Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

OK. TED talks are one of my favourite things on the internet, and frankly, one of the best ways to spend a little time, learn something new, and think in a different way.

If you’ve never heard of TED, it stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, but the non-profit company has grown and changed enormously since it first came to be in 1984. The company is now known for its TED tagline, Ideas Worth Spreading. It hosts conferences every year, where some of the world-leading thinkers are invited to give a short (20 minutes or less) speech on a topic.

The idea for TEDx came a bit later. A TEDx follows the same format as a TED talk, but a TEDx is sublicensed to share the TED branding, while focused on a local geographical area. The goal is to spark conversation, create connection, and build community, reaching beyond the local to global audiences.

In fall 2023, I was invited to become one of the University of Saskatchewan 2023 TEDx speakers. I had applied for the honour, pitched my idea, and waited alongside nearly 100 others. The email invitation to join came as a bolt of welcome and light. And terror. And a wild dose of imposter syndrome.

What happened next was a journey of discovery, for myself as a writer and author.

The nine speakers (chosen from leading faculty and students, plus me) worked closely with University of Saskatchewan coach Wenona Partridge, who guided us through a fascinating process to develop, shape, and practice our talks.

First: a TED Masterclass. TED has developed a fantastic masterclass designed for TED and TEDx speakers, and when you get a TEDx sublicense, that masterclass is available to the chosen speakers. All online, the modules are easy to follow but incredibly challenging, pushing each TED speaker in new ways. What is your big idea? How can you craft it into a compelling idea that changes how people think? What is your throughline? What techniques will help you connect with the audience? How can you simplify complex ideas? And finally, how will you pull the whole talk together?

As I worked through each module, I found that I had not one, but several possible TED talks that I’d be happy to give. That’s normal, apparently. We always have more ideas to spread, things that we’re passionate about, than we realize.

Crafting a TED talk is an iterative process, which means, you might think you’ve written your talk up and to your eyes and ears it looks excellent. You’ve finalized things, you’re ready. But as you give the talk orally, you find the sticking points. What you’re trying to say isn’t as clear as you thought. Things can and must change, move around, have more explanation, be cut completely. So you go back and forth, changing and honing and pruning and developing.

That’s when I really understood the difference between WRITING my TEDx talk, and GIVING my TEDx talk.

If you’re a shy extrovert, like me, it is entirely out of my comfort zone to practice a public talk with total strangers in the room, KNOWING that their job is to give productive feedback. It’s one thing to write or even give a talk; it’s another to give practice versions of that talk to hear important and valuable, but difficult feedback about where your talk got muddy, problematic, or simply too hard to understand.

And it’s even harder, to be honest, to self-record giving these talks, as they evolved — even though I was in my office, with no one else in the room. But, TED Masterclass assured us, our talks will get better and evolve in important ways if we do them out loud. So, with reluctance, I set up my phone, squared my shoulders, set my timer, and hit record. Again. And again. And again. I would note my stumbling points, the places where it just didn’t flow, where I needed to stop and say something that I’d forgotten to write down. I could feel the talk changing, smoothing out, gaining power.

I wasn’t just hiding in my office. I also took the evolving talk to small groups, including my fellow TEDx speakers, our coach Wenona, and to small classrooms full of strangers. Their comments were also invaluable, and helped me shape it as it went along.

TED was 100% right. There was a huge difference between writing what I thought my talk was about, and how it evolved orally to become a TEDx-worthy talk. I kept the various iterations, permutations, and notes as I went along — keepsakes to remind me of the journey.

What is my talk about? It’s about a word we use all the time: research. In the talk, I argue that we’ve put ‘research’ onto such a high pedestal, we’ve limited our idea of who can conduct research, who can be a researcher. These elite limitations mean that ordinary people — such as students, community-based researchers, Indigenous knowledge holders, and so many more — don’t think of themselves as researchers, or their work as research. And that’s a shame.

So I call for a return of the original meaning of the word ‘research.’ It means, in Old French, ‘Go Seek.’ It’s about the energy and drive and will and fire to seek out new information, seek out new things.

In many ways, it’s the same Go Seek energy that propels all of us to watch TED or TEDx talks — we want to learn, to share.

So please, feel free to Go Seek, and watch mine, below. You can find the other amazing USask TEDx speakers here.

