Bill Waiser

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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)

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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

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.

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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

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

Questions or comments?

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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

Questions or comments?

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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?

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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

Round Prairie Métis made Saskatoon their home in early 20th Century

It’s often assumed that indigenous people did not settle in Saskatchewan cities until after the Second World War. That certainly was not the case for Saskatoon.

Beginning in the early 20th century, Métis families from Round Prairie began migrating to the city in search of employment. Thirty years later, the community had effectively relocated to the southern edges of the city.

This movement to Saskatoon was not the first time the Métis had left their traditional lands along the east bank of the South Saskatchewan River in the Dundurn area. Fearing retribution for their involvement in the 1885 North-West Rebellion, the Métis had sought refuge in Montana and remained there for almost two decades.

When the families returned to Round Prairie in 1903-04, they found that the region that had once been ideal bison-hunting grounds was generally poorly suited for agriculture. Some families tried farming the marginal land, while others carved out a hardscrabble living through traditional harvesting, serving as farm labour for white settlers, or cutting cordwood and fence posts.

This marginal existence prompted Métis families to look to Saskatoon — just 40 kilometres to the north — for better opportunities. It was not an unrealistic expectation. The “Wonder City,” as Saskatoon styled itself, was booming before the Great War. Then, the real estate bubble burst in 1912-13, and the city limped through several decades of uneven growth.

The downturn in Saskatoon’s economic fortunes did not deter the Round Prairie Métis from heading to the city in the 1920s and 1930s. Low-paying and part-time work was better than the limited horizons they faced.

The Métis occupied property on both sides of the river on the southern outskirts of the city. Some moved into available housing in the King George and Holiday Park areas. Many more lived in tents in the Nutana district, south of present-day Eighth Street. The one major exception was the Landry family in one of the “three sisters” brick homes on York Avenue — a residence that only became available because of the collapse of the boom.

By living on the edge of the city, the Métis were able to settle close to one another as large extended families, organized around female elders. They could also continue to hunt and harvest food on land immediately to the south.

But their location reflected their marginal place in Saskatoon society. School-aged children, for example, learned to hide their Métis identity, including their Roman Catholic faith, in order to avoid being ostracized.

The Métis also encountered hostility, if not outright racism, when they sought government assistance during the Depression.  Saskatoon civic officials maintained that destitute Métis families had no right to relief since they were not normally residents of the city and would never become ratepayers.

Charlotte Whitton, a widely respected Canadian social worker and future mayor of Ottawa, agreed with this assessment. Asked in May 1932 to examine relief distribution in western Canada, she blamed “the breed” for their condition and found it “hardly justifiable” that they qualified for the same relief as “the ordinary population.”

A proud, independent people, the Métis survived these dismal years as best they could. The men were willing to do any odd job, including hauling with their horses and wagons. A lucky few managed to get work on some of the city’s relief projects, in particular the Broadway Bridge.

Women, in the meantime, often worked as housekeepers in private homes and hotels. They also fell back on traditional pursuits, including planting large community gardens at the present-day site of Aden Bowman Collegiate (Taylor Street and Clarence Avenue).

These gardens served an important social role by bringing several generations together. So too did the regular community dances and Saskatoon’s annual exhibition. Indeed, this emphasis on kinship and identity helps explain the persistence of the Round Prairie Métis in a place that did not welcome them.

Saskatoon-born Nora Cummings, a descendant of the Round Prairie hunting families, explained during an interview that the Métis always viewed themselves as members of one community even after they moved to the city. If they were going to survive as a distinct people, especially when the South Saskatchewan River separated them into east and west side Métis, then family connections had to be nurtured and affirmed. That’s why, she fondly remembered, “There was always lots of visiting back and forth across the Broadway Bridge.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: A Métis family outside their home at the Round Prairie settlement south of Saskatoon.

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary 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

Saskatchewan turned to Great Britain to fill teacher vacancies after Second World War

In August 1954, the Young family moved into their temporary new home, a three-bedroom apartment atop Albert School in Saskatoon. Across the city, another family, the Goddards, were settling into a small suite in the King Edward School tower.

Young and Goddard were among the first 138 teachers Saskatchewan recruited in Great Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. By the time the program ended in 1973, as many as 1,500 teachers had been lured to the province by the promise of a better career — and better pay.

After the Second World War, Saskatchewan faced a serious teacher shortage, especially in rural schools that offered high school credits.

Teachers from other parts of Canada weren’t interested in the positions, and the province consequently had to make do with “study supervisors” in many schools.

In January 1954, the Saskatchewan School Trustees’ Association, in co-operation with the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, placed a recruitment ad, “Teachers Wanted for Western Canada,” in the London-based Times Educational Supplement.

