Bill Waiser

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Criddle mixture used to fight hoppers in 1930s

In July 1936, Winnipeg Free Press reporters James Gray and Bob Scott were driving through southeastern Saskatchewan when they were forced to the side of the road by a grasshopper blizzard. By the time the swarm had moved on, the car was a “ghastly mess.”

Gray’s attempt to scrape the insect carcasses from the windshield with his razor produced a “gooey smear.”  Fortunately, a passing farmer had a wide putty knife that removed the “grasshopper grease” from the windows, and the pair pushed on.

But the smell of the “sticky green coating” on the car, made worse by the heat, was so nauseating that they had to stop in Weyburn to have the vehicle cleaned with coal oil.

The experience of the two reporters was commonplace in Saskatchewan in the 1930s. Everyone had hopper stories — how their numbers darkened the sky, how they ate the clothes on lines, even how the guts from their squished bodies stopped trains.

Some stories were exaggerated. But it was impossible to exaggerate the number of grasshoppers that invaded the province during the Great Depression.

In 1931, it was estimated that 10 million acres were infested with grasshoppers. Nor was the scourge limited to the countryside. On Aug. 11, 1938, a massive cloud of grasshoppers brought life in Regina almost to a standstill.

Saskatchewan farmers fought back with “Criddle Mixture” — a poison bait named for Norman Criddle, an artist and entomologist who lived at Aweme, Manitoba, southeast of Brandon. (The family story is told in the book Criddle-de-diddle-ensis.)

In 1898, Norman and his half-brother tried to deal with a grasshopper outbreak with a homemade sheet iron pan, filled with burning wood, that was drawn by two horses. As the sled-like apparatus passed over the field, grasshoppers would jump to a fiery death in the burner.

The “hopper dozer” worked wonderfully, but the entomologist was not done searching for the best way to exterminate grasshoppers.

One morning, Norman noticed that grasshoppers were attracted to fresh horse manure. This observation led to the development and testing of a new poison bait — a mixture of manure, salt, and Paris Green (an emerald-green arsenic-based compound).

The Criddle Mixture, as it became commonly known, was modified over the years through further experimentation and the need to use cheaper or more accessible ingredients. Bran and sawdust were often substituted for manure, while dry white arsenic and then liquid sodium arsenic served as the poison component. Whatever the recipe, the bait mixture proved highly effective, so much so that it was used for more than three decades before being replaced by other pesticides such as DDT.

Criddle Mixture was employed to combat grasshopper infestations in 1902 and then again in 1919. But its most extensive use was during the Great Depression. In fact, the province set up a Saskatchewan Grasshopper Control Committee that met regularly in Regina to assess the extent and severity of each season’s outbreak and coordinate the control campaign.

Mixing stations were set up in the worst-hit areas in the province, and farmers would pick up their poison bait there. The volume was truly staggering. In 1934, more than 1,000 boxcars of sawdust, 10,555 tons of bran, and 116,203 gallons of liquid sodium arsenic were applied to Saskatchewan fields in the form of Criddle Mixture.

The best way to apply the mixture was by hand. A wagon would go along the edge of the field and the bait would be ladled out from a barrel. Or someone would walk with a bucket of the mixture and use a paddle or spoon to spread it with a flinging motion.

Even though protective clothing was apparently never used in the preparation or distribution of the Criddle Mixture, there were no known human deaths — just some close calls. But those exposed to arsenic, especially in powder form, may have experienced neurological problems.
Cattle were lost. So too, ironically, were birds and other grasshopper predators.

There is also the larger question of why farmers, with the active support of the Saskatchewan government, would knowingly put poison on the land.

But in going to war against the grasshopper, farmers were doing something to save their livelihoods — or what was left of them — when all else seemed to be working against them. The Criddle Mixture offered hope at a time when hope was in short supply.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Saskatchewan cities did not escape the grasshopper scourge in the 1930s. In this photo from Aug. 11, 1938, a worker brushes hoppers from the walls of the Legislative Building in Regina.

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Carlton Trail once served as Saskatchewan’s highway

In 1957, Saskatchewan became the first province to complete its section of the new Trans-Canada Highway across the southern prairies. And ever since then, millions of travellers have complained about the mind-numbing hours spent driving between Manitoba and Alberta.

A century earlier, people would have used another equally famous route — the Carlton Trail — for travel within and through the region. But unlike today’s No. 1, there was nothing boring about the route or the trip along it.

The 900-mile Carlton Trail ran from the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg) northwest to Fort Edmonton.