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This is a post about signatures. You know, the one you use to sign legal documents, at the bottom of old-fashioned letters (does anyone write those anymore?), the one authors use to sign their books.

A signature. It becomes one of the key defining items to showcase who you are. Like the Greatest Showman song, a signature states ‘This is Me.’

I have a pretty good memory of the first time I starting thinking about, and practicing, my signature. I grew up on a stump ranch farm north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, halfway or so between Christopher Lake and Paddockwood. We were pupils at Paddockwood School, a K-8 feeder school for the high schools in Prince Albert.

Our principal in my later years at Paddockwood (between about grades 6-8) was Mr. Don Toporowski. He taught Grade 8 but like all teachers, would rove a bit between grades as needed. One of his sons, Kerry, was in my grade.

Now, like all school kids in the 70s and 80s, we learned to print, first, them learned cursive handwriting (‘joined up writing’ I’ve heard it called…😆). We were past the practice stage of handwriting by the time we hit Mr. Toporowski’s class ( Mrs. McCalmon and Mrs. Spoonheim had whipped my class into as good a shape as they could) and were writing our English and History essays and exams in handwriting.

[Aside: I had my first practicing in forensic handwriting interpretation, which is a key skill for a historian, at this time. We often swapped each other’s papers to mark in class. Our two class lefties, left-handers whose writing was a bit more challenging, usually came to me. Looking at you, Kerry and Lee! 😘]

But one afternoon — and I can’t remember if it was winter or spring, but it was most likely a Friday, and we were done for the week and waiting for the buses — Mr. Toporowski decided we should develop and practice our signatures.

And he put his on the board. With good heavy chalk and a swirl of dust, he put his signature up as an example. Signatures, he said, are more than just your name.

We probably looked fairly blank at this point. It said his name, Don Toporowski. We’d all seen it on our report cards, in our school newspaper The Paddockwood Pow-Wow [yeah, I know], and on anything from the town, since Don moonlighted as the town mayor, too.

So to prove his point, he got a classmate up to try to copy his signature underneath. Don Toporowski. Oh. Yeah, there’s a difference.

So we got out notebooks and started practicing, figuring out how we wanted our own signatures to look.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, he said, but it can’t just be a scribble. It has to be recognizable, more or less. And strong. A strong, confident signature is important.

Well, confidence was absolutely not my strong point, when I was in grade school. So that felt weird. And kind of faked. I wasn’t confident. I was tentative and driven to achieve excellence, when possible. Imperfection and confidence? Ha. You can imagine what my first few tries looked like. Trying NOT to strive for perfection was my first challenge.

Then there was the M problem. I have a lot of Ms in my name. All Ms, in fact. Not one, but TWO middle names, b beginning with M, as was my first and (at the time) maiden name.

[Aside 2: yes, I did think I should find a husband whose last name started with M. It would have broken my rhythm otherwise. The passport office thinks I may be the only Canadian with all Ms).

And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but when you only have ONE main letter to use, you need to get creative with it. But how many ways can you change up an M? First arch big, second arch small? First arch small, second arch big? So, I played with different ways to write the letter M. And looked with pure envy at everyone else, happily using MORE THAN ONE main letter. Humph.

By the time I’d covered a couple of pages with practice Ms and my whole name, I had something that I didn’t have before: my own way to write an M, and with that, the beginning of my signature.

‘You should be able to sign your signature with your eyes closed,” Mr. Toporowski said. New challenge. Merle the Obedient: ok then.

Well, less pretty, but I think that was the point. To learn to feel it, not just see it, to let it flow. With eyes closed you snipped off the awkward sharp bits and found rhythm and cadence. And, confidence.

‘Buses are here.’ Time to tuck away pens and notebooks, gather and go, flexing writing hands to ease the cramps. Take a final look at my pages. Oh. A signature. MY signature. I see.

It wasn’t quite finished — my style continued to grow and change — but the lesson that day resonated with me. Your signature is yours. No one else writes the way you do. And you’ll need it often — to get your first bank account, to sign cheques, to sign your taxes, your mortgage. And, in my case, to sign books. It’s me, distilled, so you can see at a glance.

Mr. Toporowski’s lesson was this: your signature is important. It’s important enough to require development, concerted practice, personal intention. And confidence.

