Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: April 2017

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.

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 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?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

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