Bill Waiser

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Provincial exodus did not start until late 1930s

Despite broken dreams, cruel setbacks, misery and deprivation, people never lost faith in the land and its ability to provide a good living.

In September 1934, newspaper reporters D.B. Macrae and R.M. Scott toured the drought-stricken areas of southern Saskatchewan and filed stories along the way.

Wherever they went, they found that life had been reduced “to the lowest common denominator.”

Perhaps the cook at Fillmore restaurant summed up it best: “No crop, no garden, no oats, no potatoes, no feed. Nothing of everything.”

Saskatchewan was the hardest hit province in Canada during the 1930s.

The twin scourge of record-low wheat prices and prolonged drought walloped the province’s agricultural community.

Total farm cash income went into a nosedive, slipping from $273 million in 1928 to just $66 million in 1931 — and remained there for the better part of the decade. To put these figures in perspective, the average net cash income for a Saskatchewan farmer went from $1,614 in 1928 to a mere 66 bucks by 1933.

Saskatchewan’s retail trade, as a consequence, shrank almost 50 per cent from 1930 to 1933, the greatest contraction in any province.

Per capita income, meanwhile, fell a humbling 72 percent between 1928 and 1933.

It’s often assumed that Saskatchewan’s crop acreage and population also experienced negative growth during the 1930s — that people gave up putting in a crop, while the province began to bleed people.

But remarkably, despite the broken dreams, cruel setbacks, and the misery and deprivation, people never lost faith in the land and its ability to provide a good living.

Wherever reporters Macrae and Scott traveled in southern Saskatchewan, they were constantly assured by farmers that “the land is still all right. All it needs is rain.”

This continued determination to plant wheat every spring, as if by instinct, helps explain why crop acreage never declined during the 1930s.

After all, Saskatchewan was “next year country.”

The 1932 crop, for example, was the largest since 1928.

But the problem was the severe drought that seemed to place a stranglehold on the province and not let go for the better part of the decade.

Total wheat production dropped by a third during the 1930s, even though the area devoted to wheat actually increased by a million acres over the same period. In other words, more cropped land was producing less wheat.

1931, 1933, and 1934 were particularly bad crop years with average yields of just under nine bushels per acre.

The 1937 harvest was even worse. Wheat production dropped to a stunning 35 million bushels, a paltry 2.5 bushels per acre.

The other surprising statistic is that Saskatchewan’s total and rural populations (931,547 and 753,004 in 1936, respectively) reached their highest levels several years into the Depression.

Regina’s and Prince Albert’s populations continued to grow through the 1930s as people from rural areas either migrated to the provincial capital in search of work, if not help, or tried to escape to a region that had not been as hard hit by the punishing drought.

In fact, Prince Albert was the fastest growing city in western Canada in 1936 and would continue to attract new residents during the latter half of the decade (from 9,905 in 1931 to 12,290 a decade later).

Thousands of other people abandoned their farms in the worst areas of the Saskatchewan dust bowl for a new beginning north of North Saskatchewan River.

This trickle became a flood after one year without much rainfall turned into three to four. It was one of the greatest internal migrations in Canadian history.

Some of the Depression refugees included families from the province’s major cities. Under the Relief Settlement Plan, a federal-provincial agreement, the urban unemployed were given a chance to get back to work on the land.

About 45,000 refugees — roughly the equivalent of the Saskatoon population at that time — moved into the forest fringe of central Saskatchewan between 1930 and 1936. Two-thirds arrived in 1933 and 1934, some even coming from southeastern Alberta.

Many of the new settlers, in places like Little Saskatoon and Tamarack in the Loon Lake area, traded one harsh existence for another.

The story was much the same for pioneer farmers who struggled to clear the land, only to see their crops lost to frost.

Beginning in 1937, one of the worst growing seasons on record, hundreds began to flee the region, returning to their former communities or trying their luck in another province.

That’s when the provincial exodus began — not in 1929 and the start of the Depression, but 1937.

Saskatchewan’s population would not return to its 1936 peak for almost another half century.

Photo: The 1930s drought, portrayed here as a wolf at the door, forced many farmers to start over in Saskatchewan’s forest fringe. (Montreal Star, Sept. 17, 1934) 

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

Saskatoon Train Station

Railway’s route across Sask. was a business decision

It could have been a scene from a movie about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

After botanist John Macoun extolled the southern Canadian prairies as an agricultural eden awaiting the ploughing, James J. Hill, a member of the CPR Syndicate, pounded the map-covered table with his fist and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, we will cross the prairies and go by the Bow Pass.”

This decisive moment, captured by Macoun in his autobiography, profoundly altered Saskatchewan’s development in the late 19th century.

But it is doubtful whether the spring 1881 meeting in Hill’s office in St. Paul, Minnesota ever happened. Or that Macoun was responsible for the re-routing of the proposed transcontinental rail line.

Throughout the 1870s, it had been assumed that the CPR mainline would travel through the North Saskatchewan country, the so-called “fertile belt,” to the Yellowhead Pass.

But in the spring of 1881, the Syndicate boldly decided to build directly west across the southern prairies through present-day Regina, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, and Maple Creek.

The route change, one scholar noted, “shifted the whole axis of development in the North-West.”

Many reasons have been advanced for the abandonment of the Yellowhead route — and the over $4 million in survey work in preparation for construction.

But the most common explanation was John Macoun’s championing of the agricultural potential of the plains.