Known by a variety of names depending on the district, the broad trail entered present-day Saskatchewan (from Fort Ellice) near Welby/Spy Hill, continued northwest (just south of Melville) through Ituna to Touchwood Post (near Lestock, south of the Quill Lakes) and then continued (passing near Lanigan and Humboldt) on to Batoche, where it crossed the South Saskatchewan River before reaching Fort Carlton; from Carlton, the trail ran north of the North Saskatchewan River (just south of Edam and Turtleford) to Fort Pitt and ended at Fort Edmonton.

It took on average 22 days to travel its length at a rate of about 40 miles per day — but only if the weather cooperated. The trail was also heavily rutted in places from the constant freight traffic and presented something of a nightmare because of the mud holes, some deep enough to swallow a wagon up to its box.

Despite these challenges, the Carlton Trail functioned for several decades as a major transportation artery in the western interior.

Indeed, most visitors to the region in the mid-19th century invariably travelled a section of the road by foot, horseback, or cart.

On the other hand, those who depended on the trail for their livelihood quickly learned its ways. Among them was James Clinkskill, a Scottish merchant who set up a general store in Battleford in the early 1880s.

Mail service left Winnipeg for Edmonton every three weeks, and Clinkskill would sometimes tag along with his supplies shipment, even during winter. The fare from Winnipeg to Battleford was $75. But passengers had to feed themselves and be prepared for “a spell” every four hours when the animals were rested and fed and a great kettle of tea was made.

For the uninitiated — in other words, first-time users of the trail — it was a different story.

That included Erastus Lawrence, his wife Lydia and their three children, Susan, Fred, and Fenwick, who travelled the trail in the late spring and summer of 1879.

The Lawrence diary of the trip, available today at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, is full of references to never-ending mud holes, especially one section of trail called “emigrants’ terror.” The frequent thundershowers — what Erastus jokingly called camping “by electric light” — only made matters worse.

Then, there were the mosquitoes (“eight times larger than commons one”), the “fearful bulldogs” (horseflies), and “black flies in clouds.” At one point, the horses were “so used up by the flies” that they “acted drunk” and could “hardly manage” their loads.

But the Lawrence hardships were tempered by wild strawberries and the “panorama of loveliness” along the Saskatchewan River.

The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1882-83 sealed the fate of the trail. The railroad introduced a new metropolitan pattern across the southern prairies, while providing more dependable transportation and communication.

The trail continued to be used for local freighting until branch lines and roads took its place. Homesteaders also ploughed up sections as they brought their pioneer farms into production or blocked off access by fences.

Professor R.C. Russell of the U of S Department of Plant Pathology, and author of a 1955 book on the Carlton Trail, recalled from his childhood days in the Lipton district that the trail was “almost entirely deserted” when he first saw it.

But the trail didn’t completely disappear and can be found today here and there by looking for the telltale ruts on the ground.

Russell thought about asking the Saskatchewan government to mark the trail route as a diamond jubilee project, but dropped the idea.

Instead, near the end of his book, he claimed the wandering trail had its own charm and cautioned against “plung(ing) doggedly ahead in a straight line.” It’s good advice.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: William Hind made a series of sketches along the Carlton Trail in the late 1850s. 

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Bobby Gimby 1967

Saskatchewan’s Bobby Gimby was Canada’s pied piper in 1967

He called it a simple marching song. Nothing too lyrical, nothing too serious. Just something catchy that Canadian children could sing aloud in celebration of the country’s centennial. And that was a big part of the song’s appeal.

In fact, mention Bobby Gimby’s name today and someone who was in school in 1967 will invariably start singing the first lines of “CA-NA-DA”.

Robert Stead Gimby (pronounced Jim-bee) was born in Cabri in southwestern Saskatchewan in October 1918. The third of five children (an older brother died in childhood), Bobby was immersed in music from an early age.

His father, who ran the local hardware store, was a fiddler, while his mother played the piano. All of the children were encouraged to master an instrument. Bobby would later recall that “the little band in the family” made for a lot of “nighttime frivolity.”

It was an idyllic childhood. His father’s successful business meant there was time for weekend picnics and summer holidays at Antelope and Clearwater lakes. Bobby even got his own cornet when he was eight — in addition to regular piano lessons from one of the local music teachers.

Then, in 1929, the Great Depression put a stranglehold on Cabri’s fortunes, a situation made worse by an unrelenting drought that brought the farming community to its knees.

