Bill Waiser

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Agricultural potential of southern prairies was much debated

Desert or garden? These conflicting images were at the centre of the mid-19th-century debate over the agricultural potential of the semi-arid prairie district of present-day Saskatchewan.

Could farmers make a living from the prairie soil? Was the region better suited for stock raising? Or was it marginal land that could provide only a bare living?

In the late 1850s, the Palliser (1857-59) and Hind (1857-58) expeditions were sent to the western interior to assess the region’s future as a commercial farming frontier.

Neither expedition was impressed with the open prairies and both declared that the area south of present-day Saskatoon to the international border formed a triangle of infertile lands – also known as Palliser’s triangle.

This finding was not surprising. Both expeditions were asked to identify areas where agriculture could best be initiated, and they clearly favoured the prairie parkland or what they called the fertile belt.

Palliser and Hind were also outsiders, unfamiliar with the peculiar plains environment, and simply assumed that the treelessness was a sure sign of aridity, if not barrenness.

Jump forward two decades to the late 1870s and the southern grasslands were reassessed, but under different circumstances.

Ottawa had acquired the region in 1870 and expected most, if not all, of its new western empire to be fertile. How else would it entice hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of prospective farmers to the region?

The potential of the prairie district therefore had to be reconsidered — the very idea of bad land was no longer acceptable.

Enter botanist John Macoun, whose enthusiasm for the North-West and its future knew no bounds.

Traveling during exceptionally wet summers in 1879 and 1880, Macoun found growing conditions in the South Saskatchewan country ideal for the large-scale agricultural colonization envisaged by Ottawa. He even challenged the common assumption that settlement should be initially confined to the parkland and instead promoted the virtues of homesteading the open prairie.

Where Palliser and Hind had once found an irreclaimable desert, Macoun discovered a garden of unlimited potential.

This portrayal of the grasslands as a kind of agricultural eden — where the land would flower if broken by the plough — was reckless and potentially harmful. Just like Palliser and Hind before him, Macoun was guilty of misreading the landscape.

Instead of recognizing the prairies as a distinctive ecosystem, the botanist saw only what he wanted to see, or more accurately, what he expected to see.

There was, however, another, more nuanced assessment of the southern prairies during this period.

In 1873-74, Great Britain and the United States jointly marked the 49th parallel across western Canada. Canadian geologist George Mercer Dawson served as one of the scientists on the British side.

For two consecutive field seasons, the diminutive Dawson wandered widely — as much as 50 miles from the boundary — carefully investigating the landscape and any interesting phenomena. He paid particular attention to geological formations, especially any lignite deposits and their possible use as fuel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He also worked up the natural history.

Dawson’s report, published as a thick monograph, did much to foster his reputation as one of Canada’s foremost scientists.  He would later serve as the director of the Geological Survey of Canada.

His book was also important for recognizing the agricultural challenges of the short-grass prairie. Unlike other investigators who imposed their own values on the grasslands, Dawson argued that settlement of the region should be “a natural growth taking advantage of the capabilities of the country.”

Some districts might support grain cultivation, while other areas might be better suited to stock raising. In other words, variability was the region’s defining feature. It was too simplistic to make sweeping generalizations, like desert or garden.

But the Canadian government wanted settlement policy to be uniform across the prairie west and adopted a homestead plan where every settler got the same 160-acre grant, regardless of the land quality.

This system may have made for administrative efficiencies, but farming success on the open prairies varied from place to place and from year to year. In many places, more than a quarter-section was needed. It also took several years of practical experience to convert a pioneer farm to a commercial operation.

Until then, the story for many first homesteaders was one of disappointment, hardship, and abandonment.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: George Mercer Dawson’s sketch of the Great Valley in southern Saskatchewan. 

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Grain Elevator in Melville for 1939 Royal Tour

1939 royal tour turned Melville into Saskatchewan’s largest city … for a day

“It made us … It came at just the right time.”

Those were the words of Queen Elizabeth, better known as the ‘Queen Mom,’ in reflecting on her landmark 1939 tour of Canada with her husband, King George VI.

It was the first time a reigning British monarch had visited Canada. Canadians came out in record numbers — nowhere more than in Saskatchewan — as the couple crossed the country and back.

By the time the royals headed home, it was estimated that half a million people, more than 50 per cent of the Saskatchewan population, had seen the couple.