Applicants were screened by Saskatchewan recruiters about their qualifications and experience before being offered a placement, starting in September 1954. As a further inducement, the province provided a loan to cover the cost of the trip to Canada. This travel assistance was available only to the teacher, so those who had a partner and/or family usually sold most of their belongings to raise the money to get here.

Those who headed to Saskatchewan, especially single women, did so out of a sense of adventure. Joan Williams from Pontypridd, South Wales, wanted to see another part of the world and started packing for Saskatchewan an hour after she signed her contract.

There were also push factors at play, in particular rationing in post-war Britain.

Few, though, knew about the Saskatchewan winter weather and the isolation of some districts. Perhaps that’s why the British recruits were met when they arrived in the province; local officials were probably worried they might change their minds.

All of the new teachers and their families received a warm welcome. Dr. Fred Gathercole, Saskatoon’s public school superintendent, and his wife Dorothy, for example, went out of their way to make the Youngs comfortable at Albert School, supplying bedding and scrounging furniture.

Teachers assigned to village or rural schools had a more difficult adjustment.

Thelma Carnegie from Glasgow, Scotland, suffered “culture shock” for the first few months. Nothing in her Scottish background or education prepared her for life in small-town Saskatchewan.

She also had to get used to being a “curiosity” living in a “fish bowl.” She created quite a stir, especially among “aghast” school administrators, when she visited the local pub. She also jokingly complained there were no “eligible men — only farmers.” Ironically, she married a farmer who promised to resume his teaching career.

Dennis and Terry Harley, now living in Saskatoon, were among 125 teachers recruited for the 1957-58 school year. Dennis, a graduate of Shoreditch College, was hired to teach Manual Training (now called Industrial Arts). Twenty-two-year-old Terry had secretarial skills.

When the young couple stepped off the train in Regina, they had “more or less nothing but a bit of savings.” Within a year, though, they had bought their first house — something that would have been impossible in England — and paid off the travel loan. They later relocated to Saskatoon when Fred Gathercole hired Dennis on the recommendation of fellow Shoreditch graduates.

John and Carol Mills, both teachers from Nottingham, came almost a decade later to Preeceville.  Their arrival in Canada was a little rocky. There was a train strike at the time and they had to travel from Quebec City to Yorkton by bus. For John, a geographer, it was a good introduction to the country. He later became a principal and was able to further his education at the University of Regina.

Only about 10 percent of the teacher recruits stayed in Saskatchewan. Dennis and Terry Harley and John and Carol Mills count themselves among them.

They stayed, in part, because they did not see a future in England. They also had children here.

What also mattered was the network of teacher recruits. Many became lifelong friends on the boat trip to Canada, friends that were like family. As Carol Mills fondly remembers, “we felt close to each other” because of their shared experience — and the decision to make Canada home.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Dennis & Terry Harley 
Credit: The Harley Family.

Questions or comments?

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary 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

Voyageurs performed superhuman feats of endurance

Hudson’s Bay Company servant Peter Fidler probably shook his head in amazement.

On June 29, 1796, while stationed at Cumberland House, Fidler greeted four North West Company canoes that had left Great Slave Lake only six weeks earlier. Then, on Aug. 19, he welcomed another brigade, this one headed inland in a race against freeze-up, that had covered the distance from Lac la Pluie in northwestern Ontario (near Fort Frances) in just 17 days.

These travel feats were part of the NWC lore — how the Montreal-based fur trade company was the proverbial hare in the race against the HBC tortoise.

But such speeds were possible only because of the regularity with which the NWC moved goods and furs in and out of the western interior in the late 18th century. Indeed, the dependability of the company’s transportation system was nothing short of miraculous, especially given the short open-water season. In the constant search for efficiencies, no detail was too trivial if it gave the NWC the advantage over the rival HBC.

Nor’Wester Alexander Mackenzie reckoned that it was almost 3,000 miles from Montreal to Lake Athabasca (straddling present-day northwestern Saskatchewan and northeastern Alberta). These miles were not simply clicked over on the odometer, but were conquered by the superhuman energy of voyageurs over an endless series of lakes, rivers, and portages.

Voyageurs (engagés) were generally illiterate, French-Catholic men, recruited from the Montreal and Trois Rivières areas for a fixed term or engagement contract. They numbered around 500 in the early 1780s, but as the fur trade pushed into the far northwest in the next decade, their ranks swelled.

Those who worked between Montreal and the provisioning depot at Grand Portage at the western end of Lake Superior were known as mangeurs du lard or “porkeaters” because of their diet.

Those, on the other hand, who manned the brigades in the interior, spending their winters in the pays d’en haut, were hommes du nord (northmen) or hivernant.