The family hardware store limped along before a lightning strike in 1933 reduced the business to ash. Bobby’s father took to the road selling life insurance, but it was a meagre living at best.

Bobby found solace in his music — he could be heard constantly practicing in the family’s Main Street home — but he never got the chance to showcase his burgeoning talent. There was no money for the Cabri brass band to travel to take part in local competitions.

The Gimbys moved in 1936 to Chilliwack, British Columbia, where Bobby completed his high school education. It was music that consumed him, though, and he played in local bands before making a name for himself in Vancouver.

His big break came in 1941 when he joined Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen as lead trumpeter and toured the country. That was followed in 1945 by a starring role in CBC radio’s “Happy Gang,” a gig that lasted through the 1950s. He capped the decade as musical director for the popular “Juliette” show on CBC television.

By the early 1960s, Bobby was writing pop songs and radio jingles when not working as an orchestra leader. His talent and reputation earned him a commission to produce something special for the 1967 celebrations.

The national Centennial Committee was initially lukewarm to Gimby’s “CA-NA-DA” song and decided to use it as background music to a centennial promotional film.

But then the calls and letters started to roll in from across the country from teachers who reported that their students were enraptured with the song. Where could they get a copy of the record?

“CA-NA-DA” sold 270,000 copies as the top selling single in Canada in 1967. There was also great demand for the sheet music.

It was Bobby, though, who turned his song into something special. Bedecked in a cape and with his long trumpet encrusted with costume jewellery and pearls, he toured the country that year as Canada’s piped piper.

Wherever Bobby went, children would march in a single line behind him as the notes from his trumpet led them in the singing of “CA-NA-DA.” The uplifting words, combined with the young voices, made for a magical moment. “CA-NA-DA” was the country’s unofficial anthem and Bobby it’s undisputed folk hero.

In looking back to 1967, there were other magical memories, some seemingly frozen in time, others probably never to be repeated.

Montreal played host to the hugely successful Expo 67 world’s fair. The centennial flame was lit on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. And the Toronto Maple Leafs won their 13th and last Stanley Cup.

But it was a simple children’s marching song that captured the imagination of the youth of the nation and continues to resonate over the decades.

“North south east west
There’ll be happy times
Church bells will ring, ring, ring
It’s the hundredth anniversary of
Ev’rybody sing together!”


This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Bandleader Bobby Gimby leads children’s choir in singing of his hit tune, “Ca-na-da,” at Confederation Train ceremonies.
Photo: Published Aug. 28, 1967. Morris Edwards of the MONTREAL STAR.

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Metis Family Ile-a-la-Crosse

What did Saskatchewan look like in 1867?

Saskatchewan was not part of Canada in 1867. In fact, the future province was not even a Canadian province at the time. That would quickly change.

Incorporating the northwest was a planned feature of the 1867 Confederation deal (section 146 of the BNA Act).

By acquiring the region, expansionists expected the young dominion to become stronger, more powerful, but most of all, more secure on a continent dominated by an aggressive United States. The western interior had to be claimed by Canada as soon as possible to keep the Americans at bay.

Two years after Confederation, Canada struck a deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company to surrender its charter rights to Rupert’s Land (present-day western and northern Canada) for £300,000.

It was a phenomenal real estate transaction.

The original dominion not only increased seven times in size, but the land transfer paved the way for agricultural settlement of the western plains.

It would be several decades, though, before the expected rush of homesteaders was realized.

These Indigenous children faced new circumstances and challenges with Canadian acquisition of the northwest. (Louis Cochin)

Indigenous peoples, in the meantime, faced new circumstances and challenges. Indeed, change was a defining feature of life in the western interior.

In the north, the lives of Indigenous people largely revolved around a steady, somewhat unimaginative, fur trade. But new rivals would soon compete with the HBC, while the trade became more concentrated in the region because of growing settlement in the south.

On the plains, bison were in steep decline. Two-thirds of the herds, once numbering from five to six million animals, were effectively gone by the mid-19th century.

As Methodist missionary George McDougall gloomily summed up the situation: “A time of starvation. No buffalo.”

Cree bands moved to protect their hunting territories.

No longer was the Saskatchewan country a bison commons, open to all, but increasingly claimed by particular bands. By the 1860s, though, bison were mostly found around Wood Mountain, the Cypress Hills, and present-day northern Montana and the Poplar and Milk rivers.

The Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux responded by forming large hunting parties that entered enemy Blackfoot territory in force. The Métis, heavily involved in the bison robe trade, also pursued the depleted herds by establishing small wintering settlements throughout present-day southern Saskatchewan.