In Men Against the Desert, for example, James Gray argues that, “It was Macoun’s report (to the Syndicate) which helped guide the CPR through the southern Prairies.”

Pierre Berton also highlights the St. Paul meeting in The Last Spike, entitling a chapter subsection “How John Macoun Altered the Map.”

But did the meeting take place?

A faithful recorder of his activities in the field, Macoun makes no mention of it in his 1881 field notebook, 1881 diary, or correspondence for that year. Nor does he mention it in his massive Manitoba and the Great North-West (1882), a compendium of his activities in western Canada over the previous 10 years.

The James J. Hill papers, moreover, do not contain any reference to a meeting or to Macoun in 1881. In fact, the only account of Macoun’s meeting with CPR Syndicate members appears in his autobiography, dictated from memory some 40 years later, when the botanist was nearly 90.

There’s no doubt that the railway builders were aware of Macoun’s highly favourable assessment of the southern prairies. But the location of the railway had more to do with strategic business decisions than the quality of the land.

Ottawa’s insistence that the CPR follow an-all Canadian route made for engineering and construction challenges.

It also did not make business sense.

Building across the shield country north of Lake Superior and through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast would be expensive and time-consuming. Nor would these sections of the line generate much traffic for the railway. The losses from these non-revenue producing sections would have to be made up by the railway on the western prairies.

But that, too, was a problem from the outset.

The rail line was being built in advance of significant western settlement.

George Stephen, who headed the CPR Syndicate, was concerned about these operational disadvantages. During the CPR contract negotiations, Stephen told Prime Minister John A. Macdonald that the Syndicate could probably “construct the road without much trouble, but we are not so sure by any means about its profitable operation.”

He was particularly worried about a rival U.S. line siphoning off prairie traffic and undercutting the costly Superior section.

“Now what do you think would be the position of the CPR … if it were tapped at Winnipeg, or any other point west of that,” Stephen asked the prime minister. “No sane man would give a dollar for the whole line east of Winnipeg.”

The main line consequently was constructed as close to the international border as Ottawa would allow —even if it was not the best quality farmland — in order to keep out American competition.

Branch lines would be built north to the Saskatchewan country (Regina to Prince Albert and Calgary to Edmonton).

A more southerly route, through the Kicking Horse Pass, was also necessary if the railway was going to capture all the traffic of the North-West and offset the costs of operating the expensive Superior and Rocky Mountain sections.

As for John Macoun, he provided the agricultural justification for a route chosen for business reasons. Meeting or no meeting, Macoun was not responsible for one of the most controversial decisions in Saskatchewan history.

PHOTO: The Saskatoon train station (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan R-B1754).

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

Opinion: Reconciliation a work in progress on Beardy’s & Okemasis

Reconciliation work, made necessary by the fallout from the 1885 North-West Resistance, is not over.

By: Angus Esperance and Bill Waiser.

A ceremony on Aug. 28, 2020 saw treaty medals restored to the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation. Mary Culbertson, the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan (left), Chief Edwin Ananas, Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation, and Saskatchewan Lt.-Gov. Russ Mirasty. (Photo courtesy Angela Merasty, Office of the Treaty Commissioner.) 

Saskatchewan’s Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation and the Crown are actively engaged in reconciliation.

It wasn’t always that way.

Willow Cree Chiefs Beardy and Saswaypew (succeeded by Okemasis) signed an adhesion to Treaty 6 in August 1876. Alarmed by the disappearance of the bison, they accepted the Queen’s offer of assistance to make the transition to farming.

The Beardy’s & Okemasis people settled near Duck Lake, just west of the South Saskatchewan River. The first few years of reserve life were marked by hardship and privation. Promised agricultural assistance was not only late in arriving, but often inadequate.

Then, in the spring of 1885, the Willow Cree people were helplessly drawn into the vortex of the North-West Resistance. The Willow Cree leaders counselled their followers to remain on the sidelines during the Metis resistance. But some band members were forcibly coerced into joining Metis ranks — a fact willfully ignored by government officials. The historical record suggests they were not allies.

Canada moved quickly to punish First Nations for their alleged involvement in the resistance. Then-prime minister John A. Macdonald told Gov.-Gen. Lansdowne, “We have certainly made (the resistance) assume large proportions in the public eye. This has been done … for our own purposes.”

Those bands found off-reserve were accused of violating Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney’s early May 1885 order that Indians remain peacefully in place. It did not matter that the Beardy’s & Okemasis people, like the white settler community, had feared for their safety and fled from their homes because the Battle of Duck Lake took place on the edge of their reserve.

They were now considered a “rebel” band.

Canada suspended annuity payments to the Beardy’s & Okemasis people for four years — from 1885-1888 inclusive­ — even though this unilateral action violated the Treaty 6 agreement. General Frederick Middleton, the commander of the North-West Field Force, also confiscated the treaty medals of Beardy and Okemasis and deposed them as chiefs of their bands.

The Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation have lived with the shame of being “disloyal” for 130 years.

Finally, in 2015, the Specific Claims Tribunal ruled that the Crown had wrongly accused the Beardy’s & Okemasis bands of insurrection and breached its treaty obligation to pay annuities to band members at a time of suffering and starvation. Canada was required to pay $4.6 million to the Beardy’s & Okemasis people in compensation. The tribunal decision also applied to 12 other bands who had their treaty payments withheld.

