Bill Waiser

Category Archives: Blog / News

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.

Ile A La Crosse Sara Riel

Sara Riel was Saskatchewan’s first Métis Grey Nun

She’s usually given only a footnote in Saskatchewan history. And even when she is mentioned, she’s identified as the sister of her older, more famous brother.

But Sara Riel was the first Métis Grey Nun in Saskatchewan.

Born at Red River in 1848, four years after her brother Louis, Sara was educated at the Sisters of Charity boarding school (popularly known as the Grey Nuns because of their habit). Her religious training was inspired by the intense Catholic faith of the Riel home — and her parents’ expectations for their children.

But whereas Louis chose not to become a priest, Sara took her vows in March 1868 and served the church for the next 15 years. The story of her life as a Grey Nun is found today in the letters she exchanged with her family, especially Louis.

In 1871, Sara volunteered to work at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste mission on Lac Île-à-la-Crosse (known to the Cree as sākitawāhk) in present-day northwestern Saskatchewan. Her paternal grandparents had met and married in the predominantly Métis community and her father, Jean-Louis Riel, was born there.

But in relocating to Île-à-la-Crosse, Sara effectively left behind her family at Red River and embraced a life of service and sacrifice.

Île-à-la-Crosse was established in 1776 when Montreal pedlars pushed the fur trade up the Churchill (English) River. Seventy years later, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) built a mission there to proselytize to the local Cree, Dene, and Métis populations.

Île-à-la-Crosse quickly emerged as the administrative centre for pastoral activities throughout the vast region. In fact, four future bishops (Taché, Laflèche, Grandin, and Faraud) would serve the growing mission — leading to the nickname ‘nursery of the bishops.’

But it was the Grey Nuns, arriving at Île-à-la-Crosse in October 1860, who were vital to the mission’s day-to-day activities.

The sisters’ headquarters, named Hôpital Saint-Bruno, was an impressive two-storey building, featuring a classroom and the region’s first hospital. The day the Grey Nuns arrived, a sick young boy became their first patient.

The Grey Nuns quickly opened a residential school in the building (École Sainte Famille) and enroled their first pupils. They also ran an orphanage.

These church-run institutions were accepted by the local Métis for the support and benefits they provided to the region’s families. The spiritual bond between the mission and the community was further reinforced when Métis parents asked members of the religious orders to stand as godparents to their children.

Sister Sara Riel readily fit into this religious community and worked tirelessly to facilitate its work. She told her brother in one letter how she looked forward to the annual missions among the Indigenous population and took delight in their first communion.

Indeed, her devotion to the church and its teachings was irrevocably strengthened in the fall of 1872 when she fell gravely ill and lingered near death. Sara was given the Last Rites, but then made a complete — seemingly miraculous — recovery after praying to the Blessed Marguerite-Marie of Alacoque.

Thereafter, she took the name, Sister Marguerite-Marie. She also wanted to use her Manitoba scrip grant (made available to Métis living in the province in 1870) to fund the care of orphan children.

Because of Riel’s English proficiency (she was conversant in several languages), she often served as a liaison between the mission and the nearby Hudson’s Bay Company post. She also offered the first class in English at the school in order to demonstrate to the federal government the value of the mission.

Life at the Île-à-la-Crosse mission, though, was not easy. Riel spoke of loneliness and isolation in her letters — compounded by the fact that mail arrived only twice a year. She once complained to Louis about his failure to write: “Allow me, beloved brother, to tell you how cruel your silence is.”

There were also times when the fishery failed and food was scarce. And even though she found time to do some sketching, she worked long hours, punctuated by the drudgery of chores. She particularly disliked laundry day, when the bed linen would be hung throughout the living quarters to dry.

Riel’s commitment and devotion, however, never wavered. That’s why, according to her mother superior, the community “loved and respected” her.

When she died from tuberculosis on Dec. 27, 1883, most of Île-à-la-Crosse turned out for her funeral mass. Sara Riel was 35.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Sara Riel’s sketch of Île-à-la-Crosse” 

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.

Waskesiu Graves, Drowning Deaths

Freak storm on Lake Waskesiu left four dead

Isabella Merrill never forgot ‘the storm.’

In the fall of 1927, she and her husband Harry, a Prince Albert National Park warden, were living in a cabin on the east shore of Waskesiu Lake.

One day, a fierce storm swept across the lake that seemed to blow itself out as quickly as it came up. When interviewed 60 years later, Isabella vividly recalled the spray from the breakers washing over her cabin roof.