They were anxious times, made worse by another smallpox epidemic that spread north from the Missouri country, first to the Blackfoot and then the Cree. The death toll ranged from fifteen to forty percent.

Because the disease never reached beyond the Touchwood Hills and the Qu’Appelle Lakes, the epidemic was largely unknown to the outside world.

So too was one of the largest battles in plains warfare. In October 1870, the Cree launched a major attack against the Blackfoot near the junction of the Belly (Oldman) and St. Mary rivers (near present-day Lethbridge).

But the Cree were flung back and lost hundreds of warriors.

The once great bison herds were in steep decline by the 1860s. (Adrian Paton)

The “buffalo wars” ended when the Cree and Blackfoot reached a peace agreement in the spring of 1871. The fighting had a terrible cost, made worse when the smallpox dead were added to the tally.

It is easy to understand why the Cree and Blackfoot felt under siege at the time.

Nor did the coming of peace alleviate the suffering. There was widespread starvation in the wake of the smallpox epidemic. William Christie at Fort Edmonton reported that the Cree who wintered on the plains in search of bison “suffered frightfully” and reduced to eating their horses.

The Cree along the North Saskatchewan came together in 1870-71 to discuss their plight— and the unsettling news that Canada had bought their lands from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Newcomers meant more competition for the dwindling bison.

Sweetgrass, the leading chief in the Pitt district, sent a message asking for a treaty.
“Our country is no longer able to support us,” he reported.

“We invite you to come and see us and speak to us.”

The Cree sought farming assistance as part of a new, long-lasting, reciprocal arrangement with the dominion of Canada.

But no one came.

Whereas Ottawa was preparing the land for settlement and the railroad, it had no immediate plans for treaties west of the new province of Manitoba. And so the Cree refused to allow any government-sponsored activity in their territory until Ottawa finally agreed to deal with them.

Getting the Canadian government to meet with the Cree was an accomplishment in itself.

First Nations and Métis peoples were not consulted, let alone represented, when the Canadian government negotiated the purchase of Rupert’s Land in 1869. Nor was Ottawa prepared to give the western population a meaningful voice in the settlement and development of the region.

The Northwest Territories was treated as little more than a federal colony into the 20th century.

And even when Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, it had to wait another quarter century before it was granted control over its public lands and resources.

It is little wonder, then, why the Saskatchewan story of confederation is a protracted, at times acrimonious, experience.

This article originally appeared on CBC Saskatchewan.
Photo: A Métis family at Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask. 
Photo Credit: Louis Cochin

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Bill Waiser appointed to Order of Canada

Saskatchewan author and historian Bill Waiser was appointed to the Order of Canada on June 30, 2017.

From the Governor General of Canada’s Website:

Governor General Announces 99 New Appointments to the Order of Canada

OTTAWA—His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, today announced 99 new appointments to the Order of Canada. The new member list includes 3 Companions (C.C.)19 Officers (O.C.) and 77 Members (C.M.). Recipients will be invited to accept their insignia at a ceremony to be held at a later date.

“I am delighted to recognize these new recipients of the Order of Canada on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Confederation,” said the Governor General. “This July 1 also marks 50 years since the creation of the Order of Canada and the first-ever list of appointments, which was released a few days later. The individuals on today’s list, just like those appointed half a century ago, are truly inspiring as they have helped to build the smarter, more caring nation that we, as Canadians, are all so proud to call ‘home’. Let us celebrate these remarkable individuals today and every day!”

Throughout the year, we are celebrating the Order of Canada’s 50th anniversary through a host of special initiatives and partnerships. To join the celebration, visit and use the hashtag #OC50.

About the Order of Canada
Created in 1967, the Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours, recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. Close to 7 000 people from all sectors of society have been invested into the Order. Their contributions are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and have taken to heart the motto of the Order: DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (“They desire a better country”). Appointments are made by the governor general on the recommendation of the Advisory Council for the Order of Canada.


Dr. William Todd met smallpox epidemic with vaccination initiative but never officially credited

One of the more pithy sources for the western Canadian fur trade is George Simpson’s “character book.” During his tenure as overseas governor for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Simpson provided candid, sometimes harsh, assessments of 157 employees.

These jot-form sketches give some insight into the personality of the men who worked for the HBC. But they also reveal as much about Governor Simpson, who was obsessed with economy and efficiency and consequently tended to evaluate employees on their contribution to the company’s bottom line.

