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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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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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From the Prince Albert Advocate:

June 29th, 1897 Town and Country

Early last week a dispatch was received in town to prepare for a flood which is stated was surely coming down upon us, saying the water had risen twenty-seven feet at Edmonton in a few hours, and was carrying everything before it. The news did not create much alarm here, however, as the citizens felt it was next to impossible for the Saskatchewan to overflow its banks to the extent of doing any considerable damage. A few days later the water commenced to rise, and was soon a turbulent stream, some nine or ten feet above the usual level, flowing at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour, and carrying enormous quantities of mud and sand in solution, and bearing along on its bosom numbers of logs, besides driftwood and debris. After about three days, however, the water began to subside, and is now about stationary, although quite high yet, and the water is quite thick and milky looking. The water was not within twelve to fifteen feet from the level of the banks, and no other inconvenience was occasioned that the temporary suspension of traffic on the ferry, which was tied up to the shore for a couple of days as a matter of precaution.

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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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Please note: this blog first appeared on ActiveHistory.ca 20 June 2013. See http://activehistory.ca/2013/06/tap-dancing-and-murder-in-a-grade-seven-classroom/

“My tap dancing just isn’t good enough,” she wrote. She: my daughter’s high school English teacher. Tap dancing: teaching (to pubescent, smartmouth, intelligent, tired kids at the end of June in rural Saskatchewan). “I remember a staff meeting conversation from some point where you were willing to come in and talk with students.” What’s the topic, Mrs. J? Reconstructing Past Lives.

Excellent. That is EXACTLY what historians do, right? So I set off to find out if I could tap dance for teenagers. Just for a couple of hours. After all, I tap dance for University students on a regular basis. How hard can it be?

Amid recent media controversy about the conservative federal government looking to choreograph the tap dancing of Canadian history (see here and here), I was curious to find out just what a typical Canadian grade seven student already knew.

We decided to focus on source hunting for the first hour. Here’s the question: if you’re writing a movie, let’s say, set in 1931, what do you already know? Great Depression! And we’re off and running. Where do you look for more information? Google (of course. Duh.). Grandparents. Books. My daughter said ‘archives’ but then had to explain what they were, and what kind of stuff is kept in there.  She sounded bored and resigned, smart and engaged, all at the same time.

Then it was time to get personal. What was going on in our town, Biggar, in 1931? How do you find that out? Was there a newspaper, Mrs. Massie? Yes. Same newspaper we have today, the Biggar Independent. I had borrowed a microfilm copy from the local museum, and brought it in, along with a microfiche reader (which are small, light, and more portable than a microfilm reader, even if you can’t see as much). Is that a television, Mrs. Massie? A really old computer? So I took it apart, and let them look inside. COOL! It’s nothing but a mirror and a light!

Really, I felt like a magician. Ta DAH!! Old newspaper, on the wall of the darkened classroom for all to see. I had scanned and digitized it properly, so we put that on the smartboard. And I’d made paper copies. Triple the technology – but the students liked the micro just as well.

Front page news: MURDER near Biggar. Really, I hadn’t planned that part. I chose 1931 at random. I chose a date as close to my classroom visit as possible – June 11, 1931. Serendipity pulled us along.

Not only was it a murder (manslaughter, actually), but the murderer was none other than Louis Forchetner. He’s not famous. You’ve never heard of him. But I had – because my husband’s grandfather was there when the murder happened, and bought our farm from the murderer. Family lore knew the story, albeit slightly corrupted by the years. At a Farmer’s Unity League meeting (we thought it was a dance), a fight broke out. Forchetner stabbed Reid Hayes, who died in hospital after giving a deathbed statement. The enraged stabber went to jail for five years, in the depth of the Great Depression.

COOL! Murders (think CSI Biggar – you think we can franchise that?) pop kids eyes open. But there were other neat stories and advertisements in the paper. “What are piles, Mrs. Massie? Where’s your dictionary? [three minute wait…] OH GROSS!!!!” Did you know that Ogopogo was dead? And that some scientists added green and purple serum to fertilized eggs and came up with green and purple chickens? Grey Owl had moved to Manitoba, and Queen Mary was in her 60s. There were no speed limits on cars in Saskatchewan, but you had to slow down when passing horses, and pull off to the side of the road for hearses.Glaciers were melting. Attendance was down severely at the year-end fairs and picnics. A sense of despair exuded from the paper, but a Mickey Mouse cartoon was at the theatre.

“Mrs. Massie, why were newspapers so much more interesting back then?”

Well, why do you think? (Imagine the 13 year old collective BORG scrunching their eyebrows in thought). Answer: there was no TV or internet back then. I nodded my head proudly.

Mr. Harper, they’re doing fine.

