Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: December 2017

Pets helped relieve isolation of pioneer homesteads

Distance and isolation. These were the twin problems of rural Saskatchewan in the early 20th century.

The homestead system may have attracted tens of thousands to the province with the promise of 160 acres of free land, but the emphasis on individual land holdings — the idea that everyone should have their own quarter-section — effectively dispersed settlers over the landscape.  Indeed, those in pioneer districts seemed to have stepped backward in time. Basic services, such as a road or a store, were largely non-existent.

Geoffrey Blainey talked about how distance was one of the defining features in Australian history in his book, The Tyranny of Distance (1966). Saskatchewan homesteaders would likely have nodded in agreement with his findings, especially his observation that “distance (was) tamed more quickly on the map than in the mind.”

It was this overwhelming sense of isolation, of being alone, that weighed on homesteaders. It was even worse if they lacked a timepiece or simply lost track of what day it was.

They missed family and friends and craved contact with the outside world. Any news in isolated districts was always old news, but nonetheless welcome. Families re-read letters and newspapers as if they were the last word on a topic.

They also visited distant neighbours, walking for miles if necessary for the companionship. It was always encouraging when somebody new took up land.

Pets helped relieve the loneliness. In fact, most photographs of early homesteads invariably include a dog. Cats might also have been part of the household, but in keeping with their temperament, they probably didn’t care about being in the picture.

Perce and Lillian Turner knew all about the value of dogs and cats on their pioneer farm. In the late spring of 1906, they homesteaded in the Eagle Hills (just north of present-day Herschel) at a place named Glenallen (township 32, range 16, west of the 3rd).

Perce, of Bealton in southwestern Ontario, had headed west first by train, intent on finding a suitable quarter-section before sending for Lillian. His “setter’s effects” included four horses, one cow, one pig, 16 chickens and a dog named “Cabin.”

When Lillian arrived in Saskatoon a month later, Perce had already lost the dog. He had tied Cabin to the wagon as he headed out along the Goose trail, but the dog had whined to be let loose. It was never seen again.

Lillian regretted the dog’s disappearance as soon as she reached the homestead. She had hoped that Cabin would keep predators away from the hens and their eggs.

She also quickly came to appreciate why another homesteader arrived with a box of cats. “One can hardly grow a garden,” she wrote her parents, “without cats to catch the gophers. I don’t know how I will get on, but will make a desperate effort to manage in some way.”

Perce also missed Cabin. In early May, he went hunting in a nearby slough and shot a duck for supper. But the water was too cold and he came back empty-handed and wet above his knees.

The Turners got a new dog — barely more than a pup — from one of their neighbours in June. Lillian immediately thought of her garden. “He does not know much yet,” she reported, “but we hope to learn him to catch gophers.”

Lillian’s other worry was the mice, which invaded their one-room shack “in droves.” She set traps throughout the place and caught “lots of them.” But she got so desperate — especially when she found a family of sleeping mice in her good linen inside a chest — that she told her mother that “I would not begrudge $5.00 for a good cat just now.”

The new dog, in the meantime, was kidnapped. Perce went to town with a neighbour to get some lumber and arranged for the man’s son to stay with Lillian. But the boy got scared as soon as it got dark the first night and fled home with the dog for protection.

Lillian was not upset for long. Perce returned to their homestead with a stray cat he found on the streets in Saskatoon. The mice “disappeared as if by magic.”

As far as Lillian was probably concerned, the dog need never come back.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Two boys with their pipe-smoking dog in the Prince Albert area, circa 1910 
Photo Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan S-B12622

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.

The saga of John Rowand’s bones

It was his farewell journey.

In May 1854, Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor John Rowand left Fort Edmonton with the annual spring Saskatchewan brigade. It would be his last trip down the North Saskatchewan.

Rowand planned to attend the annual council meeting at Norway House in June, say his goodbyes to old friends in the trade, and then push on to Montreal and retirement.

But during a stopover at Fort Pitt, Rowand died from an apparent heart attack. So began one of the most bizarre sagas — at least, for his bones — in fur trade history.

John Rowand entered the trade in 1803 as a 16-year-old apprentice clerk for the North West Company and was assigned to Fort Augustus (the rival post to the HBC Fort Edmonton). For the next half century, he would make the northern plains his home.

In 1810, while hunting bison, Rowand fell from his horse and broke his leg badly. A Métis woman, Louise “Lisette” Umfrieville (sometimes spelled Umphreville), the daughter of another trader, came to his rescue. The pair would become partners in a “country marriage” that produced seven children (four girls and three boys). It is said that Rowand never really recovered from Louise’s death in 1849.

By 1820, Rowand’s business acumen earned him a partnership in the North West Company. The following year, when the NWC and HBC merged, he was asked to head the new Saskatchewan district.

Rowand quickly became a legend for his toughness and no-nonsense demeanour. He was literally larger than life. Although short and rotund, he had amazing strength and never backed down from a confrontation. The Indigenous people called him “Iron Shirt” and “Big Mountain.”

