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!
(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.
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.
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.
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.
Madonna Hamel, a friend of mine and an artist from Val Marie, sent me this poster. The rich Métis culture and heritage of the northern Great Plains will be marked, in a small way, on August 3, 2017 as a group of us begin our walk from Swift Current to Fort Battleford. The Battleford Trail is important to Métis history, and so also to the history (and the present-day) of all Canadians. More on that coming up! In the meantime, I’m looking forward to learning more from this vital community!
This is day two without electricity so I will keep it short. We’re camped right now beside a graveyard, at a small Greek Orthodox church on the NWMP trail. When he could see us far off, struggling through the heat on the final stretch of our 15 miles or so today, a man at the church rang the bell to call us home. Now it’s dark. The graveyard beside our tents overlooks the vast open prairie. There are little solar lights beside the graves, which is perhaps nice, but a touch freaky for us in the tents.
Today was also the day that we were sent off by two RCMP officers, one in serge, and then smudged at the Lakota First Nation as we walked through. Not only that, but we happened to arrive at lunch and were given a wonderful hot meal by them.
So much to say, but not now. After all those miles, many of them through thigh-high grasses and rough pasture (fell into a badger hole once), it’s time for sleep.
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!)
I have in my jacket pocket two smooth stones – river pebbles, worn by years of exposure first to running water, and then to wind, snow, rain and sun. When I picked them up they were still so warm from the late autumn Saskatchewan sun that I could put my hand in my pocket and feel the warmth lingering there.
The stones come from the foot of the first concrete marker in the North West Mounted Police Trail. It was at the Wood Mountain historical site, site of the Wood Mountain trading post, and of the original boundary survey camp. It’s a three-hour drive south and east of Regina, on increasingly small roads, where I met local historian and NWMPT curator Hugh Henry.
Technically, the young, untested recruits from Ontario started further east. In their second-hand gear and with their quick training , they were so poorly-equipped for the harsh environment facing them that by the time they reached Wood Mountain they’d already see a number of their horses die and had been beaten down by storm, swamp, and pest. Jim Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains, told me how the SK First Nations still recount how the NWMP recruits contracted lice and fleas so badly that they had to teach them how to take off their clothes and put them onto ant hills where the ants could eat the lice and thus relieve the young military force. The thought of the future red-coated pride of Canada buck-naked on the open prairie on their first expedition west to “save” the Indians says a lot about how our history needs to be revisited.
Between Hugh Henry, Jim Daschuk, Kathy Grant, Brenda Peterson and others I learned a lot about the NWMP trail this visit. I’m hoping that some of us will walk the trail in the next year or two, not just to commemorate the brave and young Ontario men who came west, but also the Metis, and First Nations peoples who were there already to meet them, who had walked the trail, and who would soon be pushed off the very land they then called their own.
Early in the New Year, for almost 25 years running, I’ve created what I call “memory files” for my family. Setting them up long ago became one of those January traditions, along with packing up Christmas decorations, transferring appointments to the new agenda, and throwing out the December eggnog that seemed like such a good idea to buy at the time. Memory files are hardly a new idea. Maybe you do the same thing. They’re nothing special – just those plain, cream-coloured manila file folders we all use. But with these particular folders, I sit down every January and carefully print someone’s name and the year. Then, throughout the twelve months, if there’s a concert my daughter performs in, a card from a special aunt or uncle, some doodling, a to-do list that really says what’s happening in our lives (pay violin lessons, call re: job offer) or maybe even a little hand-written note – “gone to the store; I’ll be back in twenty minutes”, I might keep it and, at some point, toss it in the file.
I keep one for myself, too. Looking back, it’s interesting how the width of the folders changes, depending on the year. Which means, I guess, depending on where I and my kids are in our lives. From the halcyon years when the kids were young, the file folders are like horns of plenty: spilling with colourful bits and pieces. In those years, scrapbook pages and school drawings and construction paper in bright oranges and blues and reds and greens bulge out of the files, all fighting for attention.
These days, not so much. The files are neater, more organized, and much, much slimmer. There might be a strip photograph of teenagers taken in one of those photo booths at the mall, or a ticket stub from a “One Direction” concert, or a ribbon from a sports event, and not much else. Actually, these days my file is looking thicker than my kids, which doesn’t mean that less is happening in their lives, only that I’m less a part of it. With my grown sons I’ve gone through, already, that awkward stage of not quite knowing why I’m even keeping a file, and then, finally, realising that our daily lives just don’t overlap enough for me to “file” much.
The word “keep-sake” is interesting for what it doesn’t say. Keep for the sake of what? Or whom? For a couple of decades I have been keeping, I suspect, for my own sake more than anyone else’s. At some point soon, I will have to divest myself of at least some of these memories, and it will be up to my children to claim which memories they want to treasure, and which are ready to be let go.
Only a few years ago I found a little box in the storage unit where my father keeps his things. In it were dumped all kinds of detritrus having to do with my young life: the ribbon that I won at a Science Fair in grade six, a photo of a clean-cut little blond boy with a bow-tie that I struggle to see myself in, and more school graduation bulletins than a person can ever reasonably expect a parent to suffer through. But suffer they did, and they kept the papers to prove it.
It was such a pleasure to open that box and sift through its treasures. Some of the memories were painful, but many brought a smile to my eyes. And some of the items brought tears. Our memories of our families are so short. For all the stuff that we accumulate, precious little of it has meaning beyond a generation or two.
But, at least for now, I will keep collecting. It may be that, years from now, some little item that I scrounged from recycling will be picked up by hands younger than mine, turned over once or twice, and with a “well, will you look at this?”, will be shared. And then the circle will be complete, and the memories not just filed, but fulfilled.