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One of the most fascinating archival finds of my PhD research was a wonderful letter (in four parts) written in Cree syllabic. I came across it while researching the Adhesion to Treaty Six, which was signed by the people of the Montreal Lake and Lac La Ronge regions of Saskatchewan on a brutally cold February day in 1889.

Such files are usually read by Canadian researchers on microfilm, under the short name of ‘RG 10.’ RG stands for Record Group, and RG 10 files are primarily from Indian Affairs. These are critical files for researchers, from a time when correspondence was letters (not email or social media). While the files are mostly written by, for, and back and forth between those employed by Indian Affairs, there is the occasional fascinating jewel of a letter written by a local person. Even more rarely, there is a wonderful letter written, in Cree syllabic, by local First Nations leaders.

I took scans of these letters immediately, although I can read neither syllabic nor Cree. They languished in my digital files while I worked my way through other research, which eventually became my book, Forest Prairie EdgeThe following is an excerpt that explains the Treaty Six Adhesion:

“After years of agitation and repeated requests from the boreal bands in the north Prince Albert region, the Crown finally agreed to offer treaty. The difference between an internal adhesion and an external adhesion was crucial: an internal adhesion added people to existing treaty stipulations; an external adhesion added both new people and new lands to an existing treaty. In the latter, treaty terms were at least somewhat negotiable.

“The external adhesion attempted to sort out a dual problem. On the one hand, there were bands with homes in the north Prince Albert region, within the boundaries of Treaty 6, that had not been offered treaty. Securing an external adhesion, which acted essentially as a new treaty, clarified the uncertainty of who was, and who was not, in treaty relationship with the Crown. Although there is nothing in the official records to act as confirmation, an external adhesion could negate continuing calls for arrears in treaty annuity payments.” 

“The second problem came from the commercial interests of investors in Prince Albert. Surveyors, scouting and marking out timber berths, realized that the boundaries of Treaty 6 did not entirely cover the potential area of forest resources that the Prince Albert community believed was within their economic sphere. In short, the land ceded by Treaty 6 did not correspond to the boundaries of the Saskatchewan District of the North-West Territories[i] or Prince Albert’s intended commercial empire of northern boreal resources. Officials at Indian Affairs explained: “The object in getting the surrender just now is in order that the Govt might legally dispose of the lumber in that Section permits to cut which have in some cases already been issued.”[ii] It was a somewhat frantic and belated effort to legally rectify a serious error—the government was issuing timber permits on land that had possibly not yet been ceded by treaty.”

During the treaty negotiations, the Cree leaders from Montreal Lake had a somewhat different view than their Lac La Ronge counterparts in what should be included in the articles and terms of the treaty, and what should be included in the initial and subsequent treaty payments. The syllabic letters that I found were sent to Ottawa after the treaty negotiations were complete and the treaty signed, but before the first payment came in the fall of 1889. The letters came from the Montreal Lake leadership, outlining in further detail their thoughts on the treaty, and what would be most useful to them as part of their treaty payment. They had clearly had some time to think, and wanted to send a message on their expectations and needs. However, it is not known if anyone working for Indian Affairs at the time was able to translate these requests.

The letters are a mix of Cree syllabic and English handwriting, and are written by three different people: Chief William Charles, councilor Benjamin Bird (who wrote 2 of the four pages), and councilor Isaac Bird. In 2016, I met Dion Tootoosis at an event in support of Prince Albert National Park. I told him about the texts, and he Angela Custer at the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre took the project in hand. With the help and advice of Arok Wolvengrey and Solomon Ratt, the Centre was able to translate the syllabic into today’s written Cree, and for my benefit, to English.

Cree Syllabic one_001

Page one, from Chief William Charles, who also requested (in English) matches, and a copy of the treaty document.