Four people were out on the lake when the freak storm hit.

Reuben Dahl, Emile Faber and his wife Mildred, and Emile’s brother Joseph were on their way to Montreal Lake to build some fishing shacks for R.D. Brooks that winter. They were camped at the mouth of the Waskesiu River, waiting for freeze-up so they could take up freight.

The day of the storm, they were apparently coming across the lake by canoe to visit the Pease home (in present-day Waskesiu) to get supplies or mail.

When they didn’t show up at Montreal Lake, three weeks after their expected arrival, the company contacted Rueben’s parents, Alex and Mary Dahl, of Fenton, Saskatchewan. That was late November.

Harry Merrell and fellow park warden Harry Genge were given the grisly chore of trying to find the four missing people in January 1928. They discovered the party’s tent and equipment near the mouth of the river. They also stumbled upon a canoe full of ice.

But even though they probed the ice here and there, sometimes chipping away with axes, they never located the bodies.

The search resumed in the spring. In early May, Reuben’s father Alex and a friend, a psychic, started scanning from shore the still-frozen lake near the Waskesiu River.

At one point, Alex climbed a tree and spotted something dark in the thawing ice. He carefully made his way out to the place, only to be confronted by his dead son’s body. The clothes confirmed that it was the 23-year-old Reuben. The other three missing were found nearby.

The four bodies were buried on a small ridge, along the east shore of the lake, between the townsite and the Waskesiu river. It’s not known whether permission was secured from the Canadian Parks department. But it was the right thing to do — in a lovely spot near to where they had tragically lost their lives.

The four graves were marked with simple wooden crosses. Then, around 1935, Jim Manson, Reuben’s brother-in law (husband of Annie), visited the site and planted a small spruce tree as part of the memorial.

Thousands of people, on their way along the Heart Lakes road, probably drove by the gravesite. People travelling by boat would also have seen the four markers on the slight rise above the lake.

But two decades after the burial, the Parks department found the graves in the way of a new development. In order to ease growing congestion in Waskesiu, Ottawa approved a new auto bungalow camp just north of the townsite in 1948. The graves were in the middle of the new site along the proposed road allowance.

The Parks department wanted construction of what would become known as the Kapasawin Bungalows to get underway that fall. It was consequently decided to remove the four bodies in September 1948 and reinter them at St. Christopher’s Anglican cemetery at Christopher Lake — without informing the families. Ironically, it was only when Hector Dahl (born in the spring of 1927) pulled over to the side of the road out of respect for a funeral procession that he learned that his older brother Reuben’s body and the three others were being moved. Embarrassed Parks officials later apologized for the oversight.

Fortunately, the memorial tree at the gravesite was never touched. And it still stands there today on the slight ridge just beyond the parking lot at the Kapasawin Bungalows office.

Generations of families, staying at Kapasawin, have walked by the tree, unaware of its significance — unless told by the former proprietors.

Meanwhile, people who have been coming to the park for years might know the story of the drownings, but the details are often fuzzy or inaccurate.

That’s a shame.

There needs to be a plaque at the Kapasawin tree that names the four people who lost their lives in the lake and explains why they were once buried there.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: The four drowning victims were buried on the east shore of Lake Waskesiu in 1928.  
Photo Source:Waskesiu Memories, V. 3

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.

RCMP mounted troop on riot duty in Saskatoon, May 8, 1933.

Saskatoon relief camp riot left one dead … by accident

One of the great challenges of the 1930s was what to do with the single, homeless unemployed.

By the fall of 1932 and the failure of yet another prairie harvest, more than 100,000 homeless souls wandered the country, trying to survive by their wits. Many were single men, including Great War veterans, who had eked out a living in Canada’s resource industries, moving from job to job and from region to region.

There were also several thousand young people, fresh-faced teenagers who had quit school to help support their families and then left home so that they would not be a burden.

Most transients, as they were called at the time, gravitated to larger cities and towns in their search for work and, more importantly, relief.  But municipalities could not meet the needs of their own unemployed and consequently refused to provide assistance to anyone who had lived in the community for less than a year.

This residency requirement sentenced many to life on the move.

Ottawa, for its part, hid behind the constitution and refused to assume responsibility for the growing jobless army, even though the federal minister of labour after a June 1931 tour of  western Canada cautioned, “young men can hardly be expected to starve quietly.” All Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett would do was provide emergency funds under the 1932 Relief Act that enabled western provinces to run their own relief camps for the homeless.