A further distinction was given to those voyageurs who worked northwest of Methye Portage (Portage de la Loche). These Athabasca men were the toughest, most experienced, and most revered — qualities that set them above all others in a culture that valued manliness.

Voyageurs could be an unruly lot. The Scottish and English managers (bourgeois) and clerks often engaged in a battle of wills with their servants, who, once inland, tried to renegotiate their contracts or at least offered a different “reading” of their responsibilities, such as how many 90-pound packs (pièces) they could reasonably be expected to carry at portages.

But there was also a certain order to voyageur working lives.

They sang, for example, as they paddled, measuring mileage in pipes (the distance between smoking breaks).

They also mapped their world by marking or recognizing important geographical boundaries. As they entered a new region — the shield country along the Ottawa River, the height of land beyond Lake Superior, and Methye Portage — the voyageurs insisted on performing a mock baptism of anyone who was passing that threshold into the interior for the first time. Even masters did not escape this ritual, but were forced to participate and thereafter expected to be fair in their dealings with their men.

The NWC placed incredible expectations on the voyageurs who manned the 300-pound, 25-foot North canoe in the interior.

To maintain any speed, especially since the canoe carried about two tons of cargo, the crew paddled at a continuous rate of forty strokes per minute for up to 12 hours. These long working days were intended to take advantage of the equally long hours of daylight and the fact that the wind was often down during the early morning.

And the brigades, as Fidler witnessed at Cumberland House, covered great distances in remarkable time. But the pace and load, week after week, strained the health of the voyageurs; the caloric deficit alone resulted in small, undernourished bodies.

Portaging was an added burden. Two men carried the canoe upright on their shoulders, while the others were loaded down with two 90-pound packs — more than their own body weight. Because the stress often led to skeletal damage and odd bone spurs, some voyageurs must have lived with painful chronic injuries.

It is little wonder, then, why some voyageurs never returned to Montreal but chose to seek a living in the North-West and intermarry with the indigenous population.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The North West Company had to carry freight by canoe over great distances into and out of the western interior. 

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary 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

Prince Albert National Park wardens go hunting … for elk

Parks Canada is celebrating the country’s 150th birthday by giving away Discovery Passes to Canada’s network of national parks and national historic sites.

It’s a popular program that’s likely to result in a spike of visitors to Canada’s special places, especially the mountain parks. There are already concerns about whether the parks can handle the stress on their ecosystems and wildlife.

Almost 60 years ago, Prince Albert National Park faced a completely different problem — animals ranging outside the park and feeding on farmers’ crops.

The culprit was the elk, a so-called “good” animal that enjoyed a welcome sanctuary within the park boundaries.

In the 1950s, though, a growing number of animals wandered out of the park in search of forage.

Part of the explanation was the loss of grazing habitat when the park boundaries were reduced in 1947. Then, in the mid-1950s, the park discontinued its spring burning program and meadows were gradually swallowed up by brush.

Outside the park, the elk would often feed on the crops of the local farmers. This damage was generally accepted with a certain degree of resignation — if only because the offending animals often ended up on the dinner table.

In 1959, however, the fall was unusually wet and crops were left standing in the fields over the winter. The temptation proved too much for the elk and they simply helped themselves. Farmers worried that they would have nothing to harvest in the spring.

N.L. Horley, the secretary of the Shellbrook Rural Municipality, complained about the crop loss to John Diefenbaker, the Conservative Member of Parliament for the area and prime minister since 1957, and suggested that local farmers be compensated. He also wondered if a fence could be erected along the southern park boundary to prevent a reoccurrence of the problem.

The Horley letter received immediate attention.

On Dec. 14, 1959, the executive assistant to the prime minister called on senior bureaucrats within the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources to deal with the matter “promptly and effectively.”

That same day, national parks officials decided that compensation would create a dangerous precedent and that the best way to stop elk depredation outside the park was to reduce the herd.

Ottawa immediately ordered the Prince Albert superintendent to organize the park wardens — they were going hunting. A press release insisted, “This program is intended to reduce the herds to the carrying capacity of the feed areas within that section of the park.”

The culling of the elk commenced on the morning of Dec. 16, 1959 — less than 48 hours after the prime minister’s office had demanded action.

Everyone involved on the ground described it as a slaughter. And slaughter it was. There was no limit on the number of elk to be shot, and all animals were considered expendable.

Three days after the killing had started, local residents, including farmers, asked that it be stopped. They did not believe that reducing the herd was a solution; they felt the problem would persist as long as elk could leave the park in search of food.

Ottawa officials remained convinced, however, that the shooting of the elk was “the only right course.”