Even the royals, who had been unexpectedly thrust into their roles with the abdication of King Edward VIII two years earlier, were astounded by their reception.

At each stop on the westward leg of the tour across the southern prairies, even at small towns along the Canadian Pacific Line where the royal train was not expected to stop, huge crowds gathered, if only to catch a passing glimpse of the king and queen.

More than 100,000 waited through light drizzle in Regina on May 25. Another 40,000 braved a heavy downpour in Moose Jaw.

The rain did not deter the royals either. They insisted that activities continue as planned, even going as far as to ask that the top be left down on their car as they made their way through the streets in each city.

The long-awaited break in the drought, coupled with the arrival of the king and queen, seemed a sign of good things to come.

On the return trip across the country, the royal train travelled across the prairie parkland on the Canadian National Line with stops in Saskatoon and Melville on June 3.

Melville was one of the last western stops on the tour, and one of the last chances for people to see the couple.

Farm families reportedly came from as far as two hundred miles away. Cars and trucks rolled in all day from all directions, including Manitoba and the northern United States. It would reportedly take three hours to clear the traffic jam.

Special trains, meanwhile, brought groups from nearby towns. The towns of Yorkton, Esterhazy, and Canora simply closed for the day.

By the early evening, several hours before the royal couple was scheduled to arrive, hundreds, then thousands of people began to gather at the Melville train station, where a huge sign proclaiming, “Welcome to Their Majesties,” had been painted on the side of the Pool elevator.

Those in attendance included 600 Great War veterans and an estimated 10,000 schoolchildren.  A 200-piece orchestra was part of the celebrations.

Shortly after 10 p.m., the royal train pulled into Melville to the deafening roar of the crowd. Moments later, King George and Queen Elizabeth stepped into a blue spotlight to another thunderous cheer.

Smiling and waving, but unable to see much beyond the platform because of the darkness, Queen Elizabeth asked that the spotlight be passed over the audience. She and the king were stunned by the size of the crowd: an estimated 60,000 people.

In one day, Melville, with a usual population of 4,000, had become Saskatchewan’s largest city — bigger than Regina or Saskatoon at the time.

The couple briefly mingled with the crowd before returning to their train just 20 minutes after their arrival. As they waved from the back of the last car before disappearing inside, fireworks were set off.

Melville’s extraordinary welcome made headlines across North America. Reporters were particularly struck by how the region’s immigrant population, mostly from central and eastern Europe, had so eagerly embraced the visiting couple.

The reception also left a lasting impression on the royals. In a telegram to town officials the next day, King George confessed, “The Queen and I will not easily forget the scene which greeted us at Melville.”

More than anything else, though, the Melville celebrations reassured British officials of Canadian loyalty to the Crown.

Throughout the royal tour, there were regular dispatches about the deteriorating situation in Europe and the looming threat of another war. Naturally, British officials travelling with the royal couple wondered how Canadians would respond.

The brief Melville stop left no doubt.


This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: The Melville Sask Pool elevator was painted in honour of the 1939 royal visit 

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Bill Waiser Order of Canada Julie Payette

Bill Waiser invested into Order of Canada

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, invested Saskatoon author and historian Bill Waiser as a member of  the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, ON January 24, 2018. Bill was invested alongside 46 other Canadians (two companions, eight Officers and 36 other Members) into the Order of Canada.

“Bill Waiser is widely known as ‘Saskatchewan’s historian.’ Distinguished professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchewan, he is recognized not only for the uncompromising quality of his research, but also for his abilities as an adept storyteller. Through his repertoire of award-winning works, he has skilfully told the story of his province and its people to both academic readers and the wider public. His writings on western and northern Canada are considered major contributions to the heritage of these regions.”

“Created in 1967, the Order of Canada, one of our country’s highest civilian honours, recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation. Close to 7 000 people from all sectors of society have been invested into the Order. Their contributions are varied, yet they have all enriched the lives of others and have taken to heart the motto of the Order: DESIDERANTES MELIOREM PATRIAM (“They desire a better country”). Appointments are made by the governor general on the recommendation of the Advisory Council for the Order of Canada.” – Governor General of Canada’s Website.


