Bill Waiser

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OPINION: Shuttering of provincial archive locations means ‘fewer of our stories being told’

Archives are a unique resource, vital to understanding our society and ourselves.

With the closure of the Saskatoon location of the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan (PAS) at the University of Saskatchewan, students from various disciplines will no longer have the opportunity to use these primary materials on campus as part of their training, while faculty research will be severely inconvenienced.

The general public will also be discouraged from investigating their family history.

There will be less research being done and fewer of our stories being told.

That’s the real cost here.

It could not have been more to the point.

On November 22, 2018, a Saskatchewan government order-in-council, OC 574/2018, designated Regina “as the location of office for the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.”

The possible closure of the Saskatoon PAS office had been talked about for the past few years, but the speed with which it was finally enacted was unexpected — certainly a surprise.

The Ministry of Advanced Education had recently advised the U of S that the removal of the Saskatoon archives office, housed in the Murray Building, was being seriously contemplated, but the move was not considered imminent.

On November 23, the day after the cabinet order, the university was informed that all archival operations in the province were being consolidated in Regina and that the Saskatoon branch would close effective December 21.

This decision will effectively end a seven-decade relationship between the University of Saskatchewan and the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.

‘We cannot know today what is valuable’

The archives, in one form or another, have always been an integral part of the university campus.

The person largely responsible for the creation of the Saskatchewan archives was Arthur Silver Morton, head of the Department of History and Librarian at the U of S.

While researching the Western Canadian fur trade, Morton recognized the need to acquire and preserve the documentary record so that the province’s history was neither forgotten nor lost.

He believed that all records should be preserved, “for we cannot know today what is valuable and what is not. The future only can settle that.”

In 1936, with the backing of university president Walter Murray, Morton called on the Saskatchewan government to establish provincial archives.

He warned that future generations, “will charge us with betraying our trust if we cast away … material” instead of preserving it in an archival institution.

The government was receptive to the idea — but probably only because the university was willing to provide space, an archivist and money to cover operating costs.

In April 1937, a new Historical Public Records Office was set up on the U of S campus in a basement room in one of the residences, Saskatchewan Hall.

Morton got a new title, too: Keeper of the Public Records.

The following year, the first set of territorial government records was transferred from Regina to Saskatoon and Morton set to work cataloguing.

A growing collection

By 1941 the collection was so large it had to be relocated to the School for the Deaf in the Williams Building on Cumberland Avenue.

The shortage of storage space was only going to get worse, due to Morton’s acceptance of the Saskatchewan land records of the former federal Department of the Interior. It was estimated that this collection would require 3,000 linear feet of shelving.

The other problem was that the Historical Public Records Office — the provincial archives in all but name — had no legislative basis. It was simply an informal arrangement between the government and the university.

Fortunately, the new Tommy Douglas government finally took action.

When the CCF assumed power in 1944, it found that the outgoing Liberal administration had destroyed all government files. Douglas complained to former premier William John Patterson that this “act of pillage” was “most improper.”

Patterson lamely replied that he was only following “practices established by custom.”

The Douglas government was determined to put an end to this practice and created the Saskatchewan Archives Board in 1945 — ironically, only months after Morton’s death.

The archives legislation prohibited destruction of any public document except on the recommendation of the provincial archivist.

It also expanded the acquisitions policy to include all kinds of documentary material on Saskatchewan history.

Most importantly, it was constituted as a partnership between the government and the university, often with the U of S representative as chair of the board.

Space for the archives office was designed into the basement of the then-new Murray Memorial Library for the convenience of the university community.

As fellow historian George Simpson claimed, Morton would have been pleased that the records had now been “placed on a sound and permanent basis.”

Since that time the archives have become a key asset of the university, one that has been fully integrated into teaching and research programs.

Students, faculty and the general public have consulted these materials for a wide range of purposes: a class project, an academic study, an aboriginal claim, or information about homesteads.

Many graduate theses, books, articles and historical productions have depended on the archives.

The records are not only a vital research asset, managed by information professionals, but are a vital community resource, attracting local historians, enthusiastic genealogists and visiting scholars.

New plan leaves much unknown

This long-standing relationship between the University of Saskatchewan and the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan will now end December 21 when the Saskatoon office is officially closed.

The five buildings currently occupied by the PAS are to be consolidated into one central Regina location scheduled to open in August 2019.

The plan raises questions:

What studies and recommendations were behind the cabinet decision?  Why was the public not consulted? Are these studies and recommendations accessible?

It would be supremely ironic if these documents, affecting the future of the provincial archives, were closed to the public.

The decision to close the Saskatoon branch was also made before a new central facility has been selected.

Where will the Saskatoon records be sent, especially when the four Regina buildings are  reportedly at capacity?

Will the Saskatoon materials still be accessible for research and access to information requests while the new facility is being prepared?

How will the Saskatoon materials be moved, given that constant humidity and temperature are essential for older paper?

It has been suggested that the closure of the Saskatoon office will result in reduced leasing costs, but in a 2016 agreement, the university agreed to continue to charge the PAS only $500 a year  — no, that is not a typo — for rent until such time as the space was needed.