That was the case for Dr. William Todd, an Irish Protestant who served as a surgeon in the British Navy before joining the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1816. Over the next 35 years, Todd worked at posts from Hudson Bay to the Pacific and from the Red River Settlement to the Athabasca country.

Simpson’s “character book” treatment of Todd was mixed at best. He described the surgeon as “skilful in his profession and a tolerable Indian Trader, but not regular in business, nor is he an active bustling man.”

Simpson continued, “A man of fair conduct, perfectly honest … not much liked by his colleagues who think little of him altho’ he has a very good opinion of his own abilities.”

He saved his most biting comments for the end: “Has a tinge of radicalism about him, is over fond of a Glass of Grog, and would in a Civilized World be addicted to Pot House conviviality altho’ not a drunkard.”

Even though Dr. Todd never saw this 1832 assessment, he readily acknowledged that his medical work often took precedence over his other job as trader.

That was a blessing when the surgeon found himself on the front lines when a smallpox outbreak, equal in mortality to the 1781-82 scourge, raged across the northern grasslands in 1837.

The contagion came from the south. An annual supply boat from St. Louis carried the disease up the Missouri River to Fort Union in June 1837.

Indigenous peoples frequenting the post were immediately infected, culminating weeks later in what one eyewitness described as “the greatest destruction possible.”

The disease reached the Saskatchewan country by the early autumn of 1837. Dr Todd, then stationed at Fort Pelly in the Swan River district, was not sure from Indigenous peoples’ reports whether he was dealing with smallpox.

But instead of waiting for confirmation, he decided to use the new cowpox vaccine in the post’s medical supplies and treat the indigenous people in the Fort Pelly area. Todd also taught Indigenous headmen the procedure so that they could treat their followers, as well as sent fresh cowpox vaccine to other HBC posts to the west and north.

These preventative measures constituted “the first extensive vaccination program among the Indigenous peoples of western Canada.”

And they saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives because the disease was stopped from spreading beyond the Saskatchewan River. But the death toll on the northern plains was nonetheless staggering.

The mortality rate among the Assiniboine and Blackfoot — because they were not vaccinated — reportedly ranged from one-half to two-thirds. Some bands were effectively “shattered into tiny, starving remnants.”

The Cree and Saulteaux, by contrast, were largely spared and moved farther south and west in mixed bands into lands that had been emptied by the disease. The Cree, in particular, emerged from the epidemic as a dominant tribe, whose numbers continued to grow into the mid-19th century.

Todd’s decisive action made him a respected medicine man among the indigenous population. It has even been suggested that he was the most famous doctor in the Canadian North-West at the time.

Governor Simpson, however, not only failed to mention Todd’s efforts in his official company report on the epidemic, but took credit for having the foresight to send the cowpox vaccine inland in anticipation of a future smallpox outbreak.

The ill feelings between the two men did not end there. In 1849, Dr. Todd applied for promotion from chief trader to chief factor and additional remuneration for having served as both trader and surgeon. Neither request was supported by Simpson, and the HBC governor and council turned Todd down.

William Todd died a broken man at the Red River Settlement in December 1851. He may have been rightly proud of his medical reputation, but in Simpson’s fur trade world, only business mattered.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Smallpox had a devastating impact on the indigenous population of the western interior.
Photo courtesy: Library and Archives Canada PA-181599)

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Clear policy needed for Saskatchewan government’s digital records

So, Premier Brad Wall uses a private email server for government business. So, apparently, do all other members of the Saskatchewan Legislature.

What’s the big deal? Why did Saskatchewan’s Privacy Commissioner Ron Kruzeniski bother to investigate the matter? Shouldn’t we be happy that Premier Wall and other MLAs are using their cell phones and tablets to do their jobs, and not checking their Facebook feed or playing games?

Well, it’s not that simple nor straightforward.

As Kruzeniski recently recommended, all government-related business should be conducted on government email servers that are not only secure, but backed by the necessary resources and expertise.

That way, government records are not in different locations (i.e. stored on different servers), but accessible from a single source. And that’s important, given the nature of electronic records and the challenges they present.

Government departments and agencies may produce and collect a wealth of information, but there is no guarantee that these records are complete today or will be accessible in the future, especially the vast majority that exist in born-digital format.

And without proper digital management of these records — with content-rich metadata to make them searchable and understandable, and their ongoing preservation in accessible formats — these born-digital records are going to be lost, or at best, incomplete: unintelligible, inaccessible or inauthentic.

In fact, government departments may not even know the extent or location of all their electronic records.