The Saskatchewan government used the federal funding to set up camps on the edge of cities, in provincial parks, and in Prince Albert National Park.

But in Saskatoon, the province took over an existing relief camp that the city had operated on a “temporary” basis for almost two years at the city’s exhibition grounds.

The Saskatoon camp was a troubled one.

The superintendent was a former army officer whose authoritarian manner became a source of alienation and friction. The men wanted a voice in camp affairs, but complaints about the food and living conditions elicited the stern response that they should be satisfied that they were not out on the street.

The growing population only increased the tension. On Feb. 2z1, 1933, there were 391 men in the camp. That number climbed as the depression tightened its grip on the province — to 630 on April 7 and then 870 on May 5.

The Saskatchewan government sought to defuse the volatile situation by transferring men to other camps — starting with so-called troublemakers. A batch of 50 was to be taken to Regina by train on May 8, 1933.

They were not expected to go willingly. A police spy on the inside warned that any attempt to remove men would be met with stiff resistance.

Government authorities went ahead with the operation, ready to use force if necessary. When the group to be relocated took refuge in the dining hall, surrounded by their supporters, two mounted RCMP troops galloped into the camp to disperse the angry crowd and help the city police remove the men.

In the ensuing melee, Inspector L.J. Sampson, who commanded the mounted police force, fell from his saddle, with his feet caught in the stirrups, and struck his head on a telephone pole while being dragged helplessly by his horse.

“That poor young man died right in front of our eyes,” recalled Bill Hunter, the future Saskatchewan sports promoter, who watched the riot with some childhood friends.

Reeling from Sampson’s tragic death, the RCMP attributed the trouble to outside agitators who threatened the safety of the country in provoking the unemployed.

Premier J.T.M. Anderson agreed.

Two days after the relief camp riot, he publicly declared Saskatoon the headquarters of Communism in Saskatchewan and personally pledged, “As long as I live in public life I shall do all in my power to drive those disciples of the Red Flag out of Saskatoon and out of the province.”

A.C. Williams, who identified himself as inmate #395, offered another perspective. In an April 1933 letter to the chairman of the Saskatchewan relief commission, he argued that blaming “a bunch of hooligans” conveniently glossed over camp conditions.

“We … are here through no fault of our own,” Williams proudly insisted, “we (should) be treated and fed as men and not as animals.”

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:RCMP mounted troop on riot duty in Saskatoon, May 8, 1933. 
Photo Source: GLENBOW ARCHIVES NA-2796-31

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.

Treaty Six promises were quickly broken

“Our great brother here.”

Those words were used by Chief James Smith in addressing Canada’s governor general at a meeting at Fort Carlton in August 1881.

He wasn’t being disrespectful. His words reflected his understanding of the treaty relationship between the Crown and the Cree people.

Five years earlier at Carlton, during the Treaty Six negotiations, both the Crown’s representative, Indian Commissioner Alexander Morris, and Cree chiefs Mistawasis and Ahtahkakoop talked about the agreement as the beginning of a new, long-term relationship rooted in the concepts of family and kin.

The Cree were prepared to accept the Queen’s hand and shared the land with white newcomers on the understanding that they would get government assistance making the transition to agriculture. They fully expected and looked forward to a beneficial and meaningful relationship with the Crown.

But Cree bands found that the surveying of reserves was often delayed and that promised agricultural equipment and supplies were not immediately forthcoming and generally insufficient.

They also suffered crop failures and had to survive on limited rations because of the disappearance of the bison from the northern plains. These relief provisions were available only to Indians on reserves — and only to those who first performed manual labour.

One of the first opportunities for the Cree to voice their frustration with Canada’s failure to fulfil its treaty obligations came in August 1881 when the governor general, the Marquess of Lorne, toured western Canada with a North-West Mounted Police escort and representatives of Canadian and British newspapers. Despite the busy schedule, time was set aside to meet with Indigenous leaders at several places, including forts Carlton and Battleford.

Lorne, the youngest person to serve as Canadian governor general, had a special connection to the British Crown. He was married to Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters — something that was keenly appreciated by the Cree.

That’s why the chiefs addressed him as brother or brother-in-law at their meetings. They not only believed that they had a kin relationship with Lorne as the Queen’s son-in-law, but that they were speaking directly to the Queen Mother through Lorne. When they shook hands with Lorne, they were effectively shaking hands with Victoria.