Since that agreement, no university official has indicated any change in PAS lease costs.

The bigger financial question is where the PAS is going to get the funds for its ambitious plans: a single facility with better conservation standards and improved public access hours.

The province has not been particularly generous in funding the PAS and present economic challenges suggest that it may not get any better.

What will be the features of the new consolidated PAS facility? What will it cost and how will it be funded?  Surely, the public should see the detailed, fully-costed plan.

Getting the new single PAS facility up and running by August 2019, just eight months away, is also doubtful.

Moving the huge volume of records into a single location will take considerable time.

The other complication is that some records were deposited with the PAS on the understanding that they would remain in Saskatoon.

Are negotiations underway with other Saskatoon archival facilities to take these records?

That too might affect the transfer timeline.

The provincial archivist has also stated that the four Saskatoon positions will not be lost but transferred to Regina.

That raises the question whether these professionals will want to relocate and if not, the PAS will lose that corporate memory.

Some have suggested that such consultation will not be necessary with the digitization of PAS materials, but only a fraction of the materials have been digitized and more cannot be done without funding.

Nor will digitization ever take the place of working with the original records and consulting with an archivist.

So, why should the public care?

Archives are like a laboratory where patrons work with primary sources to unlock and decipher the past.

The closure of the Saskatoon branch of the PAS will mean that the public will have less direct access to these historical records.

And this reduced access will hinder, possibly even discourage, communities, families, and individuals from seeking details about their past and their place in the larger provincial story.

As Canada’s first Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty once observed, “Of all national assets, archives are the most precious. They are the gift of one generation to another.”

This article was originally published by CBC.

Photo:Archivists Evelyn Eager and Douglas Bocking looking at homestead records in the Saskatchewan Archives’ reading room in Saskatoon, circa 1960. 
Photo Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan/PAS Photo S-B6511

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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. In 2018, Bill was appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour. He was also awarded the 2018 Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media: The Pierre Berton Award

Bill Waiser: Recipient of the 2018 Governor General’s History Award for Popular Media, the Pierre Berton Award

Bill Waiser has devoted his career to building a better understanding and appreciation for our history. He has done that through the classroom, including more than three decades as a university professor, as well as in newspapers and magazines, in books, on radio and television, and in hundreds of public presentations.

Bill Waiser with The Governor General of Canada, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette at a ceremony at Rideau Hall.

The breadth and depth of his scholarship is remarkable. He has moved easily from scholarship to public history and always with tremendous empathy for his historical actors.

Dr. Waiser’s work is grounded in western and northern Canada and spans centuries. His seventeen books include some with a focus on Saskatchewan and others on such diverse topics as Tommy Douglas, the 1935 On-To-Ottawa trek, and aerial photography.

He has introduced us to a history that could have been ignored, such as the use of prisoners in shaping Canada’s national parks, and the roles played by Indigenous people in the North-West Resistance.

Dr. Waiser’s outstanding career includes a leading role in the fight for access to historic census records, revealing him to be a champion for all historically minded Canadians. His success in connecting historical research to popular debate is helped enormously by the high esteem with which he is held among scholars.

This article was originally published by Canada’s History

William S. Ritchie

Private William Stuart Ritchie: A remembrance

I first visited the Canadian Great War battlefields in the spring of 2006.

My partner Marley and I, together with our good friend Jim Miller, embarked on a mini-war tour in Belgium and France following a conference in Great Britain.

We all had ancestors who served in the Great War and never returned home.

In fact, we were the first family members to visit their memorials.

Jim’s maternal grandfather, John Rodger, died in the 1915 Battle of Loos and is remembered today in Dud Corner cemetery.

He has no known grave — just his name listed on one of the cemetery walls.

He left a wife and eight children in Scotland.

Marley had two great uncles who died in Flanders: James Herbert English at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, and David George Read at the Battle of Mont Sorrel in June 1916.

They too were never found and their names are among 54,000 British and Commonwealth dead commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Marley’s father, James George English, was named in their memory in 1925.

But the really spooky part is that photographs of Jim English’s two uncles, in uniform, loomed over Marley’s mother’s locker at Peterborough Collegiate Vocational Institute — before Barb met her future husband.

My great uncle on my mother’s side, William Stuart Ritchie, was a member of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles.

He perished during the Battle of the Somme on Sept. 15, 1916, coincidentally the first day that the Allied forces used tanks on the western front.

Ritchie was buried in a makeshift cemetery, but his body was later never located — probably blown up — because of the constant shelling of the area.

More than 50 per cent of the Somme fatalities remain missing to this day.

I have since learned that other Canadians have similar stories of loss and that our families’ experiences were not unique.


Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery France

A sea of Maple Leaf headstones in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France.

Part of our April 2006 battlefields tour included a trip to the Vimy Monument.

I never realized at the time that my great uncle’s name was on the memorial.

I had always assumed he died during the Great War, given his year of death, but knew few of the details.

Unlike Marley’s family and their stories, my mother Jean never once talked about her uncle Bill, who died the year of her birth.