In other words, they may have lost control over records that belong to history.

That brings up the other big challenge in dealing with electronic records — namely, deciding today what to keep for tomorrow.
Unlike paper records that can sit for decades before being evaluated for possible archival retention, decisions about what digital records need to be kept and preserved must be made today because of the ephemeral nature of the records.

Perhaps author Joseph Boyden unintentionally captured this situation best in the closing lines of his novel, Orenda: “But hindsight is sometimes too easy, isn’t it … What’s happened in the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason the future is always a breath away … The past and future are present.”

Archivists need to appraise the contexts of electronic record creation to ensure the extraction of those identified for long-term preservation.

Finally, if the integrity and accessibility of government electronic records is in doubt, then there can be no accountability.

Imagine the frustration if records about Indian residential schools were in an electronic format that could not be read today. Or the disappointment if electronic records dealing with Japanese-Canadian relocation during the Second World War were never properly saved.

We need open access to government records — subject to specific restrictions (including passage of time to protect privacy) — to ensure transparency.

That is how a democracy is supposed to work.

Reliable records and access to those records (keeping in mind the balance between privacy and access) are at the heart of government accountability.

So, what needs to be done?

We need to ensure that those serving or working for the provincial government use the government server for their email.

We need to ensure that government records (emails) that now exist on private servers are transferred to the government one in an accessible format.

And we need a records management infrastructure that can deal with the new record-keeping realities of the digital world.

It’s already getting late in the game.

According to author Max Foran in the Literary Review of Canada in November 2013: “We are not staring out from the cliff edge of profound change so much as watching the ground crumble beneath us, a collapse suitably heedless, remorseless and fast.”

Unless something is done — and soon — we stand to lose critically valuable, born-digital documentary heritage.

That’s why Premier Wall’s government email matters. It not only needs to be preserved, but accessible for decades to come.

Otherwise, if these and other kinds of digital records are lost, we are on the cusp of a new dark age. And history and accountability will be big losers.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Imagine the frustration if records about Indian residential schools were in an electronic format that could not be read today.

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Joe Stefansson, Vilhjalmur’s brother, known for his hair

In May 1913, the New York Times carried a story about the latest expedition of famed arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

The article reported that Stefansson was in Ottawa finalizing expedition details with the Canadian government and that he planned to visit family in Wynyard, Saskatchewan before setting off for the Pacific Northwest.

The naming of Wynyard as Stefansson’s home was curious in that he has always been associated with his birthplace, Arnes, North-West Territories (near present-day Gimli, Manitoba). In fact, Stefansson was often considered American because of his position at Dartmouth College. He lived the better part of his life in the United States, continuously from 1923 to his death in 1962.

The article also mentioned a brother, named Joe, who was 12 years older than Vilhjalmur and living on a Wynyard-area farm with their mother.

Joe might not have been as famous as Vilhjalmur, but he was something of a local celebrity, known for his long, flowing hair.

The Stefansson family emigrated to Canada in 1876 and joined a large Icelandic settlement along the southwest side of Lake Winnipeg.  Two of the children, Joe and Inga, had been born in Iceland. A third, Vilhjalmur, was born in 1879.

When Lake Winnipeg flooded in 1880, the Stefanssons “saved ourselves,” in the words of Vilhjalmur, “by getting up and going elsewhere.”  That elsewhere was a homestead across the border in Mountain, North Dakota. There, another child, Siguros, was born in 1882.

Vilhjalmur had no interest in farming but pursued his education at the universities of North Dakota, Iowa, and Harvard before becoming involved in arctic exploration and research.

Joe, on the other hand, went into the ranching business. He visited farmers in Cavalier county and offered to pasture their cattle on nearby government land for a fee per head.

It was a lucrative arrangement — one that enabled Joe to live his dream of being a cowboy modelled after Buffalo Bill. One of the favourite books in the Stefansson household was a biography of the wild west legend.

Joe grew his reddish-brown hair into long, wavy curls and began to sport a large handlebar moustache. He also acted as if he had been born in the saddle.

Joe would braid his hair and wrap it around his head when working cattle. But in his other profession — ironically, as a hair tonic salesman — he would show off his mane as surefire proof of what he was peddling.

In August 1904, Joe headed to the North-West Territories and took out a homestead among other Icelandic settlers in the Sleipnir district (near Wynyard). The land was just south of Little Quill Lake. He was joined the following year by his mother and youngest sister Siguros.