Will Jackson served as Riel’s secretary

On Dec. 12, 1951, 90-year-old Honoré Jaxon, looking forlorn if not lost, was deposited on the sidewalk outside his midtown Manhattan apartment in New York City. Behind him steadily grew a pile of books, magazines, and papers. By the time city officials had finished emptying his cellar apartment, the stack measured six feet high, 10 feet deep, and 35 feet long.

He was being evicted.

Jaxon’s photograph, with his library now taking up a good part of a city block, ran as a human interest story in the New York dailies. But little was said about how the dishevelled old man was once the voice of settler protest in the Saskatchewan country in the 1880s and worked closely with Métis leader Louis Riel to secure a better future for his people.

Jaxon was born William Henry Jackson in Toronto in 1861. Educated in Classics at the University of Toronto, he moved with his family to Prince Albert, then part of the North-West Territories, in 1882. His older brother Eastwood worked as a druggist for the frontier town.

Young Will soon became involved in a local movement, known as the “agitation,” that railed against federal land policies.

In 1883, he launched a second Prince Albert newspaper — appropriately titled “The Voice of the People.” He also played a prominent role in the formation of a Settlers’ Rights Association that included French and English Métis leaders, as well as disaffected whites. The failure to secure action — the Department of Interior should have been called the Department of Indifference — led to the return of Louis Riel in the summer of 1884 to head the protest movement.

Jackson admired Riel and came to serve as his personal secretary, helping to organize meetings and send petitions. His devotion to the Métis leader was underscored when he was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith and given the name “Joseph.”

But when Riel opted for more forceful measures to shake the federal government of its lethargy and declared a Métis provisional government at Batoche on March 19, 1885, Jackson suffered a breakdown.

Because of his mental state, Jackson spent the better part of the North-West Rebellion as a prisoner of Riel. He was captured when Batoche fell and taken into custody. The Canadian government was determined to prosecute any whites who participated in the troubles, and Jaxon was charged with treason-felony because of his association with Riel.

Jackson was held in Prince Albert for more than a month before being taken by wagon to Regina for trial. The detention seemed to push him over the edge.

Jackson defied the military escort at every opportunity — including soiling himself, to the disgust of the other prisoners. When he was forced to take a bath in a slough because the stench had become unbearable, he disappeared under the surface, then bolted from the water and ran naked across the prairie. From that time forward, he remained shackled to another prisoner until he reached the territorial capital.

Jackson’s date with justice was short-lived. With the agreement of both the prosecution and defence, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to the Selkirk Lunatic Asylum in Manitoba, a stay that lasted only until Nov. 2, 1885, when he quietly walked away from the facility.

Jackson surfaced in the Chicago, Illinois area as labour organizer Honoré Jaxon. He also underwent a second conversion — this time to the Baha’i faith.

Jackson briefly returned to Canada before the Great War, visiting Saskatoon during a 1909 sewer workers’ strike. He then settled down in New York, where he travelled in socialist circles when not fighting various progressive causes.

His Saskatchewan days, though, haunted him and he started collecting material about western Canada’s Indigenous peoples. He also talked about writing a book.

By 1951, Jackson was destitute and in failing health. His documents and other historical materials — what he called his library — eventually made his basement apartment a fire trap and led to his eviction that December.

Jackson managed to save a small sampling of his papers, albeit temporarily, but the remaining two tons were sold as waste paper. He found refuge with a friend but was hospitalized and died in the new year.

His passing would have gone largely unnoticed if not for an archivist in western Canada who twigged to the name in a news story and made the connection to Will Jackson. By then, his library was gone.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:Honore Jaxon and his library on a New York City street in December 1951. 
Photo Source:New York Daily News N1421873

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Saskatoon Train Wreck 1943

Trains collided on Saskatoon’s west side during Second World War

Was it deliberate? That certainly seemed a possibility in wartime Saskatoon.

At 5:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16, 1943, a Canadian National freight train ploughed into a Canadian Pacific passenger train at the diamond crossing northeast of the Union stockyards. It was the kind of incident that screamed sabotage.

During the dark days of the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied western Europe, Saskatoon readied itself for an enemy invasion.

In September 1941, and then again in October 1942, mock attacks were carried out on the city’s government and communication services.  The exercises were intended to prepare citizens for the day when the war reached Saskatoon.