The governor general, on the other hand, seems to have been cautioned about Cree dissatisfaction. He advised the leaders at Carlton, “I have come from the Queen to inquire about you but not to change the treaty.”

But Lorne was prepared to listen to their needs and grievances. At one point, he said he wanted “to see how by keeping treaties I can help them (the Cree) to live.”

Cree leaders spoke with candour.

Acknowledging that farming was the only way that the Cree could make a living now that the bison were gone, Mistawasis complained about the lack of implements and animals.

“At the time of the Treaties,” he reminded the governor general, “it was mentioned that while the sun rose and set and the water ran the faith in the treaties was to be kept.”

Ahtahkakoop made a similar request. He lamented his band’s losses during harvest and asked for “a thresher and reaper and the power to work them.”

In fact, the need for farm implements was repeatedly mentioned by the chiefs when it came their turn to address the governor general.

During the councils at Carlton and Battleford, it was painfully evident that the Cree wanted to succeed at agriculture but were handcuffed by the limited assistance that the Canadian government provided. Nor could they understand why only white farmers should be using equipment to bring the land into production.

The chiefs also looked to the governor general to do something about their situation. “We lean on your generosity,” Petequakey implored. “We are all your children.”

A handwritten transcript of Lorne’s meetings with Indigenous leaders was given to the John A. Macdonald Conservative government that fall.  Senior Indian Affairs officials reviewed the document, paying particular attention to how the governor general had responded to Cree demands.

It did not matter in the end. The Canadian economy slid into a recession in the early 1880s and the department of Indian Affairs drastically cut expenditures.

Lorne resigned the governor generalship early to try to revive his political career in Great Britain. His 1883 departure ironically coincided with the beginning of a Cree diplomatic initiative to get the Crown to deliver what had been solemnly promised in the treaties.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The Buffalo Dance was performed for Governor General Lorne at Fort Qu’Appelle in August 1881. 
Photo Source:THE SCOTSMAN, 16 SEPTEMBER 1881

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.

Who remembers Humphrey and the Dumptrucks?

Michael “Bear” Millar fondly remembers hammering in tent pegs at the 1967 Blackstrap Folk Festival. It was Humphrey and the Dumptrucks’ first official gig.
They had no contract, and were not even sure if they were going to paid, let alone how much. But Saskatoon was their big break — once they put up a large tent on the Pion-era exhibition grounds.

There was Gary Walsh on the banjo and dobro. Their friend and mentor, Sid Wilsdon, jokingly gave him the nickname “Humphrey Dumptruck” one day. The other band members immediately seized on it and kidded Gary all the way home. The name stuck. But it would be 40 years before Gary’s mother allowed the boys to call her Mrs. Dumptruck.

Humphrey was unbelievably shy on stage, always hiding under his straw cowboy hat. But he was one of the best banjo players in Canada.

Then, there was Michael Millar, a bear of a man to this day — hence his nickname. Bear played piano from an early age, but coveted bagpipes.  He got them on the understanding that he kept up his piano. Given his size, Bear was a natural for the bass but also played jug and guitar.

The other Michael (Taylor) was known as “Earnie.” It was his job on stage to introduce the band members. One night, he described himself as “earnest.”  In a review the next day, it had been shortened to Earnie.

Earnie grew up singing around the piano with family members. At 16, he got a Sears model guitar and would practise all the time with Bob Dylan and Donovan records. He also mastered the autoharp.

The fourth member was Graeme Card, simply known as “G.” He played guitar and mandolin. He left the band in 1973 for a solo career, and the other members simply moved on without looking back.

At the start of the Blackstrap Folk Festival, Humphrey and the Dumptrucks formed a jug band and rode a float in the Pion-era parade. They played “Salty Dog” over and over again to the delight of the crowd.

They also played for hours every day inside the tent that week. “It was a hell of a lot of fun,” Bear Millar recalls.

That’s when they decided to try to make a living at it. But they had to tell their parents — one of the hardest things they ever had to do.

Both Bear and Earnie waited a month to break the news that they were quitting school. At first, there was anger and disbelief, but soon their parents were coming to their concerts.

What made Humphrey and the Dumptrucks special was their sound. At a time when most new bands were playing rock n’ roll, they had no interest in that kind of music — or using drums.

They were influenced by folk and bluegrass, but didn’t really fall into any particular genre. And they liked it that way. Today, Earnie describes them as “a string band,” while Bear suggests that “the music we played was something people never heard before.” Maybe it was because they were not afraid to feature the kazoo or washboard in some of their songs.

