For years I dreamt of walking Treaty Four territories, what is now south-west Saskatchewan. Only in 2013-2014 did I find a trail (the Traders’ Road, or North-West Mounted Police Patrol Trail), a guide and fellow walker (Hugh Henry, of the SK History and Folklore Society), and feel in my bones a reason (un-settling Settler narratives) to make it finally happen. Ken Wilson is also interested in Settler preparation for reconciliation; he and I walked together from Swift Current to Battleford in 2017 and from Mortlach to Gravelbourg in 2018. Ken recently set his scholarly lens on an article I wrote for a volume in pilgrimage back in 2013, just before that first 350-km journey across the prairies. A serious academic, Ken has highlighted the article’s best parts. In case you’re interested, I’m posting his post, here:
This morning I’m nursing an incision from my recent hernia surgery. But as I drink tea in Nottingham, walkers in England’s Peaks District, just a short distance away – including our friend Meredith Warren – are right now adjusting backpacks, filling water bottles, and scanning the Kinder Scout headlands. They’ll stop at the quarry where, on Sunday April 24, 1932, Benny Rothman (who arrived by bicycle to avoid police at the train) gave a rousing speech and led about 500 young people in the “Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.” That original protest might have been forgotten, except for the arrest of five of the Ramblers; Rothman got four months in prison just for his speech. The resulting public outcry led, eventually, and after much more protest, to the beautiful, wide-open British Parks that so many now enjoy, and the “Right to Roam” allowing limited public access to private land.
I climbed the 2000-foot Kinder Scout rise on a hot day last year. Oddly, the two people with me were both Canadians I had just met (we had that awkward moment in the bakery when we just had to ask, since our accents sounded so much “like home”). Between breaths we talked about whether a “Right of Responsible Access” would work in Canada. I’m convinced it would, and should: not only was much of North America an Indigenous “commons” before European contact, Settlement, and expulsion of First Nations, but for those of us who are European-background, our own histories and cultures often have clear antecedents for “everyperson’s right”. It’s ironic that the very descendants of the Irish, Scots and English who had been violently “cleared” from their commons lands by landowners so often went on to do exactly the same thing to Indigenous peoples.
We Canadians can do better. The examples are before us. National Trust’s website for Kinder Scout states “walk in the steps of the trespassers and enjoy what others fought so hard for.” We have important, historic trails on private lands on Turtle Island, too. They need limited, responsible, public access – in my upcoming book with University of Regina Press I describe our experiences walking some of these incredibly important paths. Teaching ourselves and our children that land is a common good, requiring care, will make us all healthier and happier. Reconnecting with land – our own form of Kinder Trespass – helps those of us who are Settler be better prepared as Treaty partners with those whom our ancestors also “cleared” from the lands we call home.
I’m SO happy to see this article finally in print! In May 2013 we began walking this incredible trail only weeks after I had had surgery for prostate cancer in Montreal, and so soon after Norwegian spring thaw that the train to take us to the trail head was washed out, and we had to ford more than a few run-off streams on our way! Find out more here about the extraordinarily beautiful St. Olaf Way, as told from the perspective of a group of Scandinavian-background Canadians who walked a long portion of it in 2013. Pilgrimage, diaspora, national memory, political sainthood, therapy walking, history, church-state relations, and stunning views of mountain-top Norway….they’re all here! https://arrow.dit.ie/ijrtp/vol7/iss1/7/
I just published an article! If you’re interested in a/pilgrimage b/Luther c/European early modern history d/romanticism e/the Grand Tour e/tourism …. or just about any combination of the above, or just in some interesting academic reading, have a gander! Here’s the URL – free for reading or download!
Walking focuses not on the boundary lines of ownership that break the land into pieces but on the paths that function as a kind of circulatory system connecting the whole organism. Walking is, in this way, the antithesis of owning. (Solnit, Wanderlust, 162)
I’d counted on getting my bearings from the Hayfield UK info stop. I had to think again! On April 24 1932, after decades of on-again, off-again confrontations, 400 members of the British Workers Sports Federation started trekking up from their campsites here toward “the forbidden mountain.” The mass trespass of Kinder Scout plateau’s private land became the tipping point in the fight for the right to walking access across private lands. This plaque commemorating the walkers is affixed to the wall of an old stone quarry at the head of the trail. No one is fighting for the right to walk across Saskatchewan. There are no walkers’ groups, no mass rambling movement and no one in Swift Current or Saskatoon is trying to escape the grimy factory life of Sheffield and Manchester in the early 20th century. But there ARE historic, important trails across the prairie. They also deserve public access. And Canada has an important issue that the 1930s British ramblers never faced – the question of Indigenous access.
There is the geography we know and can trace topographically, made up of distance and terrain and movement. For instance, knowing it is about 14 miles (22 km) to the next town, there is a mountain in the way, and a pub and a pint await us there. But there’s another geography as well, one that exists off the maps even though it overlaps them, a geography of uncertainty, of bodily ache, of imagination and story and solitude, and sometimes, if we’re fortunate, of wonder.
