Bill Waiser

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A 1953 Saskatchewan licence plate bearing the WHEAT PROVINCE slogan, which ran on the province’s plates between 1951 and 1959. (GOOGLE IMAGES)

Place and year of first Sask. wheat crop in dispute

Wheat and Saskatchewan are synonymous.

Wheat sheaves grace the Saskatchewan great seal, the coat of arms, the shield of arms, and the provincial flag.

A stylized wheat sheaf has been used in provincial branding since the late 1970s.

The words WHEAT PROVINCE once appeared on Saskatchewan licence plates (1951-59). Today, three shafts of wheat adorn the centre of the plates.

The University of Saskatchewan even accepted wheat as partial tuition payment when there was a grain glut in 1969-1970.

And when the conviction of David Milgaard was overturned in 1992, the Tragically Hip wrote the song, “Wheat Kings,” about the Saskatchewan case.

Wheat, then, is a defining feature of the provincial identity.

But when was wheat first cultivated in the region that would become Saskatchewan?

The most widely-repeated claim is that the Chevalier de La Corne, a French colonial officer and commander of the western posts, grew wheat at Fort Saint-Louis (later Fort-à-la-Corne), just below the forks of the Saskatchewan River, in 1754.

It’s a story that’s been called a myth, if not a hoax.

And the perpetrator was Saskatchewan booster Arthur S. Bennett, who wrote a small booklet (The Chevalier de la Corne and the Carrot River Valley of Saskatchewan) in 1914 to promote the agricultural potential of the Melfort district.

Bennett recounted how La Corne had treated visiting Hudson’s Bay Company employee Anthony Henday to “crushed cereal … at the meal … grown from a patch he had put in seed the spring previous.”

La Corne also told Henday that “a share of the grain grown was given to (the Indians) in exchange for furs.”

Nor did the story end there.

La Corne apparently created quite a stir when he returned to Canada with samples of grain.

“There was a great amount of almost incredible interest (among) Frenchmen,” Bennett reported, “who had never before dreamed of anything but valuable furs coming out of the vast unknown.”

Bennett’s claim — that La Corne was “the first agriculturalist of the Canadian West” — found traction in a number of publications.

A 1976 article in the Western Producer newspaper declared, for example, that Fort Saint-Louis was the site of the “First Western Wheatfield.”

The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, on the other hand, has wheat being grown in the Carrot River Valley sometime between 1753 and 1756.

Each re-telling of the story suggested that it was true.

Bennett, though, provided not a single documentary reference.

The only original source that might have supported the idea that wheat was grown at the French post in 1754 was Anthony Henday’s journal.

But the HBC trader makes no mention of any farming activity at Fort Saint-Louis — let alone provide an account of his discussions with La Corne.

Talk of wheat and agriculture — as quoted by Bennett in his booklet — had been imagined.

The mystery is further compounded by the fact that not much is known about the French posts in the Saskatchewan River valley.

French traders in the North-West, unlike the English along Hudson and James bay, were not obsessed with record-keeping.

One scholar has characterized the French push into the western interior in the 1750s as “a fur-trade presence only.”

Fort Saint-Louis was built in 1753, only to be abandoned in 1756.

During its brief existence, it was probably an outpost of Fort Paskoya (The Pas) with a small complement of men.

These men would have been absorbed with their fur trade duties.

Indeed, the busy time of year — spring and fall — conflicted with planting and harvesting.

That’s not to suggest that agriculture was not practised at fur trade posts.

As Canadian and English traders moved inland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the rich prairie soils encouraged the planting of extensive vegetable gardens at the Saskatchewan forts.

The list of cold-climate root crops was quite impressive: radishes, carrots, beets, onion, parsnip, turnips, and potatoes.

Traders and their Indigenous partners and children grew vegetables to add some variety to their otherwise steady, monotonous diet of meat and fish.

And some of the harvests could be quite bountiful, both in volume and size, especially once newcomers became familiar with the local growing conditions.

But climatic variability, such as an early frost or prolonged drought, and insect pests played havoc with crop production.

More often than not, posts had to turn to country provisions when gardens failed.

And what about the growing of wheat?

The first documented cultivation was 1815, when the Carlton House diary entry for May 3 simply noted: “This day sowed … 3 ½ pints of wheat.”

Two centuries later, Saskatchewan produces almost half the wheat grown in Canada.

Photo: A 1953 Saskatchewan licence plate bearing the WHEAT PROVINCE slogan, which ran on the province’s plates between 1951 and 1959. (GOOGLE IMAGES)

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

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

In the 18th century, Hudson's Bay Company ships would stop at Stromness in Orkney for supplies before their trip across the Atlantic to present-day Canada and into Hudson Bay. (

Saskatoon Northern Scottish isles workers played important role in Hudson’s Bay Company expansion in Sask.