There were also regular fire, police, and first aid drills — involving more than 1,000 men and women — in anticipation of an air attack on Saskatoon. Many citizens genuinely believed that the Luftwaffe might bomb the city. Some might even have lost sleep over the prospect of U-boats prowling the South Saskatchewan.

Salvage drives, meanwhile, encouraged the collection of rags, metal, and rubber for the war effort. The campaigns featured such slogans as “Get in the scrap with your scrap” and “Heap it on Hitler.”

The greatest worry, though, were enemy agents — known as “fifth columnists” — embedded in the city and bent on sabotage. This fear was fed by military officials with overactive imaginations.

The local Canadian Corps claimed the city was home to thousands of pro-Nazi sympathizers disguised as ordinary citizens. And a visiting member of the British Admiralty warned that Nazi spies could relay compromising information to Germany in only minutes.

The January 1943 train collision occurred against this backdrop. Star-Phoenix coverage of the crash was found among war stories about the Allied bombing of Berlin and the North Africa campaign. Those who were already paranoid might have easily concluded that the collision was an act of subversion.

After all, both the CPR passenger train and CN freight train had received all-clear signals on their respective tracks. There was no reason for either train to slow down or even wait. How was that possible?

The initial response from the two railway companies was that it appeared to be a terrible accident — a finding that did not change.

Indeed, it was incredible that this kind of collision had not happened earlier.

Saskatoon prided itself from the early 20th century as the “hub city.” Three railway companies — the Canadian Pacific, Grand Trunk Pacific, and Canadian Northern — had lines to and from the city. (The Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern were folded into Canadian National Railways after the Great War.)

By 1912, a remarkable 27 passengers trains passed through Saskatoon daily. Freight trains added to the railway traffic.

Because of the number of lines, tracks of competing companies sometimes had to cross one another; these level crossings were known as diamond junctions.

One was located on the city’s west side, northeast of the Union stockyards (east of Dundonald Avenue), where the north-east Canadian National line crossed the east-west Canadian Pacific line. Traffic over these diamond crossings was regulated by lights on the tracks.

CPR passenger train #51 left Saskatoon an hour late on Jan. 16, 1943. It’s not known why the signals were green — probably human error — but the westbound train reached the diamond at the same moment as CN freight #782.

The two locomotives collided and spilled down an embankment, one engine rolling on top of the other. It could have been much worse. If the CP train had reached the diamond only seconds earlier, the CN engine would have ploughed into one of the passenger cars. As it was, only the CP engine and tender went off the track.

Surprisingly, there was only one fatality. Fifty-five-year-old Colin Sands, the engineer of the CN freight, was badly scalded by steam escaping from the locomotive. He died the next day in St. Paul’s hospital.

The other crew members from both trains, including CN fireman H.W. Hall (father of future NHL goalie Glenn Hall), sustained only minor injuries.

Railway crews working with a crane quickly cleared away the wreckage and opened up both lines.  Traffic resumed shortly after midnight.

There was a war to be won. And nothing was going to stand in the way of an Allied victory.

A special thanks to Harvey McKee, who told me about the collision.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:Wrecking crews clear away two locomotives from collision.
Photo Source:B-1864 courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Pets helped relieve isolation of pioneer homesteads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

The saga of John Rowand’s bones

It was his farewell journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Statistics Canada

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

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

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

The answer is yes and no.

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

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

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

Opt-in question never asked before

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

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

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

So, what’s the problem?

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

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

What information will be available for future Canadians?

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

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

It does not have to be this way.

A clause in the 2005 act to amend the Statistics Act requires a review of the “administration and operation” of the informed-consent question “no later than two years before the taking of the third census of population [2016]…by any committee of the Senate, the House of Commons or both Houses of Parliament that may be designated or established for that purpose.”

Another clause requires a report on the matter.

Act to receive first reading in House of Commons

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

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

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

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

No opt-in question in the U.S.

And they need to be aware that the United States does not have an opt-in question and that Americans secure access to name-specific census data after only 70 years.

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

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

This article originally appeared on CBC News

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Woman Dust Storm Great Depression

Drought and dust a legacy of Great Depression

“It wasn’t this way before,” admitted Edna Jaques in a soul-baring article in Chatelaine magazine in November 1937.