Cree Syllabic One (from Chief William Charles)

Line:

  1. nimithwîthihtîn, ninanâskomâw kihci-okimâskwîw
    I am happy, I give thanks to the Queen
  2. mîna otatoskîthâkana ôta ê-nakaskamâhk
    and also her workers, here where we meet
  3. mâka nipakosîthimonân kita-kitimâkihtahk nipîkiskwîninân
    but I hope she listens with compassion for our talk
  4. ôma kâ-wî-isi-kâkîsimototawâyahkik nîci-tipahamâtwânânak
    this where we are going to pray for our fellow treaty people
  5. nistam kâ-tipahamâtohk pîhonânihk sônîyâwak nîstanân
    the first treaty payment here at (Ft. Carlton or F. La Corne) for us
  6. kâ-ati-otayâniyâhk êkosi nitisi-kâkîsimonân
    to have clothing, this is what we pray for

It seems clear that the translation of Fort Carlton or Fort La Corne is a bit incorrect, as this document references the treaty terms signed at Molanosa. The expected fall treaty payment for the Montreal Lake band would take place at the south end of the lake, in what would become their home reserve. But otherwise, the Chief greets the Queen and asks for compassion for his people.

cree syllabic two_001

Page two, from Benjamin Bird.

The second page is from Benjamin Bird, who was an outspoken councilor both at the negotiations and as shown by his two syllabic pages.

Cree Syllabic Two (Benjamin Bird)

Line:

  1. hâw êkwa nîsta nititwân ninanâskomânân

    me too I say we give thanks to

  2. kihci-okimâskwîw êkwa ê-wâpahtamâhk okitimâkîyihcikêwin

    the Queen and we see her compassion

  3. okiskinwahamâkîw (syllabic too faded to read) isinamâkîw??

    teacher __________the one who hands out

  4. sôniyâwa kitakî-wî-mîthikoyâhk

    money, to give us back (Give us back the money)

  5. mostoswak ê-ohci-pî-mîkicik mistikonâpêw

    cattle, we were supposed to be given, by James Smtih

  6. amêwistoyân mâka itwêw ka-ohci-pamihikawîyâhk

    the bearded one said, this is where we will be well taken care of

  7. êkotê kihci-ohci-pamihihcik, tâskipocikan

    from there we were supposed to be taken care of; rip saw

  8. cîkahikana, pakwâyinîkana

    axes, canvas

  9. mônahihcikêkâkana athapiy-asapâp

    hoes, twines for nets

  10. pîminahkwâna, pâskisikana, akahamâtowin.

    ropes, gun, ration

  11. ninohtêpathihikonân kâ-pî-pipohk mîna tânithikohk

    we are short this winter and how much

  12. kâ-pî-asamikawîyâhk

    we were given to be fed

cree syllabic three_001

Page three, from Isaac Bird. Note: in English, Isaac added: requested also for cooking stoves and trowels

Cree Syllabic Three (Isaac Bird)

Line:

  1. nimithwîthihtînân kâ-isi-pihtamâhk
    we are happy that we hear
  2. î-kî-kitimâkîthimikoyâhk kihci-okimâskwîw
    that the Queen shows us compassion
  3. ______ ikosi nîsta î-isi-tipâhtamân
    this is what I hear also
  4. anihi nitâsotamâkowininâna
    those things we were promised
  5. mîna kitakî-wî-tipahamâkawiyâhk
    we were supposed to be paid out
  6. sôniyâwak
    money
  7. ikwa mîna kotaka nipakosîthimonân
    and also we are hoping
  8. î-wî-natotamâhk
    to ask for other things
cree syllabic four_001

Page four, from Benjamin Bird.

Cree Syllabic Four

Line:

  • âhaw êkwa nîstanân niwî-nanâskomânân

yes, and we give thanks

  • kihci-okimâskwîw mîna otatoskîthâkana êkwa

to the Queen and workers and

  • kâ-sâsakwîthimot ayi-misiwî-askîhk ê-pê-tamâkoyâhk

Where her roles all over the land, she brings us

  • otinamâtowina ninanâskomânân mîna

her care (responsibility), we give thanks and

  • nimithwîthihtînân ê-pî-tipahamâkoyâhk

we are happy she came to pay us

  • nitaskînâhk êyak-ohci okitimâkîthimowinihk

our land, we are calling on her

  • kâ-wî-natomâyâhk mistiko-nâpêw ninatotamânân

compassion for us. James Smith we ask

  • okanawînamâkîw kistêkiwiyiniw, tâskipocikan,

the Indian Agent for: rip saw,

  • kâ-wâskâwîpiniht, kinipocikanisina,

wheels (Wagon), files for saw,

  • kîskimana, napaki-cîkahikana, athahikîhikana,

files, flat axes, rakes,

  • nanâtohk kiscikânisa, maskihkiya,

seeds, medicine,

  • ayawinisa, pîkopicikânisa, ê-kâsisiki

clothing, ploughs, sharp (nails)