Joe secured the patent to his homestead in the spring of 1908. But he was an indifferent farmer and preferred fishing the nearby lakes and selling his catch to settlers in the Wynyard area. To this end, he appeared before the 1909-10 Dominion Fisheries Commission and called for the stocking of Big and Little Quill Lakes.

When Vilhjalmur visited his family in Saskatchewan in June 1913 on his way to the arctic, he was welcomed as an international celebrity. There was a public reception at the Good Templars’ Hall in Wynyard followed by a private banquet.

Joe did not escape the spotlight. The reporters found the famous explorer’s brother to be something of a local character who was never short of words — about anything.

That’s how Malla Jeroski (born Malfridur Sigurlin Josephson) of Saskatoon remembers her uncle. The daughter of Joe’s sister Siguros, Malla fondly talks about the “colourful” Joe with his long flowing hair and fondness for drink. He was “always up to something” and “a lot of fun.”

Joe did not escape tragedy, though. In 1918, he married Gudfinna Finnson, only to lose her that same year to the flu. He continued his antics, but Malla believes that it was his way of hiding his grief.

Joe also faced the loss of his land. But Vilhjalmur bought the farm so that his brother was able to live there until his 1943 death.

By then, Joe’s trademark hair had been cut. The locks were kept in a trunk by his sister Siguros and eventually sent to Iceland.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Joe Stefansson (right) and friend in an undated studio portrait.
Photo courtesy: Malla Jeroski

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Stanley Mission’s Holy Trinity Church still inspires awe

It is the most unlikely building in the most unlikely place.

Whether you sweep into Stanley Mission by canoe or fly overhead in a small plane, Holy Trinity Church stands tall and resolute, like a beacon, on the north shore of the Churchill River. That was the intention from the beginning.

In the mid-19th century, the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the evangelical arm of the Anglican Church, decided to expand into the western interior from its foothold in the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg).

Missions were established on the Saskatchewan River — first, in 1840, at The Pas, a traditional Cree gathering place and Hudson’s Bay Company outpost (just east of the present-day Manitoba-Saskatchewan interprovincial boundary), and then, two years later, at Upper Nepowewin, directly across from the HBC’s Fort à la Corne and a traditional gathering place known as the “waiting place” (pehonān).

The CMS also looked north to the sprawling English (Churchill) River district in response to the growing Roman Catholic presence at  Île-à-la-Crosse (Saint-Jean-Baptiste mission).

In 1846, Cree catechist James Settee and his mixed-descent wife, Sally, the daughter of HBC officer Joseph Cook, headed to the HBC Lac La Ronge post to lay the groundwork for an Anglican mission. Within a year, Settee’s proselytizing efforts had secured more than 100 adults and children for the church.

This encouraging beginning prompted the Church Missionary Society to dispatch English priest Robert Hunt to establish a permanent mission and thereby limit the influence of the rival Catholic Church in the region. With Settee’s help, Hunt relocated the mission in 1851 from the west side of Lac La Ronge to a favourite Cree gathering place on the north side of the Churchill River, traditionally known as âmaciwispimowinihk (shooting arrows uphill place). The site’s spiritual importance was underscored by the nearby rock paintings.

The Church of England had grand ambitions for what became known as Stanley Mission.

Beginning in 1854, Reverend Hunt, with direction and input from Robert Anderson, the new Anglican bishop for Rupert’s Land, oversaw the construction of a wooden “cathedral” church that had no equal in the region. Indeed, the tradition, including among early settlers, was first to build a temporary structure that would eventually be replaced by something more substantial and permanent. Holy Trinity Church, on the other hand, was meant to be a grand structure that would rival churches in other, more settled parts of Canada — and in England.

The building was massive in scale, especially in comparison to other contemporary buildings in the region. It measured 25 metres long and 10.5 metres wide, with a tower and spire that reached skyward 27 metres.

The design also set the church apart; its Gothic Revival style reflected the latest English architectural trend. That included the use of polychromy — in this case, red and yellow paint for the exterior. There were also aisles and open seating for the pews, another modern innovation.

Most remarkably, the structure was fashioned entirely from wood (except for the fieldstone foundation) by local indigenous men. Logs were floated down the Churchill and squared on site. Curved timbers were used for the arches. Telltale hand-hewn marks are still discernible in places. Only the church hardware, in particular the stained glass for the windows, was imported from England.

By the end of the decade, the graceful Gothic Revival Holy Trinity Church anchored a growing mission complex of some 30 buildings, including a school, parsonage, barn, storeroom, warehouse, and grist mill. This investment reflected a determination to make Stanley Mission the spiritual centre for Anglican activities in the North-West.