So every time I sign my name — whether on a document or at a book signing — there is a little invisible dotted line that leads from me back to Don Toporowski and his signature lesson. Because your signature is who you are. And only you can decide what that should look like.

Thanks, Don. RIP our schoolteacher and principal. And thank you for pushing me to find my signature. https://grays.ca/tribute/details/2563/Donald-Toporowski/obituary.html

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This is a long post. I was invited to give a talk today at the 2022 Spark Your Pride event in Saskatoon at the Western Development Museum. My remarks as written ( I could riff a little here and there in person) are below.

Good afternoon, gentlepersons, and welcome. Thank you to Coral for the introduction, and to Cheryl Loadman for inviting me to speak today. The theme of today’s conference is Sharing our Stories: Queering Our Proud Prairie Past and Cheryl explained to me that the theme is to “create a positive, reaffirming conference which places our stories in a way that thinks about how we are part of the prairie past, and these stories matter.”
That is a wonderful, affirming goal. But I’m here to warn you: I will likely fall short, as the story that I’m here to share with you is complex and difficult, and may have unexpected outcomes. Please take a big, deep breath. Here we go.

I’ve called my talk “Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake” a direct quote from the Usask student newspaper, The Sheaf, when it published on the story I’m about to describe. My talk today is drawn from my Saskatchewan Book Award-winning biography of Sylvia Fedoruk, specifically the chapter I called Hurricane. It’s about the storm that erupted in Saskatchewan when Sylvia Fedoruk came under the radar of Usask student artist Christopher Lefler.

I first had an inkling that there were hidden stories in Sylvia’s life when I met with Stuart Houston, Saskatchewan ornithologist, radiologist and medical historian, and my past co-author on other works. Stuart originally asked me to co-author this biography with him. Drinking tea at his dining table, discussing the book and planning interviews with Sylvia’s friends, Stuart started issuing commands. ‘You are NOT to talk to [a certain woman]. She is crazy. She is unreliable. She is wrong in the head.’ But he wouldn’t elaborate, so I left with more questions than answers, to dive into an archival trove at the University of Saskatchewan. I met a deeply interesting woman in that archive, and stumbled straight into the story I’m here to tell today.

First: Who was Sylvia Fedoruk? Sylvia was born near Yorkton, SK in 1927 of Ukrainian heritage. Only child, Educated in one room schools then a stint in Ontario, Sylvia came to the University of Saskatchewan in 1946 to pursue a degree in physics. She was an excellent student, winning numerous scholastic accolades while excelling as an elite athlete on no fewer than twelve intervarsity teams. She was a graduate student on the cobalt-60 project — yes, the exact machine you’ll find here at the WDM. She joined the Sask Cancer Commission in 1951 as a physicist cross-appointed to the university, a dual position she held for her whole career. While Sylvia was a trailblazing woman in science, she also blazed trails in sports, including being 3rd on the Joyce McKee Saskatchewan rink which won the first Canadian ladies curling championship in 1961. She leveraged her skills into volunteering in science, sport, and community, renowned for effective leadership on numerous boards at the local, provincial, federal, and international level. She was appointed in 1973 as the first woman on the Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada. In 1986 on her retirement, she was elected as the first female Chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan, and in 1988 was appointed as the first female Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan. She was, by every measure, an astonishing, accomplished woman.

But as I researched and built the chapters of her life, I uncovered a massive story that, I soon learned, was why Stuart had been issuing silencing commands. The story was huge, mapped across Sylvia’s diaries and telephone conversations and newspaper clippings and W5 segments and even The Hansard, official government records of the Legislature. It has spawned PhD theses, documentaries, and showed up in law text books. I actually had to stop writing and simply research and process what I was learning, and decide how I would approach it, how I would include it. If I would include it. It was that huge, that explosive. I’ll give you the gist.

Cover, A Radiant Life.

In the fall of 1992, when Sylvia was well-established in her tenure as Lt. Governor and a crowd and media favourite, the University of Saskatchewan accepted a brilliant and gifted student by the name of Christopher Lefler into a Masters program in art, on full scholarship. Christopher’s work studied sexual politics and power dynamics, and in particular, the practices of knowledge keeping and secrets, and who can and cannot share knowledge and secrets, related to the controversial practice of outing, or the process of making the invisible visible. Christopher was an openly gay man, an outsider to Saskatchewan, a swimmer, great cook, but also awash with pain as he helplessly buried so many friends in the height of the AIDS crisis.