Since the Romantic era at least, wonder is the most gratifying of reactions to a view, natural or human. The walker cannot plan on wonder. But there are ways in which we open ourselves up to it and make ourselves available. In my experience those ways start with being silent, and with not over-planning a walk. That’s the way I felt when I woke up in Hayfield, in England’s Peaks District, the morning of the Kinder Trespass hike. Ready, but not completely prepared.
“The pilgrims of the Spanish-speaking countries pray for you, Holy Father,” intoned an Archbishop (I think that’s what he was?). Below where I sat sweating under the an unseasonably hot Roman sun, perhaps a thousand of the massed faithful erupted into cheers and flag-waving. Pope Francis leaned forward in his plain leather chair, speaking into the mic in Italian. In his address, he reminded us that we are not slaves, but “children, and pilgrims.” I noticed that the metal roof above his head was hinged. I’m guessing that, if there was a danger, the entire roof section could swing down as a shield. This Pope seems uninterested in shielding. A group beside me, from Michigan, fanned themselves. One of the younger women looked up from her smart phone: “I found a lunch spot but it’s at least three-quarters of a mile away. Can you walk that far?” An older man – her father? – lifted his baseball cap and grumbled: “It’s part of being a pilgrim, I guess.” So much pilgrim language. Meanwhile Pope Francis had left his chair. He looked much happier than he had while separated from the crowds. Now he beamed, reaching out to touch people, extending his arms in blessing, shaking hands, smiling broadly. All around me, people were lifting children over their heads, pressing rosaries forward, shouting: “Pappi! Pappi!” Francis leaned over the barrier to a couple in full wedding dress, the young man grinning from ear to ear. The bride, all in white, pressed a photo into the Pope’s hand. As I watched, he blessed it, then, while he blessed the couple as well, a man in a black suit behind him took the photo from his hand, and passed it to another black suit, who handed it to a third man in sunglasses, who walked away from the scrum, idly checking his cell phone. He opened a white plastic bin and placed the photo inside. To my mind, all the elements of pilgrimage came together in that moment: presence, story, a holy terrain, and a material and spiritual transaction. The young couple, via their photo, had reached their pilgrim destination. As had I.
With thanks to my fellow pilgrim, Archbishop Don, for arranging my participation.
Yesterday was the last day of the Battleford Trail walk. 350 kilometres in total, Hugh Henry tells us. Along the way we read journal excerpts from one of Colonel Otter’s troops as they marched north along the same path in 1885. The writer was a young, green recruit from central Canada who’d probably never seen either a First Nations person or the plains. He wrote: “We saw our first Indian today. He was within rifle distance.” Richard Kotowich, who is Métis, gave a short and powerful talk as he smudged us. “How do we measure the distance? Do we still measure it like that unnamed soldier? Close enough to harm? Close enough to be defensive? Or have we learned to say: ‘the Indian’ we meet is close enough to greet, to get to know, to invite to eat, to sit together and learn from and with?”
This pilgrimage, for me, has been about things old AND things new. The Trail is as old as the Plains Cree that went south to hunt bison, the burial grounds that go back millennia, the Bear Hills that now seem so empty. But the Trail is also as new as the ‘no trespassing’ signs and the farm dogs we met as we approached Battleford, a town which, as a local citizen told us, has “13 reservations around it.” He didn’t add that it was our own government that put them there, often against their will and miles away from their traditional lands, for the convenience of railway and Settler. This trek has been about remembering that Métis, First Nations and Settler all used this trail. It has been about smudging with farm families who in some cases perhaps have never participated before in such a ceremony, and making them welcome. It has been about including First Nations concerns in our conversations naturally, neither preaching nor apologizing, just quietly and consistently recognizing the facts of the Treaties, the expulsions, and the injustices. It has also been about listening to the older farm folks who talk about the coulees and valleys, the rivers and the land and the wildlife with such love and longing that you know the land has taught them, over years. So how DO we measure the distance between Settler and First Nation? We danced with the First Nations dancers in Fort Battleford, but it was just a beginning. For those of us who are non-Indigenous, even after a 350 km Battleford Trek, we have a ways still to travel.
This is what Sharon Pasula’s tee-shirt from the Truth & Reconciliation Commission says. It’s the reason we’re walking. Sharon drove from Edmonton to join us in Herschel. She led us in a smudge the day after Rick (who had led us regularly) returned home to Regina. It matters to me. It matters to us, that the trail we walk has been used for hunting, for freighting, and for settling. It matters to us that a trail that now sits on private land be remembered as of public interest. It matters to us that we remember the three groups that used the trail – First Nations, Métis, and Newcomers (including the military) – and recognize and remember the positive contributions and also the failures and mistakes made along this trail. Most of all, the land matters to us. It doesn’t belong to us. We belong to it. As with the Métis flag Sharon carries, it matters.