After nine consecutive years of unrelenting drought, the Briercrest Saskatchewan poet found herself “whipped” and “not ashamed any more” to admit it.

Severe dry spells had always been a feature of prairie settlement, appearing on average every 20 years or so.  The 1930s, however, were memorable for both the persistence and extent of the drought.

While other provinces, in particular Ontario and Quebec, were recovering from the Great Depression, Saskatchewan experienced its most far-reaching drought in 1937. Not even Prince Albert was spared.

Jaques, who was 11 when her family homesteaded in the Moose Jaw area in 1902, had never known the land to be so desolate. Drought had reduced Briercrest to “gray ashy wastes that once were fields, white alkali flats that once were blue simmering lakes.”

The story was the same across the scorched southern prairies. Some fields were so patchy that harvesting seemed a terrible joke.

Saskatchewan’s total wheat production dropped by a third during the 1930s even though wheat acreage increased by more than a million acres during the same period. In other words, more cropped land was actually producing less wheat. The 1937 wheat harvest was a paltry 2.5 bushels per acre.

Jaques scanned the heavens daily in search of the promise of rain, but it never came — only a few scattered drops. “Today the sky was almost a black blue,” she wrote in frustration. “You would think a million tons of water would be held in its inky depths, but it was only dust and wind.”

That was Jaque’s other lament. “Drought never comes alone.”

Hot, drying winds scooped up loose topsoil into dust blizzards that made outside activity nearly impossible. An estimated quarter of a million acres of Saskatchewan land was blowing out of control by the mid-1930s.

“The air was murky and thick … that made it hard to breathe,” Jaques recalled after one dust storm struck the community. “Your heart pounded against your ribs in a sickening thud.”

Darkness at noon was not uncommon, while churning dirt piled up in drifts along buildings, fence lines or ridges. The “driven soil” was a temporary visitor, Jaques observed, “nesting for a few days until another wind comes up to move it somewhere else.”

Homemakers faced a frustrating battle trying to keep the dust out of their homes, placing wet rags on window sills and hanging wet sheets over doorways. But it still managed to seep through, depositing a thick film on everything. Tables were often set with the cups and bowls upside down, a temporary response that became a lifelong habit for some.

The ever-present dust also affected people’s health. Jaques attended a town meeting where half the women were suffering from “dust fever.”

“Their faces were swollen and red and broken out,” she reported, “but they’d blow their noses in unison, in duets and trios and choruses and laugh about it.”

They all knew, though, that their brave front was a public mask — a way of consoling each other and finding comfort in the belief that next year would be better.

Behind closed doors, it was a different story. “They cry at home,” Jaques commiserated, “cry over shabby children and poor food and dead gardens.”

Kids continued to play on the street, seemingly oblivious to how Briercrest had been staggered by depression and drought. But as Jaques noted, children, especially the younger ones, had known nothing else — not even “what rain is.”

The experience was never forgotten. The spectre of drought haunted people for years to come. “We’ll pull through,” Jaques bravely affirmed.  “But we’ll never be the same again — the price of it had been too high.”

Her poetry bore the imprint of what she lived through.

Edna Jaques published over 3,000 poems during her lifetime — many noted for their unvarnished realism. Indeed, her verse found a receptive audience in newspapers and magazines in the 1930s and 1940s.

“The Farmer’s Wife in the Drought Area” was one of her more popular Depression poems: “The garden is a dreary blighted waste/The air is gritty to my taste.”

The lines may not have been elegant, but that was Jaques’ appeal.  There was nothing elegant about a dust storm.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Dust storms brought life to a standstill in the 1930s.

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Saskatchewan veteran designed Brooding Soldier monument

In July 1946, Regina architect Frederick Chapman Clemesha, then living in southern California, wrote the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission, anxious to know whether his “Brooding Soldier” monument had survived the Second World War.

The commission chairman was surprised to hear from Clemesha — he had not been in contact for nearly a quarter century — and assured him that the monument had not been damaged during the Nazi occupation. He also reported that the trees at the site had matured into a small park.

“I have never heard,” the Ottawa official concluded, “but the most admiring comments on the St. Julien Memorial.”

Clemesha was pleased. He always believed that the scarred battleground was too stark for his design. He need not have worried.