Nor had I done any research into his war record, never bothered to look for his attestation papers through the Library and Archives Canada online service.

Our trip to Vimy on a lovely Sunday morning was essentially a bonus after visiting Loos and Ypres to lay flowers and offer a few moments of quiet reflection for our family dead.

But Jim, Marley, and I never did get to see the monument. It was undergoing a major restoration in time for the 90th anniversary of the battle in April 2007.

This rescue work was badly needed.

By the late 1990s, the monument’s stone base was eroding in several places, the sculptures were discoloured by an unsightly mould, and many of the names of the dead had become unreadable from calcium leaching out of the stone facing.

The Canadian government was eventually shamed into action and approved funds in 2002 to save the memorial.

The multi-million-dollar restoration necessitated closing the site to the public so that the monument could be literally taken apart, stone block by stone block, and rebuilt.

For much of this work over the next four years, the memorial would be, as the French said, “en caché,” or covered.

We just chose the wrong time to visit.

The famous monument was hidden under a rectangular canvas shroud that from a distance looked more like a prairie grain elevator.

Disappointed, we vowed on the spot to come back when Vimy was once again open to the public and we could appreciate its renewed grandeur.


The pledge to return to Vimy prompted me to do some homework about the monument, and more importantly, learn about my great uncle William and his fate.

I had witnessed how Marley and Jim had been personally affected by visiting the memorials to their family members and wondered if my relative had been similarly remembered and how I would feel visiting the site.

That’s when I made the connection to Vimy.

William Stuart Ritchie enlisted on Aug. 25, 1915.

His “apparent age,” according to his attestation papers, was 28 (born 1887).

But that wasn’t true.

The census lists his year of birth as 1883 — a fact confirmed by a family genealogy tree.

Why he declared himself to be younger is not clear.

By that stage of the war, after Canadians had been badly mauled in Flanders, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was accepting men in their 30s or older.

Perhaps he believed that he’d have a better chance of being accepted if he presented himself as younger.

Born in Elmvale, Ontario, William had lived in the east end of Toronto since 1904 and worked as an electrician.

He married Agnes Lyon, a seamstress, in 1910, and the couple had three children, Harry (born 1912), Jean (1913), and Lillian, who died shortly after birth in 1914.

Maybe that’s why he signed up.

Private Ritchie was a member of the 83rd Battalion, recruited and mobilized in Toronto.

On reaching England, he was selected to serve with the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles — badly in need of reinforcements after its battering at the Battle of Mont Sorrel.

Ritchie joined the fight near Courcelette, part of the larger Somme offensive.

On Sept. 15, 1916, his battalion was ordered to attack the heavily defended Fabeck Graben trench and came under fierce German shelling as it moved forward.

That’s when Ritchie was reported missing.

William was found dead shortly thereafter and buried next to the road between the villages of Courcelette and Poziere.

The official casualty sheet for William says “Body not recovered for Burial” and is stamped at the bottom in capital letters, VIMY MEMORIAL.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also lists my great uncle as being “remembered with honour” at Vimy.

But why was his name at Vimy, especially when he was killed at the Somme, seven months before the assault on the ridge?


In 1920, Toronto architect Walter Allward won a competition to design a national war memorial.

The Canadian government initially planned to erect the monument in the Ypres Salient in Belgium, but then decided to place it at Vimy, France in honour of the Canadian taking of the ridge in April 1917.

Work on the monument started in 1922 on what was known as Hill 145.

It would take two years to clear the battleground and complete a road because unexploded shells precluded the use of heavy equipment.

Allward spent more than a decade painstakingly overseeing construction of the monument, ensuring that the graceful design that had come to him in a dream was realized at the site.

One of the critical aspects was the choice of stone.

Allward searched throughout Europe — at considerable expense and precious time — before settling on Seget limestone from a closed quarry near Split, Yugoslavia.

This delay added to the Canadian government’s frustration with the glacial pace of the project.

Allward, in turn, was shocked when the secretary of the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission informed him in 1926 that his monument had to display the names of those Canadians who died in France — not just Vimy — with no known grave.

Allward resisted the proposal, suggesting that there was the “danger of having it look like a huge sign board.”

But the commission was not swayed, and after considering whether to inscribe the names on the monument’s two pylons or the floor of the base, Allward agreed to place them on the walls.

At the official unveiling on July 26, 1936, presided over by the former King Edward VIII, those in attendance greeted the memorial with a mixture of sorrow and pride.

And what made the monument such a poignant reminder of Canada’s great loss were the 11,285 names, in alphabetical order, that ringed the base in continuous lines across the stones.

The central statue of the mourning woman, known as Canada Bereft, was weeping for them.


Marley and I returned to Vimy on a sunny fall day in October 2013.

The trip was part of a small European holiday to mark our 60th birthdays.

I now knew from my research that my great uncle was memorialized there and that his name would be among the Rs, organized by last names in alphabetical order by rank.

It did not take long to find him, on a row of names at eye level, to the right side of the steps leading up to the top of the monument base.