By the time the shooting stopped, on March 6, 1960, the toll was 105 elk, including 25 yearling. Ninety per cent of the 60 adult females were pregnant. Local farmers who had been issued a special permit to hunt over the winter took a further 100 animals. When these figures are combined with the 210 animals shot during the regular fall hunting season in the district, a total of 415 elk were destroyed.

It was apparently not enough.

The cull continued the following winter. This time, though, only 22 animals were shot over a three-month period. The comments in the official report on the organized hunt were telling: “elk were very scattered and wild” and “large herds were not encountered.”

It was a numbing experience for the park wardens — one they never forgot.

One of the participants later reflected on the sorry affair at a wildlife management meeting. After wondering when the elk would recover, the warden bitterly observed, “it now appears to have been a monumental blunder … by someone completely ignorant of any conservation concepts.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:In December 1959, Prince Albert National Park embarked on an elk reduction program.
Credit: John Perret

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary 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

The North-West Territories provisional districts at the time Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905.

Saskatchewan once wanted direct access to Hudson Bay

Saskatchewan is the only Canadian province with completely artificial boundaries. In fact, the trapezoid shape has led to the suggestion that the province’s unofficial motto should be: Saskatchewan, easy to draw, hard to spell.

These boundaries were challenged during the first few years of the province’s existence. The political leaders of the day believed that Saskatchewan had been shortchanged in 1905 and looked to extend the provincial boundaries to the north and the east.

What had nurtured this appetite for a larger Saskatchewan were the early 20th century federal-territorial discussions over the entry of the region into confederation.

Frederick Haultain, the North-West Territories’ first and only premier, had wanted one large province (named “Buffalo”) to be created between Manitoba and British Columbia. He never got his wish. Instead, the Wilfrid Laurier Liberal government created two roughly equal, north-south provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta, in 1905.

But the prospect of a larger Saskatchewan did not end there. There was still the possibility of expansion to the northeast and to the east. And it remained a possibility because Manitoba, box-like in appearance, was still confined to the southern half of the present-day province. The northern boundary did not yet reach Hudson Bay but ran east-west through the Manitoba interlake region.

The Manitoba government had formally requested that the province’s boundaries be extended north in 1905 when Saskatchewan and Alberta were created. It argued that it was a matter of fairness. Why should the two new western provinces be larger than Manitoba?

History also supported the province’s position. Travel to and from the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg) had been through Hudson Bay before confederation.

But the matter was not so straightforward.

Ontario’s northern boundary, at the time, did not reach Hudson or James Bay and the province aspired to some of the same territory that Manitoba coveted.

Then, there was the case of Saskatchewan, something that Prime Minister Laurier raised during the debate on the autonomy bills creating Saskatchewan and Alberta. Indeed, the prime minister acknowledged in the House of Commons in February 1905 — even before the province became a reality — that Saskatchewan probably had a legitimate claim to more territory.

That claim was based on the 1882 federal decision to create four provisional districts (Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Athabasca) in the southern part of the North-West Territories. These provisional districts, as they were called, were supposed to form the basis of four future western provinces.

That never happened. Rather, Saskatchewan and Alberta were formed from the four provisional districts — except for that finger-like portion of the Saskatchewan provisional district that extended eastward beyond the 1905 provincial boundary (at 101 degrees, 30 minutes) into the northern portion of lakes Winnipegosis and Winnipeg.

Saskatchewan wanted this “leftover” territory and more.

Faced with these overlapping claims, the Laurier government convened a meeting in November 1906 and called on the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario to justify their claim to the territory in question.

In its submission, the Saskatchewan government argued that the Saskatchewan provisional district had once been administered by the territorial government in Regina and that it only made sense for all of the former district to be part of the new province.

Saskatchewan also sought a water port for grain shipments to Europe and asked that a corridor of land, north of the Nelson River and running northeast to Hudson Bay, be added to the province.

In response, Ottawa initially leaned towards creating new provinces in the disputed territory before deciding it was more practicable to enlarge existing provinces.

Saskatchewan came away empty-handed in this new round of province-building. In 1908, by way of a parliamentary resolution, the Laurier government rejected Saskatchewan’s bid for additional territory in favour of the Manitoba position.

It took until 1912, though, before Manitoba assumed the size it is today.

In extending the western boundary of Manitoba northward to the 60th parallel, it appeared that there would be no repeat of what happened in 1905 when the community of Lloydminster was cut in half by the new boundary (110 degrees) between Saskatchewan and Alberta.

But then in 1915, copper and zinc ore were discovered along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan interprovincial boundary. That’s why the communities of Flin Flon and Creighton straddle the border today.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The North-West Territories provisional districts at the time Saskatchewan and Alberta were created in 1905. Manitoba was still box-like in shape and did not yet reach Hudson Bay.
Photo: Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

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 for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers