BY Jim Harding
We’ll have to better understand the past and do this in a more holistic way if we’re going to move on to a sustainable future.
As I age I can look back on several generations of change and be more aware of the “lens” I “inherited”. It was a lens greatly shaped by being born within the Anglo-European settler class that spread across the prairies in the time of my great grandparents. It was influenced by John A. McDonald’s vision of a British Canada.
SWIFT CURRENT FARM
At each life stage I was influenced by this mindset. I was born at the start of WWII in Swift Current, where my parents ran the Experimental Farm. Though we soon moved to Calgary, where my father worked with the Stampede, I relished the stories about Swift Current’s Frontier rodeo Days, the Kinetic Club and Federated Co-op’s horse plant that my uncle managed. These “magical” stories filled my early imagination.
But there was nothing ever said about the Métis living southeast of Swift Current, in places like Wood Mountain, who were displaced after the Riel insurrection in the Red River Valley. There was nothing said about the earlier plight of the Lakota people who had camped in the thousands in both the Cyprus Hills and Wood Mountain areas. They tried and failed to become refugees in Canada, and nearing starvation were forced to return to live on U.S. reservations.
Like the indigenous and settler people themselves, these stories were mostly segregated from each other.
MOOSE JAW LAND TITLES
There were selective family stories passed on from what happened before I was born. I found out that my father was born in Moose Jaw because his father was transferred from Regina to head up the new Land Titles Office. There was a huge influx of settlers at the time: Moose Jaw’s population grew from only 1,600 in 1901 to 14,000 in 1911, the year my father was born there.
On a recent trip to Moose Jaw’s mineral spa my spouse and I had the chance to visit that Land Titles building. Since 1999 it has functioned as the Yvette Moore Gallery, which is worth visiting. As I entered through the large arched doorway I tried to imagine where my grandfather might have sat behind his desk, overseeing the records of expanding agriculture. I found it intriguing that there was no wood used in the building and was told it was stone and metal so there would be no threat of fire to destroy the all important settler paper trail.
But the local story was told as though history started with the settlers; as though the area had been an “empty land”, with no indigenous people displaced by the onslaught of settlement.
On a visit a few years ago we took the tour of the Moose Jaw tunnels where Chinese immigrants had cooked, done laundry and provided other services for the settlers who worked at street level. My grandfather had also worked at Moose Jaw’s temporary Land Titles facility built about 1907 on the main street and I realized that his first office was right on top of these tunnels.
The tour guide told us that the Chinese cooks sent food up hand-operated elevators, where it was then served by “white” waiters. I wondered whether my grandfather ate Chinese-prepared, English-served food on his lunch breaks. If so, it was never mentioned in any hand-me-down stories.
In 1882 Moose Jaw became a railway hub. Chinese immigrants had helped to dig many of the Rocky Mountain railway tunnels and now some of them were working in tunnels below this railway-settler town. Perhaps they also helped construct these tunnels out of interconnected basements and steam piping corridors. The segregation of people and stories in the emerging settler society clearly affected more than indigenous peoples.
REGINA AREA RESERVES
I grew up in Regina’s downtown in the late 1940s and 1950s. I slowly became aware that my Scottish, Methodist great grandfather, on my father’s mother’s side of the family, had worked as a clerk in Regina’s Land Titles building. This building still stands across from Victoria Park and now houses the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. I slowly realized that both sides of my father’s family had administrative links to “opening up the west”, though my mother’s side of the family was mostly of Irish peasant descent.
But there was nothing ever said about all the “Indian” reserves that existed nearby Regina or that Indian Affairs imposed Pass Laws that kept indigenous people from visiting Regina or other settler-dominated communities. We were largely unaware of the existence of the Residential Schools. It was only as a young adult in the early 1960s that I started to realize the colonial legacy I was born into. Ironically, this was partly because of the inspiration of the U.S.’s anti-segregation civil rights movement. Like the people themselves, the stories here had remained mostly segregated from each other.
We have judgmental labels when segregation occurs elsewhere. We call it “slavery” when it happened in the U.S. south. We call it “apartheid” when it occurred in South Africa. But what do we call it when it happened right here?
The diversity of stories stemming from the colonial legacy converge where I now live in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Behind our house lie remnants of the “Dakota Trail” created by indigenous refugees from the U.S. Indian wars in the 1850s. After 1881 some of these people ended up settling on nearby Standing Buffalo First Nations. Rooke Street below us is named after the remittance man who first built on this land in the early 1900’s. The farm road that goes past our driveway was built in the late 1920s to get to the pastures atop the valley. The grazing cows provided milk for the hundreds of TB patients and staff at the sanatorium that still stands, though neglected and calling for help, down the valley. In the coulee below us, two log cabins remain from a Métis homestead from the 1930s.With our help these may be able to withstand enough entropy to reach their one-century mark.
Digging deeper into these intertwined strands of history has exposed the fallacy of the segregated stories that often get passed down. It turns out that the remittance man, who once headed the local Masons, had bicultural family roots straddling the British Empire in Hawaii. I recently found out that one off-spring of the Métis family that previously built on this land had a child with a family friend. Sham Regen, the farmer with the milking cows, ended up selling lakeside land where the Calling Lakes retreat Centre, which will soon close, operated for 60 years.
The land holds remnants of all these realities and perhaps we need to learn to tell our stories as the land might, if it could talk. As I lay the ground for a small publication on this local history I am opening to even more surprises.
I value the family stories that I was born into; they started me on this journey of discovery. I am proud of what my parents did to improve life in Saskatchewan, including through their role in agriculture, education, arts and the Medicare struggle. But the stories I inherited still reflected the segregated realities that came with the colonial land settlement.
We now need to desegregate these stories and to learn to better listen to each other. The stories need to be retold from a deeper place so that they can contribute to building the mutually respectful relationships that we will all need to protect the land and water for our common future.
Note: This column was inspired after doing tours for Nature Saskatchewan’s AGM, held in Fort Qu’Appelle during the summer solstice.