Early that winter, he was one of several students who were part of the planning for Usask to commemorate the international Day Without Art on December 1st to recognize the impact of AIDS on the artistic community. When Sylvia Fedoruk was announced as the special guest and speaker, someone at the university told Christopher that Sylvia Fedoruk was thought to be a lesbian. A secret, in the closet lesbian — but in a small city like Saskatoon, this assumption was shared, an open secret, touted as truth. Never married, no children, with a severe and iconic blunt haircut, a penchant for alcohol and a crisp personality, Sylvia certainly looked and sounded the part.

Christopher became incensed. How could Sylvia, if she was indeed a lesbian, tolerate working with openly homophobic government members, or not use her considerable social and media power to push for scientific research into AIDS?

What followed was a series of performance art pieces over the next year and a half. The first, Masquerade, was a silent protest at Day Without Art December 1st 1992. Christopher and a group of friends wore black t-shirts with ‘We are all HIV positive’ and ‘She Kills Us’ on the back. They carried bouquets of death dolls, each with hair cut like Sylvia’s. It was called “Masquerade’ because Sylvia was invited because of it was assumed she was a lesbian, but everyone would pretend it was because she was the LtGov. Sylvia was a no-show at the event but the local media gave extensive coverage.

People sitting in a row at a silent protest, wearing black shirts and holding dolls wrapped in cloth.
An image of the art installation Masquerade from Day Without Art, USask, 1992. Screenshot from Tainted by Maureen Bradley.

Two months later, on Feb 14th1993, Christopher wrote and mailed a letter to Sylvia at Government House. The letter is full of rage and pain, a war cry from a younger homosexual generation to an older generation whose fear of living truthfully cast a cone of deadly silence, contributing to homophobia and oppression. Christopher asserted that Sylvia’s impressive accomplishments were built on hiding her orientation, but that in the ‘discreet whispers’, everyone knew she was a lesbian. And he was angry that she hadn’t used her scientific and media power to advocate for change: for AIDS research or queer issues. Six weeks later, on Government House stationery, the Attorney General’s office crafted a reply which sidestepped the question of sexual orientation.

There the correspondence rested until late November of that year 1993, when Christopher participated in an adjudicated student art show at Usask called Staging Identities I, which investigated the connection between individual identity and artistic practice. The Art installation was simple: chair, desk, wall hanging of Day Without Art, and a binder. Inside the binder, if you opened it, were the two letters — from Christopher to Sylvia, asserting that she was a lesbian, and Sylvia’s reply. Nothing more.

Staging Identites I. Gordon Snelgrove Gallery November 1992. Image provenance unknown, possibly Tainted by Maureen Bradley.

The university acted with astonishing speed. It removed the binder, then the whole installation, then shut the art show down. Over the next few weeks, Christopher was barred from campus, his funding and teaching responsibilities cut, supervisor and committee resigned. The Sheaf editor was forcibly commanded by the university to not run its story on the affair. Local media caught wind and pursued it, but with severe limits: none of them, print TV or radio, published Sylvia’s name in connection to the story, which focused on Christopher and outing and deliberately fanned feelings of disgust, hatred, and repugnance.
On welfare, waiting for his disciplinary hearing, Christopher applied for a Saskatchewan Arts Board grant while launching a Saskatchewan Human Rights Board claim against Usask for violating his freedom of expression.

In May, he created another performance art piece for his hearing, called The Wedding: Closet. In that hearing, Christopher was expelled in a 2-1 decision. But immediately after, he won $9500 from the Saskatchewan Arts Board in an adjudicated competition against 200 applicants, to display the power imbalance held in the correspondence between he and the university, centred around the original two letters and the censorship of the art exhibit. The arts community recognized his exceptional brilliance.

The Wedding: Closet. May 1994, Agriculture Building, USask campus. Image screenshot from Maureen Bradley’s Tainted.

The government erupted, and disbelief rolled across the floor of the Legislature. The government forced the ministry to ask the Sask Arts Board to review the grant. Under intense public pressure — still with no one going on record to publicly link the story to Sylvia citing potential libel or breach of privacy — the Sask Arts Board, for the first and only time in its history, rescinded the grant.

