My good neighbour Bob Novak is from Waldron. It’s a small village in east-central Saskatchewan, south of Yorkton and east of Melville, that had an official population of 10 in the 2011 census.
As a boy, Bob remembers Waldron with more vacant lots than buildings. In fact, he often puzzled over the number of concrete foundations along the streets — foundations that spoke of the town’s once great promise.
Like many other Saskatchewan places, Waldron came about during the town-building frenzy in the early 20th century. It was an extraordinary process because of the way new communities literally mushroomed from the prairie soil.
No less than 600 towns and villages with a population of at least 100 found their way onto the map of the three prairie provinces by the start of the Great War in 1914.
Even more incredible was how these towns and villages were arbitrarily established by the competing railway companies at the time.
The location and distribution of communities along a rail line were determined by the distance that farmers could economically haul their grain to local elevators by horse and wagon, not by the natural features of the land.
Railways consequently set towns and villages at regular intervals, preferably seven to ten miles apart. Larger centres, known as divisional points, where equipment was repaired and crews changed, were established every 110 to 130 miles.
One author likened the arrangement of Saskatchewan towns to beads on a string. “They appear,” he observed, “as though a giant, armed with a rubber stamp, had marched along the lines impressing townsites at regular intervals upon the prairie.”
A 1909 article, “Towns Made to Order,” offered a more tongue-in-cheek assessment of this sterile process.
“‘We’ll put a town here,’ said the engineer in charge. The man who held the map put a spot on the map. Other men made marks on the ground. There was no ceremony — no one was there to applaud, no residents came out to shout, for there were no residents.”
Waldron was a creation of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, a forerunner of Canadian National Railways. It was named after the son of the British chairman of the company when the railway was pushed through the district in 1906-07.
GTP builders used the alphabet not once, but twice, in naming towns along the east-west main line through Saskatoon: from Atwater to Zelma and then Allan to Zumbro.
Waldron had big plans. Even though it found itself in the shadow of nearby Yorkton and Melville, the community believed it could ride the early 20th century settlement boom to greatness.
Other towns had similar ambitions and actively pursued any initiative to secure a competitive edge. All understood what was at stake in the urban struggle: only a few communities would dominate.
Waldron, with a population of about 150 by 1911, pinned its hopes on the district’s only indoor hockey rink.
But the same 1912 cyclone that swept through downtown Regina also damaged Waldron’s prized rink.
Undeterred, the community rebuilt the rink — only to see it destroyed again four years later when another cyclone hit the district.
Waldron was back on its feet by the start of the 1920s. But the roaring ’20s, when Saskatchewan’s population and crop production climbed to record levels, were not kind to the community.
A 1921 fire destroyed most of the downtown core. Several businesses never rebuilt.
Five years later, in July 1926, another cyclone rolled through the area, followed by egg-sized hail in its wake.
The one-two punch of the storm killed a farm couple (the Ellwoods), left a trail of pulverized buildings and blown-down telephone poles, and wiped out the district’s bumper crop. Perhaps most amazing, the bulldozing force of the wind completely levelled a half-mile-long bluff, just east of Waldron.
It’s a wonder that Waldron has survived to this day, especially when it was walloped by another fierce storm in 1964.
But anyone will tell you that the province was not built by quitters. Just ask the people of Waldron.
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“Spin” has always been part of government and politics. That was certainly the case in how the Conservative government of John A. Macdonald portrayed the 1885 North-West Rebellion.
While researching the role of the Indians1 in the rebellion, I turned to one of the best sources on government Indian policy in the 1880s–namely, the John A. Macdonald papers. The prime minister served as his own Indian Affairs minister. In fact, Macdonald held the portfolio longer than anyone before or since (from 17 October 1878 to 2 October 1887). Because of his central role in overseeing federal Indian policy during these years, there was a considerable volume of material that crossed his desk and was subsequently saved in the Macdonald fonds at Library and Archives Canada.
It is readily apparent from Macdonald’s 1885 correspondence that he believed that the Indians, not the policy, were the problem in the aftermath of the rebellion. He also endorsed and supported the coercion and interference being advocated by his officials to end any remaining resistance to federal Indian policies. That meant deliberately portraying the Indians as rebels in 1885. Particularly instructive in this regard are two letters between the prime minister and the governor general.
