Bill Waiser

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Ile A La Crosse Sara Riel

Sara Riel was Saskatchewan’s first Métis Grey Nun

She’s usually given only a footnote in Saskatchewan history. And even when she is mentioned, she’s identified as the sister of her older, more famous brother.

But Sara Riel was the first Métis Grey Nun in Saskatchewan.

Born at Red River in 1848, four years after her brother Louis, Sara was educated at the Sisters of Charity boarding school (popularly known as the Grey Nuns because of their habit). Her religious training was inspired by the intense Catholic faith of the Riel home — and her parents’ expectations for their children.

But whereas Louis chose not to become a priest, Sara took her vows in March 1868 and served the church for the next 15 years. The story of her life as a Grey Nun is found today in the letters she exchanged with her family, especially Louis.

In 1871, Sara volunteered to work at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste mission on Lac Île-à-la-Crosse (known to the Cree as sākitawāhk) in present-day northwestern Saskatchewan. Her paternal grandparents had met and married in the predominantly Métis community and her father, Jean-Louis Riel, was born there.

But in relocating to Île-à-la-Crosse, Sara effectively left behind her family at Red River and embraced a life of service and sacrifice.

Île-à-la-Crosse was established in 1776 when Montreal pedlars pushed the fur trade up the Churchill (English) River. Seventy years later, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) built a mission there to proselytize to the local Cree, Dene, and Métis populations.

Île-à-la-Crosse quickly emerged as the administrative centre for pastoral activities throughout the vast region. In fact, four future bishops (Taché, Laflèche, Grandin, and Faraud) would serve the growing mission — leading to the nickname ‘nursery of the bishops.’

But it was the Grey Nuns, arriving at Île-à-la-Crosse in October 1860, who were vital to the mission’s day-to-day activities.

The sisters’ headquarters, named Hôpital Saint-Bruno, was an impressive two-storey building, featuring a classroom and the region’s first hospital. The day the Grey Nuns arrived, a sick young boy became their first patient.

The Grey Nuns quickly opened a residential school in the building (École Sainte Famille) and enroled their first pupils. They also ran an orphanage.

These church-run institutions were accepted by the local Métis for the support and benefits they provided to the region’s families. The spiritual bond between the mission and the community was further reinforced when Métis parents asked members of the religious orders to stand as godparents to their children.

Sister Sara Riel readily fit into this religious community and worked tirelessly to facilitate its work. She told her brother in one letter how she looked forward to the annual missions among the Indigenous population and took delight in their first communion.

Indeed, her devotion to the church and its teachings was irrevocably strengthened in the fall of 1872 when she fell gravely ill and lingered near death. Sara was given the Last Rites, but then made a complete — seemingly miraculous — recovery after praying to the Blessed Marguerite-Marie of Alacoque.

Thereafter, she took the name, Sister Marguerite-Marie. She also wanted to use her Manitoba scrip grant (made available to Métis living in the province in 1870) to fund the care of orphan children.

Because of Riel’s English proficiency (she was conversant in several languages), she often served as a liaison between the mission and the nearby Hudson’s Bay Company post. She also offered the first class in English at the school in order to demonstrate to the federal government the value of the mission.

Life at the Île-à-la-Crosse mission, though, was not easy. Riel spoke of loneliness and isolation in her letters — compounded by the fact that mail arrived only twice a year. She once complained to Louis about his failure to write: “Allow me, beloved brother, to tell you how cruel your silence is.”

There were also times when the fishery failed and food was scarce. And even though she found time to do some sketching, she worked long hours, punctuated by the drudgery of chores. She particularly disliked laundry day, when the bed linen would be hung throughout the living quarters to dry.

Riel’s commitment and devotion, however, never wavered. That’s why, according to her mother superior, the community “loved and respected” her.

When she died from tuberculosis on Dec. 27, 1883, most of Île-à-la-Crosse turned out for her funeral mass. Sara Riel was 35.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Sara Riel’s sketch of Île-à-la-Crosse” 

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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.

Waskesiu Graves, Drowning Deaths

Freak storm on Lake Waskesiu left four dead

Isabella Merrill never forgot ‘the storm.’

In the fall of 1927, she and her husband Harry, a Prince Albert National Park warden, were living in a cabin on the east shore of Waskesiu Lake.

One day, a fierce storm swept across the lake that seemed to blow itself out as quickly as it came up. When interviewed 60 years later, Isabella vividly recalled the spray from the breakers washing over her cabin roof.

Four people were out on the lake when the freak storm hit.