They also worked at their instrumentation. During their practice sessions at the Merry Mansion, they were constantly tinkering with their arrangements. They took pride in not needing a sound system.

Humphrey and the Dumptrucks did not sign their first record contract until 1970. Until then, they used a gestetner to crank out a monthly promotional newsletter that was mailed, posted or handed out.

They often played at Saskatoon high schools over the lunch hour and would split the 25-cent admission fee with the student council. They also performed regularly at Jack’s and Yip’s and helped open Saskatoon venues to live music at night.

The band soon became a favourite of the CBC, which constantly featured the group in its radio and television programming through the 1970s.  They also appeared at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

But they were first and foremost road warriors, travelling across the better part of the country in their van to performances. Bear reckons they travelled 65,000 miles in three consecutive years — and often ended up sharing the same hotel room or sleeping on the floor in a welcoming home.

Looking back 50 years, Earnie and Bear have no regrets. Sure, they wished they had made more money. But they still delight in the memories and the music.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Michael “Bear” Millar (left to right), Gary “Humphrey Dumptruck” Walsh, and Michael “Earnie” Taylor outside the Merry Mansion
Photo Source: 

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.

Access to water was major concern for new Regina capital

It didn’t make any sense.

One critic called the site “one of the worst spots in the territories.” Another decried the choice as “lunacy.”

Still another could not resist poking fun at town life on the flat, windblown prairie: “It would be almost absurd to go out for a ride as it is never possible to get out of sight of one’s front door.”

What they were talking about was the 1882 selection of Regina as the capital of the North-West Territories.

Finding a new territorial capital became necessary when the Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate decided to build across the southern prairies and not go through the North Saskatchewan country.

The rerouting of the national railroad meant that Battleford’s days as the seat of government were numbered. But where would the new capital be located along the main line?

Choosing a site fell to Edgar Dewdney, the lieutenant-governor for the territories, and William Van Horne, CPR general manager.

Somewhere in the scenic Qu’Appelle Valley would have provided a stunning setting for the new capital. But Dewdney and Van Horne were opposed to running the railway through the valley because of apparent engineering difficulties.

Instead, they selected a parcel of CPR land (part of the federal grant for building the railway) where the main line crossed Pile of Bones (Wascana) Creek.

Dewdney reserved the site in late June 1882. Less than two months later, when the first CPR train arrived on Aug. 23, Pile of Bones was officially re-christened Regina in honour of the queen.

Those with any familiarity with the region were dumbfounded by the capital’s placement by an “exaggerated ditch” on the “uninviting” prairie.

But then it was learned Lieutenant-governor Dewdney belonged to a group of land speculators that had been buying up HBC lands along the main line. They just happened to own 640 acres immediately next to the original Regina townsite.

Not wanting to benefit Dewdney’s group, the CPR placed the train station almost two miles away to the east.

Not to be outdone, Dewdney convinced the federal government to locate the new territorial government offices, including the lieutenant-governor’s official residence, closer to his section of land.

He also used his influence to get North-West Mounted Police headquarters transferred to Regina. The new barracks were erected along the west side of Wascana Creek, well away from the CPR station.

This jostling between Dewdney and the CPR initially led to two rival communities, and the longest board sidewalk in the territories between them.

And even though businesses soon gravitated to the Regina train station area and the town evolved from there, the CPR decided to locate the divisional point down the track at Moose Jaw.

Dewdney justified his selection of Regina by claiming that it lay at the heart of a great agricultural area. That was anything but certain at the time.

The more urgent matter for the railway, businesses, and settlers was the availability of water.

In a September 1882 interview with the Winnipeg Times, Dewdney crowed, “There is no better water in the country than at Regina.”

But in a confidential letter that same month, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald bluntly told Dewdney to get a civil engineer “at once” to determine the best means of providing water to the community. He even raised the possibility of an aqueduct system.

The problem was that Wascana Creek was an unreliable source. It froze to the bottom in winter and went dry in summer.

Not even a dam on the creek could provide a dependable water supply for CPR locomotives and the company had to ship water to the capital in flat cars.

Watermen, in the meantime, were kept busy hauling water in barrels to the community.

The CPR unsuccessfully drilled for water through the winter of 1882-83. These were “anxious” times, according to N.F. Davin, editor of the Regina Leader, prompting more questioning about the wisdom of the site.