  • sakahikana, wâpamoni-pîskowâsînamâna

nails, window panes

I was absolutely delighted to receive these wonderful translations. They speak to me in a clear voice, across the years, of local leadership working hard to put their people to the best advantage in the negotiations of the treaty. The requests show a wonderful mix of boreal forest tools, such as rip saws for forestry and net twine for fishing, with local agricultural needs such as rakes, hoes and seeds. Window panes and nails for building strong homes fitted well with calls for medicine and clothes. Isaac Bird spoke loudest about money payments, which should have (but did not) include back payment for all the years between the original signing of Treaty Six in 1876, and the new signing in 1889.

With the help and support of the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre, these detailed syllabics and their modern translations can now be shared with you.

[i] Ray, Miller, and Tough, Bounty and Benevolence, 144.

[ii] LAC, RG 10 Vol. 3601, File 1754, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Edgar Dewdney to Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed, 6 December 1888.

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Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.

(more…)

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Nordegg region.fire.1919 Fire at Nordegg, Alberta, May 1919

IMG_0592

Fire at Weyakwin Lake, Saskatchewan, June 2015

Back in May of 2015, with forest fires crackling and snapping from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, Canadian news headlines for this year’s May fire season forecast disaster: “alarming”, “out of control”, and “highest number of forest fires in a decade.” Pointing fingers at human causes, banning fires and issuing evacuation orders, communities from coast to coast were on high alert.

Then came June. And in Saskatchewan, the north has blown up. Wildfires are raging nearly everywhere, threatening communities and sending people and animals running. Ash rains down, smoke is blanketing the province and trailing as far south as Kansas, and across the agricultural south, drought stalks farms, withering crops.

There’s something eerily familiar about all of this.

During the winter of 1918-1919, with the Spanish Influenza epidemic touching fingers of death into every community in Canada, few except lumbermen and farmers noticed the low snowfall. April grew warm, then hot. Logs, with little to no spring runoff, were jammed. By May, the forest was tinder dry and drought stalked the plains.

Textbooks recall the social firestorm in Winnipeg, as thousands walked off the job in the massive Winnipeg General Strike. But across northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, a different kind of firestorm lay in wait. It began with pockets of local trouble: a wildfire here, a wildfire there. Most were beat back, put out.

But on May 19th, 96 years ago, a conflagration burst across the northern parts of western Canada. Fueled by incredible high winds that blew widdershins – first one direction, then another, unpredictable and at gale force – the tinder-dry boreal forest blew up.

At Lac la Biche in Alberta, the town was surrounded, with almost no warning. Dark as night, with embers raining down, multiple buildings caught fire, and the railroad corridor was burning. With no possible evacuation, residents headed for the only place of safety: the lake. Swimming out, dunking under frequently to keep wet, residents watched a fire of such intensity that the very reeds on the lakeshore above the waterline burned. When it was over, 300 people were homeless. Few buildings remained. lac la biche fire.our roots history book

East from Lac la Biche, in not just one fire but a complex of fires burning on the same day, other towns faced a dire situation. Bonnyville. Green Lake. Big River. Smaller villages, such as Goodridge and Debden, and Montreal Lake looked disaster and ruin in the eye. 

In Big River, a major hub of the western Canadian lumber industry, piles of cut wood worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were in the path of the flames. In an instant, 1000 lumber workers became fire fighters, and the flames were stopped 200 yards from the complex. Nearby, hundreds of Aboriginal men, settlers, forest rangers and all able-bodied help formed crews to beat back fires wherever and however they could.

A boreal forest fire is deadly, a conflagration along the ground. Crowning, climbing up the trees to burn the tops like matches, a crowned forest fire is even more deadly. When whipped by vicious gale force winds, or across a boreal landscape dried to tinder, such a forest fire moves faster than either humans or animals. The Prince Albert newspaper simply said: “Hades is loose.”

There was tragedy, too. At Lac des Iles, east of Cold Lake on the Saskatchewan side, near what is now Meadow Lake Provincial Park, Chief Joseph Big Head and his closely-knit clan had signed an adhesion to Treaty Six in 1913 and by 1919 were settling on their chosen reserve. A large family group was out on the land when the fire rained down. Four people – three women and one child – died immediately, but more than two dozen more were so badly burned that some were not expected to survive. By the time they managed to walk out, 11 had died and all carried scars. It is the tragedy of the Great Fire.