The story was so much more than outing. There were implications in every direction.
It showcased terrifying power imbalance between a student and a university administration. Not once did the university ever remember, let alone defend, Christopher’s right to freedom of expression. The Saskatchewan Human Rights Board did. They found against Usask, that it infringed on Christopher’s freedom of expression when it removed his art installation. The university has never issued an apology.

The story showcased art censorship on a chilling scale and sparked a lot of media coverage about what is art, who gets to decide, what is edgy and what goes too far, if art can be political protest or does that make it no longer art, and how does all of that conversation change when the funding comes from government. It led to a documentary by Maureen Bradley called Tainted, which investigated queer censorship with Christopher’s story as the starting point. The story has led to other art projects since that time, though Christopher has never again won an arts grant. He was not only censored; has been entirely shunned.

The case sparked huge discussions within the Canadian legal community and remains a staple in law classes and textbooks. Where does privacy begin for a public figure? Why was it libellous to say someone is a homosexual if it’s not libellous to say someone is heterosexual? Where was the harm to Sylvia? None of that was ever tried and tested let alone proven in court.

The story showcases media decision making and participation in choosing when and when not, to properly investigate and tell all sides of a story. The Sheaf was actively originally muzzled by the university, and the media at large muzzled Christopher Lefler by refusing to allow him a live interview or a live open disciplinary hearing, as they knew he would connect Sylvia by name. Their edited, cut stories fanned the flames of repugnance for his actions.

The story showcases government power, in two ways. One, the lengths the government was willing to go to to ‘protect’ Sylvia’s ‘reputation’ showcased her power and influence, and the reach of the government on both sides of the house. They worked pretty much in concert on this issue. Two, the story showcased government power even over what should have been an arms-length process for a standalone arts agency. Other Sask arts groups did protest this overreach and many resigned in protest. It was a huge breach of established protocol to rescind Christopher’s adjudicated grant.

And the story showcased how completely the Saskatchewan queer community turned on Christopher. He went from a loved and respected community member to a pariah. Many called him a terrorist, categorically placing outing as an act of violence. Some were terrified of losing what ground they had started to gain within a distinctly homophobic province where in the early 1990s it was only ok to be queer if you never discussed it in public. Labeled an outsider and attention-seeking prankster to Sylvia as the darling insider, rude in contrast to Sylvia’s decorum and decency, terrorist tactics against an innocent older lady (masculine power over feminine helplessness). With so much emotion and the entire province engulfed and enflamed in anger, it was easier for both Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan’s queer community to shun Christopher, cast him out, as if he was the issue and all would be well after his exclusion.

The generational politics Christopher exposed, of an older queer community in hiding and how that pulled back a younger community wanting to be fully themselves and embraced For, not in spite of, sexual orientation, was lost. [Side note: there is clearly a generational divide in those who read my book. Stuart Houston wasn’t the only one who didn’t want me to investigate or publish this story].

But some quietly saw Christopher’s point. A few were public, but generally for legal or political points. The Queer community support was muted and mostly personal, not public, for fear of backlash. One later said, “because you touched the very core of our community’s internalized homophobia, you were silenced.”

A screenshot of Christopher Lefler from the documentary Tainted by Maureen Bradley.

One of the things I regularly see on social media is a movement to embrace and claim Sylvia Fedoruk as a lesbian, as a figure to be celebrated in Saskatchewan’s queer history. People dress up as Sylvia for Pride Day or Halloween. I’m here today as part of a drive to bring her story forth. But I’m uncomfortable with that, for three reasons. One, Sylvia’s archive does not definitively provide an ‘a-ha’ moment to reveal her as a gay woman. She discussed sexual orientation nowhere. There is circumstantial evidence which could be suggestive if understood in a particular way. But nothing substantive. Two, she clearly did not wish to be known or remembered as lesbian, since she did not embrace this obvious opportunity to do so. As her biographer, that carries weight with me. Three, I ask this question: why is it ok to now embrace and celebrate the assumption that Sylvia Fedoruk was a gay woman when Saskatchewan vilified and pilloried Christopher Lefler for doing exactly that? Her death in 2012 did not open this door.