Then, on April 25, 1883, water was struck at 98 feet at the CPR station. It was dumb luck. The well had hit the southeastern limit of the Regina aquifer.

A relieved Davin telegraphed the news to the prime minister.

But even though Regina secured its water supply and became, until recently, the largest urban centre in Saskatchewan, the city remains the only provincial capital not on a major body of water.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The successful drilling of a well in Regina merited a telegram to the prime minister.

Questions or comments?

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.

Criddle mixture used to fight hoppers in 1930s

In July 1936, Winnipeg Free Press reporters James Gray and Bob Scott were driving through southeastern Saskatchewan when they were forced to the side of the road by a grasshopper blizzard. By the time the swarm had moved on, the car was a “ghastly mess.”

Gray’s attempt to scrape the insect carcasses from the windshield with his razor produced a “gooey smear.”  Fortunately, a passing farmer had a wide putty knife that removed the “grasshopper grease” from the windows, and the pair pushed on.

But the smell of the “sticky green coating” on the car, made worse by the heat, was so nauseating that they had to stop in Weyburn to have the vehicle cleaned with coal oil.

The experience of the two reporters was commonplace in Saskatchewan in the 1930s. Everyone had hopper stories — how their numbers darkened the sky, how they ate the clothes on lines, even how the guts from their squished bodies stopped trains.

Some stories were exaggerated. But it was impossible to exaggerate the number of grasshoppers that invaded the province during the Great Depression.

In 1931, it was estimated that 10 million acres were infested with grasshoppers. Nor was the scourge limited to the countryside. On Aug. 11, 1938, a massive cloud of grasshoppers brought life in Regina almost to a standstill.

Saskatchewan farmers fought back with “Criddle Mixture” — a poison bait named for Norman Criddle, an artist and entomologist who lived at Aweme, Manitoba, southeast of Brandon. (The family story is told in the book Criddle-de-diddle-ensis.)

In 1898, Norman and his half-brother tried to deal with a grasshopper outbreak with a homemade sheet iron pan, filled with burning wood, that was drawn by two horses. As the sled-like apparatus passed over the field, grasshoppers would jump to a fiery death in the burner.

The “hopper dozer” worked wonderfully, but the entomologist was not done searching for the best way to exterminate grasshoppers.

One morning, Norman noticed that grasshoppers were attracted to fresh horse manure. This observation led to the development and testing of a new poison bait — a mixture of manure, salt, and Paris Green (an emerald-green arsenic-based compound).

The Criddle Mixture, as it became commonly known, was modified over the years through further experimentation and the need to use cheaper or more accessible ingredients. Bran and sawdust were often substituted for manure, while dry white arsenic and then liquid sodium arsenic served as the poison component. Whatever the recipe, the bait mixture proved highly effective, so much so that it was used for more than three decades before being replaced by other pesticides such as DDT.

Criddle Mixture was employed to combat grasshopper infestations in 1902 and then again in 1919. But its most extensive use was during the Great Depression. In fact, the province set up a Saskatchewan Grasshopper Control Committee that met regularly in Regina to assess the extent and severity of each season’s outbreak and coordinate the control campaign.

Mixing stations were set up in the worst-hit areas in the province, and farmers would pick up their poison bait there. The volume was truly staggering. In 1934, more than 1,000 boxcars of sawdust, 10,555 tons of bran, and 116,203 gallons of liquid sodium arsenic were applied to Saskatchewan fields in the form of Criddle Mixture.

The best way to apply the mixture was by hand. A wagon would go along the edge of the field and the bait would be ladled out from a barrel. Or someone would walk with a bucket of the mixture and use a paddle or spoon to spread it with a flinging motion.

Even though protective clothing was apparently never used in the preparation or distribution of the Criddle Mixture, there were no known human deaths — just some close calls. But those exposed to arsenic, especially in powder form, may have experienced neurological problems.
Cattle were lost. So too, ironically, were birds and other grasshopper predators.

There is also the larger question of why farmers, with the active support of the Saskatchewan government, would knowingly put poison on the land.

But in going to war against the grasshopper, farmers were doing something to save their livelihoods — or what was left of them — when all else seemed to be working against them. The Criddle Mixture offered hope at a time when hope was in short supply.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo:Saskatchewan cities did not escape the grasshopper scourge in the 1930s. In this photo from Aug. 11, 1938, a worker brushes hoppers from the walls of the Legislative Building in Regina.

Questions or comments?

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.