I’ve just returned from watching Dr. Bill Waiser address a crowd of high school students. He was visiting Biggar to give a talk on his book, Who Killed Jackie Bates?
The Bates story is a tragic one. The poster family of the Depression, Ted and Rose Bates were rejected by relief officers in Vancouver. They returned to Saskatchewan but instead of heading back to their home town of Glidden, SK, they developed an alternative, desperate plan. Driving their car west of Saskatoon, they stopped at a lonely schoolyard just north and east of Biggar, crawled into the back seat with their 8 year old son, Jackie, and attempted a triple murder/suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Ted and Rose survived, but Jackie died, murdered by his parents.
The students were riveted by the story, both for its own sake — Bill chose to read the passage from the murder scene, which was gruesome, bloody, and chilling — and for its setting. The message was simple: history is not just something that happens somewhere else. History happens here. Sometimes, history happens just down the road, perhaps on your own land, and in your own town.
The second message, Bill pointed out, was that historical stories aren’t written in stone. It is a historian’s job to ask new questions, find new sources, and come at history with a new perspective, from a fresh angle. The Bates story has always been told as if the Depression was to blame, that these people were driven to extreme measures by circumstances beyond their control. When he dug around, he found the story of a disastrous marriage and extreme underlying circumstances that led to a terrible, fateful decision in a lonely schoolyard on a cold December night in 1933.
And a little boy died because of it.
Congratulations to Bill for a stupendous presentation, to the school for organizing it, and to the students, who clearly enjoyed it.