Those who worked for him were not so admiring. Rowand could be a tyrant and often resorted to verbal abuse, backed up by the occasional cuff.

By the late 1840s, Rowand was ready to retire. He seemed to sense that the days of the fur trade were coming to an end on the northern plains. But it was not until the spring of 1854 that it became official that the 67-year-old trader would be leaving the interior and returning to Montreal, the place of his birth.

Rowand had made the trip down the North Saskatchewan River with the outgoing brigade dozens of times. He would have known the river and its moods intimately, all the bends and straight stretches, and the familiar landmarks along the way.

He reached Fort Pitt (just east of the present-day Saskatchewan-Alberta interprovincial border) on May 29, 1854. Rowand had selected the site, halfway between forts Edmonton and Carlton, 25 years earlier. His son, John Jr., was now in charge of the post.

That night, the pair likely talked about the senior Rowand’s retirement to Montreal — and how the fur trade had changed and the challenges it faced.

The next morning, the Fort Pitt boats were being readied to join the flotilla that had left Edmonton days earlier. Two men began to fight. Rowand tried to separate them, madly yelling as he stepped forward, only to keel over dead at their feet.

He was buried outside the Fort Pitt palisades. But there was a problem. The night before his death, Rowand had told his son that he wanted to be buried in the same Montreal cemetery as his father.

George Simpson, the overseas governor of the HBC, decided to honour his dead friend’s wish. Sometime over winter of 1855-56, Rowand’s body was disinterred at Pitt, and the remains boiled down in a large kettle. The person who handled the macabre task apparently got drunk first.

The bones were taken to Norway House, where they were picked up by Simpson and transported to Red River. Simpson was worried, though, about sending Rowand’s bones directly on to Montreal. The contents of the package were the subject of whispers and grumbling, and superstitious voyageurs might be driven to throw the bones overboard during the trip east.

The bones were consequently repackaged and secretly sent to York Factory on Hudson Bay for shipment to England by the annual supply ship. Simpson then arranged to have them returned to North America.

Rowand’s journey finally ended on Nov. 10, 1858 — more than four years after his death — when his bones were placed in an imposing, $500 tomb in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:John Rowand’s memorial in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.
Photo Source: Sam Derksen

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.

Statistics Canada

Op-Ed: ‘Opt-in’ census clause will have ‘unfortunate consequences’

Statistics Canada has just released new information about the Canadian workforce. It’s the last batch of aggregate data from the 2016 census.

But when will the national spotlight shine on individual Canadians and their stories? Shouldn’t their place in the Canadian historical record matter? Will their information be made available in the future?

The answer is yes and no.

In 2006, for the first time in Canadian history, census participants were asked to indicate — by checking a box — whether their responses on the short form could be made available for research after 92 years.

No detailed explanation was provided on the form about the significance of census records for future genealogical research or for Canadian history. Nothing was said about the consequences of saying no.

If respondents answered no, or simply overlooked the question, the form was not destroyed, but access to it in its name-specific format was forever prohibited.

Opt-in question never asked before

Canadians completing the census had never been asked this “opt-in” question before.

Indeed, past Canadian censuses, with all their name-specific personal information, have been made publicly available after a minimum 92-year waiting period —  without a single word of complaint.

But the opt-in question undermined this sensible policy with unfortunate consequences. Only slightly more than 50 per cent of Canadians agreed in 2006 to make their census information available to future generations —  including their descendants. That number rose to about 66 per cent in 2011 and then 80 per cent in the most recent census.

So, what’s the problem?

Every day in Saskatchewan, people put all kinds of personal information on Facebook and similar social media. But will that information be available and accessible in the future, given the ephemeral nature of the technology? Not everybody, moreover, posts details of their life online.

At least people doing family research today can access past censuses and other sources of historical information, such as Saskatchewan homestead files, school records or Great War attestation papers.

What information will be available for future Canadians?

But what material will be available in the future about individuals living today? How will grandchildren and great grandchildren learn about their ancestors and their lives without access to personal census information if it is forever closed?

Remember, one in five Canadians said no in 2016 to having their responses available in the future, long after they are dead.

It does not have to be this way.

A clause in the 2005 act to amend the Statistics Act requires a review of the “administration and operation” 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.”

Another clause requires a report on the matter.

Act to receive first reading in House of Commons

That mandatory review, for some inexplicable reason, was never undertaken before the 2016 census. Nor is it mentioned in a new piece of legislation — Bill C36, An Act to Amend the Statistics Act —  that is scheduled to receive first reading in the House of Commons this month.

The failure to review the opt-in question is not a trivial matter.

Canadians need to know that the statistical integrity of the census as a source of genealogical and historical information, of population trends and movements and especially of information about everyday Canadians has been irreparably compromised by the informed-consent question.

They need to realize that their descendants could be deprived access to family information that might not be otherwise available.

No opt-in question in the U.S.

And they 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.

The opt-in question should not stand in the way of family and historical research.

Everyone, especially in this Canada 150 year, deserves to be remembered and have a place in the history of Canada. Now, that’s a birthday present.

This article originally appeared on CBC News

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.