Another step on the road to reconciliation was taken this past August. Mary Culbertson, the Treaty Commissioner of Saskatchewan and a member of the Keeseekoose First Nation, arranged to have two replacement treaty medals presented to the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation. The event, purposely held on Aug.28, marked the 144th anniversary of the Willow Cree’s entry into treaty. It was also significant that His Honour Russ Mirasty, the lieutenant-governor of Saskatchewan and a member of the Lac La Ronge First Nation, participated in the ceremony.

That’s the good news.

But the reconciliation work, made necessary by the fallout from the 1885 North-West Resistance, is far from over.

Three Cree chiefs­ Poundmaker, Big Bear, and One Arrow­ were found guilty of treason-felony in the aftermath of the resistance and sentenced to time in Stony Mountain penitentiary. In May 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pardoned Poundmaker. That same consideration should also apply to Big Bear and One Arrow who were reluctant participants in the troubles­ and convicted for what Prime Minister Macdonald called, “our own purposes.”

General Middleton also took One Arrow’s treaty medal after the fall of Batoche. No one knows what became of the medal, but a replacement should be presented to the One Arrow band.

Canada also refused to recognize the chief and headmen of the Beardy & Okemasis First Nation from 1889 until 1936. Twenty-seven other bands were similarly treated. Canada must make amends for this heavy-handed action.

Perhaps the most painful consequence of the resistance was Canada’s declaration that 28 Indigenous bands had been disloyal in 1885. This “rebel” label was arbitrarily applied in many instances.

Until these outstanding issues are resolved and Canada formally apologizes for its actions, reconciliation remains a work in progress.

Angus Esperance is an Elder with the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation.

This article originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Sask. Party earns a place in history

A fourth consecutive majority mandate is also history-making. It’s something that has been accomplished only twice in the past. | File photos

Now that the Sask Party has secured its fourth consecutive majority mandate, it’s time to look at other powerhouse parties from Saskatchewan’s electoral past. 

The Sask Party’s re-election is a significant achievement, one that will ensure that it continues to be the longest serving provincial government in Canada today. There’s even talk of the Sask Party being the province’s “natural governing party.” 

A fourth consecutive majority mandate is also history-making. It’s something that has been accomplished only twice in the past. 

The last time was from 1944-64 when the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Party won five consecutive elections (1944, 1948, 1952, 1956, and 1960) during its 20-year reign. 

Tommy Douglas was the CCF leader for those majority victories. He also enjoys the distinction of serving 17 years as premier. 

No other Saskatchewan premier has matched the Douglas record. Liberal leader Walter Scott (1905-1916), New Democratic Party leader Allan Blakeney (1971-1982), and Sask Party leader Brad Wall (2007-2018) all served 11 years as premier. 

Tommy Douglas also book-ended his years as Saskatchewan premier as an MP. 

He represented Weyburn (1935-44) in the House of Commons before the 1944 Saskatchewan provincial election and then stepped down as premier in 1961 to head the fledgling New Democratic Party. 

He was defeated in Regina in the 1962 federal election and had to find a safe seat in British Columbia later that same year. Douglas never tried to run in Saskatchewan again, despite his long association with the province. 

Douglas would serve the next 17 years in Parliament. When his past service as Weyburn MP is included, he spent 26 years in federal politics — much longer than his term as premier. 

Douglas was not the only Saskatchewan premier with Ottawa experience, nor does his CCF party hold the record for the most consecutive majority election victories. 

The Liberal party was a Saskatchewan dynasty in the early 20th century, enjoying power for almost a quarter century (1905-29). It won a string of six consecutive majority elections (1905, 1908, 1912, 1917, 1921, and 1925), even though it faced several challenges, including the First World War and the farmers’ progressive movement. 

Saskatchewan’s first and second premiers, Walter Scott (1905-16) and William Martin (1916-22), respectively, both sat in the House of Commons as Liberal backbenchers for Saskatchewan ridings before entering provincial politics. 

Charles Dunning (1922-26) and Jimmy Gardiner (1926-29 and 1934-35), on the other hand, went from the Saskatchewan premiership to the Liberal cabinet table in Ottawa. 

Dunning was finance minister in the William Lyon Mackenzie King government. Gardiner served both King and Louis St. Laurent as minister of agriculture for a remarkable 22 years.

Before Gardiner entered the federal cabinet in 1935, he had to overcome a political embarrassment. In the 1929 general election, Gardiner was the first Saskatchewan premier to lead his party to defeat. He did not like it. It was only after Gardiner had brought the Liberal party back to power in 1934 that he resigned as premier a year later to go to Ottawa.

It was on the floor of the House of Commons that Gardiner, a former premier of Saskatchewan, did verbal battle with Douglas, a future premier of Saskatchewan. Both men were famously short. One day during a steady barrage of heckling led by Gardiner, Douglas retorted, “I don’t want any more interruptions. If the minister of agriculture will sit up in his chair and dangle his feet, I’ll go on with what I have to say.” Gardiner never forgave him. 

What’s often forgotten about this Regina-Ottawa Liberal connection was that King represented a Saskatchewan riding for 19 of his 27 years as federal Liberal party leader (1919-48). He was the MP for Prince Albert from 1926-45. He was prime minister for 14 of those years. 

So, what’s next for Premier Scott Moe and his Sask Party government? If they want to continue to make Saskatchewan electoral history: 

  • Moe needs to remain premier until 2035 (Douglas served 17 years).
  • The Sask Party needs to govern until 2031 (the Liberals governed for 24 years). 
  • The Sask Party needs to win two more majority victories (equalling the Liberal record). 