But farming was an uncertain enterprise because of the thin soil and short growing season, and the mission had to rely on the HBC and the local indigenous population for provisions. Over time, people moved to the other side of the river after the Stanley Mission First Nation was established there.

Today, Holy Trinity, refurbished and painted white, sits alone on the north shore of the Churchill, while the surrounding cemetery serves as silent reminder of the cultural importance of the site to the local aboriginal community.

And even though the expectations for the mission were unrealistic, the majestic church continues, in the bishop’s words, to inspire “awe.”

Just ask those who make the pilgrimage each year to visit the province’s oldest structure and find solace inside.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Holy Trinity Church at Stanley Mission is Saskatchewan’s oldest structure. 
Credit:Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers

Frances McGill Forensic

Canada’s first female forensic pathologist helped Mounties solve crimes

She had to bite back her irritation.

Dr. Frances McGill prided herself on her blood work analysis in the laboratory.

But here she was, in a Wilkie courtroom in March 1934, being grilled by Saskatoon lawyer Harry Ludgate about her autopsy of an eight-year-old boy who had died from carbon monoxide poisoning in a murder-double suicide attempt.

It was understandable that Ludgate would try to raise doubt about McGill’s findings, especially when he was defending the boy’s parents.  That’s why he spent more than an hour painstakingly going over the autopsy findings.

But Ludgate crossed the line when he asked McGill, “Are you sure this diagnosis was not arrived at by you before you left Regina?”

“Carbon monoxide was the cause of death without any doubt whatsoever,” the pathologist thundered in response.

McGill then explained how the “most deadly poison” bonded with oxygen in the blood. It would take only one per cent of the gas to kill a person. But in the boy’s case, she found a range of 25 to 40 per cent carbon monoxide in his blood, ten days after his death.

Dr. Frances Gertrude McGill was Canada’s first female forensic pathologist.

Born in Manitoba in 1877, McGill had lost both parents after they drank contaminated water at the 1900 Brandon County Fair. That experience probably influenced her decision to give up her career as a rural school teacher and to train as a doctor at the University of Manitoba.

Upon graduation, McGill interned at the Winnipeg provincial laboratory, where she developed her lifelong interest in pathology. In 1918, she moved to Regina to assume her new position as provincial bacteriologist for Saskatchewan — just in time to deal with the deadly Spanish flu epidemic.

She was also responsible for treating venereal disease, especially among returning First World War soldiers. Her office and lab were housed on the top floor of the Legislative building, while the animal cages had to be kept on the roof.

Four years later, in 1922, McGill was director of Saskatchewan laboratories and provincial pathologist. But her real calling was found the following year, when she began to assist the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in their criminal investigations.

The force would later name her Honorary Surgeon in recognition of her service.

McGill’s forensic work for the mounted police took her to all parts of the province to deal with puzzling, at times bizarre, deaths.  Sometimes circumstances were nothing short of distasteful, especially if the body had not been found before decomposition had set in.  But she invariably came up with an explanation that made sense of the crime scene.

If the case were particularly intriguing or unusual, she gave it a name — such as the Deserted Shack Murder, the Bran Muffin Case, or the Straw Stack Murders.

The police who worked alongside the pathologist marvelled at her seemingly tireless energy and her willingness to put aside her own work to help them whenever and wherever her services were needed. This kind of dedication made McGill popular with the force and she was affectionately known as “Doc.”

In fact, her work as a pathologist meant so much to her that she became annoyed when questioned about why she never married. She regarded it as sheer folly for a woman to abandon a rewarding career for a man.

Besides, she found happiness in the company of her small circle of friends and loved to cook for them and to play bridge. And whenever she got the chance, she would go horseback riding for hours outside Regina.

Dr. McGill’s uncanny ability to determine the cause of death made her a regular fixture at preliminary hearings, coroners’ inquests, and trials, where she dispensed her forensic findings in a no-nonsense fashion.

She had no patience for lawyers’ antics, especially if they called into question the scientific basis of her work, and could thrust and parry with the best of them.

During another murder trial, McGill’s report that the stains inside a man’s pocket were human blood came under intense scrutiny.  The defence attorney wondered how she could presume to be an expert on the contents of men’s pockets.

“Not at all,” McGill gamely replied, “I am not a member of the legal profession.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Dr. Frances McGill’s forensic work took her to all parts of Saskatchewan to deal with puzzling, at times bizarre, deaths. 

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers