Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: July 2017

Carlton Trail once served as Saskatchewan’s highway

In 1957, Saskatchewan became the first province to complete its section of the new Trans-Canada Highway across the southern prairies. And ever since then, millions of travellers have complained about the mind-numbing hours spent driving between Manitoba and Alberta.

A century earlier, people would have used another equally famous route — the Carlton Trail — for travel within and through the region. But unlike today’s No. 1, there was nothing boring about the route or the trip along it.

The 900-mile Carlton Trail ran from the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg) northwest to Fort Edmonton.

Known by a variety of names depending on the district, the broad trail entered present-day Saskatchewan (from Fort Ellice) near Welby/Spy Hill, continued northwest (just south of Melville) through Ituna to Touchwood Post (near Lestock, south of the Quill Lakes) and then continued (passing near Lanigan and Humboldt) on to Batoche, where it crossed the South Saskatchewan River before reaching Fort Carlton; from Carlton, the trail ran north of the North Saskatchewan River (just south of Edam and Turtleford) to Fort Pitt and ended at Fort Edmonton.

It took on average 22 days to travel its length at a rate of about 40 miles per day — but only if the weather cooperated. The trail was also heavily rutted in places from the constant freight traffic and presented something of a nightmare because of the mud holes, some deep enough to swallow a wagon up to its box.

Despite these challenges, the Carlton Trail functioned for several decades as a major transportation artery in the western interior.

Indeed, most visitors to the region in the mid-19th century invariably travelled a section of the road by foot, horseback, or cart.

On the other hand, those who depended on the trail for their livelihood quickly learned its ways. Among them was James Clinkskill, a Scottish merchant who set up a general store in Battleford in the early 1880s.

Mail service left Winnipeg for Edmonton every three weeks, and Clinkskill would sometimes tag along with his supplies shipment, even during winter. The fare from Winnipeg to Battleford was $75. But passengers had to feed themselves and be prepared for “a spell” every four hours when the animals were rested and fed and a great kettle of tea was made.

For the uninitiated — in other words, first-time users of the trail — it was a different story.

That included Erastus Lawrence, his wife Lydia and their three children, Susan, Fred, and Fenwick, who travelled the trail in the late spring and summer of 1879.

The Lawrence diary of the trip, available today at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, is full of references to never-ending mud holes, especially one section of trail called “emigrants’ terror.” The frequent thundershowers — what Erastus jokingly called camping “by electric light” — only made matters worse.

Then, there were the mosquitoes (“eight times larger than commons one”), the “fearful bulldogs” (horseflies), and “black flies in clouds.” At one point, the horses were “so used up by the flies” that they “acted drunk” and could “hardly manage” their loads.

But the Lawrence hardships were tempered by wild strawberries and the “panorama of loveliness” along the Saskatchewan River.

The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1882-83 sealed the fate of the trail. The railroad introduced a new metropolitan pattern across the southern prairies, while providing more dependable transportation and communication.

The trail continued to be used for local freighting until branch lines and roads took its place. Homesteaders also ploughed up sections as they brought their pioneer farms into production or blocked off access by fences.

Professor R.C. Russell of the U of S Department of Plant Pathology, and author of a 1955 book on the Carlton Trail, recalled from his childhood days in the Lipton district that the trail was “almost entirely deserted” when he first saw it.

But the trail didn’t completely disappear and can be found today here and there by looking for the telltale ruts on the ground.

Russell thought about asking the Saskatchewan government to mark the trail route as a diamond jubilee project, but dropped the idea.

Instead, near the end of his book, he claimed the wandering trail had its own charm and cautioned against “plung(ing) doggedly ahead in a straight line.” It’s good advice.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: William Hind made a series of sketches along the Carlton Trail in the late 1850s. 

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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. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Bobby Gimby 1967

Saskatchewan’s Bobby Gimby was Canada’s pied piper in 1967

He called it a simple marching song. Nothing too lyrical, nothing too serious. Just something catchy that Canadian children could sing aloud in celebration of the country’s centennial. And that was a big part of the song’s appeal.

In fact, mention Bobby Gimby’s name today and someone who was in school in 1967 will invariably start singing the first lines of “CA-NA-DA”.

Robert Stead Gimby (pronounced Jim-bee) was born in Cabri in southwestern Saskatchewan in October 1918. The third of five children (an older brother died in childhood), Bobby was immersed in music from an early age.

His father, who ran the local hardware store, was a fiddler, while his mother played the piano. All of the children were encouraged to master an instrument. Bobby would later recall that “the little band in the family” made for a lot of “nighttime frivolity.”

It was an idyllic childhood. His father’s successful business meant there was time for weekend picnics and summer holidays at Antelope and Clearwater lakes. Bobby even got his own cornet when he was eight — in addition to regular piano lessons from one of the local music teachers.

Then, in 1929, the Great Depression put a stranglehold on Cabri’s fortunes, a situation made worse by an unrelenting drought that brought the farming community to its knees.

The family hardware store limped along before a lightning strike in 1933 reduced the business to ash. Bobby’s father took to the road selling life insurance, but it was a meagre living at best.

Bobby found solace in his music — he could be heard constantly practicing in the family’s Main Street home — but he never got the chance to showcase his burgeoning talent. There was no money for the Cabri brass band to travel to take part in local competitions.

The Gimbys moved in 1936 to Chilliwack, British Columbia, where Bobby completed his high school education. It was music that consumed him, though, and he played in local bands before making a name for himself in Vancouver.

His big break came in 1941 when he joined Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen as lead trumpeter and toured the country. That was followed in 1945 by a starring role in CBC radio’s “Happy Gang,” a gig that lasted through the 1950s. He capped the decade as musical director for the popular “Juliette” show on CBC television.

By the early 1960s, Bobby was writing pop songs and radio jingles when not working as an orchestra leader. His talent and reputation earned him a commission to produce something special for the 1967 celebrations.

The national Centennial Committee was initially lukewarm to Gimby’s “CA-NA-DA” song and decided to use it as background music to a centennial promotional film.

But then the calls and letters started to roll in from across the country from teachers who reported that their students were enraptured with the song. Where could they get a copy of the record?

“CA-NA-DA” sold 270,000 copies as the top selling single in Canada in 1967. There was also great demand for the sheet music.

It was Bobby, though, who turned his song into something special. Bedecked in a cape and with his long trumpet encrusted with costume jewellery and pearls, he toured the country that year as Canada’s piped piper.

Wherever Bobby went, children would march in a single line behind him as the notes from his trumpet led them in the singing of “CA-NA-DA.” The uplifting words, combined with the young voices, made for a magical moment. “CA-NA-DA” was the country’s unofficial anthem and Bobby it’s undisputed folk hero.

In looking back to 1967, there were other magical memories, some seemingly frozen in time, others probably never to be repeated.

Montreal played host to the hugely successful Expo 67 world’s fair. The centennial flame was lit on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. And the Toronto Maple Leafs won their 13th and last Stanley Cup.

But it was a simple children’s marching song that captured the imagination of the youth of the nation and continues to resonate over the decades.

“North south east west
There’ll be happy times
Church bells will ring, ring, ring
It’s the hundredth anniversary of
Ev’rybody sing together!”


This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Bandleader Bobby Gimby leads children’s choir in singing of his hit tune, “Ca-na-da,” at Confederation Train ceremonies.
Photo: Published Aug. 28, 1967. Morris Edwards of the MONTREAL STAR.

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. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Metis Family Ile-a-la-Crosse

What did Saskatchewan look like in 1867?

Saskatchewan was not part of Canada in 1867. In fact, the future province was not even a Canadian province at the time. That would quickly change.

Incorporating the northwest was a planned feature of the 1867 Confederation deal (section 146 of the BNA Act).

By acquiring the region, expansionists expected the young dominion to become stronger, more powerful, but most of all, more secure on a continent dominated by an aggressive United States. The western interior had to be claimed by Canada as soon as possible to keep the Americans at bay.