Reuben Dahl, Emile Faber and his wife Mildred, and Emile’s brother Joseph were on their way to Montreal Lake to build some fishing shacks for R.D. Brooks that winter. They were camped at the mouth of the Waskesiu River, waiting for freeze-up so they could take up freight.

The day of the storm, they were apparently coming across the lake by canoe to visit the Pease home (in present-day Waskesiu) to get supplies or mail.

When they didn’t show up at Montreal Lake, three weeks after their expected arrival, the company contacted Rueben’s parents, Alex and Mary Dahl, of Fenton, Saskatchewan. That was late November.

Harry Merrell and fellow park warden Harry Genge were given the grisly chore of trying to find the four missing people in January 1928. They discovered the party’s tent and equipment near the mouth of the river. They also stumbled upon a canoe full of ice.

But even though they probed the ice here and there, sometimes chipping away with axes, they never located the bodies.

The search resumed in the spring. In early May, Reuben’s father Alex and a friend, a psychic, started scanning from shore the still-frozen lake near the Waskesiu River.

At one point, Alex climbed a tree and spotted something dark in the thawing ice. He carefully made his way out to the place, only to be confronted by his dead son’s body. The clothes confirmed that it was the 23-year-old Reuben. The other three missing were found nearby.

The four bodies were buried on a small ridge, along the east shore of the lake, between the townsite and the Waskesiu river. It’s not known whether permission was secured from the Canadian Parks department. But it was the right thing to do — in a lovely spot near to where they had tragically lost their lives.

The four graves were marked with simple wooden crosses. Then, around 1935, Jim Manson, Reuben’s brother-in law (husband of Annie), visited the site and planted a small spruce tree as part of the memorial.

Thousands of people, on their way along the Heart Lakes road, probably drove by the gravesite. People travelling by boat would also have seen the four markers on the slight rise above the lake.

But two decades after the burial, the Parks department found the graves in the way of a new development. In order to ease growing congestion in Waskesiu, Ottawa approved a new auto bungalow camp just north of the townsite in 1948. The graves were in the middle of the new site along the proposed road allowance.

The Parks department wanted construction of what would become known as the Kapasawin Bungalows to get underway that fall. It was consequently decided to remove the four bodies in September 1948 and reinter them at St. Christopher’s Anglican cemetery at Christopher Lake — without informing the families. Ironically, it was only when Hector Dahl (born in the spring of 1927) pulled over to the side of the road out of respect for a funeral procession that he learned that his older brother Reuben’s body and the three others were being moved. Embarrassed Parks officials later apologized for the oversight.

Fortunately, the memorial tree at the gravesite was never touched. And it still stands there today on the slight ridge just beyond the parking lot at the Kapasawin Bungalows office.

Generations of families, staying at Kapasawin, have walked by the tree, unaware of its significance — unless told by the former proprietors.

Meanwhile, people who have been coming to the park for years might know the story of the drownings, but the details are often fuzzy or inaccurate.

That’s a shame.

There needs to be a plaque at the Kapasawin tree that names the four people who lost their lives in the lake and explains why they were once buried there.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: The four drowning victims were buried on the east shore of Lake Waskesiu in 1928.  
Photo Source:Waskesiu Memories, V. 3

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.

RCMP mounted troop on riot duty in Saskatoon, May 8, 1933.

Saskatoon relief camp riot left one dead … by accident

One of the great challenges of the 1930s was what to do with the single, homeless unemployed.

By the fall of 1932 and the failure of yet another prairie harvest, more than 100,000 homeless souls wandered the country, trying to survive by their wits. Many were single men, including Great War veterans, who had eked out a living in Canada’s resource industries, moving from job to job and from region to region.

There were also several thousand young people, fresh-faced teenagers who had quit school to help support their families and then left home so that they would not be a burden.

Most transients, as they were called at the time, gravitated to larger cities and towns in their search for work and, more importantly, relief.  But municipalities could not meet the needs of their own unemployed and consequently refused to provide assistance to anyone who had lived in the community for less than a year.

This residency requirement sentenced many to life on the move.

Ottawa, for its part, hid behind the constitution and refused to assume responsibility for the growing jobless army, even though the federal minister of labour after a June 1931 tour of  western Canada cautioned, “young men can hardly be expected to starve quietly.” All Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett would do was provide emergency funds under the 1932 Relief Act that enabled western provinces to run their own relief camps for the homeless.

The Saskatchewan government used the federal funding to set up camps on the edge of cities, in provincial parks, and in Prince Albert National Park.