University of Edinburgh research team looking for Orcadian descendants on the Prairies

News that a University of Edinburgh research team is recruiting participants for an Orkney islands study in Saskatchewan might cause some head scratching.

The VIKING II project is looking for people of Orkney descent for a health and lifestyle study.

But even though the prairie province is a long way from Orkney, there is a strong historical tie between the two places because of the Canadian fur trade. Many men from the Orkney islands found a career in the Hudson’s Bay Company in the latter half of the 1700s.

The location of the Orkney islands, in yellow, off the northern coast of Scotland. (Google Maps)

Opportunity overseas

In the 18th century, Hudson’s Bay Company ships would stop at Stromness in Orkney for supplies before their trip across the Atlantic to present-day Canada and into Hudson Bay.

The arrival of the ships was a boon for the local economy.

Hudson’s Bay Company ships arriving at York Factory. (Library and Archives Canada, Rindisbacher, acc.1988-250-15)

But they also offered something more: a way for young, single, men to escape poverty and a dead-end future by signing on as servants for the HBC.

The Orcadians’ ability to eke out a living from the harsh, maritime environment of their homeland – something they proudly ascribed to their Norse heritage – made them valued servants. Indeed, there were striking parallels between the Orkney landscape and the Hudson Bay subarctic lowlands where company posts were first located.  

The HBC consequently came to rely on Orkney men to fill its labour ranks, especially after it moved inland from its bayside posts in the 1770s.

By the end of the century, they made up 80 per cent of a workforce that numbered over 500 men.

One scholar has even suggested that the HBC posts were “expatriate Orkney communities.”

Climbing the ranks

The Orkney servants proved a versatile and adaptable lot, who quickly developed the skills demanded by their new fur trade lives, especially in the western interior.

They were more than simple labourers.

James Gaddy and Magnus Twatt, for example, became conversant in Indigenous languages. William Flett was reputed to be a master canoe-builder, while Malcolm Ross was adept at shooting rapids in a canoe.

It’s been estimated that one-quarter of the Orcadians worked at least 20 years for the company, some even becoming outpost masters.

William Tomison’s career with the HBC, for example, spanned 40 years. Entering the trade in 1760 as a poor 20-year-old labourer with little schooling, Tomison eventually became master at York Factory on the southwestern edge of Hudson Bay.

Later as inland chief, based at Cumberland House, Sask., he oversaw the expansion of the HBC up the Saskatchewan River and helped consolidate the inland trade against its Montreal competition.

Cumberland House was the first inland HBC post. (Prince Albert Historical Society 30125)

The Orcadians also brought their gardening experience to the western interior. It was no coincidence that the large vegetable plots at Saskatchewan forts featured cold-climate root crops typically grown in the poor soils of the Orkney islands: radishes, carrots, beets, onion, parsnip, turnips and potatoes.

Indigenous wives play important role

Several Orkney servants took Indigenous partners (“country wives”) and fathered children.

William Annal, for example, lived with his Assiniboine spouse and two children at South Branch House, southwest of Prince Albert, Sask.

Others travelled with their partners as they performed their inland duties.

These relationships were much more than a matter of living together.

When Orkney men entered a “country marriage,” they became part of a kin relationship that might have included connections across several bands over a wide region.

Having a female companion was also an absolute must if HBC men were going to survive a winter inland. Women performed any number of everyday domestic duties and generally kept the HBC traders fed, clothed and sheltered.

The importance of an Indigenous partner was driven home when the Orkney-born Malcolm Ross was accompanied by his wife and children during a HBC expedition to the Athabasca country in 1790-91. His wife’s presence was greatly appreciated by fellow traveller Peter Fidler because of her skill in making moccasins and snowshoes and performing other chores “that the Europeans are not acquainted with.”

Ironically, despite being “particularly useful,” she was never identified by name.

What became of the Orcadians who stayed behind

Employment opportunities for Orkney men ended when the HBC merged with the North-West Company in 1821 to become the new Hudson’s Bay Company. Thereafter, in the interests of economy, the Company closed duplicate posts and released excess personnel.

It was expected that Orkney men would return home, as had been the tradition, using the wages they had saved for a new life. Many did, leaving behind in some cases their Indigenous families, many of whom were taken in by the mother’s band.

But close to 25 per cent, especially those who had lived in the region for several decades, chose to stay in the North-West with their families.

Several retired to the new Red River Colony.