In an exchange with Lord Lansdowne in the late summer of 1885, Prime Minister Macdonald referred to the uprising as a form of domestic trouble that did not deserve to be elevated to the rank of rebellion. The governor general bristled at the comment and chastised the prime minister, “We cannot now reduce it to the rank of a common riot. If the movement had been at once stamped out by the NWM Police the case would have been different, but we were within a breath of an Indian war.” A somewhat unrepentant Sir John replied in his defence, “We have certainly made it assume large proportions in the public eye. This has been done however for our own purposes, and I think wisely done.”2
This idea that there had been an “Indian rising” in western Canada was a gross exaggeration. In the weeks immediately following Métis leader Louis Riel’s declaration of a provisional government at Batoche on 19 March 1885, several Indian leaders across the West came forward and solemnly affirmed their allegiance to Queen Victoria and to the spirit of the treaties they had signed in the 1870s. From the federal government’s perspective, though, a crisis could not be wasted. And with the rebellion, Ottawa had been handed an unprecedented opportunity to rid itself of troublesome Indian leaders and their nagging call for revision of the treaties.
Though privately he knew better, then, Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney (a close friend of Prime Minister Macdonald) charged that the Indians were reckless allies of Riel who would cause trouble in the future unless reined in. Hayter Reed, his ambitious assistant, readily agreed and was ready to act. “One of the great faults of our [military] leaders,” Reed told Dewdney in a letter from the war front at Fort Pitt, “is” that they do not understand the Indian character, and do not know when he is defeated, and when to follow up an advantage.”3 Even the prime minister shared his officials’ reading of the situation–as evidenced by his correspondence with Lansdowne.
Canadian officials, including Prime Minister Macdonald, consequently chose to ignore Indian declarations of loyalty in favour of presenting the rebellion as a concerted, yet futile, attempt by Aboriginal peoples to wrest control of the region away from the Canadian state. For the Conservative government, the Indians and Métis were all traitors, united in an evil cause.
e008464200e008464201This so-called Indian-Métis conspiracy quickly gained traction and became one of the most enduring myths in western Canadian history. And it has been expressed in many forms. In his 1910 history of the force, Riders of the Plains, mounted police historian A.L. Haydon observed that “there had been war–red war, with its opportunities for fighting, for revenge, and for many other outlets of energy so dear to the primitive mind. These instincts are hard to eradicate.”4 The idea also spilled over into fiction. In The Patrol of the Sun Dance Trail, minister-turned-novelist Charles Gordon (Ralph Connor) had a handful of resolute Mounties facing the prospect of an Indian war in 1885. It was a prospect “so serious, so terrible, that the oldest officer of the force spoke of it with face growing grave and voice growing lowered.”5
Running counter to the idea of Indian involvement in the rebellion is a growing body of scholarly literature–largely based, ironically, on the records of the Department of Indian Affairs and the papers of federal politicians and government officials. Its genesis was a 1983 article in the Canadian Historical Review, in which John Tobias persuasively argued that the Canadian government had deliberately interpreted the isolated incidents of Indian violence as acts of rebellion in order to derail a growing Indian movement for renegotiation of the treaties and to make the government’s policy of coercion more effective.6 Tobias’ subjugation argument generated considerable scholarly interest. It was even picked up by the Globe and Mail, no small achievement for an academic article. But more importantly, his findings were supported, if not enlarged upon, by a number of related studies.