But in Saskatoon, the province took over an existing relief camp that the city had operated on a “temporary” basis for almost two years at the city’s exhibition grounds.

The Saskatoon camp was a troubled one.

The superintendent was a former army officer whose authoritarian manner became a source of alienation and friction. The men wanted a voice in camp affairs, but complaints about the food and living conditions elicited the stern response that they should be satisfied that they were not out on the street.

The growing population only increased the tension. On Feb. 2z1, 1933, there were 391 men in the camp. That number climbed as the depression tightened its grip on the province — to 630 on April 7 and then 870 on May 5.

The Saskatchewan government sought to defuse the volatile situation by transferring men to other camps — starting with so-called troublemakers. A batch of 50 was to be taken to Regina by train on May 8, 1933.

They were not expected to go willingly. A police spy on the inside warned that any attempt to remove men would be met with stiff resistance.

Government authorities went ahead with the operation, ready to use force if necessary. When the group to be relocated took refuge in the dining hall, surrounded by their supporters, two mounted RCMP troops galloped into the camp to disperse the angry crowd and help the city police remove the men.

In the ensuing melee, Inspector L.J. Sampson, who commanded the mounted police force, fell from his saddle, with his feet caught in the stirrups, and struck his head on a telephone pole while being dragged helplessly by his horse.

“That poor young man died right in front of our eyes,” recalled Bill Hunter, the future Saskatchewan sports promoter, who watched the riot with some childhood friends.

Reeling from Sampson’s tragic death, the RCMP attributed the trouble to outside agitators who threatened the safety of the country in provoking the unemployed.

Premier J.T.M. Anderson agreed.

Two days after the relief camp riot, he publicly declared Saskatoon the headquarters of Communism in Saskatchewan and personally pledged, “As long as I live in public life I shall do all in my power to drive those disciples of the Red Flag out of Saskatoon and out of the province.”

A.C. Williams, who identified himself as inmate #395, offered another perspective. In an April 1933 letter to the chairman of the Saskatchewan relief commission, he argued that blaming “a bunch of hooligans” conveniently glossed over camp conditions.

“We … are here through no fault of our own,” Williams proudly insisted, “we (should) be treated and fed as men and not as animals.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:RCMP mounted troop on riot duty in Saskatoon, May 8, 1933. 
Photo Source: GLENBOW ARCHIVES NA-2796-31

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.

Treaty Six promises were quickly broken

“Our great brother here.”

Those words were used by Chief James Smith in addressing Canada’s governor general at a meeting at Fort Carlton in August 1881.

He wasn’t being disrespectful. His words reflected his understanding of the treaty relationship between the Crown and the Cree people.

Five years earlier at Carlton, during the Treaty Six negotiations, both the Crown’s representative, Indian Commissioner Alexander Morris, and Cree chiefs Mistawasis and Ahtahkakoop talked about the agreement as the beginning of a new, long-term relationship rooted in the concepts of family and kin.

The Cree were prepared to accept the Queen’s hand and shared the land with white newcomers on the understanding that they would get government assistance making the transition to agriculture. They fully expected and looked forward to a beneficial and meaningful relationship with the Crown.

But Cree bands found that the surveying of reserves was often delayed and that promised agricultural equipment and supplies were not immediately forthcoming and generally insufficient.

They also suffered crop failures and had to survive on limited rations because of the disappearance of the bison from the northern plains. These relief provisions were available only to Indians on reserves — and only to those who first performed manual labour.

One of the first opportunities for the Cree to voice their frustration with Canada’s failure to fulfil its treaty obligations came in August 1881 when the governor general, the Marquess of Lorne, toured western Canada with a North-West Mounted Police escort and representatives of Canadian and British newspapers. Despite the busy schedule, time was set aside to meet with Indigenous leaders at several places, including forts Carlton and Battleford.

Lorne, the youngest person to serve as Canadian governor general, had a special connection to the British Crown. He was married to Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters — something that was keenly appreciated by the Cree.

That’s why the chiefs addressed him as brother or brother-in-law at their meetings. They not only believed that they had a kin relationship with Lorne as the Queen’s son-in-law, but that they were speaking directly to the Queen Mother through Lorne. When they shook hands with Lorne, they were effectively shaking hands with Victoria.

The governor general, on the other hand, seems to have been cautioned about Cree dissatisfaction. He advised the leaders at Carlton, “I have come from the Queen to inquire about you but not to change the treaty.”

But Lorne was prepared to listen to their needs and grievances. At one point, he said he wanted “to see how by keeping treaties I can help them (the Cree) to live.”

