Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: April 2015

Snakes at Fort Livingstone

A Capital Idea

It is one of the most difficult national historic sites to find today in Saskatchewan. And even then, there is little to remind visitors that it was once the site of the first capital of the North-West Territories – except for the snakes.

The government of the North-West Territories was once based outside the region, in Winnipeg. That changed in 1875 with the passage of the North-West Territories Act and the decision to have a resident government and lieutenant-governor.

But where would the new territorial capital be located? The most obvious choice was either Prince Albert or Edmonton.

The Alexander Mackenzie government first leaned toward Fort Ellice, a Hudson’s Bay Company post near the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle rivers.

But then, it settled upon Fort Livingstone, at the junction of Swan River and Snake Creek (north of present-day Kamsack, just inside the Saskatchewan border). It was also to serve as the first western headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police.

The selection of Livingstone – named for the famous British African explorer – is one of the great mysteries of western Canadian history. The site, located on a small ridge in a heavily timbered area, had few redeeming features, except that it was near Fort Pelly, a Hudson’s Bay Company post, and three Indian reserves (Keeseekoose, the Key and Cote) that were part of Treaty 4. It was also on the route of the dominion telegraph line that had been established between Winnipeg and Edmonton by the end of 1876. The transcontinental railway was supposed to follow.

Sam Steele, perhaps one of the most famous Mounties of his generation, mockingly described Livingstone as “an extraordinary spot.”

Col. George French, the first commissioner of the force, reported that a group of local Metis “laughed outright when I asked opinions as to its suitability.”

An unexpected bonus was a nearby garter snake hibernaculum. The snakes made drilling on the barracks square an adventure for the garrison; they also migrated indoors, sometimes crawling into beds.

But the Mounties got their revenge. A snake-killing competition was held to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday in May 1875. The winning team was credited with over 1,100 dead.

David Laird, a former Prince Edward Island journalist and Liberal federal cabinet minister, was sworn into office as lieutenant-governor at Fort Livingstone on Nov. 27, 1876. At his side that day, serving as his secretary, was Amedee-Emmanuel Forget, who would become Saskatchewan’s first lieutenant-governor in 1905.

The first and only session of the North-West Council to be held at Livingstone was convened March 8, 1877, when Laird read the speech from the throne to his three appointed councillors and anyone else who could be rounded up for the occasion.

By this point, most of the mounted police were gone, having gladly fled westward to their new headquarters at Fort Battleford.

The end of the two-week legislative session provoked another exodus from Fort Livingstone. Laird faithfully remained behind with the snakes until that August, when he joined the police at the new territorial capital at Battleford.

Fort Livingstone had been long abandoned when the ruins were destroyed by a prairie fire in 1884.

Except for the occasional visitor, the snakes now have the place to themselves.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph: Bill Waiser


Rock, Bison, Dynamite

They are scattered throughout the province – large boulders, seemingly out of place, as if dropped from the sky. They are found in farmers’ fields, creek valleys, and even as landscape features on city lots.

These “erratics,” as they are properly known, were carried great distances during glaciation and deposited here and there in isolation as the great ice sheet melted. Their name derives from the fact that the lithology or rock type of these big stones often differs from the local bedrock – hence erratic.

All unusually large rocks are believed to be occupied by manifestations of the stone spirit.

Just outside Herschel, Saskatchewan, above Coal Mine Ravine, for example, are three ribstones that have been meticulously carved with grooves and cupules. The most distinctive of the three, a large slab of dolomite, resembles a bison, complete with a backbone, ribs, and row-upon-row of cupules between the ribs.

Further north, on Sandfly Lake along the Churchill River, renowned fur trader Alexander Mackenzie stopped on an island in the late 18th century to see a large stone in the shape of a bear. The rock had been painted and offerings placed around the base.

The most famous erratic in the province was probably Mistaseni (from the Cree mistasiniy) that had been left lying in the Qu’Appelle Valley near the elbow of the South Saskatchewan River. Thought to resemble a resting bison, the massive 400-ton erratic was a sacred aboriginal site for millenniums.
Explorer H.Y. Hind measured the rock in the mid-19th century and found the circumference to be a whopping 79 feet.

But it was in the wrong place in the mid-1960s when the federal and provincial governments embarked on the South Saskatchewan River Dam.

Talked about for decades and endorsed by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, the dam was designed to provide enough water to irrigate half a million acres of land, as well as generate hydroelectric power. It had the unqualified support of both federal agriculture minister Jimmy Gardiner and Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas, who remembered all too well the prolonged drought of the 1930s.

It was not until John Diefenbaker became prime minister, however, that Canada and Saskatchewan finally signed an agreement to proceed with the project.
That’s when the huge boulder seemed destined to be submerged by the new man-made Lake Diefenbaker.

The Cree wanted it saved, moved to higher ground. So too did the village of Elbow and other nearby communities. University of Saskatchewan archaeologists also voiced their concern.

Its fate was even debated on the floor of the House of Commons in February 1966. Two Saskatchewan Progressive Conservative MPs asked the Pearson government what was going to be done to protect the “Indian shrine.”

It soon became apparent, though, that the cost of relocating the rock was too prohibitive – even if the PFRA engineers could figure out a way to move it.
The decision was then made to blow it up – on December 1, 1966 – and use some of the larger pieces to construct a monument. Today, the Mistaseni cairn is found at the edge of the golf course and marina in Elbow.

It doesn’t look anything like a resting bison.

CORRECTION: I received a call this past week from Kathleen Draves of Kerrobert. She has in her possession another gopher shield – this one from May 1, 1918 – awarded to the Bonn School District (No. 2475) near Dodsland. Her father, Henry “Hank” Draves, went to the school. So, there was a second gopher day and another gopher shield awarded. And ironically, the winning school was named after a German city. Thanks, Kathleen. If you have any questions or comments about any of my columns, please email me at

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Photograph: Everett Baker

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