The Surprise Dinner Guest

Max Mirau with Hugh and Matthew

An example of one of my interviews with a self-professed “old timer”:

My father used to hunt deer year-round. Didn’t care a bit for the hunting licenses. He was a generous man and would hunt deer and give them to all of the neighbours. No one had much money then, so the meat was welcome, but my mother used to fret about his illegal hunting and give him trouble over it. Then one day the policeman came to the door on horseback after a long ride. He was tired and hungry and my father, always hospitable, asked him to stay to eat. Mom had a huge venison roast in the oven. She brought it out and served it, shaking with fear that father would be clapped into jail for poaching. The policeman finished eating, wiped his mouth, said “that was one of the finest beef dinners I’ve ever eaten”, got on his horse, and rode away.

Max Mirau, Swift Current, an old friend of my father’s.

Our North-West Company of Pilgrims

middle of the road picnic Pinto Butte

Yesterday two of our group of four pilgrims ended their leg of the walk. Rick Kotowich will be staying for the community event tonight in Val Marie, and then heading home, perhaps to join us again near the end of the pilgrimage. My former teaching assistant, Hayden Thomassin, managed to find a spot on the Greyhound to Regina and is in place for his flight home today.

Already well over 100 km traversed. We’ve met some very nice people – in the photo above, three local ranch families (thanks esp to Keith and Margaret Walker and to Howard and Fern Hanson!) came together to meet us as we passed one of the few roads that day. They brought watermelon, rhubarb cake, and cold water, and lots of smiles. We needed the break and the refreshment. It was perhaps our hardest walking – through mile after mile of natural prairie grassland, over cactus and dry bog and sage and speargrass. By the end of the walk, our laces were furry with the speargrass that worked its way into my shoes and caused a painful blister. Our companions on this portion of the walk were Dave and Esther Green on horseback. We also came across all kinds of wildlife: deer, antelope, coyote, Swainson’s hawks with their scratchy cries overhead, and the tail end of a small horned lizard skittering down a hole. None of the rattlesnakes that live in these hills, unfortunately (or fortunately!).

At the end of the day I stumbled across a huge solitary boulder, rubbed smooth over years by the bison herds now gone. When my companions went to see it, they said: “didn’t you see? It wasn’t a boulder but a sleeping buffalo”. Sure enough, it was in the shape of a sleeping bison. Yet another of the magical places that sit alone on this land.

Hugh and I will miss Hayden and Rick. Rick’s attention to the spirit and the feeling of the land was inspirational, and Hayden brought a wonderful openness and enthusiasm to this first experience. More pilgrims are joining us today, so the company will change. But the journey, and the land, will stay the same.

Matt and Rick by NWMP trail post Pinto Butte July 23

(Photos by Marshall Drummond of Val Marie)

Hayden and Matthew selfie VM bar

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

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!)

Dream-walking the Trail

NWMP trail map Eastend

This week I sat down and traced a trail across southern Saskatchewan. I had help: two photocopied RM (rural municipality) maps provided by Hugh Henry of the SK Historical and Folklore Society. For a few hours over a couple of glasses of good Spanish wine I guess-timated how far we could walk in a day, where we might stop, where there might be abandoned farmyards or churches with outhouses, where we could park an RV and when we might hit a small town where there would be showers. Then I sent the schedule off to Hugh, who with his better knowledge of the land made some important corrections, and suggested places where we might need horses to scout the trail ahead of us.

Wow. Just having the 20 day schedule in front of me makes this summer’s walk seem so much more real. Outside it was -19 in urban Verdun. But in my mind’s eye the prairie grass waved, the heat beat down on us, and we looked for miles and miles over rolling prairie toward Val Marie, or Mankota, or Eastend.

“Build it and they will come” are the famous words from Shoeless Joe, Kinsella’s novel, also about the plains, that became “Field of Dreams”. We are building it, step by step, in our imaginations. We will see when, and how, we actually walk this path of dreams.

NWMP Trail general

Lac Pelletier memories

IMG_1899

It’s January in Toronto, a glacial wind in your face, a cloudy, gritty, dirty-snow winter day. Somewhere in the middle of the never-ending curtain of noise that always plays in a city, one sound in particular sits up in my hearing, calling for attention. It’s a motor gurgling. Eventually I notice. Where have I heard that before?

And then, without any more thinking, I hear what, in downtown Toronto in January, that sound most certainly CANNOT be. I hear a boat’s outboard as you pull up to the dock, the propeller free-wheeling in neutral just before it turns off.

Standing in my parka, hearing that sound, I’m instantly transported. Somehow I’m back to a warm summer evening decades ago. I feel the light gold-gilded across Lac Pelletier and the twilight heavy with insects. I’m sitting on a boat rocking gently in the water, ready to take out the last skiiers of the day. Our voices are quiet, the lake unnaturally calm, as if it’s waiting. My shirt off, as it has been all day. Mind empty of anything but the moment, my only teen-age responsibility making sure there’s gas for the motor. Never knowing such a clarity of existence would be what would pull the older me back, so many decades later, on a cold and snowy afternoon, for an envious peek.

So far from North York Mills. Our memories are time machines. But they’re touchy ones, triggered by who knows what and when, here and gone again, taking us where they want us to go.