In places, the fires raged for days. At one point, the city of Prince Albert was surrounded by wildfires in every direction. Day turned to night as smoke filled the sky and embers rained down. As far south as Regina and Moose Jaw, smoke from the northern fire complex swirled and flooded. The smell of burning pine was everywhere.

In the end, 2.8 million hectares of forest burned. The Great Fire enters the annals of Canadian history as one of the largest fire complexes ever to burn the boreal forest, and is listed alongside other Canadian tragedies such as the Miramichi fire of 1825, the Saguenay/Lac Saint Jean fires of 1870, Black Tuesday in the Porcupine region of Ontario in 1911, Matheson in 1916 and Haileybury fires of 1923.

There is no telling what the end result will be this year, as fire roars through northern Saskatchewan. Water bombers and sophisticated communication add to our modern ammunition against the flames, but sometimes, it’s still not enough. The residents of Slave Lake, burned to the ground in the 2011 wildfire, keep a close watch when the wind is high and the tinder dry. And as I look out through the smoke and haze, hundreds of miles from the firestorm, I think of everyone working night and day, to protect and preserve what we can.

In Canada, fire is burned into our history. Pray for rain. Fire season is upon us.

photo 4

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I’ve been asked by the digital content editor at Environmental History, Finn Arne Jorgensen, to be one of the commentators for a new online forum. I will be commenting over the next few weeks on the essays, along with several others, and encourage you to do so as well.

The forum is based on three papers by Emily Wakild, Libby Robin, and Donald Worster. Each consider the role and purpose of the Wilderness Act (which is 50 years old this year) and comment more broadly on the state of ‘wilderness’ and the act of setting aside protected spaces. Wakild’s essay focuses on Latin America, Robin on Australia, and Worster on America.

The forum can be found here. There is an introduction by Lisa Brady, and a visual essay on the signing of the Wilderness Act by Sara Dant.

I recommend that you take a few minutes to read through the three forum essays, all from noted environmental historians, and add your thoughts to the comments section.

My opening comment is as follows:

My thanks to the writers of all of these essays — there is much on which to ponder.
Let me first state my prejudices: I believe people are a part of nature, that no area on earth is without the imprint, interpretation, and use of humans, and that there is no way to establish a ‘baseline’ wilderness. I nonetheless support setting aside tracts of land.
But that leads to my problem: setting aside tracts of land for what purposes? What will we, as humans, be allowed to do there? Nothing? Something? Anything? What?
It seems to me that the debates over the Wilderness Act, within the larger context of park-making (which pulls in debates over class, ethnicity, land rights and usage) is essentially about purpose. Is the act of setting aside wilderness areas, as Donald Worster suggests, a higher altruism worthy in its own right, but something to be defined and defended through an international court? (In an earlier essay, ‘The Wilderness of History’ in Wild Earth fall 1997, Worster suggests that we should set aside wilderness land as a tithe, a certain amount of the total land holdings of a nation state, returned to nature.) Both Libby Robin and Emily Wakild see that same nation-state as the key stewards of conservation and best situated to define and manage wilderness.
Whether at the international or national level, whether you believe in wilderness for its own sake or as part of a land-management scheme, my question remains: what is wilderness for? And conversely, what activities are NOT conducive to wilderness areas? As Wakild and Robin note, this answer might very well be quite different in different countries and contexts. Can we then, following Worster, have any kind of international tribunal judging wilderness?
Drawing those lines between what is acceptable use, and what is not, is the slippery slope on which we slide and struggle. And it is where the most intense debate is found.

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The following was originally published (in slightly edited form) for ActiveHistory.ca 23 January 201. We’re a group of historians interested in thinking about history and its current and future applications.

So, I’m writing a book.

What follows, for your January darn-it’s-cold-and-I’m-ready-for-something-kind-of-fun reading pleasure, is a primer (briefing notes) about the book. Given the growing recognition that Mother Nature remains strong and rather angry about human-induced climate change – kudos to everyone who spent Christmas with no power – I’m writing about human migration.

