The Ides of March is a good time to consider historical turning points. The First Nations who inhabited the Canadian prairies for millennia could surely never have imagined how utterly marginalized they would become in their own land. By the time my late beloved mother Denise was born to pioneer parents on March 19, 1913, much of the Aboriginal world had already been swept aside by the influx of white settlers to the fledgling province. Renowned historian Bill Waiser’s centennial volume Saskatchewan: A New History enriched that provincial story. This new work, recipient of the 2016 Governor General’s award for non-fiction, performs an even greater service in bringing to light, through an Aboriginal and environmental lens, the enormous transformations that reshaped life on the prairie prior to Saskatchewan’s new political status within a far-flung Dominion. It’s a fascinating narrative told through 16 chapters enhanced by over 30 maps and tables as well as a number of illustrations and photographs.
Henry Kelsey is considered the first European to see the Saskatchewan plains. The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) servant undertook an inland trek from the coastal fort of York Factory in 1690-92. But as Waiser observes, he was “a passenger, not a pathfinder,” totally dependent on his Cree and Assiniboine guides. Within the vast mostly uncharted royal concession of “Rupert’s Land” the HBC sought to expand relations with indigenous hunters and trappers to feed the growing fur trade in beaver pelts. Colonial mythology minimized the role of the “savage” races and elevated the exploits of these early visitors to legendary status. Equally it is mythology to portray the pre-contact prairie as a pristine peaceful “Eden.” Humans had been present in the region for 10,000 - 12,000 years, impacting an environment subject to climatic variability over some 300 generations of habitation. We learn about their evolving social relations and complex belief systems from the archeological and anthropological record — a history that includes tribal rivalries and warfare. Megafauna had become extinct by 11,000 years ago. But the prairie grasslands were home to millions of bison and as many as 35 million pronghorn antelope in Kelsey’s time. The boreal forest supported other ruminants and fur-bearing animals. Despite harsh winters and periodic droughts, the region’s wildlife resources must have seemed inexhaustible.
Waiser’s first chapters describe the extensive European-indigenous trade patterns (accompanied by ceremonial rituals) that developed over many decades of imperial British-French contestation for territorial control. The introduction of the horse to the northern plains after 1730 intensified rivalries. To meet French competition the HBC pushed its reach further inland. To the southwest Anthony Henday entered Blackfoot territory. To the northwest Samuel Hearne went as far as the Arctic Ocean. In 1774 Cumberland House became the first HBC outpost established within what is present-day Saskatchewan. At the same time the HBC was increasingly being challenged by the formation of the North West Company trading through Montreal. Both were reliant on the relationships they established with indigenous peoples. Among the effects of this European penetration into Aboriginal lands was the practice of fur traders and voyageurs taking Indian partners as “country wives,” thereby creating a growing mixed-blood “Métis” population (commonly denigrated as “half-breeds”).
Europeans also introduced diseases to which Indians had no immunity. Smallpox epidemics decimated some tribes. Add to that the plague of alcohol as a trade item. Guns and horses expanded the bison hunt, which was essential as a source of pemmican — the non-perishable mixture of pounded dried meat and berries that sustained the trading economy. Horse raiding provoked inter-tribal violence. By the time the fur trade wars subsided with the 1821 merger of the HBC and North West Company: “Entire districts had been stripped of fur-bearing animals with a single-minded efficiency, while bison had been reduced to tens of thousands of bags of pemmican at factory-like provisioning posts. Indians had been demeaned, abused, beaten and debauched by alcohol.”
In chapter 11 Waiser writes about the influence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries from 1840 onward. While initially their presence was not welcomed by the HBC’s “little emperor,” governor George Simpson (the Métis were much more receptive), the colonial powers came to see the usefulness of religion as a pacifying and “civilizing” force. With the churches came the establishment of hospitals, orphanages and schools. The Sisters of Charity or “Grey Nuns” arrived in 1860. (One of Louis Riel’s sisters became a nun.) The mission at Ile-à-la-Crosse became known as the “Bethlehem of the north.”
At the same time the mass slaughter of the bison herds continued apace (two-thirds were gone by mid-century), and in this ravaged “emptied” land attention increasingly turned to its agricultural potential.