Given the Sask Party’s decisive victory in the 2020 Saskatchewan election, especially its capture of three-fifths of the popular vote, two more majority victories seem possible. 

But as British Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain warned, “in politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight.”

Just look at the fate of the other two “natural governing parties” in the October 2020 provincial election. The Liberals secured only a few hundred votes (less than one percent of popular vote), while the NDP (the successor to the CCF) still struggles to expand its electoral appeal.

One thing is certain, though. The Saskatchewan Roughriders have only won the Grey Cup (1966, 1989, 2007, and 2013) when the NDP has not been in power.

This article originally appeared in the Western Producer.

A case for commemorating Chief Big Bear: an early advocate for Indigenous rights

As we re-examine who’s reflected in statues around Canada, we should aim to honour more Indigenous leaders

Big Bear was a respected chief who rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century as a spokesperson for Indigenous rights. He was a member of a mounted hunting society that thrived on the great bison herds of the northern plains of what is now called Saskatchewan. (Library and Archives Canada C1873)

When the statue of John A. Macdonald was recently toppled in Montreal, Sen. Murray Sinclair, the chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, didn’t applaud.

Instead, he was “more interested in asking why there are not more statues of Indigenous people who have contributed to Canada,” according to an article in the Globe and Mail.

It’s a message that Murray has repeated since the 2015 release of the TRC calls to action that “the contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canada’s history” must be recognized.

I’ve thought deeply about Sinclair’s comments on reconciliation and commemoration through the lens of my years of teaching at university, my writing and especially my work with several Saskatchewan Indigenous communities. Over the past four decades, I’ve come across many Indigenous historical figures worthy of commemoration. 

One person, though, stands out: the Plains Cree Chief Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa). He resolutely stood up to Canada and demanded a meaningful, reciprocal treaty relationship with the Crown that would be constantly renewed.

A leader of hundreds

Big Bear was a respected chief who rose to prominence in the late nineteenth century as a spokesperson for Indigenous rights.

Born in 1825 near Jackfish Lake in present-day west-central Saskatchewan, Big Bear was a member of a mounted hunting society that thrived on the great bison herds of the northern plains. He drew his spiritual strength from the bear and carried a bear paw with claws in his power bundle.

Chief Poundmaker and Chief Big Bear (left) were convicted of treason-felony in 1885. The two were incarcerated in Stony Mountain penitentiary. Both died shortly after their release. (Manitoba Archives/ Big Bear collection/ 3/ N16092)

By the early 1860s, Big Bear was the leader of his own band that may have had as many as 500 members.

In October 1870, Big Bear was one of several leaders of a large Cree war party that was defeated in the last great battle against the Blackfoot at Belly River (near Lethbridge, Alta). Thereafter, the Cree, weakened by disease and hunger, prepared to deal with a new challenge: an expansive Dominion of Canada.

Big Bear avoided entering treaty for years

In September 1876, the second of two major meetings was held to bring the Cree of central Saskatchewan and Alberta into Treaty Six.

Even though Big Bear was away hunting on the plains, Indian Commissioner Alexander Morris concluded an agreement with Sweetgrass, the leading chief in the Pitt district.

Canada expected Big Bear to settle on a reserve that had been selected for him near Fort Pitt, where he is pictured here in 1884 (far right), deliberately away from other Cree bands. The chief refused to be isolated and launched a peaceful treaty rights initiative. (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan S-B134)

When Morris asked Big Bear to enter the treaty, he refused. Big Bear not only believed that Canada was offering too little, he also wanted to see if Canada would live up to its promises.

He tried to tell Morris that he did not want to be an animal with a rope around his neck, but the translator misinterpreted the remarks, and Morris concluded that Big Bear feared hanging.

Big Bear remained out of treaty for six years, gathering around him other families who had become disillusioned with Canada’s Indigenous policies.

Indian Affairs officials considered him a troublemaker.

Treaty rights initiative launched

In December 1882, facing acute starvation because of the disappearance of the bison, Big Bear reluctantly brought his band into treaty at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills.

Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney provided rations only to bands who had taken treaty and then used the withholding of food to force bands to move to reserves.

Canada expected Big Bear to settle on a reserve that had been selected for him near Fort Pitt, deliberately away from other Cree bands, but the chief refused to be isolated and launched a peaceful treaty rights initiative. 

Big Bear met with other Cree chiefs about the need to get Canada to honour the treaty agreement and provide more assistance to bands struggling to make the transition to farming. He even sent messengers to their traditional enemy, the Blackfoot, to bring them on side.

Canada was deeply worried about the growing treaty rights movement and made tentative plans over the winter of 1884-85 to arrest Indigenous leaders, including Big Bear.

Imprisoned for treason-felony

Then, in the spring of 1885, the North-West Resistance erupted along the North Saskatchewan country.

At Frog Lake, where Big Bear’s band was camped, Wandering Spirit and several other warriors decided to settle personal scores and murdered nine men.

Big Bear took no part in the killings; he knew that violence would undermine his treaty rights movement.

A few days later, Big Bear intervened when warriors wanted to capture nearby Fort Pitt.

Big Bear intervened when warriors wanted to capture Fort Pitt. His band remained peacefully in the area, waiting to see how events would unfold elsewhere, until it was attacked by a Canadian military column near Frenchman’s Butte. (James Smith, ‘Loyal till Death’)

The North-West Mounted Police detachment was allowed leave to go down the North Saskatchewan River to Fort Battleford.