Drawing lessons from families who pulled up stakes and moved during the Great Trek from one biome (prairie south) to another (boreal north) due to drastic climate and economic problems during the Great Depression and Dirty Thirties, this book is based on history but with an eye to practical suggestions for the future. Imagine me having a conversation with my Grandpa and Grandma: what should I do to be prepared? Some of the following five lessons may or may not apply to your situation. It depends if you have a horse. Lessons may be tongue-in-cheek or serious. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

The underlying premise of the book is that climate change is happening and is worsening, and that Canada (in particular, Canada’s middle north and north) has been pinpointed as a place to which climate migrants from around the world may flee.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

Lesson one:

Leave sooner rather than later. Leave at the first sign of things going drastically wrong. Use this opportunity to go directly to a place where you think you might like to be. North Bay, Ontario? The Pas, Manitoba? Prince George, BC? Excellent choices – fresh water, some farmland, some trees, but with access to hospitals and schools. Edge places, with a lot of variety. You will be much more successful if you move sooner and get established, while you still have some capital and some energy. Waiting, hanging on where you are until the last moment, will cause you trouble in the long run. Takeaway: pull out your map of Canada and pinpoint possibilities. Then do your homework.

Lesson two:

Take family with you. And friends. And choose a place where you know a few people already. This is called social capital and you will need it. If things go to ‘hell in a handbasket’, as the old saying goes, you may need to rely on each other, pool resources, work together. This is no time to stand on your own, be stand-offish or independent. Social capital can save you or pull you through when things are tough. This will also help when you get lonesome and homesick for the place that you had to leave. Having your family and friends with you, instead of leaving them behind, will take the edge off your move. Takeaway: start making a plan, involve your friends and family, and make your social capital work for you.

Lesson three:

You will probably have to take lots of small jobs that rotate seasonally rather than one job. Yes, you’re right, you will be poorer. But you shouldn’t starve. Losing the single employment that brings in cash can put you in the poorhouse faster than you can say ‘mortgage payment.’ Having lots of small jobs usually means that you have a lot of skills that are portable and have value. You will need to be flexible if you are forced to move because of climate change. You may not find a job in your area of expertise, or you may find one but it may not be full-time. As the economy shifts beneath our feet, you may need to branch out. If you’re already on this path, good for you: you’re one step ahead. Takeaway: the future economy is perilous. The one-job, one-wage norm is changing. Change first, on your own terms. Be ahead of the curve.

Lesson four:

Physical labour will probably be required. Some of it will be hard, some of it will be icky. Learn to chop wood, use a chainsaw, haul water, build a fire, cook with wood, grow a garden, pick berries, shoot a gun, catch and gut a fish, learn your plants in the real world instead of the supermarket, and in general get closer to the land. Buy workgloves and work boots and work clothes. Expect your work days to last longer than 7.5 hours. Expect to work outside in all weather, in all seasons. Can you fix things yourself? Brush up on that. If storms and floods and fires and other major catastrophes are increasing, you need to be ready. Takeaway: join Scouts, make friends with an active grandparent who cooks, sews, cans, and has a garden, volunteer at a summer camp, take classes in plumbing, electricity, carpentry, and mechanics, and get fit. Be brave.

Lesson five:

Your horse might die of swamp fever. Otherwise known as ‘migration surprise,’ there may be material things (wifi gadgets, electrical gadgets, cars) or animals in your life who will either miss the old landscape so much that they won’t work in the new one (if, by chance, you end up in an off-the-grid cabin in the woods) or they find something in the new one that may kill them. Horses, for example, seem very good at contracting infectious anemia (swamp fever). Transmitted by mosquito bite, and mosquitos are common to nice wet areas, the best line of defense is to learn to make a smudge. Build a fire, then partially smother it with wet straw. Smokes like the dickens. Mosquitos hate it. Word of warning: cars don’t like northern roads, which are notorious when they exist and worse when they don’t. Buy a truck. With a winch. If you can’t afford a truck, and only have a car and a horse, take your chances on the horse. As for your internet fix, that’s harder. See lesson one about choosing your destination. Takeaway: cars vs. horses: horse wins. Cars vs. trucks: take the truck. And address your wifi habit before you go.

Recap: move first, move with friends and family, be flexible, be prepared, and be ready for surprises.

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This article was originally written for The Otter, the blog of the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) and of which I am a member. It was posted Jan 20, 2014.

