Bill Waiser

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Montreal Star Editorial Cartoon

Provincial exodus did not start until late 1930s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, Saskatchewan was “next year country.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

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

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

By: Angus Esperance and Bill Waiser.

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

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

It wasn’t always that way.

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

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

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

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

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

They were now considered a “rebel” band.

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

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

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

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

That’s the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A leader of hundreds

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

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

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

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

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

Big Bear avoided entering treaty for years

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian Affairs officials considered him a troublemaker.

Treaty rights initiative launched

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

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

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

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

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

Imprisoned for treason-felony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He died in 1888. 

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

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

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

This article originally appeared as an Opinion Piece on cbc.ca.

Saskatchewan is no stranger to bad winters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next two winters were just as hard.

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

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

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

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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


Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

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.