Hugh Dempsey, Big Bear’s biographer, described how the powerful Cree chief was interested in a peaceful resolution of Indian grievances. The spontaneous action of younger frustrated warriors in early April 1885, he argued, effectively ended Big Bear’s political career. Along similar lines, Gerry Friesen, author of the award-winning The Canadian Prairies, observed that there was no Cree military movement in 1885–let alone an Indian and Métis uprising–and that Big Bear and Poundmaker remained “aloof” from Louis Riel. That same year, Bob Beal and Rod Macleod maintained in Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion, now the standard text on the rebellion, that Ottawa was determined to punish the Indians even though the Métis had started the agitation. A few years later, Sarah Carter, in her examination of Indian agricultural policy in western Canada, Lost Harvests, not only noted that most Indians honoured their treaty pledge not to take up arms, but also drew attention to the “often overlooked” fact that Indians were “equally uneasy and apprehensive” in 1885.7
What is missing from these conflicting interpretations of the rebellion is the defining role played by Prime Minister Macdonald. The Lansdowne-Macdonald exchange demonstrates that what actually happened in 1885 was less important than the “our own purposes” strategy pursued by the prime minister. That strategy had a terrible cost for Indian peoples. Twenty-eight reserves were identified as disloyal in 1885, while over fifty Indians were convicted of rebellion-related crimes. Those sentenced included prominent Cree leaders Big Bear and Poundmaker, and eight warriors who dropped to their death simultaneously at Battleford on 27 November 1885 in Canada’s largest mass hanging. Several bands also had their annuities–a treaty promise–withheld for a few years.
Indians have lived with the stain of rebellion ever since.
1. I have chosen to use the word “Indian” because it was the term in usage during the period under consideration. First Nations did not come into usage until the late twentieth century, while Aboriginal peoples refers to First Nations and Métis peoples collectively.
2. Library and Archives Canada, Manuscript Division, John A. Macdonald papers, v. 106, 42559-62, Lansdowne to J.A. Macdonald, 31 August 1885; v. 23, 271-72, J.A. Macdonald to Lansdowne, 3 September 1885.
3. Ibid., vol. 107, 43180-83, H. Reed to E. Dewdney, 23 June 1885.
4. A.L. Haydon, Riders of the Plains (Edmonton 1971), 155-56.
5. R. Connor, The Patrol of the Sun Dance Trail (Toronto 1914), 12.
6. J.L. Tobias, “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879-1885,” Canadian Historical Review, v. 64, n. 4, 1983, 519-48.
7. H.A. Dempsey, Big Bear: The End of Freedom (Vancouver 1984); G. Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History (Toronto 1984); B. Beal and R. Macleod, Prairie Fire: The 1885 North-West Rebellion (Edmonton 1984); S. Carter, Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy (Montreal 1990).
When Canada went to war in August 1914, the vast majority of Saskatchewan recruits were recent British immigrants. Sixty-three of the first 68 volunteers from the Swift Current area, for example, were British-born. The story was the same at other recruiting stations.
These high British-born enlistment numbers reflected the high British-born settlement rate in the province over the previous decade. British immigrants were the largest group to come to Saskatchewan in the early 20th century. And when war broke out, it was only natural for Britons to do their part — to help their home country in its time of need.
The tug of patriotism, however, often masked their failure at homesteading or their inability to find steady work, particularly during the stubborn recession that crippled the western Canadian economy before the war. It has been estimated that one-fifth of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fled long-term unemployment.
For many, turning a quarter-section of land into a productive farm was a failing exercise. “War is hell,” one recruit quipped, “but what about homesteading?”
Enlistment also offered Britons a free trip home before they entered the trenches along the western front in France and Belgium. In fact, it was widely assumed that the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and that the CEF would not see any action. Why, then, not sign up, especially if it meant that Britons living in Canada had the chance to see family and friends?
Twin brothers Alphonsus (Tony) and Augustine (Gus) Lambert were two Saskatchewan British-born recruits. But unlike other Britons, they did not enlist at the start of the war.
Tony had come to Canada first and found work in the Arelee district just northwest of Asquith, Saskatchewan. His artist brother Gus arrived shortly thereafter in 1913, probably lured West by Tony’s stories about the great future ahead.
It is not known whether the London-born brothers wanted to start their own farms. There is no homestead record for either man. Both worked for other English settlers during the first year of the war, helping to meet the Allied demand for food. But as the conflict overseas descended into a bloody stalemate and the call went out for more men, they could no longer ignore their duty.
Gus enlisted first in Saskatoon on Dec. 21, 1915. Tony followed him into service exactly one week later. Their physical description on their attestation papers (available today online at Library and Archives Canada) suggest that the twins were not completely identical. Gus was an inch and a half taller than his brother Tony. They had just turned 21.