Among them were Willam Flett and his Cree wife named Saskatchewan (baptized Isabella) and Oman Norquay, the grandfather of the first premier of Manitoba, John Norquay.

Interpreter Benjamin Bruce settled at Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask., with his wife Matilda and their six children.

One Saskatchewan First Nation has a special Orkney connection. Willock and Mansack Twatt, the part-Indigenous sons of Orkney man Magnus Twatt, formed  what was known as the Twatt band (later Sturgeon Lake First Nation) and enjoyed special trading privileges with the HBC because of their father.

Magnus’s grandson, William, signed Treaty Six on behalf of the Twatt band in 1876.

The Saskatchewan influence in Scotland

Despite this historical connection between Saskatchewan and Orkney, none of the Canadian descendants today would be eligible to take part in the VIKING II project because of the passage of time. It’s been almost two centuries since Orcadians were employed in the fur trade, and the study is restricted to people with two grandparents from Orkney.

There’s another side to the story, though, that’s worth noting.

A few (very few) Orcadian fathers took their families back to Scotland. Their children and their children’s children became part of the community, and their descendants today carry that Indigenous marker in their genetic make-up.

The widower John Spence, for example, returned to Orkney with three mixed-descent children: Eliza, Mary, and Andrew.

The widower John Spence returned to Harray, Orkney, with three mixed-descent children. (Bill Waiser)

One of Eliza’s descendants was Bella Wood (nee Johnston), the keeper of one of the family’s prized possessions: a pair of moccasins from the Canadian North-West.

If two of your parents’ parents were from Orkney, you can visit this website (external link) for more information and to volunteer for the study.

This article originally appeared on CBC’s website.

Feature Photo: In the 18th century, Hudson’s Bay Company ships would stop at Stromness in Orkney for supplies before their trip across the Atlantic to present-day Canada and into Hudson Bay. (

LISTEN to Bill Waiser interviewed on this topic by BBC Radio Orkney here. (Start at the 8:00 minute mark)

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

The case for the exoneration of Chief One Arrow

Canada needs to exonerate Chief One Arrow and apologize to the One Arrow community. It’s not a question of why, but when?

By: Tricia Sutherland and Bill Waiser

This past May, on a glorious spring day, the Poundmaker exoneration ceremony was held atop a hill at the Poundmaker First Nation.

Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a heartfelt apology for the wrongful conviction of Cree Chief Poundmaker for treason-felony in the aftermath of the 1885 North-West Rebellion.

It was a deeply moving event, an important step on the road to reconciliation.

But there need to be other public ceremonies to correct the historical record and, more importantly, absolve other bands and their chiefs of disloyalty in 1885.

One Arrow, a Willow Cree leader, is certainly deserving of an apology.


In the months leading up to the 1885 North-West Rebellion, Indian Affairs officials were carefully monitoring the mood on Cree reserves in the Saskatchewan country.

The Canadian government was worried that Cree bands, disillusioned with their treatment under treaty, might join with Metis leader Louis Riel in a grand Indian-Metis alliance.

But Cree chiefs steadfastly resisted Riel’s entreaties because they had their own strategy of dealing with a distant and unresponsive Ottawa.

Chief One Arrow of the Willow Cree, for example, told the Indian agent for the Carlton agency that he wanted nothing to do with any Métis resistance and “spoke in glowing terms of the loyalty of himself and his band.”

Then, on March 19, 1885, the day Riel declared his provisional government at Batoche, the chief was taken hostage.

Michel Dumas, the Metis farm instructor at the One Arrow reserve and ironically a member of Riel’s governing council (Exovedate), ordered the Willow Cree band to slaughter their cattle and join the Métis camp at Batoche.

Gabriel Dumont, Riel’s general, and a contingent of armed horsemen ensured that the Indians complied.

“Surrounded by rebels and influenced by their own Instructor,” a government official later concluded, “it was almost impossible to expect Indians to act differently to ‘One Arrow’s’ Band.”


Exactly how many One Arrow men, including the chief, actively participated in the four-day battle of Batoche is not known.

It did not matter.

General Frederick Middleton, the commander of the North-West Field Force, considered anyone appearing to assist Riel to be the enemy and took One Arrow into custody after the fall of Batoche on May 12.

The general also confiscated his treaty medal.

“Think it will be a good thing for the country,” Middleton informed the minister of Militia, “if I can chastise a body of rebel Indians.”

Up until the rebellion, the territorial court had demonstrated leniency toward Indian defendants.

But that changed in the late summer and fall of 1885 when 81 men would be prosecuted for rebellion-related crimes, no matter how minor or circumstantial.