Big Bear’s band remained peacefully in the area, waiting to see how events would unfold elsewhere, until it was attacked by a Canadian military column near Frenchman’s Butte in late May. Big Bear survived the skirmishing and for the next month he was a fugitive, largely abandoned by his followers.

When he was accidentally discovered near Fort Carlton in early July, he was a shell of his former self and his diplomatic initiative lay in ruin.

Canada put Big Bear on trial for treason-felony for what happened in the Frog Lake-Fort Pitt region. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain penitentiary.

Chief Big Bear (bottom, second from left) and Chief Poundmaker (bottom, far right) at the North-West Mounted Police Barracks in Regina in 1885. (Library and Archives Canada)

Because Indian Commissioner Dewdney blamed Big Bear for spearheading First Nations resistance to his policies, he allowed the old chief’s hair to be cut upon entering prison.

Big Bear was released early, over Dewdney’s objections, because of failing health.

He died in 1888. 

To this day, he remains a convicted “rebel.”

Commemorating Big Bear could be part of the ongoing reconciliation process, something that Sinclair has been calling for. 

He is deserving of some kind of public recognition: a reminder that there was, and is, a better way forward.

This article originally appeared as an Opinion Piece on

Neglect of U of S barns is a warning for the future

It’s only when heritage buildings are neglected — allowed to deteriorate — that they become expensive.

The seed barn, dating from 1915, was originally a federal government building before being turned over to the university. The 80-ton structure was moved to another campus location in 2013. PHOTO BY GORD WALDNER /The StarPhoenix

You’ve got to feel sorry for Greg Fowler, the University of Saskatchewan’s vice-president of finances and resources.

In a recent article in the Labour Day issue of The Globe and Mail (Sept 7, p. A7), the poor fellow explained how he is trying to unload two century-old barns. But no one will rid him of the troublesome structures. He’s tried twice this summer, but the call for proposals did not elicit any interest.

“History is expensive,” moaned Fowler about the university’s burden.

Perhaps he should look at the two barns another way. History, especially built heritage, can be invaluable. It’s only when heritage buildings are neglected — allowed to deteriorate — that they become expensive.

During the 1905 Saskatchewan election, Liberal Premier Walter Scott announced his intention to establish a provincial university and agricultural college. The decision was called “an act of supreme confidence in the future of the province.”

The university was officially awarded to the city of Saskatoon in April 1909. At the same meeting, the newly appointed board of governors agreed that the College of Agriculture should be an integral part of the new university.

It was decided to put the campus on the east side of the South Saskatchewan River because it was good farm land. In other words, agriculture — what President Walter Murray called “the sheet anchor of the university” — determined the site.

Premier Scott talked about this link between education and agriculture at the June 1910 cornerstone ceremony for the Agricultural College Building (later renamed the Peter MacKinnon Building) at the head of the university bowl.

“Farming is the foundation of civilization,” Scott maintained. “It is in keeping with the character of our province that the main part of the highest institution of learning in the province shall be an agricultural college.”

The U of S lost no time serving this mandate. Thousands of students have graduated with agriculture degrees over the past century.

The Agricultural Extension department, meanwhile, hosted hundreds of meetings for the Saskatchewan farming community in the Agriculture Building’s Convocation Hall (now used for special events). It also dispatched the Better Farming Train, featuring the latest expert information on agricultural and domestic developments, to towns and villages across the province.

The dean of agriculture even had his own house on campus — today’s university club.

The seed barn and old poultry science building — the two structures that are no longer wanted by the U of S — are part of this story, part of this legacy.

The seed barn, dating from 1915, was originally a federal government building before being turned over to the university. The 80-ton structure was moved to another campus location in 2013.

The 1918 poultry building, designed by university architects Brown and Vallance, was once an instruction facility for the department of poultry husbandry. There were offices (including one for the library and records), a lecture room, a separate wing for brooders, and an egg testing area in the basement.

Both structures have not been used for their original purpose for several years. It’s argued that the university has moved on from the days when agricultural science was its core activity.

But is not the new USask Global Institute for Food Security a later day version of this work? After all, U of S agricultural scientists were calling for crop diversification and mixed farming before the Great Depression and the record drop in wheat prices.

Finding another use for the barns is evidently too costly, even though some people on campus still work out of trailers. Their current state — something Fowler inherited — makes re-purposing an expensive enterprise. Besides, the university wants the land they sit on for expansion.

Their fate seems sealed unless they can be sold and moved. As in the case of the Livestock Pavillon, they are likely to get the wrecking ball treatment and join the “what was” category on the university archives campus building inventory.

That’s a shame. The bigger worry, though, is what other campus buildings might be next because of their condition and/or their failure to be fit into the institution’s future plans?

Being on the U of S Heritage Register (September 2013) does not necessarily mean that a building is safe. Ironically, the Poultry Science building is on that list (asset record number 027).

The U of S needs to conduct a formal review of its buildings and then develop a plan that is pro-active so that the campus does not experience what is euphemistically called infrastructure consolidation.

Yes, it’s going to cost money — probably to the senior administration’s chagrin — but the U of S has to do a better job of protecting and preserving its built heritage if it wants to avoid finding itself in the same predicament again.

Just ask Edinburgh-born Elizabeth Mitchell, who spent a year in western Canada after graduating from Oxford in 1913.

“The University of Saskatchewan,” she declared, “is the most startling thing I saw in the West … It is a massive group of fine buildings … so obviously built to last for five or six hundred years.”

Let’s hope she was right.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Small Pox 1781-1782

Disorder flying through the country: the forgotten 1781-82 smallpox epidemic

In the summer of 1781, a joint Cree-Piegan war party attacked a Snake village in the Red Deer River area.

The warriors found “no one to fight with,” according to one of the participants, “but the dead and the dying.”

It was smallpox, carried north from New Spain, infecting Indigenous bands along the way.

Not knowing what they had stumbled upon, the men returned to their home communities, with devastating consequences.

The ensuing epidemic would literally remake the map of what became Saskatchewan.

Smallpox first appeared on the North Saskatchewan River in the early fall of 1781.

Hudson’s Bay Company servant Mitchell Oman, who had been sent to winter among the Indians of the Eagle Hills region, came across a camp of Assiniboine decimated by the disease.

A few weak survivors bore the tell-tale pox marks on their bodies and faces.

Soon stricken Indians — suffering from debilitating headache, painful backache, intense fever, and violent vomiting — began straggling into the HBC’s two inland posts in search of relief.

A thoroughly shaken William Walker, master at Hudson House, was so taken aback by the “disorder flying though the Country” that he predicted “that in a short time I do not suppose that they will be a staid Indian Living.”

William Tomison at Cumberland House was astounded by how quickly the Indians succumbed to the disease, many of them dying within only a few days, before the blister-like rash developed.

“There is something very malignant,” he pondered, “either in the Constitution of the Natives or in the Disorder.”

Inoculation against smallpox was still in the experimental stage in the late 18th century.

But because European populations had developed a general resistance to smallpox from past exposure, only one inland trader evidently contracted and died from the disease.

The Indians, on the other hand, took the full brunt of the epidemic.

They had no immunity against the virus and did not realize how contagious it could be — that the disease was easily transmitted from person to person.

Those stricken seemed at first to have flu-like symptoms, but after about 10 days to two weeks, small reddish spots broke out, first inside the mouth and throat, and then all over the body.

The rash then erupted into pus-filled lesions (macules) that left the face permanently scarred — if the infected person survived.

Tragically, HBC operations helped spread the disease.

As the Cumberland House brigade paddled to the Bay, the reach of the epidemic could be seen in the sick Indians encountered along the way.

But it was not until the inland traders arrived at the coast that smallpox first made its appearance among the Indians there.

From there, the disease jumped to Fort Churchill up the western coast of Hudson Bay and soon spread to the Cree and Dene who patronized that post.

Smallpox, one historian has argued, “had unwittingly become an article of trade.”

The 1781-82 pandemic was one of the most horrific episodes in Indigenous history.

But it was overshadowed at the time by the American Revolutionary War and remains relatively unknown to this day.

Nor is it possible to state with any certainty exactly how many Indigenous people perished, especially given where the deaths took place.

Based on information that the Cumberland House brigade brought to York Factory, Matthew Cocking concluded that “the many different Tribes … are all almost wholly extinct … not one in fifty of those Tribes are now living.”

Samuel Hearne, meanwhile, suspected that the disease “carried off nine-tenths” of the northern Indians, a catastrophe remembered in the name Portage des Morts along the Churchill River trade route.

These mind-boggling mortality rates have since been adjusted downward to a range between one-half to two-thirds of the Indian population.

It is still an unbelievable measure of human loss — possibly more than the Black Death in Europe in the mid-14th century, which has been estimated to have carried away from one-third to half the affected population.

Not a single Indigenous group in the western interior — except for small, isolated hunting camps — escaped the scourge, and those who were left came together to form new societies.

Some of the hardest hit were the Assiniboine, rarely mentioned thereafter in HBC journals, and the Basquia and Pegogamaw Cree, who ceased to be identified as a distinct people.

What newcomers later described as an empty land was actually an “emptied” land.

PHOTO: Smallpox had a devastating impact on the Indigenous population of the western interior. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA PA-181599.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say It Ain’t So” series.

Historian Bill Waiser is author of In Search of Almighty Voice, available in May 2020.

Henry Kelsey Stamp 1960

Henry Kelsey was a passenger, not a pathfinder

The minister was on “a crusade” — not for God, but for a fur trader.

In the early 1950s, Reverend J.W. Whillans began championing the exploratory feats of Hudson’s Bay Company employee Henry Kelsey, the first known European to walk the northern prairies and see the great bison herds in 1690-92.

Whillans said that the forgotten Englishman was “the first of our western explorers … the greatest of them all.”

In fact, the minister claimed that Kelsey had traveled across the future province of Saskatchewan as far west as the Battle River.

Whillans’s campaign to revive the memory of Kelsey culminated in his 1955 book, First in the West.

Not only did Willans argue that the HBC man was the “discoverer of the Canadian prairies,” but from the title, it seemed that Indigenous people were just part of the flora and fauna.

There’s no question that Kelsey did travel inland from York Factory on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay and spend the better part of two years in the interior in the early 1690s.

But where exactly did he go?

One researcher claimed that the “problem” of his route is “like … a jigsaw puzzle.”

Others in the search for clues to his whereabouts have politely called his travel descriptions “vague.”

The mystery is further compounded by the fact that Kelsey’s original journal did not surface until 1926.

These documents confirmed that the HBC had officially sanctioned Kelsey’s two-year trip inland, but there are large gaps in his journal entries, stretching over several months.

That did not stop Reverend Whillans, who once preached in the Carrot River district, from taking Kelsey’s infrequent location references and trying to match them to places on the ground in Saskatchewan.

