Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: June 2017

Bill Waiser appointed to Order of Canada

Saskatchewan author and historian Bill Waiser was appointed to the Order of Canada on June 30, 2017.

From the Governor General of Canada’s Website:

Governor General Announces 99 New Appointments to the Order of Canada

OTTAWA—His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, today announced 99 new appointments to the Order of Canada. The new member list includes 3 Companions (C.C.)19 Officers (O.C.) and 77 Members (C.M.). Recipients will be invited to accept their insignia at a ceremony to be held at a later date.

“I am delighted to recognize these new recipients of the Order of Canada on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Confederation,” said the Governor General. “This July 1 also marks 50 years since the creation of the Order of Canada and the first-ever list of appointments, which was released a few days later. The individuals on today’s list, just like those appointed half a century ago, are truly inspiring as they have helped to build the smarter, more caring nation that we, as Canadians, are all so proud to call ‘home’. Let us celebrate these remarkable individuals today and every day!”

Throughout the year, we are celebrating the Order of Canada’s 50th anniversary through a host of special initiatives and partnerships. To join the celebration, visit and use the hashtag #OC50.

About the Order of Canada
Created in 1967, the Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours, recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. Close to 7 000 people from all sectors of society have been invested into the Order. Their contributions are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and have taken to heart the motto of the Order: DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (“They desire a better country”). Appointments are made by the governor general on the recommendation of the Advisory Council for the Order of Canada.


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)

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

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.

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

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?

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