Cree leaders spoke with candour.

Acknowledging that farming was the only way that the Cree could make a living now that the bison were gone, Mistawasis complained about the lack of implements and animals.

“At the time of the Treaties,” he reminded the governor general, “it was mentioned that while the sun rose and set and the water ran the faith in the treaties was to be kept.”

Ahtahkakoop made a similar request. He lamented his band’s losses during harvest and asked for “a thresher and reaper and the power to work them.”

In fact, the need for farm implements was repeatedly mentioned by the chiefs when it came their turn to address the governor general.

During the councils at Carlton and Battleford, it was painfully evident that the Cree wanted to succeed at agriculture but were handcuffed by the limited assistance that the Canadian government provided. Nor could they understand why only white farmers should be using equipment to bring the land into production.

The chiefs also looked to the governor general to do something about their situation. “We lean on your generosity,” Petequakey implored. “We are all your children.”

A handwritten transcript of Lorne’s meetings with Indigenous leaders was given to the John A. Macdonald Conservative government that fall.  Senior Indian Affairs officials reviewed the document, paying particular attention to how the governor general had responded to Cree demands.

It did not matter in the end. The Canadian economy slid into a recession in the early 1880s and the department of Indian Affairs drastically cut expenditures.

Lorne resigned the governor generalship early to try to revive his political career in Great Britain. His 1883 departure ironically coincided with the beginning of a Cree diplomatic initiative to get the Crown to deliver what had been solemnly promised in the treaties.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The Buffalo Dance was performed for Governor General Lorne at Fort Qu’Appelle in August 1881. 
Photo Source:THE SCOTSMAN, 16 SEPTEMBER 1881

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.

Who remembers Humphrey and the Dumptrucks?

Michael “Bear” Millar fondly remembers hammering in tent pegs at the 1967 Blackstrap Folk Festival. It was Humphrey and the Dumptrucks’ first official gig.
They had no contract, and were not even sure if they were going to paid, let alone how much. But Saskatoon was their big break — once they put up a large tent on the Pion-era exhibition grounds.

There was Gary Walsh on the banjo and dobro. Their friend and mentor, Sid Wilsdon, jokingly gave him the nickname “Humphrey Dumptruck” one day. The other band members immediately seized on it and kidded Gary all the way home. The name stuck. But it would be 40 years before Gary’s mother allowed the boys to call her Mrs. Dumptruck.

Humphrey was unbelievably shy on stage, always hiding under his straw cowboy hat. But he was one of the best banjo players in Canada.

Then, there was Michael Millar, a bear of a man to this day — hence his nickname. Bear played piano from an early age, but coveted bagpipes.  He got them on the understanding that he kept up his piano. Given his size, Bear was a natural for the bass but also played jug and guitar.

The other Michael (Taylor) was known as “Earnie.” It was his job on stage to introduce the band members. One night, he described himself as “earnest.”  In a review the next day, it had been shortened to Earnie.

Earnie grew up singing around the piano with family members. At 16, he got a Sears model guitar and would practise all the time with Bob Dylan and Donovan records. He also mastered the autoharp.

The fourth member was Graeme Card, simply known as “G.” He played guitar and mandolin. He left the band in 1973 for a solo career, and the other members simply moved on without looking back.

At the start of the Blackstrap Folk Festival, Humphrey and the Dumptrucks formed a jug band and rode a float in the Pion-era parade. They played “Salty Dog” over and over again to the delight of the crowd.

They also played for hours every day inside the tent that week. “It was a hell of a lot of fun,” Bear Millar recalls.

That’s when they decided to try to make a living at it. But they had to tell their parents — one of the hardest things they ever had to do.

Both Bear and Earnie waited a month to break the news that they were quitting school. At first, there was anger and disbelief, but soon their parents were coming to their concerts.

What made Humphrey and the Dumptrucks special was their sound. At a time when most new bands were playing rock n’ roll, they had no interest in that kind of music — or using drums.

They were influenced by folk and bluegrass, but didn’t really fall into any particular genre. And they liked it that way. Today, Earnie describes them as “a string band,” while Bear suggests that “the music we played was something people never heard before.” Maybe it was because they were not afraid to feature the kazoo or washboard in some of their songs.

They also worked at their instrumentation. During their practice sessions at the Merry Mansion, they were constantly tinkering with their arrangements. They took pride in not needing a sound system.

Humphrey and the Dumptrucks did not sign their first record contract until 1970. Until then, they used a gestetner to crank out a monthly promotional newsletter that was mailed, posted or handed out.