What gets overlooked, though, is that Kelsey was entirely dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of the Indigenous peoples of the region.

Indeed, it was impossible for Kelsey to make the trip on his own because he did not know where he was going, let alone how he was going to get there.

Simply put, the HBC servant was a passenger, not a pathfinder.

Kelsey left for the interior on June 12, 1690 with a group of Assiniboine and Cree people who were headed back up the Hayes River after their annual trade session at the fort.

He carried with him a sampling of trade goods and instructions to encourage the interior Indians to come to the bay to trade.

By July 10, a month after departing from York Factory, Kelsey had traveled southwest some 600 miles, including some 33 portages, before stopping at a meeting place at a bend in the Saskatchewan River.

It is now generally accepted that it was probably at The Pas, near the junction of the Carrot River, just on the eastern side of the Manitoba/Saskatchewan interprovincial boundary. It was the Assiniboine and Cree who chose the places to stop and camp on the way inland, in effect leading Kelsey in his so-called “discovery” of the interior by serving as guides and sharing their knowledge about the land.

Kelsey spent his first inland Canadian winter probably in the Upper Assiniboine River area on the edge of the northern parklands.

The following summer, around mid-July 1691, a Cree party took him up the Saskatchewan River through the maze of channels and marshlands that make up the river delta, west to the Carrot River where they left their canoes and set off overland on foot.

Kelsey’s escorts would naturally have followed the extensive system of trails that crossed Indigenous territories and had been used for generations.

Based on what is known about these travel ways from archaeological research, Kelsey must have walked along the Greenbush Trail.

This historic north-south travel way ran from the Shoal Lake area (south of the Saskatchewan delta/Carrot River) through the Pasquia Hills to the Red Deer Forks (where the Fir and Etomani rivers meet).

In fact, some trail features nicely match his journal descriptions, especially his comments about going from wet to drier ground.

These trail ways eventually led to the aspen parklands near Sturgis, Saskatchewan.

He was nowhere near — as Whillans later maintained — the junction of the North Saskatchewan and Battle rivers.

In retrospect, where Kelsey went and what he saw are certainly significant, but who he went with and how he got there are just as important to the story.

The Cree and Assiniboine accepted the European newcomer as their guest and allowed him to enter an Indigenous world, but on their terms.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say It Ain’t So” series.

PHOTO: In 1970, on the 280th anniversary of Kelsey’s inland trip, Canada Post honoured “the first explorer on the plains” with a six-cent stamp. LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA POS-000573.

Historian Bill Waiser is author of In Search of Almighty Voice, available in May 2020.

Ginger Catherwood Ladies Hockey 1920

Ginger Catherwood was more than chaperone to famous sister

In August 1928, at the ninth Olympic games in Amsterdam, Saskatoon’s Ethel Catherwood scissor-kicked her way to the gold medal in the high jump.

She remains the only Canadian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in any individual track and field event.

Ethel returned to Canada an international sensation.

In October 1928, Winnipeg held a civic reception in her honour at the Fort Garry Hotel.

The following April, she appeared at an Ottawa indoor meet as one of Canada’s “Track Wonders.”

At these and other events, Ethel was accompanied by her sister Ginger.

In fact, the pair were always listed together in newspaper reports about Ethel’s travels.

It’s understandable.

Ginger, six years older, served as her sister’s chaperone.

But what was never mentioned in the stories — probably not known by the press at the time — was that Ginger Catherwood was also a phenomenal athlete.

She was the best female hockey player in the country.

Ginevra or Ginger was the oldest of seven children of Ethel and Joseph Catherwood.

Born in Hannah, North Dakota in 1902, Ginger and her family moved to a homestead just outside Scott, Saskatchewan four years later.

Her father soon opened a real estate business in town.

Ginger likely learned to skate and play hockey on frozen sloughs.

She also played baseball.

Ethel said her older sister had a reputation as a fireball pitcher.

Ginger entered the University of Saskatchewan on a scholarship in 1919.

But it was on the ice, as captain of the Varsity women’s hockey team, that Ginger excelled.

“When she (Ginger) came down the ice, everyone stayed out of the way,” a teammate recalled decades later. “She skated just like a man.”

Ginger’s arrival at the U of S coincided with the beginning of inter-varsity competition in women’s hockey.

During the 1920-21 season, she was a scoring machine.

In a game against the University of Manitoba, she scored five goals in the first period and finished the game with three more in a 9-1 romp.

Then, she netted four goals in the first 11 minutes in a match against the University of Alberta.

The final score was Saskatchewan 7 (Catherwood 6) and Alberta 1.

“Her stick handling … was marvellous,” one report rhapsodized, “and her shots had the necessary punch and elevation.”

The Saskatoon Phoenix declared the U of S team the unofficial champion of university women’s hockey that season (there was no formal league at the time.)

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Opposing teams quickly learned that Catherwood was a scoring threat every time she had the puck, and tried to rough her up.

During the 1921-22 season, Ginger was hurt in the first period in a game in Edmonton and had to leave the ice and didn’t return.

U of S squeaked out a 2-1 win.

She was still nursing her injury in the next game against Manitoba and played defence in a 2-2 tie.

Ginger graduated with a three-year Arts degree in 1922.

“She is an incorrigible tease, but we love her for it,” read her yearbook entry.

“Her three years’ brilliant playing and captaincy,” it continued, “have made the team well nigh invincible.”

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After attending Normal School, Ginger found work as a teacher.