Vimy Ridge Monument Bill Waiser

Bill Waiser points to his great uncle’s name on the Vimy Monument.

I picked up a fallen red maple leaf, from one of the trees that had been planted at the site, and stuck it next to his name, while Marley took my photograph.

I also placed a little wooden cross against the wall below his name.

I still didn’t know much about him — especially why he enlisted shortly after the death of one of his three young children — but was glad to see his name.

I also thought of my mom’s family and what they and tens of thousands of others went through at the time, especially when the dead had been reported missing.

This connection to family brought me back less than two years later, this time with my sister Gail and brother Tom and his wife Irene.

Marley and I had told them about our past visits to the Great War battlefields in France and Belgium, and we decided to return together in April 2015.

We stood at the Brooding Soldier monument at Vancouver Corner in Flanders, 100 years to the day after Marley’s great uncle James English was killed at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres.

A special ceremony, involving the king of Belgium, was held to mark the first use of chlorine gas on the Western Front.

Menin Gate ANZAC Day 2015

Marley Waiser (centre) at the ANZAC Day ceremonies, Menin Gates, April 2015. Her two great uncles never found are memorialized there.

Later that day, we attended the ANZAC Day commemoration at the Menin Gate and solemnly stood with Australians and New Zealanders as they remembered their dead.

At the end of the service, the sound of the haka reverberated through the memorial.

We also spent a morning at Vimy and took a family picture near my great uncle’s name among those ringing the base of the memorial.

It was all quite moving, even for Marley and I, who had been there before.

There’s an overwhelming sadness when you visit cemetery after cemetery and look out upon the maple leafs on the headstones.

Thousands more Canadians have no known grave — are still somewhere out there.


My ongoing search for more information about my uncle William’s war experience has greatly benefitted from Library and Archives Canada’s decision to scan the personnel records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and put the material online in 2018.

I now know, for example, that William trained at the Toronto Exhibition grounds, that he sailed from Halifax in late April 1916, and that he landed in France six weeks later.

The record-keeping was a model of efficiency.

The file includes a card indicating that memorial crosses were sent to his widow Agnes and his mother, Janet Ritchie.

The Ritchie family has had little more to add.

It was so long ago, and many are now dead.

But I did get a photograph of the Ritchie family headstone in the Elmvale Presbyterian Cemetery.

William’s name and death in France are inscribed on one side of the stone pillar marking the grave of his parents, who lived into the 1920s and would have known the heartbreak of losing a son to war.

What I couldn’t find, though, was a photograph of William.

That was recently resolved thanks to a November 2017 notation at the end of William’s entry on the Canadian Great War Project website.

William attended St. John’s Presbyterian Church on Broadview Avenue in Toronto.

His photograph is among 32 congregation members who perished during the war.

I visited the church during a trip to Toronto this past August and found his picture on a wall in the stairwell to the second floor.

Some, like William, are in uniform, others in street clothes.

The same men — this time, just their names — are honoured on a bronze plate in the chapel.

There is also a framed, hand-lettered scroll for 1916-17, listing those from the church who served during the war.

Memorial Plaque St John's Presbyterian Church Toronto

The Great War memorial plaque along one of the chapel walls at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Broadview Avenue, Toronto.

The scroll is carefully wrapped in plastic and leans against a wall in a church storeroom.

Beside William’s name is a red dot, denoting killed, that has faded over the years and is barely discernible.

It’s not the fate Canadians expected when they marched off to war.

Nor was it the future families expected for their loved ones.

And if we can do anything 100 years later, it is to remember people like William Ritchie, John Rodger, James English, and David Read.

Their memory should not be reduced to a name on a list or monument.

They deserve better.

This piece originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Bill Waiser’s father served in the British Columbia Regiment during the Second World War. PHOTOS: Bill & Marley Waiser.

University of Saskatchewan Memorial Bench World War One

Memorials give us the chance to sit and think about the First World War

On Nov. 8, 2018, just days before the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, known as the Great War, the University of Saskatchewan will be dedicating a memorial bench on the university campus.

The bench installation will cap four years of activities initiated and sponsored by a university Great War Commemoration Committee (GWCC). But once the anniversary of the end of the war comes and goes, will the bench become just another artefact?

One hundred years ago, the University of Saskatchewan decided to recognize service in the war while the conflict was still underway. In 1916, the board of governors recommended that the names of all students, faculty and staff who enlisted be painted on ribbons along the corridors of the first and second floors of The College Building.

These ribbons were part of the original building fabric and predated the war. But they proved ideal for acknowledging the participation of nearly 300 people, mostly students, including future prime minister John Diefenbaker.

These individuals were given a place of honour at the University of Saskatchewan. But no explanation was ever offered as to why the names were there, and their significance was often not apparent to anyone visiting the building.

This omission was corrected with new signage at a re-dedication ceremony in August 2014, along with the addition of the names of those individuals who were missed during the original commemoration process.

Re-visiting war’s impact

Unlike other universities, Saskatchewan decided not just to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the war, but to re-visit and examine the impact of the war on the university and Saskatoon and the contribution of the university to the war effort.

