwellers, not barefoot and on the ground but suit-jacketed and seat-belted and in the air, climbing Jacob’s ladder like the angels he only dreamt about. Listening to the turboprops whistle, eating almonds, watching from this incredible vantage point I realize that, when you think about it at all, this is so new in human history that however banal it might sometimes feel, we are still among the first generations to be privileged to experience it.

The root meaning of ‘pilgrim’ is stranger, or foreigner. Not all strangers are pilgrims, perhaps. But I think all pilgrims must in some way be foreigners. And to hang in the air at night, above a city, watching the lights….? That is foreign indeed.

It is perhaps because I am a stranger that I noticed the man who now sits in the seat three rows back. Nervous hands, rolling his thumbs against his fingers as they checked out his boarding pass, walking awkwardly, so tall his head, even bowed, slid along the ceiling of the cramped cabin. Unusual black pants and boots. Or the woman one row up and to the right, in a business-jacket, like me a bit unkempt, who had a resume out in the lounge, and is now tapping it absent-mindedly with her pen while looking out the window. An academic, almost certainly, on her way to an interview. Or the child, ten or eleven maybe, trying to take up as little space as possible, perhaps on her way to meet a divorced parent with weekend parenting rights. So much life and drama in such a small metal tube. Life at 8,000 feet and climbing.

There is one light in particular that catches my eye with its brightness and unusual movement. It takes me a minute to realize that it is not, like all the others, following one of the lines that demarcate streets and highways. The way it’s crossing the city, it must, like us, be in the air. Another plane, below us? I watch it move sideways to our path. And then, abruptly, it stops. What?

The flight attendant interrupts my reverie. Your drink? she says. But it’s not a question. I realize that she must have memorized the orders of all twenty or so people on the plane, without paper or pad. I take the glass, turn back to the view. The bright light is still there, still immobilized. Did I miss something? Planes don’t just stop, and there’s no dark strip of a runway. A helicopter, maybe? How strange.

‘So, do you live in Sudbury?’ asks the older woman beside me, when we land and it’s time to get off.

‘No,’ I smile back. ‘Just visiting.’

‘Oh, I thought so,’ she says. ‘A stranger to these parts.’

Toronto from the air

Scouting the Trail

Today we scouted the beginning of the North-West Mounted Police Trail. It meant piling five of us into a big Dodge Ram and pounding over the Wood Mountain hills. Thelma, a renowned poet and historian from the area, called it the “Boundary Commission Trail” several times, since the original NWMP trek was further north. Or it might be the “Metis Trail”, or the “Major Walsh” trail (although she doesn’t have kind words for him).

Anyway, we scouted it. Today we pulled out maps. Come summer we will walk.

Between then and now dreams and visions.

My Corner of Gloryland

 John Golling (Grandpa) as young man 1          farm-2-new-homeland

This week I’ve been seeing some of the old photos of my grandparents and their parents before them, and hearing stories of the first European settlers on this prairie. My grandparents, like most of their neighbors, were hard-scrabble, tough immigrants. Before electricity, before water lines, before roads even, they came. They came for the promise of land. Most of them were not as romantic about the countries they had left as we, their grandchildren, are. After all, they’d made the decision to go. In the words sung by Archie and the Boys (see below), the old time band that played today at my father’s care home in Herbert SK, they wanted, not the old, but the new: their own ‘piece of gloryland’. And the Government of Canada was happy to promise it to them.

The posters advertising the new homeland, however, neglected to mention that there were already people living here. The nomadic First Nations and mobile Metis were not used to, nor invited into, this new world of fences and property title and cattle rather than bison. A combination of starvation and forced removal cleared the land of Aboriginal peoples so that my grandparents – more fortunate pawns, but pawns nonetheless – in a continental political-economic development scheme, could take their place.

Did it turn out to be Gloryland? Saskatchewan is a great place. But we are all – First Nations and settlers alike, but particularly First Nations, still feeling the aftershocks of that great removal. To me, the posters advertising a new homeland in the Canadian West for European immigrants aren’t just art. They’re chilling propoganda.

(Photo is of John Samuel Golling, my grandfather. Thanks to Archie and the Boys for their music and their permission to post!)

Of stories and spaces

Herbert with semi trailer

We human beings find our sense of place by attaching it to stories. “This happened here, and then under the oak trees, or by the prairie slough, or on the top of Mont Tremblant, this other thing happened.” Places without narratives are just spaces, the blanks at the edges of our maps, unknown and unknowable.

Airports, for the sake of safety and convenience, do everything they can to tell the same story everywhere in the world. Boarding pass – security – gate – runway. If it weren’t for the constant human drama – families saying goodbye at the entry, the security fellow flirting with his colleague, the noisy high-school group on their way somewhere – airports, with their standardized everything, risk becoming mere spaces, simple stops on the way to real places like home-towns and vacations, and reunions and the city of your new job.

Here’s what excites me: if it’s the story that turns a space into a place, that means that if we add to the story, we can add to the place. A harmful story, of wrongs done and injustice, can change, at least a bit, in the retelling. We can tell OUR story of that space, and if in our story there is at least some hope, and some openness, and some healing, then maybe… Maybe the place itself changes too.

Still thinking of how it will feel to walk the North West Mounted Police Trail in July.

waiting at the baggage Helsinki