They often played at Saskatoon high schools over the lunch hour and would split the 25-cent admission fee with the student council. They also performed regularly at Jack’s and Yip’s and helped open Saskatoon venues to live music at night.

The band soon became a favourite of the CBC, which constantly featured the group in its radio and television programming through the 1970s.  They also appeared at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

But they were first and foremost road warriors, travelling across the better part of the country in their van to performances. Bear reckons they travelled 65,000 miles in three consecutive years — and often ended up sharing the same hotel room or sleeping on the floor in a welcoming home.

Looking back 50 years, Earnie and Bear have no regrets. Sure, they wished they had made more money. But they still delight in the memories and the music.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Michael “Bear” Millar (left to right), Gary “Humphrey Dumptruck” Walsh, and Michael “Earnie” Taylor outside the Merry Mansion
Photo Source: 

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.

Access to water was major concern for new Regina capital

It didn’t make any sense.

One critic called the site “one of the worst spots in the territories.” Another decried the choice as “lunacy.”

Still another could not resist poking fun at town life on the flat, windblown prairie: “It would be almost absurd to go out for a ride as it is never possible to get out of sight of one’s front door.”

What they were talking about was the 1882 selection of Regina as the capital of the North-West Territories.

Finding a new territorial capital became necessary when the Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate decided to build across the southern prairies and not go through the North Saskatchewan country.

The rerouting of the national railroad meant that Battleford’s days as the seat of government were numbered. But where would the new capital be located along the main line?

Choosing a site fell to Edgar Dewdney, the lieutenant-governor for the territories, and William Van Horne, CPR general manager.

Somewhere in the scenic Qu’Appelle Valley would have provided a stunning setting for the new capital. But Dewdney and Van Horne were opposed to running the railway through the valley because of apparent engineering difficulties.

Instead, they selected a parcel of CPR land (part of the federal grant for building the railway) where the main line crossed Pile of Bones (Wascana) Creek.

Dewdney reserved the site in late June 1882. Less than two months later, when the first CPR train arrived on Aug. 23, Pile of Bones was officially re-christened Regina in honour of the queen.

Those with any familiarity with the region were dumbfounded by the capital’s placement by an “exaggerated ditch” on the “uninviting” prairie.

But then it was learned Lieutenant-governor Dewdney belonged to a group of land speculators that had been buying up HBC lands along the main line. They just happened to own 640 acres immediately next to the original Regina townsite.

Not wanting to benefit Dewdney’s group, the CPR placed the train station almost two miles away to the east.

Not to be outdone, Dewdney convinced the federal government to locate the new territorial government offices, including the lieutenant-governor’s official residence, closer to his section of land.

He also used his influence to get North-West Mounted Police headquarters transferred to Regina. The new barracks were erected along the west side of Wascana Creek, well away from the CPR station.

This jostling between Dewdney and the CPR initially led to two rival communities, and the longest board sidewalk in the territories between them.

And even though businesses soon gravitated to the Regina train station area and the town evolved from there, the CPR decided to locate the divisional point down the track at Moose Jaw.

Dewdney justified his selection of Regina by claiming that it lay at the heart of a great agricultural area. That was anything but certain at the time.

The more urgent matter for the railway, businesses, and settlers was the availability of water.

In a September 1882 interview with the Winnipeg Times, Dewdney crowed, “There is no better water in the country than at Regina.”

But in a confidential letter that same month, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald bluntly told Dewdney to get a civil engineer “at once” to determine the best means of providing water to the community. He even raised the possibility of an aqueduct system.

The problem was that Wascana Creek was an unreliable source. It froze to the bottom in winter and went dry in summer.

Not even a dam on the creek could provide a dependable water supply for CPR locomotives and the company had to ship water to the capital in flat cars.

Watermen, in the meantime, were kept busy hauling water in barrels to the community.

The CPR unsuccessfully drilled for water through the winter of 1882-83. These were “anxious” times, according to N.F. Davin, editor of the Regina Leader, prompting more questioning about the wisdom of the site.

Then, on April 25, 1883, water was struck at 98 feet at the CPR station. It was dumb luck. The well had hit the southeastern limit of the Regina aquifer.

A relieved Davin telegraphed the news to the prime minister.

But even though Regina secured its water supply and became, until recently, the largest urban centre in Saskatchewan, the city remains the only provincial capital not on a major body of water.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The successful drilling of a well in Regina merited a telegram to the prime minister.

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.

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.

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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.