The GWCC comprised a broad representative committee of students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and retirees, who took on the work.

The university hosted an Indigenous roundtable at which First Nations and Métis peoples were invited to share their memories of the war and what it meant to their home communities.

The only wrinkle was finding a place for the pipe ceremony, a sacred prayer, to set the right tone before the event.

There was also an antiques road show at which families brought in their Great War memorabilia, as if they were sacred treasures, to be assessed by experts in the field.

A series of lectures examined particular aspects of the war — with the emphasis on Saskatchewan’s involvement.

One of the speakers was Globe and Mail editorial artist and Saskatchewan graduate Brian Gable who spoke about cartooning during the First World War.

An online memorial

The GWCC also organized off-campus events.

Saskatoon’s Woodlawn Cemetery has a next-of-kin memorial lane, the only surviving one in Canada. With the support of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, families were encouraged to purchase an elm tree for their loved ones as both a personal and community memorial.

When the site was dedicated in 1923, 112 trees had been planted along the main road into the cemetery — to replicate France’s tree-lined avenues. The president of the Saskatoon Heritage Society led a walking tour of the site as part of the university’s commemorative program.

Nutana Collegiate, Saskatoon’s first public high school, also served as the venue for a special event. At the end of the war, the student body raised enough funds to commission paintings by some of Canada’s leading artists in memory of those who were lost during the war.

But there was a catch: the paintings were not to depict a war scene. Today, the paintings, worth several million dollars, hang in the school library. When a commemorative program was held there — to tell the story behind the paintings and seek funds for their restoration — the crowd, many of them alumni, filled the library and spilled out into the hall.

Recordings of these events have been deposited at the university archives as part of an ambitious online project to make publicly available the great wealth of university holdings related to the war.

The bench

The committee is now winding up its activities with the installation of a memorial bench, carved by a local stonemason. The dates, 1914-1918, and the words, “remember us” (the us also standing for the University of Saskatchewan) are inscribed along the back of the bench.

Between them is the silhouette of soldier, head bowed, standing in repose. The figure has historic significance; it was used in the student newspaper, The Sheaf, after the war.

The bench will join other campus memorials to the war and will be placed in the quad immediately north of the Memorial Union Building (commemorating the Second World War) and near the original student residences.

In 1928, the university dedicated memorial gates at the original campus entrance. The names of 67 war dead are engraved on a tablet there. There is also a memorial stone with a plaque dedicated to Saskatchewan men who served in the 46th Battalion. It was known as the suicide battalion because of its incredibly high casualty rate.

The question, though, is whether these memorials, including the new bench, will continue to resonate with the university population and the wider Saskatoon community once the centennial of the end of the war is marked.

They certainly have a place of prominence. Hundreds of people pass them everyday on their way about campus. But do these people ever pause to reflect on the meaning of these memorials and remember the commitment made a century ago to never forget?

As the relative of a soldier — a great uncle — memorialized on the Vimy Monument, I’ve visited the First World War battlefields. I’ve looked out upon a sea of maple leaf headstones in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium.

I’ve read the rows of names lining the inside walls of cemeteries — those with no known grave but believed to have died nearby. And I’ve attended the Menin Gate “last post” ceremony, held every evening in Ypres regardless of the weather.

This experience has made remembrance all the more meaningful, all the more necessary. It’s not something that should be limited to one day a year.

Just as the First World War demanded increasingly greater sacrifices, Canadians need to be continuously reminded to never forget. That’s the purpose behind the installation of a new memorial bench at U of S.

It is a place for people to take time to sit and think about the service and sacrifice and to remember. What better way to honour their memory?

Waiser awarded Royal Society’s Tyrrell Medal

SASKATOON – Bill Waiser, distinguished professor emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), has been awarded the prestigious J.B. Tyrrell Historical Medal by the Royal Society of Canada for outstanding contributions to the field of Canadian history.

Waiser, a former U of S faculty member for more than 30 years, is the author, co-author or editor of 17 books including A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905,which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2016. The jury stated the book “surprises the reader with its reconsideration of Canada,” and that Waiser “refocuses the country’s story by putting Indigenous peoples and environmental concerns in the foreground.”

“Prof. Waiser is a gifted scholar who has investigated and shared the story of our province not just with students but with the broader Canadian public through his many books, public talks and extensive engagement with television, radio and print media,” said U of S Vice-President Research Karen Chad.

“His passion for storytelling and dedication to providing a better understanding and appreciation of Canadian history—particularly the leading role played by Indigenous peoples—makes him a worthy recipient of this distinguished honour.”

The Tyrrell Medal will be presented to Waiser at a special Royal Society ceremony on Nov. 17 in Halifax, N.S.

A specialist in western and northern Canadian history, Waiser served as U of S department head of history from 1995 to 1998. He is the second U of S historian to be recognized with the Tyrrell Medal, which is awarded every two years by the Royal Society “for outstanding work in the history of Canada”, provided a suitable candidate is found.