Both men were stationed in France. Tony was wounded at the Somme in the fall of 1916 and was still recovering in an English hospital when Gus, a member of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, entered the battle to take Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
Gus was not so lucky.
Stopping to assist a wounded officer during the Canadian assault on the ridge, he was shot in the head by a sniper on April 10, 1917. He had written his family three days earlier, eerily predicting his own death.
“France à la mud, Dear People, In case ole Fritz gets my number don’t worry. After all I’ve had a good run out here — more than most of the boys. Anyway, you’re (sic) Tony here still and he’ll get a fair exchange! This note may read a bit straight — but when one has been so near the finis so many times he gets hardened. All luck and love, Your loving son.”
Gus is memorialized today on the Vimy Monument.
He was also remembered back in Saskatchewan.
Gus worked as a hired hand before the war, and ever the artist, he could always be found sketching in his spare moments. Many of his simple pencil drawings were tucked into letters about life in Saskatchewan that he sent home to his London parents.
Half a century later, in 1969, Tony’s son contacted the Saskatchewan farm family that Gus had worked for and lived with before the war.
John Jaspar fondly replied, “I can remember crowding around him at the table, with my brothers and sisters, to watch him sketch.”
Those sketches are preserved today in the Glenbow Archives in Calgary.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Gus (left) and Tony Lambert enlisted in December 1915. Photo courtesy the Lambert family.
Sketch: Gus sketched the Jaspars while working as a hired hand. Sketch Courtesy the Lambert family.
Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at firstname.lastname@example.org
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It is encouraging to hear media reports state that the long-form census could once again become mandatory, and that the change might be made in time for the June 2016 census.
Such a step would restore public confidence in Statistics Canada and the integrity of its data collection.
But there is another outstanding census issue — this one dealing with the short-form census and the use of the informed-question question — that needs immediate attention, too.
In 2006, for the first time in Canadian history, all census participants were asked to indicate, by checking a box, whether their responses on the short form could be made public after 92 years. The form was not destroyed if respondents said no or neglected to answer the question, but access to it in its name specific format was forever prohibited.
Canadians completing the census had never been asked this “opt-in” question before 2006. Indeed, all pre-1916 Canadian censuses, with their name-specific personal information, have been made publicly available after a minimum 92-year waiting period.
But the opt-in question in 2006 and again in 2011 undermined this sensible policy with unfortunate consequences.
Only six of every 10 Canadians agreed to make their census information available to future generations. If that had been the case in the past, then much of the rich census data available today to families and researchers would be forever closed to the public.
Thankfully, it does not have to be this way.
There is a clause (2.1) in the 2005 “Act to Amend the Statistics Act” (S.C. 2005, c. 31) that requires a review of the informed-consent question “no later than two years before the taking of the third census of population (2016) … by any committee of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament that may be designated or established for that purpose.”
Clause 2.2 requires a report on the matter. That deadline has unfortunately been missed. And by failing to conduct this mandatory review of the opt-in question before the taking of the 2016 census, the Canadian government and, by extension, Statistics Canada, will be in violation of the 2005 legislation.
Such a review should not be casually dismissed as an unnecessary annoyance.
Canadians need to know that the statistical integrity of the census as a source of genealogical and historical information, especially about everyday Canadians, has been forever compromised by the informed-consent question. They also need to be aware that the United States does not have an opt-in question, and that Americans secure access to name-specific census data after only 70 years.
And they need to be informed that the public release of Canadian census data in the past did not elicit a word of complaint.
Perhaps, most importantly, Canadians need to be reminded that it is impossible today to know what might be historically important tomorrow, and that their descendants, especially their grandchildren, could be deprived access to family information that might not be otherwise available.
Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have put all kinds of personal information on Facebook and similar social media. But not everybody posts details of their life online. And will that information be there in the future given the ephemeral nature of the technology?
At least with the census, there will be a reliable source of information about all Canadians — but only if the informed-consent question is removed.
It is imperative, then, that the legislated review be held as soon as possible.
The opt-in question should not stand in the way of Canadian history and family research.
Surely, that is just as important as a mandatory long-form census.
This piece originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
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