Frederick Chapman Clemshaw was born in Lancashire, England, in 1876. He emigrated to Saskatchewan in the early 20th century and opened an architectural practice, Clemesha and Portnall, in Regina. For some unknown reason, he changed his surname to Clemesha during his career as an architect.

In September 1915, Clemesha was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 46th Battalion, South Saskatchewan Regiment. What’s surprising about his enlistment was not necessarily his age (39) or that he was married with children, but that he was a Quaker (Society of Friends).

Clemesha landed in France in August 1916 and took part in some of the major Canadian battles. Yet even though the 46th was known as the “suicide battalion” because of its high casualty rate, he escaped the carnage with only a scar on his left cheek from a bullet wound.

Clemesha returned to his Regina architectural practice after the war. Encouraged by his business partner, another veteran, he submitted a design to the 1920 national competition to commemorate eight Canadian Great War battles in Belgium and France.

The 160 entrants were winnowed down to 17 finalists who prepared final drawings and maquettes (small-scale models). The international jury selected two designs — one by Walter Allward of Toronto, the other by Clemesha. It was also decided that the same monument would not be used at all eight sites.

The major monument, designed by Allward, would be placed at Vimy, France. Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier, on the other hand, would be located at St. Julien, Belgium. That’s where Canadian troops sustained the first gas attack on the Western Front and suffered 2,000 dead during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. The other six sites would be given simple block memorials.

Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier submission was a sharp contrast to Allward’s grand monument. But its apparent simplicity belied the genius of the design.

Rising from a rectangular base, the elongated plinth transitions into the upper torso of a Canadian soldier, with his helmeted head bowed and his hands resting on his rifle in reverse arms. The clean lines of the monument complement the overwhelming sense of solemnness that pervades the memorial. Indeed, it’s extraordinary how the brooding figure rising out the top of the column can be so evocative.

Clemesha travelled to Ypres, Belgium in 1922 to oversee construction of the monument. Once the site was confirmed — just north of the village of St. Julien at a place known as Vancouver Corner — the nearly 11-metre (35 feet, 3 inches) monument quickly took shape with grey granite from Brittany.

The word CANADA appeared in block letters near the front of the base. Metal plaques placed on either side of the column had wording in both French and English:

This column marks the

battlefield where 18,000

Canadians on the British

left withstood the first

German gas attacks the

22-24th April 1915 2,000

fell and lie buried nearby

The formal unveiling was July 8, 1923 — 13 years before the Vimy Monument dedication. French General Ferdinand Foch, commander of the Allied forces in the closing months of the war, offered words of remembrance at the ceremony. He paid special tribute to the valour of the untested Canadian soldiers in defiantly holding the line during the gas attack.

Clemesha never returned to Saskatchewan. He travelled directly from Belgium to California to take up a position at the Theosophical Seminary outside San Diego.

His brooding figure, in the meantime, garnered rave reviews.

“It does more than command the landscape,” reported London’s Evening Standard after the dedication, “this is the soul of those who fell.”

French architect Paul Cret, one of the jurors for the memorial competition, was equally effusive — albeit in an amusing way.

“What I admire above all,” he wrote after visiting St. Julien in 1923, “is the fact that the lines of the memorial are simple enough to withstand the vastness of the battlefields, where so many others look like a piece of furniture dropped in a field by a moving van.”

Today, Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier is one of Canada’s most recognized war memorials, second only to the Vimy Monument. In Saskatchewan, for example, the image appears on licence plates for veterans.

The monument is also a must-see on Great War battlefield tours. People come away from the site lost in their thoughts.

“There is a mysterious power in this brooding figure,” one  early visitor claimed, “drawing you from the things that are to the things that were.”

And it was at the memorial, on April 22, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres, that the King of Belgium presided at a ceremony marking the battle and decrying the use of chemical weapons.

Ironically, Clemesha almost didn’t enter the monument contest. He wasn’t happy with his initial design for the Brooding Soldier and threw it away in frustration. Thankfully, his partner retrieved the sketch from the waste paper basket and put it back on Clemesha’s drafting desk.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: The Brooding Soldier monument at Vancouver Corner, just north of the village of St. Julien, Belgium. The elongated plinth of the Brooding Soldier monument transitions into the upper torso of a Canadian soldier, with his helmeted head bowed and his hands resting on his rifle in reverse arms. 
Photo Source: Bill Waiser

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.