In January, I attended the annual Crop Production Show in Saskatoon. If you love climbing on tractors and combines, swathers and sprayers, and seeing the new (and increasingly large) agricultural technology, this is the event for you. The organizers also have excellent break-out sessions that cover everything from new crop ideas (camelina, anyone? Anyone? How about quinoa?) to market trends to future ag innovation.

As an active farmer in west-central Saskatchewan, #CPS14 is a must-see. But a couple of points caught my attention – and gave me that feeling of contentment, like a cat being stroked while laying in a warm patch of sun. I was content because I saw the future.

First, the backstory: in October 2013, I participated in a University of Saskatchewan Learning Communities public forum called The Future of Farming. (I wish I could post a link to the forum, which was recorded, but it’s still not on the website. I’ll keep you informed). Along with my co-presenter, Terry Tollefson from the Department of Soil Science, we had a lot of fun, casting our minds forward to consider: what will farming look like in western Canada in the future?

As a historian, trained to research and create stories built on the past, thinking about the future is a fantastic exercise. Even if you’re not inclined to science fiction, dystopic, or otherwise futuristic imaginings, I do recommend it. It’s a bit like math plotting on a graph: if this, and this, and this are the trends, where might the next point on the graph be?

I decided to focus my talk on three points. One, the future of farming is an increase in the farm-to-fork movement. That means a closer connection between consumers and producers, whether that is through farmers’ markets, on-farm visits, organics, or food baskets delivered directly to consumers. Locally-sourced and fresh are buzzwords with impact.

I have personal concerns with this movement (which I support in both principle and practise) but those can be held for another day.

The second point I made during that public forum is, our farm future of western Canada is increasingly twinned with the future of bearded, plain-clad men (and kerchief-covered, dress-wearing women) sporting rather German accents. If you don’t live in western Canada, the answer is: Hutterites. Hutterite colonies (Hutterian brethren) offer socially integrated, religious-based, well-funded and well-resourced entities that are at the forefront of farming. They have an immense manpower base – kids often leave school at 14 to enter adult, full-time productive farm life, with specific roles and training. Hutterite farms are massive mixed farms that straddle both commercial productive agriculture (from grains to pork to dairy) and subsistence-based, farm-raised produce for sale at farmers’ markets or direct to consumers. I get my chickens and eggs from one of five local Hutterite colonies near Biggar, and buy plenty of produce in the summer.

Hutterite men were everywhere at the Crop Production Show. And the agricultural retailers, wholesalers, buyers, and manufacturers gave them full attention. With their increasing land base, connections to both commercial and local-style agriculture, and solid financial backing, the Hutterite farms are major players in our agricultural future and a model and lesson in how to balance the competing demands of commercial agriculture to feed a growing world population (hear Bill Gates get excited about fertilizer and feeding the world) with the need to provide consumers with confidence in our clean, healthy food (see the A & W campaign for better beef).

Clearing the land north of Prince Albert, c. 1920s. Source: Saskatchewan Settlement Experience R-A32676

Clearing the land north of Prince Albert, c. 1920s. Source: Saskatchewan Settlement Experience R-A32676

My third point was, the future of farming has a specific direction: north. I’ve been researching the future of western Canada through the prognoses of climate scientists. Climate change predictions, in a wild case of positive spin, are pointing to Canada as a potentialsuperpower, a net winner andenvy of the world in global warming. As the Globe and Mail publishes in January 2014, the ‘magnetic’ north is Canada’s ‘last frontier’. These predictions offer a sense of historical whiplash, particularly for me. Unlocking frozen northern soil opens up a scenario of northern migration, of farmers, crops, animals, and whole societies moving north – a repeat of the Great Trek migrations I document in the last chapter of Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan (April 2014).

During extensive droughts in western Canada between 1914 and 1938, the prairies dessicated, cracked and bled people in torrents. Thousands of those migrants – an estimated 45,000 in Saskatchewan alone between 1930 and 1938 – moved north. They hacked and grubbed farms out of the bush in the Peace River country of Alberta, across the forest fringe of Saskatchewan, and in the interlake region of Manitoba as the last generation of ‘pioneers’ moving into Grey Owl’s famous ‘last frontier.’ They fled a capitalistic, wheat-mining landscape that could not grow gardens, feed for livestock, or crops. Environmental refugees, they abandoned the desert and turned to subsistence, following the north star toward green, wet, trees, fuel, berries, fish, game, hay, warmth: hope.