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Recently, I was invited to attend the annual meeting of the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association annual meeting. It will be held April 13 at the Churchbridge Town Hall in Churchbridge, Saskatchewan, from 11 am to 7 pm. Registration is open, and more information can be found at:

http://www.yfbta.com/activities/symposiums/2013/symposium2013.htm

As you can see from the list of presentations below, it promises to be a fantastic day.

Lorne Scott Transfer control of Community Pastures and the environmental impact; closure of the Indian Head Tree Nursery
Alan Smith Birding by Ear
Merle Massey The Great Trek North: Depression Resettlement to the forest fringe in the 1930’s.
Anna Leighton  (Author / Ethno-botanist) What the Cree taught John Richardson in the 1800’s

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The following is a blog post I wrote for ActiveHistory.ca. It was cross-posted to The Otter, a blog for NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment).  Links to those posts: http://activehistory.ca/2013/01/water-stories/ and http://niche-canada.org/node/10556.

Spring 2011 010

Water wells up and flows across the landscape of my memory as a cataclysmic force, ebbing and flowing through my earliest life story. Those encounters shift the flotsam of my perceptions as an environmental historian, shaping the way I think about water. And, these stories require sharing, as they differ radically from that of colleagues raised in urban environments where drinkable water flows under, around, into, and out of every home.

My family’s first farm house, purchased in the early 1970s, did not have a bathroom. Our toilets were the classic outhouse, and a metal five gallon pail with a toilet seat lid tucked strategically behind the furnace in the basement, next to a holder for the toilet paper. It was Dad’s job to haul the honey pail up the stairs every day and dump it in the bush. There was a base efficiency to that daily routine, though, that belies its yuckiness. Humans use bathrooms. Every day. What innovations –– in fertilizer, in composting, in sanitation –– would we create if each household was responsible for managing their own eliminations?

The bathtub was a huge galvanized steel contraption placed under the stairs in the hallway when it came time to scrub up four kids and two adults. Bucketed full of water, Dad plugged in a special water heater that looked to me like a metal foot. My job was to move this contraption every few minutes to different spots in the tub, to ensure even heating. As the youngest kid, I often had the privilege of first scrub in the warmest and cleanest water. But with all the work that went into hauling and warming the water, you can be sure that it cleaned more than one body. Efficiency, thy name is sharing.

When I was five or six, we moved in a much larger farm house, one with a bathroom. This necessitated massive renovations, including digging a cistern –– a huge holding tank for water, dug under the new verandah. While water could now gush, flush, and rush out of taps, we still had daily water concerns. Cisterns do not fill themselves. Our water came in summer from the Garden River (which conveniently flowed through our farm land), pumped by Dad via a snake of black pipe. Tadpoles and the odd frog came too, but they never survived the bleach bath: gallons of bleach poured into the water to stabilize it and kill some of the germs. In winter, water became an expensive commodity, brought to our farm and pumped into the cistern by a water hauling truck.

Living off a cistern creates an instant water shortage. Each drop translated into either time or money. Wasting water was not an option. Mom invested in a SudSaver washing machine and a laundry tub, saving wash or rinse water to use over again. We continued to share bath water –– Who’s next? Who wants my water? was the holler from the tub. And there is an old saying enshrined on the walls of many a bathroom in rural Canada: “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.’  On a farm, you knew the provenance of every drop, and you knew where it was all going. Grey and black water mixed in the sewer holding tank, which was pumped out regularly to some far corner of the yard.

Cistern water was for baths and flushes, dishes and clothes –– but not for drinking. As in our pre–bathroom days, drinking water did not come out of the tap. There was a pail of fresh soft clean drinking water, with a dipper, in the kitchen for general use: teapots and coffee pots, thirsty kids, boiling potatoes, and making juice. We hauled that water from generous neighbors lucky enough to own ‘good’ wells, or from the nearest village where water was treated.

On our current farm, the worth of water remains, and responsibility rests squarely on us. The well and its pump are monitored and maintained, the sewer lines checked, the reverse osmosis system (which purifies the well water for drinking) flushed and cleaned and kept in working order. There is always a back up of drinking water stashed away. If something goes wrong, it is our job to fix it, or find a way to live with or without it.

My water stories feed my imagination of our collective Canadian future: a cistern in every house; tap water clean enough for flushing and washing, but a separate system for drinking; innovation in black water reuse; and finally, a new universal maxim: running water, and (even more so), drinkable running water in everyone’s home is not a ‘right,’ or even a given. Access to clean water, yes. But modern city standards of drinking water flowing from every tap have skewed our perception of how water ‘should’ be delivered to all Canadians, and of what quality, no matter where they live. It is an unsustainable, and untrue, perception. If water was part of our everyday chores, responsibility, and routine (instead of an unthinking part of our day managed by someone else, delivered to our taps and whisked away when we’re done with it), water would once again be worth its weight. And its value would be true.

 

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