The Myth of an Empty Land

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sketch by R.B. Nevitt, surgeon with the NWMP in the 1870s

Despite recent attempts to sensitize Settler-Canadians to the brutal non-mythologised realities of our arrival and eventual colonial dominance in Canada, many stories of settlement still contain some version of the words “into a wild and uninhabited land came our brave ancestors.” Narratives based on an understanding of pre-Settlement Canada as “empty” or “wild” consciously or unconsciously serve an unjust political agenda. They ignore the ways in which First Nations were relied upon and then cast aside by the early Settlers. They conveniently excuse the economic and political machinations that were used to isolate and disempower Indigenous peoples in Canada, to metaphorically and literally starve them, and to seek their eventual destruction by death or assimilation.

In part because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadian myths of origin are changing. But it is not yet clear how they will evolve, and it is much less clear that their evolution will lead to a greater willingness on the part of non-Indigenous Canadians to see land in new ways – ways that might foster the Treaty relationships. In  November 2018 the government of Saskatchewan, responding in part to pressure from its Association of Rural Municipalities, significantly tightened rural trespassing laws.[1] This is a significant setback to public access, a backlash many think will only further damage relations with Indigenous peoples.[2] This summer I plan to walk – and camp – in Scotland and Finland, using the jokamiehenoikeus, or “right of responsible access.” These are countries in which a robust “right of responsible access” exists, and also countries from which Eastern and Western Canada derived some of their Settler populations. By studying how national myths are related to positive experiences of public use of land in Scotland and Finland, I am hoping to find resources in our own cultural histories that will help Settler-Canadians rethink their relationship to land, and thus to First Peoples.[3]

[1] https://sarm.ca/about-sarm/news/item/?n=194

[2] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/saskatchewan-trespassing-plan-racial-tensions-1.4891278

[3] Anderson, 2018. “Pilgrimage and the Challenging of a Canadian Foundational Myth,” in Pilgrimage in Practice: Narration, Reclamation, and Healing, edited by Ian S. McIntosh, E Moore Quinn, and Vivian Keely, 148-163. Wallingford, UK: CABI Press.

Fences Don’t Make Good Neighbours

classic fence photo of pilgrims

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Right of Responsible Access, or the “Right to Roam”. A friend of mine in Saskatchewan recently said her farm was broken into a number of times despite the fact they installed cameras. “I don’t think Right to Roam is a good idea,” she wrote me. That’s terrible. But the fact is, “Right to Roam” doesn’t allow people to break into buildings. Unfortunately, putting up more NO TRESPASSING signs won’t stop crooks, either… they already know what they’re doing is illegal. Whether the government of SK adopts responsible access, or (as seems more likely) accepts the association of rural municipalities’ request for tighter trespassing laws, either way, nothing changes when it comes to farmer’s yards and buildings. Breaking in is illegal already. In countries like Scotland, if anything, the laws got tighter when the Right of Access came in.  The two problems in Saskatchewan, and elsewhere, are a “they can go to hell” culture, and a lack of enforcement of EXISTING laws.

THE EVIDENCE            The idea is to reduce property damage and theft and to live in healthy communities. Everyone agrees. So what’s the evidence? Evidence-based arguments show that, in Finland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and Iceland, countries that are quite similar to Canada with northern climates, and small populations spread over big areas – in those countries increasing access, rather than decreasing it, is what decreases rural crime, vandalism and littering. Increasing access actually puts more sympathetic eyes on the land, rather than fewer. It increases public interest and public attention. Criminals don’t work out in the open. They dump their garbage, or deface a wall, or break through a lock, when no one is looking.

CHINOOK PARKWAY   I grew up in Swift Current SK. There’s a trail along the Swift Current Creek called the Chinook Parkway. It wasn’t there when I was a kid.  I spent a lot of time along that creek looking for garter snakes and later, golf balls. But the area was always dirty and dangerous. There were too many broken beer bottles in the long grass – no one cared. If Swift Current had put up a fence along the creek and increased fines tenfold it wouldn’t have stopped kids from breaking bottles and starting campfires and leaving garbage. Police can’t be everywhere. But creating a public access space in the Chinook Parkway where people walk and jog and cycle has put more people out in the open. It’s made the river’s edge – and the city – healthier, and better, and safer.

GRADUAL CULTURAL CHANGE           You don’t make a rule and expect it to change everything, you try to change the culture gradually. What option will create greater, and healthier community for Canadian people? Does the higher the fence mean the better the neighbour, really? In Norway and Sweden and Scotland and Finland and Austria and some other countries, there’s a whole culture where people are trained up, from childhood, to know how to be on the land – how to respect crops, and animals, and fences, and private buildings. They know how to pick berries or mushrooms and respect property at the same time. Sure, it doesn’t happen overnight. But the question to ask ourselves is: what will be the direction that bringing in a new piece of legislation will take us?

LIABILITY:        Some landowners will say: well, we could never have the Right of Responsible Access in Canada because some city person would come out here and fall down a badger hole and before you know it I’d be sued. FALSE. In Scotland and in other countries where they’ve brought in such laws, at the same time they passed laws protecting landowners from lawsuits. It wasn’t difficult. In those countries, it’s nearly impossible for someone to sue a landowner for personal injury while exercising responsible access. The only exception would be if the landowner willingly and intentionally set some kind of trap for walkers. Shy of that, they’re protected. For more on this, and on the evidence for crime rates, see “This Land is Our Land” (a terrible title, but a good book), by Ken Ilgunas.

THE QUESTION:          So the question is: what kind of future makes for better community? Do you want to live in a land where there’s more fear, more danger, where if you break down on the road you’re afraid to go and ask for help? Or do you want you and your children to grow up in a land where landowners are respected and yet at the same time, everyone feels a connection to, and a responsibility for, the land? Where people can stop by the side of the road and pick chokecherries or saskatoons or raspberries, or have a picnic (making sure to pick up their garbage). Where city dwellers understand some of the problems of farmers and ranchers, because they actually know something about the land and have met the people? The more people feel a connection to the land, the way farmers and ranchers do, the more everyone – even urban people – act as allies. Fences don’t make people safe. Good relations do.