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.

 

 

The Frenchman Trail 2018

classic fence photo of pilgrims

For five days we walked across the prairie. Thirteen miles was our “short day.” We watched for badger holes in the grass, spots where you could drop in to your knee and break a leg. We rolled under and climbed through barbed wire, not always successfully (I have a ‘pic’ in my left palm from grabbing a strand carelessly). Sometimes we walked silently. More often, in spurts, we chatted. During the day we baked in over-thirty temps and at night we shivered in our tents as it dropped to single digits. I was amazed at the wonderfully talented, eclectic group walking south with me. When they found out what I teach, I was challenged: “is this a pilgrimage?” That depends. We ended at a cathedral. We talked a lot about reconciliation, and tried to live it, at least a bit. We sang and laughed and formed a community that blessed each other. It was a holy time. For me, at least, that made it a pilgrimage.

Hugh and Matthew and sign

Walking and Owning

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)

sorry kiosk closed HayfieldI’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. quarry plaque one

Walking the Land: a Canada 150 post

Heritage Saskatchewan sponsored film-maker Kristin Catherwood, who made this short film for the Canada 150 year. It features me and Hugh Henry, talking about the importance of the Swift Current – Battleford Trail, the 350 km trek we finished in August 2017. Thanks Kristin!

Impact Statement – the SC-Battleford Trail Walk

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photo courtesy Connie Sykes

(the following is the impact statement that I wrote for the SK History and Folklore Society, who requested it to forward to their funding agencies. Those of you who have followed the walk in some way may find it worthwhile)

 

The Swift Current – Battlefords Trail walk certainly affected me personally. In addition I was witness to a number of ways in which it had an impact on communities and individuals we encountered. Firstly, although the historical connection between the Métis community and the Trail is well known, I believe that the linking of our first day’s walk with the Métis celebration in Swift Current solidified that connection. I was touched by the accompanying Red River cart and the members of the Métis community who walked the first steps of the Trail with us. Another community – or set of communities – that now have a greater knowledge of the Trail are the Hutterite colonies that we passed through. Our very positive interactions, especially with the Swift Current Colony meant that the members of the Colony learned something of the history of the Trail that passes through their land. We got the fresh cinnamon buns – they got a history lesson, and some local human geography! Thanks to our Trek organizer and guide Hugh Henry for laying the groundwork here, as he did in every other way.

Hutterite women offering iced tea

When we met individual farmers as we walked, the reaction, almost without fail, was the same: interest in what we were doing, and most often, some positive but nostalgic comment about the Trail, almost as if it was a thing that had belonged to a past (perhaps their parents or grandparents’ generation) that they were surprised might still be considered important, but very quickly agreed should be important. In other cases, farmers who hosted us joined the walk briefly, for a day or part of a day, and told us of their own family histories and how they intersected with the histories of the Trail. In most cases their recollections were of the important early settlement history. In a very natural way, those of us who were walkers were able to include the First Nations and Métis aspects of the Trail’s history without in any way belittling the important personal and family histories they were recounting, bringing (I hope) the first steps toward some kind of integration of those histories. In a few cases local farmers joined us in the daily smudges led by one of our Métis walkers, Richard Kotowich.

An important result of such a marathon effort as this trek – and one of my reasons for walking personally – is to reinforce in the public mind, quietly and with respect for landowners, the idea that there do exist, on private land, trails of public importance, which need to be preserved and to which the public should have some limited rights of access. There is no fear, in Saskatchewan, of hordes of trekkers taking to the Battleford Trail! At the same time, the Trail is part of the commonwealth of history, and importantly, for three very different communities: the First Nations, the Métis, and the Settler. I have great respect for the occasional farmer or rancher who decides not to break some of the land that still bears the marks of the carts, for the public good. Our walk was, in a very small way, a call to such civic-mindedness.