The first U of S recipient of the Tyrrell Medal was A.S. Morton, who was honoured in 1941. Morton joined the university in 1914 as chief librarian and history professor, and went on to head the history department. He was instrumental in establishing the Saskatchewan archives and served as the province’s first archivist from 1938 until his death in 1945.

The medal connection to Morton is highly meaningful to Waiser, who served as the A.S. Morton Research Chair at the U of S for four years before leaving the university in June 2014.

“Arthur Morton won it nearly 80 years ago for his work on western Canadian history, and I’m following in his footsteps, so it’s very special to me,” Waiser said.

“Both professionally and personally, it’s very gratifying to be awarded this medal. It’s very flattering to be recognized by my peers this way. It means that my work has some significance, has resonated with people, and has made a contribution.”

Waiser’s extensive community outreach has included a weekly column “History Matters” for The Saskatoon StarPhoenix,a weekly column “Mining the Past” for CBC Radio, and serving as researcher and on-camera host for “Looking Back,” an award-winning CBC Saskatchewan television production that was later reproduced in DVD format by the provincial government for distribution to all schools in the province. He has given over 250 talks on Canadian topics to schools and libraries, conventions, conferences, clubs and organizations and at public ceremonies.

Since leaving the U of S, Waiser has served as a visiting scholar at Duke University in North Carolina, McGill University in Montreal, Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.
Waiser was awarded the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal in 2005 and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit in 2006. He was inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2007. In 2017, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour.
“I had a wonderful career at the University of Saskatchewan and I had tremendous opportunities there,” he said. “This medal is just the icing on the cake. I am thankful and very grateful.”
The RSC medal is named for Joseph Tyrrell, a Canadian geologist, cartographer and mining consultant. Tyrrell discovered the dinosaur bones in Alberta’s badlands, and coal around Drumheller. The renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller is named for him.

For more information, contact:

Bill Waiser
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan

Bill Waiser signing History Matters: Stories from Saskatchewan

Bill Waiser will be at Saskatoon’s McNally Robinson book store on Saturday, September 15 at 1 p.m. to sign copies of his latest book, History Matters: Stories from Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan has a rich and diverse history—sometimes unusual, if not quirky. History Matters brings together some of the Saskatchewan stories that Bill originally published in a bi-weekly column in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix newspaper.

Read about Saskatchewan’s first Gopher Day in May 1917 when school kids waged battle against the pesky “enemy of production,” the Saskatoon high-jumper who has the distinction of being the only Canadian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual track-and-field event, the sacred Indigenous boulder that was unceremoniously blown up to make way for the South Saskatchewan River Dam project, or the Prince Albert druggist who was elected to the House of Commons and appointed to the Senate but never uttered a word in either chamber.

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Waskesiu Drowning Memorial

Memorial sign erected at Kapasawin for Waskesiu drowning victims

In follow up to my October 2017 column, Freak Storm on Lake Waskesiu Left Four Dead, I received the following letter and update from the Waskesiu Foundation in August of 2018.

Hello Bill,

I am Chair of the Waskesiu Foundation, a charity that supports social, recreational, cultural and environmental initiatives that improve the Waskeisu Experience for residents and visitors.

Your Saskatoon StarPhoenix article from October 11, 2017, titled History Matters: Freak Storm on Lake Waskesiu Left Four Dead ended with a suggestion there needs to be a plaque at the Kapasiwin tree naming the four people who died and explaining why they were once buried there. Your article inspired our Board to do just that. It also inspired two donors to come forward to make donations to cover the cost of the sign. I’m pleased to advise the Waskesiu Foundation, in partnership with the Waskesiu Heritage Museum have installed a sign by the memorial tree at Kapasiwin. The sign not only lists the names and explains the tragedy, but it also has four photographs. to supplement the text. Dorell Taylor has been involved as we moved forward on getting the permissions, photos, text etc.

I know you would be interested in seeing the sign, and I hope you can soon come to Waskesiu to do so. In the meantime, I have included a photo of the memorial tree with the sign beside it and a close-up of the sign, so you can read the text and see the photos. The sign measures 30 by 40 inches and is themed to be compatible with the heritage signs in Waskesiu.

Thanks for your suggestion that prompted action.

Derwin Arnstead
Chair, Waskesiu Foundation

The new memorial plaque is located at the base of the Kapasawin Memorial Tree near Waskesiu in Prince Albert National Park.

Outlaw turned farmer tried to run from his past

When asked why the early cattle industry in present-day southwestern Saskatchewan was never as violent as its American counterpart, a ranch hand suggested, “the alkali water (cowboys drank) up here took it out of them, and the winters froze out what was left.”

But there were outlaws operating in the border country. One of the most notorious was Joseph Erving Kelly, more popularly known as Sam Kelly or by his alias, Red Nelson.

Born in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1859, the tall, lanky Kelly, renowned for his deadly aim as much as for his bright, red beard, came to prominence in the Saskatchewan-Montana border country in the 1890s when he fell in with American Frank Jones and his criminal friends. Over the next few years, the Nelson-Jones gang, sometimes working with the rough-and-tumble Dutch Henry, terrorized local ranchers and settlers, stealing horses and rustling cattle, when not robbing trains and businesses.