According to the 1926 census, she was living at the teacherage in the Plenty district.

Then in 1928, her sister Ethel won Olympic gold and Ginger was called upon by their family to chaperone her during her Canadian travels.

Ginger was rumoured to have accompanied Ethel when she left Canada for the United States sometime around 1932.

But on the Vancouver Sun society page for Sept. 19, 1933, Ginger’s photo appears below the headline, “Prairie Bride-Elect.”

She married English-born Charles Mitchell in Toronto later that fall.

That’s where Ginger was living in 1942 when her widowed mother moved there that spring.

It’s tempting to think that Ginger might have watched the Toronto Maple Leafs play in the old Gardens.

The 1942 playoffs were the year of the miracle Leaf comeback.

Down 3-0 to the Detroit Red Wings in the final, they won the next four games to claim the Stanley Cup.

Today’s Maple Leafs could use a player like Ginger Catherwood.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say It Ain’t So” series.

PHOTO: Ginger Catherwood, third from left, was a scoring sensation for the University of Saskatchewan women’s hockey team (UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS).

Historian Bill Waiser is author of In Search of Almighty Voice, available in May 2020.

A Saskatchewan editorial cartoon predicted that British values would triumph over Germany in the Great War (REGINA LEADER JUNE 8, 1918) /Saskatoon

Trading one identity for another after Great War

The Canadian census is one of the most reliable, and sometimes only, sources of historical information about everyday Canadians.

Collected every five years, the name-specific data provide a wealth of personal information — from age and marital status to religion and ethnicity

In fact, an individual can be followed over time and place through the census.

But there’s something amiss in the 1921 Saskatchewan census data.

In the “place of birth” column, 68,202 people were born in Germany.

That’s a slight decline from the 68,288 for 1911 and a whopping decline from the 77,109 for 1916.

Somehow, the province lost 8,907 German-born people between 1916 and 1921, a five-year period of limited immigration.

The numbers for other ethnic groups, on the other hand, are all significantly higher in 1921 than they were 10 years earlier.

The French-born population, for example, climbed from 23,251 to 42,152; the Scandinavian from 33,991 to 58,382; and the Russian/Ukrainian from 18,413 to 73,440.

Only the German-born population declined over the 10-year period.

What happened?

In early 20th century Saskatchewan, Germans were welcome, even valued, immigrants to the new province.

By 1911, they were the second largest ethnic group in Saskatchewan, making up almost 14 percent of the foreign-born population.

In fact, Regina had a large German population, as evidenced by the name Germantown for the neighbourhood east of the downtown business district.

As one of Europe’s northern groups, Germans were said to share the same sterling qualities as Britons.

Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter Victoria had even married Prince William of Prussia; their son was Kaiser Wilhelm, the German emperor.

But with the outbreak of war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire in August 1914, German immigrants became enemy aliens overnight.

At first, political and community leaders called for public calm and restraint—let the German-born population go quietly about their lives and continue to work at their jobs.

Canada’s quarrel was with the German leadership, not the German people.

But that was before the stories of so-called German atrocities in Belgium became front-page news.

Then, there was the German torpedoing of the ocean liner Lusitania in May 1915.

The Swift Current Sun claimed that the sinking of the ship was “the act of blood-crazed madmen, seemingly bent on the devastation of mankind. Germany has proven herself an outlaw.”

This anti-German sentiment hardened as the Great War’s death toll mounted and more and more Saskatchewan families were scarred by the loss of loved ones.

As part of a national boycott campaign, the Saskatchewan chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire vowed, “From this day until my death, I pledge myself never willingly nor knowingly to buy an article made by the bloody hands that killed our boys.”

By attacking things German, IODE women could feel that they were participating directly in the war.

In a December 1916 provincial plebiscite, meanwhile, temperance supporters made the prohibition referendum a loyalty test — a vote for liquor was equated with a vote for the Kaiser.

Eighty percent, four of every five respondents, voted to shut down the new government dispensaries.

“As the war against Germany became longer and more bitter,” one historian noted, “the war against booze enlisted more and more recruits.”

A year later, the Wartime Elections Act disenfranchised any enemy alien who had been eligible to vote since 1902.

It was widely believed that Germans should not be allowed to participate in the December 1917 general election.

The foreign-language press was also restricted.

English translations had to appear in parallel columns in “enemy alien” language newspapers published in Canada.

The next step was an outright publication ban.

Hostile gangs twice attacked the offices of Der Courier, Regina’s German newspaper, before it suspended operations.

Several Saskatchewan communities changed their names in response to the war.

Prussia, for example, was dropped in favour of Leader, while Kaiser became Peebles and Schultz was renamed Prelate.

By war’s end, the harassment and condemnation proved too much for many Germans and they deliberately abandoned one nationality for another.

The most popular new identity was Scandinavian.

According to census data for the years 1911 and 1921, the number of people in the three prairie provinces who gave their birth place as Germany fell from 18,696 to 13,343 during the 10-year period.

Those born in Sweden, Norway and Holland, on the other hand, increased from 33,826 to 38,925 over the same period.

The increase in the number of Scandinavians almost equalled the decrease in Germans.

It was no coincidence.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix as part of the “Say It Ain’t So” series.

Photo: A Saskatchewan editorial cartoon predicted that British values would triumph over Germany in the Great War (REGINA LEADER JUNE 8, 1918) /Saskatoon

Historian Bill Waiser is author of the forthcoming book, In Search of Almighty Voice. Questions or comments can be sent to