The image of a wild, lawless West was one of the last things Canada needed as it struggled to attract settlers to the region in the 1880s, and the Conservative government was determined to undo the damage by bringing the Indian population to heel.

The docket consequently included four leaders — One Arrow, Poundmaker, Big Bear, and Whitecap — for treason-felony.

Their sentencing and imprisonment would send a clear message that chiefs would be held responsible for the actions of their followers and be removed from their bands.

Indians who had committed murder and other alleged crimes, on the other hand, were not to be treated so leniently.

That these prosecutions have been largely forgotten prompted one writer to claim that “a great amnesia descended on Canadians.”

That they had the blessing of contemporary Canadian political leaders was confirmed by Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.

In a confidential letter to Lieutenant Governor and Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney just days before the public hanging of eight men at Battleford in late November 1885, the prime minister mused, “The executions … ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”


One Arrow was the first Indian to appear in court on Aug. 13, 1885, probably because he was considered the first Indian leader to join Riel at Batoche.

The trial started badly for the elderly chief.

He found the proceedings bewildering, even more so when the treason-felony indictment was translated as “knocking off the Queen’s bonnet and stabbing her in the behind with the sword.”

There was no Cree equivalent for words such as conspiracy, traitor, or rebellion.

“Are you drunk?” a perplexed One Arrow reportedly asked the court interpreter.

The case against One Arrow rested on the contention that he had openly associated with the Métis at Batoche and thereby breached his treaty “allegiance to the Government, the country, and the Queen.”

Not one prosecution witnesses was able to say, however, that the Willow Cree leader had actually fired a shot or was even directing his band at Batoche — because most had been imprisoned before the fighting and held inside different buildings.

At the conclusion of the Crown’s evidence, defence attorney Beverly Robertson tried to have the charge withdrawn, maintaining “not a tittle of evidence” had been produced to link One Arrow directly to the uprising.

But whether the chief had actively participated or not was irrelevant.

Armed with Judge Richardson’s suggestion that the Willow Cree chief should be found culpable if he was caught up in the troubles in any way, the six-man jury required only a few minutes to return with a verdict of guilty.

One Arrow was remanded for sentencing late the next afternoon.

At this point, the real story behind the band’s presence at Batoche emerged.

When asked by Richardson whether he had anything to say, an overwrought One Arrow tried to explain through the court interpreter that he could not have taken up arms or painted his face because he had just lost a grandchild.

He also claimed that his fighting days were long past and that he would never break his treaty pledge.

“All that was said against me was thrown upon me falsely,” he asserted. “I was taken to the place, Batoche’s, to join Riel by Gabriel. I did not take myself to the place. They took me there … I know that I have done nothing wrong, I can’t see where I have done anything wrong against anybody so I beg of you to let me go, to let me go free.”

Because there was no one to corroborate his account, One Arrow’s plea sounded like a last-minute fabrication to save himself.

Certainly, the judge was unmoved and sentenced One Arrow to three years in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain penitentiary.

He might as well have been condemned him to death.


One Arrow was taken to Stony Mountain in mid-August 1885.

He was assigned prisoner number 29.

The admission ledger also listed his vital statistics: he stood 5′ 8″ tall, was a hunter by occupation, and had no religion.

Stony Mountain was designed to house only 100, and with the arrival of those convicted of rebellion crimes, the prison population ballooned.

The severe overcrowding was exacerbated by the wretched sanitary conditions, especially the lack of a sewage system for human waste.

Respiratory and intestinal ailments pervaded the prison population, but the mortality rate was particularly high among the Indians, including the relatively young.

In April 1886, after eight months of incarceration, One Arrow was released early and immediately let it be known that he wanted to return to his reserve in the Saskatchewan country.

But the elderly chief, likely battling pneumonia, was too ill to make the 500-mile trip and taken instead to St. Boniface hospital in Winnipeg.

He was soon transferred to the nearby archbishop’s residence to spend his final days with the Roman Catholic priests.

It was here on April 19 that One Arrow received a visit from Indian Commissioner Dewdney.

The senior Indian Affairs official wanted the One Arrow people to abandon their reserve and move across the South Saskatchewan River to join the Beardy-Okemasis band.

With Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché serving as translator, Dewdney asked the dying chief to send word to his band that it should relocate.

One Arrow countered with his own request — that his people be protected “from mistreatment by the White race.”

As One Arrow lingered near death, he was baptized — something he had resisted in the penitentiary.

He died Easter Sunday morning, at 8 a.m. on April 25, 1886, and was buried two days later in the St. Boniface cathedral cemetery grounds.

“There is no doubt,” argued the newspaper Le Manitoba, “that his detention was fatal to his health and that had he been released sooner it would have been possible to heal him.”


In August 2007, One Arrow’s body was exhumed from the cathedral cemetery and returned to Saskatchewan for a traditional burial on the reserve.

He had finally come home, and the healing process could begin.

But the One Arrow people still carry the stigma of having their chief sent to prison for treason-felony and being declared a rebel band in 1885.

Canada needs to exonerate Chief One Arrow and apologize to the One Arrow community.

It’s not a question of why, but when?

This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Citizenship Ceremony

Racism against immigrants is nothing new in Saskatchewan, it just looks a little different

One news organization called it a prank. It was anything but.

Two men — both members of visible minorities — had coffee thrown in their faces in separate incidents this past August in Regina.

First, a young man threw coffee at a student of South Asian descent who was taking a break from his job. Another person filmed the disgusting episode so it could go on social media.

Later that same day there was another assault, again with coffee, against an older black man outside a local store.

Community leaders immediately condemned the acts as racist, insisting that Regina, in the words of the mayor, was “a very open and a friendly city.”

But there is a belief, largely unspoken, that people of colour, especially new immigrants, have no place in Saskatchewan society. To put it less elegantly, it’s a matter of “them” not belonging “here.”

This attitude has echoes in the province’s past. Indeed, the phrase, “Diversity is Canada’s Strength,” would never have been uttered a century ago in this province.

Multiculturalism was never part of the original blueprint for Saskatchewan.

If anything, multiculturalism was actively resisted in the late 19th century and the first third of the 20th. It was only embraced in the last few decades.

Saskatchewan has come a long way.

New land, new opportunities

In the late 19th century, Canada advertised itself as the home of the “last best west.”

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants were actively encouraged to come to Western Canada and turn pioneer homesteads into commercial farms.

Canada advertised in continental Europe and so-called non-traditional sources of immigrants, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which included Ukraine at the time). 

The response was overwhelming. People came for the promise of better lives and greater opportunity. 

They came to escape persecution and oppression. 

They sought to leave behind discrimination and racism.

They wanted to avoid compulsory military service and seek out peace.

So many immigrants were pouring into Western Canada in the early twentieth century that the federal government stepped outside the normal census cycle and sponsored a special census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1906.

Settlement and assimilation

Even with all these new immigrants coming to Saskatchewan, the settlement of the province was not some deliberate attempt to create a multicultural province.

Saskatchewan did not want immigrants of colour and did whatever it could to limit their presence in the province and limit their interaction with the dominant Anglo-Canadian society.

The Saskatchewan government also expected immigrants from continental Europe to accept and embrace the ways and traditions of their new country.

They were to leave their cultural identity behind at the border, like unwanted baggage, and rapidly integrate into the dominant Anglo-Canadian way of life. 

Settlement and assimilation went hand-in-hand. Even then, non-Anglo-Canadians immigrants were never really welcome.

They may have made good farmers, but would they make good citizens with their unpronounceable last names, pauper-like appearance, strange customs and different religious beliefs? It didn’t matter that the number of European settlers was dwarfed by those from Great Britain and the United States.

Central Europeans at the time were popularly associated with poverty, crime, ignorance and immorality. One newspaper likened their immigration to a “grand ’round-up’ of European freaks and hoboes.”

Some suggested that the mere presence of these “foreigners” — as they were called at the best of times — threatened to weaken, perhaps even ruin, the Anglo-Canadian fabric of the province.

Others questioned whether the integration of continental European immigrants into the larger society was even possible, let alone desirable.

‘Foreign element’

By the 1920s, public debate centred around the growing ethnic diversity of Saskatchewan society and the need to end the kind of immigration that made Saskatchewan the third most populous province in Canada.

Future Saskatchewan premier J.T.M. Anderson portrayed the “foreign element” as the greatest threat to the province’s future well-being.

George Exton Lloyd, the Anglican bishop for Saskatchewan, maintained that the country was in danger of becoming a “mongrel nation.”

“The real question at stake,” Lloyd declared almost 100 years ago, “is not whether these people can grow potatoes, but whether you would like your daughter to marry them.”

The issue was even debated by academics.

E.H. Oliver, the first historian appointed at the University of Saskatchewan, reviewed the contribution of continental Europeans to Saskatchewan society in a paper read before the Royal Society of Canada in May 1926.

“We need the artist, the poet, the thinker, the musician, and composer quite as much as the sewer-digger and the track-layer,” he concluded, “It is high time we encouraged these people to bring their best to us. Some of them possess rare genius.”

What Oliver and other commentators did not appreciate was that there were poets, thinkers, and musicians among the people who decided to make the province their home, but they faced outright prejudice and limited opportunity.

Diversity was not seen as Saskatchewan’s strength, but as a force that would cause Saskatchewan’s downfall.

Acceptance fostered by shared hardship

So what changed?

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the great leveller.

Everyone suffered.

Then, after the Second World War, few of the new immigrants chose to make Saskatchewan their home. Most headed instead to the country’s largest cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

This negligible immigration rate, combined with out-migration from the province beginning in the mid-1930s, changed the demographic character of Saskatchewan.

The percentage of the population born within the province’s boundaries steadily increased, giving Saskatchewan a strong local identity and a distinctly regional outlook.

In the post-war world, immigrant children and their children were widely accepted as part of Saskatchewan society.

Hounjet, Gesiorowski, and Pezer were just as much Saskatchewan names as Caswell or Sutherland. Whereas continental Europeans were once seen as a blight on Saskatchewan, they were an essential part of the province’s future by the middle of the twentieth century.

This acceptance of multiculturalism was confirmed in September 1986, when Saskatchewan formally adopted the provincial motto: “Multis e gentibus vires” (“from many peoples, strength” or “out of many peoples, strength”). 

There’s the irony.

In retrospect, “From Many Peoples, Strength” is not simply a provincial motto for Saskatchewan today. It also represents the distance the province has come in embracing non-British immigrants as part of its identity.

Saskatchewan was home to Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn and Sylvia Fedoruk, chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan and lieutenant governor. That these Canadians of Ukrainian descent would serve in these capacities would have been unthinkable at the start of the twentieth century.

A better tomorrow, together

There is still some distance to go.

What is said today about immigrants, especially refugees, has parallels with Saskatchewan’s past.

They are criticized for dressing differently, for worshipping differently, for having strange cultural traditions, for having too many children, for owing their allegiances elsewhere, and on and on.

These are some of the same complaints that were once levelled against continental Europeans.

Today’s new immigrants are not any different from immigrants a century ago. They have come to Saskatchewan for a better life — if not for themselves, then for their children and their children’s children.

I’ve learned this serving as the presiding official at Canadian citizenship ceremonies. It’s such a momentous event.

The immigrants, accompanied by their extended family, friends and sponsors, often arrive in their best clothes for the ceremony. Some even take the oath of citizenship in their country of origin’s traditional dress.

They smile happily, waving Canadian flags and displaying their citizenship certificates as they are photographed alongside the attending Mountie in his red serge dress uniform.

I come away from the ceremony proud to be a Canadian and proud that Canada has been so welcoming to these people.

I also know that the road to citizenship has not been easy.

Candidates have to pass a citizenship knowledge test, demonstrate proficiency in French or English and live in Canada for three of the past five years.

Then there’s the adjustment to a new culture and, for many, the –30 C temperatures in the winter.

I wish those who speak out against allowing non-white and non-Christian peoples into the country could attend one of these ceremonies and learn why these new citizens have worked so hard to make Canada their new home.

I wish they could speak to sponsors who have helped immigrants make the transition to life in Canada.

If we’re going to build a better Saskatchewan and a better tomorrow, we need to do it together.

This article originally appeared as a CBC Opinion piece.

Photo credit: Steve Hiscock, Saskatoon Blades

Ted Waiser Tank

My father’s war….75 years ago, Hill 111, Battle of Normandy

Seventy-five years ago this week, Canadians were on the verge of helping win the Battle of Normandy.

It was a costly campaign. 

Canadian forces sustained nearly 20,000 casualties (dead and wounded), including 5,021 killed, during the fight to end the Nazi occupation of northwest France. The death rate was 65 men per day over 77 days.

These and other battles that brought an end to the Second World War in Europe are largely forgotten, if even known.

Canadian remembrance is largely restricted to the start of the Normandy campaign — the June 6, 1944, Allied landing more popularly known as D-Day — and rightly honouring the men who died on Juno beach or trying to get ashore that day.

But the breaching of German defences along the coast had to be matched by victories inland if D-Day was going to be a turning point in the war.

My father Ted took part in one of those battles in August 1944. Like many Canadian soldiers, he was lucky to have survived. 

Ted Waiser

Trooper Thaddeus (Ted) Louis Waiser, a member of the 28th Canadian Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Regiment [BCR]), landed near Courseulles-sur-Mer (Juno Beach), Normandy, on July 26, 1944.

He had just turned 31 and was single.

Born in 1913 to immigrant parents in Glennella, Man., he grew up in the southwest corner of the province, in Lyleton, where his father ran a harness shop.

Ted left school after Grade 8 and worked as a hired hand in the district. When depression and drought crippled the farm economy in the early 1930s, he took to the rails and joined hundreds of other single men criss-crossing Western Canada in search of work.

He spent the winter of 1933-34 in the Hope relief camp in British Columbia. My dad liked to joke that he was a guest of Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.

Ted was working on a Canadian Pacific Railway section crew when war broke out in September 1939.  He enlisted three years later, in October 1942, in Winnipeg and trained as a gunner-operator and crew commander with the Canadian Armoured Corps. 

According to his attestation form, he wanted to see action.

Sent overseas in June 1943, my dad practised and drilled for the next year in Great Britain in anticipation of the Allied invasion of western Europe. 

This preparation included becoming familiar with the new Sherman tank, which replaced the Ram tank as standard Canadian equipment. 

The Sherman might have not had the firepower or protective armour of the German Tiger and Panther tanks, but it was more manoeuvrable and dependable on the battlefield.

Allied attacks

By the time my father’s BCR regiment [B Squadron], under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Worthington, landed in Normandy the last week of July 1944, Allied forces had consolidated their position along the coast and were taking the war to the Nazis.

The Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, was a shell of its former self. Allied fighters and bombers were able to carry out concentrated attacks against the enemy ahead of ground troops.

By June 10, just four days after D-Day, it was safe enough for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to travel across the English channel and meet with British General Bernard Montgomery at his temporary headquarters in a French chateau.

But moving inland through the French countryside still meant heavy combat.

Allied air strikes may have weakened Nazi fighting effectiveness, but the bombing was erratic and left military targets intact in places. The enemy defences were formidable — in heavily armed layers, occupying strategic positions that gave them a tactical edge.

German Führer Adolph Hitler had also ordered that there be no retreat or surrender — a command that only stiffened Nazi resolve.

It consequently took Anglo-Canadian forces several weeks and repeated attacks to capture the medieval French city of Caen, only fifteen kilometres from the coast.

Dislodging the enemy from the Verrières Ridge south of Caen also met with fierce resistance, including German counter attacks.

If there was one consolation, it was that the Nazis were fighting a losing battle.

There was only so much repeated pounding they could take.

And in trying to blunt the Anglo-Canadian advance around Caen, the German defenders left other areas vulnerable to attack.

That’s why the long-delayed American breakout from the Normandy coast in late July 1944 enjoyed spectacular success. The American 1st and 3rd Armies smashed through German positions to south and west and left the battleground littered with the dead and destroyed equipment.

This breakthrough raised the prospect of encircling the German Fifth and Seventh Panzer armies, who were hemmed in from the south, west, and north — effectively in a kind of collapsing “pocket.”

If Anglo-Canadian forces could close the “gap” by driving south past Falaise to meet up with their American counterparts, then the battle of Normandy would be over.

Operation Totalize

“Operation Totalize” was devised to inflict a crippling blow on the Nazis forces south of Caen and open the way to Falaise.

The two-stage battle plan called for a concentrated frontal assault, spearheaded by the Canadian Armoured Corps, deep into the heart of Nazi-held territory. It was an audacious undertaking by any measure, but even more so because tanks would see action during the night.

The first phase of Totalize was a success. 

By the early morning of Aug. 8, the Canadians had punched through the German anti-tank screen and advanced several kilometres in closing the gap.  Verrières Ridge was finally taken, as were several villages south of Caen that had been stubbornly held by the Germans.

One combatant later recalled that the enemy was both to the front and behind.

But the surprise attack stalled at Cintheaux while Allied bombers pummeled the next series of enemy targets. This delay—until the afternoon of Aug. 8—allowed the fanatical German 12th SS Panzer division, with its formidable Tiger tanks and dreaded 88 mm guns, to block the Caen-Falaise road and blunt phase two of Totalize.

Undeterred and anxious to maintain the day’s momentum, the Canadian command hurriedly launched a countermove during the night of Aug. 9.

Under the cover of darkness, Halpenny Force (consisting of Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Lake Superior Regiment) would move forward to capture Bretteville-le-Rabet. At the same time, Worthington Force (the pairing of the British Columbia Regiment with the infantry of the Algonquin Regiment) was ordered to take up a position on the strategically important Hill 195 in the Quesnay Wood.

My father had yet to have his baptism of fire. The BCRs and their Sherman tanks had seen limited combat since their arrival in France–even during the big armoured push on Aug. 8 – and were still relatively green. 