The North-West Mounted Police responded to the crime spree by setting up a detachment in the Big Muddy Valley, but the gang eluded capture by hiding in caves near Peake’s Butte in the badlands or just slipping across the line.

Sometime after 1902, perhaps tired of running, Kelly abandoned his life of crime and tried his hand at ranching. But he was always afraid that his past would catch up with him, and he left the area in 1913 and apparently headed to northern Alberta.

In the spring of 1914, Kelly surfaced in Debden, northwest of Prince Albert, with three friends from his Big Muddy days: Louis Morency, Ernest Schumann, and Jim Moody. All four men applied for homesteads in the area, near what is known today as Kelly Lake.

Homestead records indicate that Kelly applied for 160 acres in late March 1914. But he didn’t like the parcel of land and applied for a different quarter section the next month. That homestead (SE 15-53-6 W3) was patented in 1920.

Kelly might have reinvented himself as a pioneer bachelor farmer, but word about his outlaw past was soon whispered in the community. His pal Morency liked to talk about the old days—how he had served as lookout for the gang and would put a barrel on its side to alert the boys to the presence of the police.

Alphide Jean, a fellow homesteader from Quebec, heard these stories first-hand. He was also one of Kelly’s few friends — he helped fence his property — and wrote about his experiences 60 years later.

Jean said that local people quickly learned not to ask Kelly what he did before arriving in Debden. The former outlaw kept to himself and would not let anyone on his property without permission. If he took a dislike to someone, they knew not to cross his path. He had a soft spot, though, for children and always had candy for them.

Kelly took great care with his appearance and worked at being a gentleman — a far cry from his outlaw persona. He was never scruffy. His clothes were always clean and he shaved regularly. Gone was his trademark red beard. He also never cussed. But Jean remembered that his piercing blue eyes could still look right through a person.

There were also signs of another life. Kelly was a crack shot — able to dehorn a bull with his Winchester rifle from over 100 yards away. And he always paid cash for hired help at the end of the day or for supplies in town.

Kelly was never much of a farmer. He had only a few acres in crop — mostly feed for his horses. His large garden, though, kept him supplied with fresh produce. He also traded eggs to some of the local settlers. He showered affection on his horses and chickens and talked to them as if they were all that mattered in the world.

In the spring of 1937, Kelly suffered a breakdown. Neighbours tried to nurse him along, but he became increasingly confused and ornery. Their concern turned to alarm when they found him shooting at the water barrels around his house, claiming he was being followed, and they arranged to have him committed to the Battleford Mental Hospital.

The 78-year-old Kelly died there in October and was buried in a numbered grave. He found in death the anonymity he desired — and could finally stop running from his past.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:In keeping with his desire for anonymity, there are no known photographs of Sam Kelly.
Photo Source: Blossom Communications

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.

Twins pressed into service as teachers in rural school

An educated population was a priority for the new province of Saskatchewan.

One of the provincial government’s first acts was the passage of a university act in 1907. School districts also had to be organized to keep pace with the steadily growing population of rural children, while teachers had to be found to staff the small, generally isolated one-room schools. It was a formidable challenge.

During the eight-year period from 1905 to 1913, the number of elementary schools in the province jumped from 405 to 2,747.

Nor did the demand lessen for several years. For the 1916-17 school year, one-half of all registered children in Saskatchewan were in Grade 1.

The government sought to provide a steady supply of teachers by opening normal schools in Regina and Saskatoon to train teachers, as well as establishing a system of high schools.

This preparation and training may have helped teachers in rural schools better deal with the difficulty of handling eight grades in one classroom, but they still had to contend with poor pay, inadequate facilities, and uneven attendance.

Cold winter weather and the cost of keeping buildings heated often kept schools closed from Christmas until late February. Children also stayed home in the early fall to help with harvest.

Students of all ages were consequently concentrated in the primary grades, while many quit before completing Grade 8.

When Saskatchewan’s population peaked in the mid-1930s, there were an estimated 5,000 school districts in the province. Many of these rural one-room schools fell on hard times because of the Great Depression.

The buildings, never known for their comfort, were allowed to deteriorate. There was also a lack of educational materials and supplies, while teachers not only had their salaries slashed or held back, but often had to depend on the generosity of local residents to help tide them over.

Then, the Second World War took away hundreds of qualified teachers who volunteered for duty. Scrambling to keep their schools open, several district boards turned to teenaged women, with no formal training or experience, to serve as study supervisors. Many were not much older than their students.

Jean and Joan Louden, fraternal twins, were among the new crop of young teachers.

Born in Willow Heights (formerly Esplen), east of North Battleford, in 1935, the pair grew up on a family farm where education and music were valued — and hard work was a fact of life.

Despite the sacrifices of depression and war, Bill and Carol Louden made sure their daughters had opportunity. Jean and Joan both took piano lessons, first from their mother at home and then in North Battleford.