Capt. John Palliser’s 1857-59 expedition famously declared that a “triangle” to the south of a “fertile belt” was too arid. But the prospects of immense tracts of arable land proved a powerful lure. Post-Confederation Canada was also keen to resist any incursion of American manifest destiny. The new dominion entered into negotiations with the HBC and in 1869 Rupert’s Land came under its control as the “North-Western Territory” (N.W.T.). The rule of law (in the form of the North-West Mounted Police) and the railway bringing settlers would follow. This was the promise of a new West, which pointedly “did not include Aboriginal peoples . . . They were to be pushed to the sidelines and left behind, if not exorcized from the region’s history.”
The most developed part of the prairies was the Red River settlement that became the transportation gateway of Winnipeg. Although Manitoba was created in 1870, this “postage-stamp province” was kept deliberately small with no control over public lands and resources. The Northwest beyond remained a “colonial appendage.” In the northern parts the HBC continued a fur trade (now focused on muskrat rather than beaver). Ottawa’s main interest was in the southern belt above the 49th parallel as the Dominion Lands Survey mapped out townships containing future homesteads to be offered to settlers like my grandparents. Existing overland routes, like the Carlton Trail that passed near Humboldt where I was born, would be replaced by the “national dream” of a transcontinental railroad (not to forget the political corruption scandal associated with its financing). The Canadian Pacific Railway’s decision to choose a route closer to the U.S. border had a profound impact by bypassing established centres like Prince Albert and Battleford.
To pave the way for peaceful agricultural settlement the federal government sought to negotiate a series of numbered treaties with the First Nations — seven were signed in the Northwest between 1871 and 1877. The treaty process was nonetheless “imbued with an imperialist ideology that held that Indians would inevitably vanish as a distinct race in the face of the white man’s ‘superior’ civilization and that it was the Crown’s duty to remake them into loyal subjects of the Crown.” Aboriginal people surrendered the land except for small “reserves” to which they were relegated. As we know treaty obligations were often unfulfilled and the disappearance of the bison and other traditional resources resulted in famines. (The shameful history is detailed in another award-winning book, James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains.)
The NWT’s capital was moved to Pile of Bones (Regina) in 1883 but Ottawa was slow to grant the region a significant measure of responsible government. “The unfortunate result was disillusionment, alienation, grievance, and resistance.” Racist policies contributed to divisions between treaty Indians, the Métis, and whites, between Anglophones and Francophones. Indians were regarded as “deadbeats” on whom too much money was already being spent; let them submit or starve. The Métis wanted recognition of land rights. Desperation was the backdrop to the rebellion led by the return of the French Catholic Métis Louis Riel who proclaimed a provisional government at Batoche on March 19, 1885. His messianic crusade was doomed to failure, and its suppression was used as an opportunity to assert the central government’s firm control, to make clear, as Waiser puts, it that “the White Man rules.”
A “Half-Breed Commission” was formed to look into some of the Métis grievances. But it was clear for whom the land was being readied as “the government’s promotion machine went into high gear.” A pass system was instituted to control off-reserve movements by Indians. Some of their traditional practices were criminalized. Meanwhile the N.W.T.’s political evolution favoured a growing Anglophone majority population. The region gained representation in Parliament in 1886 and limited responsible government in 1897 with Frederick Haultain as its first, and only, premier. A particularly vexed issue was the education rights of the French Catholic minority. That controversy carried over into the new century. Indeed it was a main reason why the bills creating the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta provoked the longest debate in Canadian parliamentary history.
Waiser’s epilogue observes how the westward flood of settlers — Saskatchewan’s population doubled between 1905 and 1911 — created a narrative that all but obliterated what had gone before.
For many of the newcomers that took up homestead land or moved to booming communities along an ever-expanding network or rail lines, Saskatchewan’s past had no meaningful place in their memory. All that remained in 1905 were the few physical reminders on the ground that over time were either destroyed, removed, or simply neglected and left to deteriorate and disappear. . . . Saskatchewan’s rich history before provincehood had become . . . a world we have lost. And the people of the province were poorer for not knowing that past or choosing to ignore it.