Back to the present. While an agricultural show is not a noted bastion for climate change advocates, I saw plenty of evidence of climate considerations, from cold-weather and wet-adapted crops to insurance changes to an increase in back-to-the-land, alternative fuel, organic and clean food, and new transportation businesses. With the real threat of wild weather and electrical mayhem upon us, as Dagomar Degroot noted, climate change is bearing down.

It was fun, as a historian and active farmer, to let my thoughts fly forward instead of backward, projecting toward the future of western Canadian agriculture. What I see is a similar whiplash, a growing movement to reconnect to landscape, rebuild the ties that bind each of us to the earth. My advice? Make those connections in a place that has the basics of life: water, trees for shelter and fuel, and earth to grow a garden. Or at least, connect to a farmer who is already making that move.

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Canada lost a legendary Canadian recording artist, Stompin’ Tom Connors, in 2013. I know all the words to The Hockey Song. Bud the Spud takes me to Prince Edward Island’s potato farms and red mud. Sudbury Saturday Night taught me about bingo, bars, and letting loose with friends. And I know that the Man in the Moon is a Newfie. From Newfoundland, of course.

Actually, at one point in my life, I thought all these songs were written by Elmer Lammadee, a folk singer and local musician in the village where I grew up. Elmer’s stock in trade was singing Stompin’ Tom songs, complete with cowboy hat, boots, and board to stomp on. Every year at the Paddockwood Queen Carnival in March, Elmer would command the stage (a beautifully sectioned-off end of one of the school rooms, complete with rich purple drapes) to guide us through our favourites. When Connors passed, the local media spoke with Elmer about his tribute legacy: http://panow.com/node/310664.

The death of Stompin’ Tom reinvigorated some interesting conversations on the role of music in shaping Canadian identity, the Canadian content laws for radio and television, and the uniqueness of the Canadian story.

As a Canadian historian, and one with a particular interest in place, I use music and lyrics extensively in both my personal writing and in my courses. Students love the perspective brought forward by Canadian musicians, from Stompin Tom to Gordon Lightfoot, James Keelaghan, Great Big Sea and The Tragically Hip. I jig to old Rankin Family tunes and I think the live version of Mull River Shuffle is one of the best get-your-heart-rate-up songs ever performed. The Arrogant Worms gave us The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, which has no historical basis but it’s become the provincial anthem. I play it loud the first day of my classes and the students ‘get’ where I’m coming from immediately.

The list of Canadian music icons and their music about Canada is endless, and growing every day. I sat in delight last year when David Myles came through Biggar, and sang (among other great songs) Inner Ninja. It was the ‘original’ song without the vocal talents of Classified, but I may have loved it even more in the raw.  Although it’s not specifically ‘Canadian’ — no references to hockey, the Maritimes, or Tim Horton’s — the song describes an understated determination that seems, well, Canadian.

I do think that I would be the poorer if there were no Canadian content laws governing the airwaves. There is a recognition, a connection, to songs that speak about Canada that resonates with me. Do they make me more ‘Canadian’? Hard to say — I’m not sure that’s possible. I’m so Canadian I bleed red, of course (except when I bleed green, since I live in the green-and-white zone of Riderville, the land of the Saskatchewan Roughrider football team…). But the music gives voice and song and spirit to my Canadian-ness.

Funny how that can drive through your soul at the oddest of times.

Picture this: It’s August 2013 in Munich, Germany. The main hall of a beergarden, and it’s Saturday night. You’ve just finished four back-breaking days of labour, but the conference is finally ended. You’re sitting around a table with friends and colleagues, under the dim light of the dance hall lanterns. Everyone’s laughing and joking and telling stories about their neighbors. You’re halfway through a bottle of… weisbier… and you’re getting all fired up. For the dance… Ladies and Gentlemen, I give to you, the Bavarian Biergarten Shuffle…

And onto the stage comes a classic Bavarian biergarten band, decked out in lederhosen and dirndls. And when the evening blows open, after the ‘oom pah pah’ polkas that all sound like ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘She’s Too Fat’, the band busts out their best Bavarian Biergarten version of Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69.

That, my friends, is when you feel truly Canadian.

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