The two girls also secured their high school credits through home-schooling and a curriculum drawn from government-approved correspondence materials — again, under the direction of their mom, herself a former teacher and graduate of the Saskatoon normal school.

The 17-year-old twins completed Grade 12, with high honours, in June 1952. They also passed the Grade 10 piano exam of the Royal Conservatory of Music that same month.

What next? They were too young to start university. Besides, they lacked the requisite high school French course for admission.

That’s when they were approached by a senior North Battleford education official and asked to assume study supervisor duties at the Forest Hall rural school.

They agreed on the condition that they could split the teaching. Joan would handle the morning subjects, while Jean would take the afternoon. They both needed the extra time to continue with their piano training.

Their dad converted a newly-built wooden grain bin into a two-room teacherage and moved it next to the Forest Hall school. One of the rooms was taken up by the women’s piano, a gift from their grandfather.

Jean and Joan put their plan to work for the next two years. Despite the demands of their teaching duties, juggling several grades at once, they completed the Teacher’s ARCT Diploma piano requirements, with honours, in June 1954.

Their next stop was the Saskatoon Business College and an executive secretarial course, followed by separate careers and marriage.

In looking back at the experience, Joan admitted she was probably too young and inexperienced to be “a warmly enthusiastic teacher.” But she helped introduce her students to a world that was “pretty far removed from the reality of their lives.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:Jean (left) and Joan Louden on Saskatoon’s 2nd Avenue during the winter of 1954-55.
Photo Source: Joan Sinclair

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.

Saskatchewan is no stranger to bad winters

Saskatchewan has had its share of hard winters. They don’t need exaggeration.

One of the most deadly was the killing winter of 1906-07. The winter began innocently with the first fall of snow on Nov. 5, 1906. Then, a little more than a week later, a brutal three-day blizzard raged across the West, dumping several feet of snow.

Pioneers called it “the earliest, most violent, and longest storm in living memory.” December hinted at a return to normal weather, but a series of heavy snowfalls, accompanied by record low temperatures, pounded the region through most of January and February.

Spring brought little relief. It was as if winter would never let go.

When ranch hands in southwestern Saskatchewan went to assess the carnage in the spring and count the stock losses, they found dead cows hanging in trees in the coulees because the snow had been so deep.

Wallace Stegner, in his classic Wolf Willow, named it “carrion spring.” Rancher R.D. Symons was blunter. He called it “the big smell.”

There was also a terrible winter in early 1947. A staggering four feet of snow fell in parts of southern Saskatchewan in January. Then, the wind started to howl. For one long week — from Jan. 30 to Feb. 8 — one of the nastiest winter storms in Canadian history raged across the prairies.

The blowing snow created incredibly huge drifts that made travel dangerous, if not impossible. Rail lines and roads were choked by snow, while telegraph lines were either blown down or buried.

People in rural areas were completely cut off from the outside world and had to survive as best they could. One farmer reportedly cut a hole in the roof of his two-storey barn to get inside to milk the cows.

The record for several consecutive severe winters probably belongs to the late 18th century — the consequence, in part, of a protracted La Niña event over the Pacific Ocean in the late 1770s, followed by the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783. Hudson’s Bay Company’s servants kept a sobering record of the dismal conditions.

The snow was so deep during the winter of 1783-84 that dog teams could not be used at some HBC posts for several months.

The winters of 1788-89 and 1789-90 were even worse, arriving in the early fall and lasting into the late spring. “In the whole of this winter,” Mitchell Oman at South Branch House complained in early April 1790, “there has been the most Snow that has been seen Inland this 15 years past.”

Before the month was over, another foot of snow fell. Malcolm Ross at Cumberland House was just as exasperated. “I never knew the spring to be so backward before,” he observed on May 4, “nor the ice to stay so long.”

These colder temperatures drastically reduced glacier melt in the spring, and the annual canoe brigades could not leave the region on time because “there was no water in the river.”

Indigenous people were accustomed to these climatic fluctuations. But their newly acquired horses were not, and they died in great numbers in the 1780s. Hunting bands responded by raiding rival bands for replacement stock.

The late 1790s were little better. Winter arrived so early in the fall of 1795 that it was possible to ride horseback across the frozen North Saskatchewan River by mid-November.

The annual canoe brigades were delayed again in these years — not because of low water but the lateness of the spring. “The Country around has the appearance of Winter,” James Bird gloomily reported on May 2, 1797, “the Snow being still deep on the ground.”

The HBC canoe brigade somehow managed to reach Cumberland House on June 4, only to find “the (Cedar) lake is still frozen over apparently as solid as it was in the middle of winter.”

The next two winters were just as hard.

“I have never experienced so miserable a time … inland,” William Tomison complained in November 1798, “and no prospect of its mending.”

But the weather did mend. All Tomison had to do — as Indigenous people knew — was wait until next season. The winter of 1799-1800 was so unseasonably mild that bison herds and the hunting bands that pursued them stayed out on the plains.

People probably forgot, at least momentarily, how bad Saskatchewan winters could be.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Even a locomotive is challenged by Saskatchewan winters. 
Photo Source:Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A27895

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.