Two years after Confederation, Canada struck a deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company to surrender its charter rights to Rupert’s Land (present-day western and northern Canada) for £300,000.

It was a phenomenal real estate transaction.

The original dominion not only increased seven times in size, but the land transfer paved the way for agricultural settlement of the western plains.

It would be several decades, though, before the expected rush of homesteaders was realized.

These Indigenous children faced new circumstances and challenges with Canadian acquisition of the northwest. (Louis Cochin)

Indigenous peoples, in the meantime, faced new circumstances and challenges. Indeed, change was a defining feature of life in the western interior.

In the north, the lives of Indigenous people largely revolved around a steady, somewhat unimaginative, fur trade. But new rivals would soon compete with the HBC, while the trade became more concentrated in the region because of growing settlement in the south.

On the plains, bison were in steep decline. Two-thirds of the herds, once numbering from five to six million animals, were effectively gone by the mid-19th century.

As Methodist missionary George McDougall gloomily summed up the situation: “A time of starvation. No buffalo.”

Cree bands moved to protect their hunting territories.

No longer was the Saskatchewan country a bison commons, open to all, but increasingly claimed by particular bands. By the 1860s, though, bison were mostly found around Wood Mountain, the Cypress Hills, and present-day northern Montana and the Poplar and Milk rivers.

The Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux responded by forming large hunting parties that entered enemy Blackfoot territory in force. The Métis, heavily involved in the bison robe trade, also pursued the depleted herds by establishing small wintering settlements throughout present-day southern Saskatchewan.

They were anxious times, made worse by another smallpox epidemic that spread north from the Missouri country, first to the Blackfoot and then the Cree. The death toll ranged from fifteen to forty percent.

Because the disease never reached beyond the Touchwood Hills and the Qu’Appelle Lakes, the epidemic was largely unknown to the outside world.

So too was one of the largest battles in plains warfare. In October 1870, the Cree launched a major attack against the Blackfoot near the junction of the Belly (Oldman) and St. Mary rivers (near present-day Lethbridge).

But the Cree were flung back and lost hundreds of warriors.

The once great bison herds were in steep decline by the 1860s. (Adrian Paton)

The “buffalo wars” ended when the Cree and Blackfoot reached a peace agreement in the spring of 1871. The fighting had a terrible cost, made worse when the smallpox dead were added to the tally.

It is easy to understand why the Cree and Blackfoot felt under siege at the time.

Nor did the coming of peace alleviate the suffering. There was widespread starvation in the wake of the smallpox epidemic. William Christie at Fort Edmonton reported that the Cree who wintered on the plains in search of bison “suffered frightfully” and reduced to eating their horses.

The Cree along the North Saskatchewan came together in 1870-71 to discuss their plight— and the unsettling news that Canada had bought their lands from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Newcomers meant more competition for the dwindling bison.

Sweetgrass, the leading chief in the Pitt district, sent a message asking for a treaty.
“Our country is no longer able to support us,” he reported.

“We invite you to come and see us and speak to us.”

The Cree sought farming assistance as part of a new, long-lasting, reciprocal arrangement with the dominion of Canada.

But no one came.

Whereas Ottawa was preparing the land for settlement and the railroad, it had no immediate plans for treaties west of the new province of Manitoba. And so the Cree refused to allow any government-sponsored activity in their territory until Ottawa finally agreed to deal with them.

Getting the Canadian government to meet with the Cree was an accomplishment in itself.

First Nations and Métis peoples were not consulted, let alone represented, when the Canadian government negotiated the purchase of Rupert’s Land in 1869. Nor was Ottawa prepared to give the western population a meaningful voice in the settlement and development of the region.

The Northwest Territories was treated as little more than a federal colony into the 20th century.

And even when Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, it had to wait another quarter century before it was granted control over its public lands and resources.

It is little wonder, then, why the Saskatchewan story of confederation is a protracted, at times acrimonious, experience.

This article originally appeared on CBC Saskatchewan.
Photo: A Métis family at Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask. 
Photo Credit: Louis Cochin

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. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.