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We did not plan it this way, but our walk through the Biggar and Battlefords regions coincided with some breaking news about the trial process in the manslaughter charge connected to the death of Coulton Boushie. Whether it was in our minds, or in the air, it did feel as if the tensions increased, both when we stayed on the Mosquito First Nation, and when we passed by farms in the area, many of which were plastered with “No Trespassing” signs we had not seen further south. Perhaps our stay on the Mosquito FN helped those who were there realize that there are many Settlers who are trying to reach out and to learn from them; I hope so. Perhaps, at the same time, the fact that a group that was primarily of Euro-Canadian background sought to be guests on the Reserve helped some of the non-Indigenous folks we encountered in that area realize that the two solitudes can perhaps be bridged by folks of good-will on both sides. The matter, of course, is more complex than a single group of walkers might influence, but I hope that we were, if nothing else, a living sign of what the very first steps in seeking reconciliation might look like.

Finally, the Trail walk was important to me personally. When I grew up in the Swift Current and Simmie regions of the south-west corner of Saskatchewan, we learned about the “Indians”, as we called them then. If we thought of them at all, it was as important people who no longer lived anywhere close to us. No one – including me – ever seemed to wonder why the First Nations no longer ranged over those areas. I only learned much later, as an adult, that many, including Big Bear’s Plains Cree, sought Treaty lands exactly where I grew up, but were pushed north, often starving and in poor clothing, during the winter, by the policies of the Dominion government and the railroad. Walking this Battleford Trail, generally in comfort with more than enough food and a good tent or occasionally a hotel room, we were walking the Trail that they once walked, starving, not much more than a century and a quarter ago.

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Thanks to Hugh Henry, Harold Steppuhn, Ken Wilson and local farmers, the trek taught me the geography of the land where I was raised. I learned about the “Eagle Hills”, the “Bear Hills” and the “Bad Hills”, about NWMP outposts and glacial moraines and ancient inland seas, about soil formations and water drainage, about poplar trees and prairie grasses. Such learnings, added to my first visits to communities like Sanctuary, Greenan and Herschel, and made in the company of other pilgrims who became like family, made it a very rich three weeks. I blogged about the Trail and had hundreds of reads of my blog posts, both in Canada and internationally. Thanks to the Saskatchewan Historical and Folklore Society, and especially to my friend and co-walker Hugh Henry, for making this walk possible.

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Learning to Smell

brown eyed susans and tree

Bit by bit, as you walk slowly across the land, senses you don’t use normally come to life. For me the most surprising is smell. You can smell canola fields from quite far away, if you’re downwind. The smell of fresh hay is a smell of my youth…it makes me happy. Sage is everywhere – that beautiful prairie perfume that fills your nostrils with such a welcome. I have some sprigs of it drying in my hat.

buffalo berries

Buffalo berries (above) don’t smell that much, but the green patch they’re in did. The green, or dry, smell of prairie grasses, as you walk through in the early evening especially, is a treat. Even the smell of cow manure, or bull manure (two days ago they fetched a young bull out of our camping yard just hours before we got there apparently, is a dark spice – just don’t step in it! I’ve learned, in the smudges, to appreciate the good smell of moist, clean and unchemicaled tobacco…so different from the cigarette addictions I grew up witnessing. Caragana bushes smell like shade. Alkali water stinks as you walk by, tickling your nose with the falseness of water that you can’t drink. And here and there, the best: the smell of green things, of dark earth and poplar shadow under an unblinking sun.

dead tree in prairie

Smudging and Walking

smudging or just before

There aren’t any pictures, really. That’s because we don’t want to disturb or disrespect what we’re doing by recording it. Just about every morning, before we start walking, Rick Kotowich, a Métis/First Nation walker, smudges our group and we reflect on what we’re thankful for and what we hope for, give thanks for the land and the people we meet. A few times, local ranchers or farmers happen by to see us just as we’re about to begin, and it’s been interesting: every one has been interested in joining in. The elements of the smudge, sage and sweetgrass, reflect the country we’re walking through (besides buckbrush, there’s been lots of sage growing wild). We remember ourselves and the land we’re walking through with the smudge. And in this dry year, we are fastidious about making sure everything is done safely.

tree against stormcloud

quotes of the day (yesterday) from a local rancher, looking out over the horizon as he talked to us: “awful nice country…until the farmers found it.” Or from Fred, one of the walkers, looking at his tent: “my mess is changing, which I’m taking as a sign of hope”.