Hill 195

But that changed when Worthington Force was instructed to take the hill that been one of Totalize’s first-day objectives.

Around 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 9, the BCR tanks left their “harbour” north of Cintheaux and proceeded south towards Bretteville-le-Rabet. 

Because the village had yet to be cleared of the enemy, the Canadians came under intense fire. 

Knowing that his force had to be entrenched on Point 195 at first light, Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington ordered the column to swing east around the village to avoid the German guns.

It was a fateful decision.

A fog hung over the ground in the early morning hours. The dust raised by the tanks only made visibility worse.

But instead of stopping and ascertaining their position, Worthington Force kept moving as rapidly as it could, trying to avoid detection by German defenders in the area.

They were lost. But they didn’t know it.

They mistook the road they were following for the Caen-Falaise highway.

And when a hill came into view just before sunrise, they assumed it to be Point 195.

It wasn’t.

It was actually Point 140–about six kilometres northeast of their objective.

Upon reaching what was believed to be Hill 195, Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington informed Brigade headquarters of his position.

He also deployed the tanks and infantry in a defensive position, atop a nearby height of land (Hill 111), in a rectangular field surrounded by trees on three sides.

The BCRs and Algonquins expected a fight.

The rear of the column had been badly mauled—at the cost of several casualties and knocked-out tanks—as it passed near Estrées-la-Campagne.

Little did they realize, though, that they had squatted along the new German defensive line north of the Laison River.

The leader of the 12th SS Panzer division, SS-Uberführer Kurt Meyer, immediately ordered nearby Tiger and Panther tanks to converge on the Canadians once he learned of their presence.  Meyer would later gain notoriety for the cold-blooded execution of Canadian soldiers captured during the Normandy campaign.

First attack

The first German attack, in the form of mortar fire, came around 8 a.m. Worthington asked for artillery support, but the coordinates were wrong for their location.

Brigade headquarters soon realized that the battle group was not at Hill 195. But where? How could the force go missing?

The confusion over the column’s location left it vulnerable to friendly fire.

Two Typhoon fighter planes strafed the encampment — believing that it was a German formation — before the Canadians were able to identify themselves. 

Why the Allied pilots failed to report the incident is a mystery. Relief support could have been sent.

A Polish tank group, moving into the area from the north, also mistook the Canadians for the enemy and fired on their position before coming under attack itself and being forced to withdraw.

The entrenched Canadians successfully fought back several German attempts to overrun their position through the day. 

The constant bombardment by mortar and armour-piercing shells created a horrific scene atop Point 111.  Dozens of men, indiscriminately killed or wounded, lay about the cratered battlefield, while exploding tanks “brewed up” in flames, shrouding the hill in acrid smoke.     

The hopelessness of the situation was driven home when Worthington was felled by a mortar shell in the late afternoon.

As darkness descended, enemy soldiers, using tanks as shields, attacked the camp from two sides.  Several Canadians were taken prisoner, while others made a mad dash for freedom.

Ted Waiser survived

Somehow my father survived. Somehow he got away. Even though he had shrapnel in both thighs, he eluded capture and found his way back to Allied lines.

Worthington Force, though, had been gutted. In their first day of combat, the BCRs lost 40 men killed and 47 tanks. The casualty rate for the Algonquin infantry was equally grim. 

The irony was that Hill 195 was captured the next day, largely because the Germans had focused their firepower on Worthington Force on Point 111. 

It took another 12 days, until Aug. 21, 1944, for the Falaise gap to be closed and the Battle of Normandy brought to a decisive end.

I secured a copy of my dad’s personnel record from Library and Archives Canada only weeks before his death in 1995 at age 82. The file was mostly medical material. 

By then, it was too late to ask him questions. I’ve had to search for answers elsewhere.

This past April, 75 years after our father landed at Normandy, I travelled to Juno Beach with my wife Marley, my sister Gail, my brother Tom and his wife Irene.

We also made a special trip to Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, just north of the village of Cintheaux. It was late morning and two French groundskeepers had just finished tending the flower beds lining the rows of headstones.

The cemetery contains nearly 3,000 Canadian soldiers who died during the latter stages of the Battle of Normandy. We solemnly walked along row after row of Maple Leaf headstones and found several of the BCRs and Algonquins who died on Hill 111 on Aug. 9, 1944.

The grave of Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington lies in the first row, near the cemetery entrance. I took a stone out of my coat pocket that I had picked up on the Normandy beach and put it on top of his headstone. 

We then quietly slipped away, deep in thought, knowing that dad was fortunate to have lived…fortunate to have served with such brave men.    

This column originally appeared as a CBC Point of View piece.

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

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. 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