I’ve not seen a similar movement to reclaim or embrace Christopher Lefler. And I really pause to sit with that, and reflect on it. I’m uncomfortable with dismissing or reviling or forgetting or downplaying what Christopher was trying so hard to say, in so many different ways. He was ahead of us, leading us and breaking trail down a hard road to engage with power, call it out, shine a light. None of it was easy, and there was pain. But the majority of that pain rained down on Christopher, not Sylvia — and that’s the opposite of what outing does. It wasn’t that it backfired. There was an earthquake by Saskatchewan residents including the queer community which swallowed Christopher Lefler until he disappeared right out of Saskatchewan history.

I agonized over the Christopher Lefler/Sylvia Fedoruk story. I lost sleep. My cousin told me I’d be fired (I work for the university, in administration). I worried that this chapter would overshadow the rest, and the book was a biography of her whole, very amazing life, not just this one chapter. I told Christopher’s story to my Mom as she lay dying of cancer in 2018. Her response was unequivocal. Christopher is part of Sylvia’s story, just as Sylvia is clearly part of Christopher’s. It is about light and darkness, pain and loss, hiding and being seen, being broken and still being amazing. She knew it had to be there, it had to be included. And I agreed. And included it.

I’ve been gifted with forgiveness by Sylvia’s friends and relatives in the telling of this story and in choosing to include it in my book. I suggest that each of you consider gifting a similar forgiveness for Christopher Lefler. If you claim Sylvia, you must ALSO reclaim Christopher, celebrate him, embrace him, as part of our queer prairie history. He gifted us one hell of a story, and much to think about. Let’s gift him by return with welcome and inclusion in Saskatchewan prairie history.

Thank you.

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Note: this blog post was first written in the fall of 2020 for the site Women for Saskatchewan, as part of a cross-Saskatchewan team of women commenting on that fall’s election and the issues that it raised. That site is not longer online. I’m reposting my blogs from that site on here. This blog is reposted in honour of the school shooting at Ulvade, Texas.

In 2020, the Saskatchewan government hired, on behalf of the province, the next Chief Firearms Officer. It’s not a new position.

Up to this point, our Chief Firearms Officer has been a federally-appointed role (with a federally-flush budget of around a million dollars per year). The office, no matter who pays the salary, is responsible for administering the federal Firearms Act within the province, oversees the jurisdiction around licensing, transporting and carrying of firearms, and licenses provincial instructors for the many firearms safety courses.

Naming a provincial appointee to the position sets the Saskatchewan provincial government squarely against the most recent spate of federal gun restrictions. As we transition from the old federal to new provincial Chief Firearms Officer, it offers a perfect opportunity to write a new mandate letter for this office. 

I have a suggestion for that mandate letter. And it isn’t an easy one to make.

First: a little background. I grew up in a family that hunted, trapped and owned many guns. We graduated from the pellet gun to the .22 to the shotgun to the rifle, took hunters’ safety, and learned how to clean, look after, sight, store, practice, and use guns responsibly. Guns were then, and remain now, a dangerous but useful and necessary tool. We owned and used them with respect. My family took gun ownership seriously.

When gun registration came in, my family thought it was a completely unnecessary liberal intervention. Grumpy and vocal – and only at the very last minute – did they comply. But, they did comply.

With my bona fides established, let’s switch gears. I’m here to remind you that the concept of ‘law-abiding gun ownership’ is valid right up until it no longer applis. There is an aura that law-abiding gun owners don’t do anything bad with their guns.

Yes, they do. They kill themselves. My brother David killed himself with a legally owned, registered, and stored gun. It was a homicide — he killed a human. It’s just, since he killed himself, there was no one left to charge.

Do you know the statistics around guns and suicide? Here’s a cold, hard fact: 80% of gun deaths in Canada are gun suicides. I’ll say that again: 80% of all the deaths in Canada from a gunshot are suicides. They turned that gun on themselves. And killed a human life.

More cold, hard, facts. Men are 13X more likely than women to use a gun in their suicide. The fatality rate for a gun suicide is 83%. In other words, it’s not a ‘cry for help.’ It’s not an ‘attempt.’ It’s not an option that allows for any efforts at intervention, support, therapy or treatment or getting them to a hospital in time. Gun suicide is overwhelmingly lethal. There is no second chance.

There are also proximal factors. Households that are rural or Indigenous, with a culture that uses guns as tools (hunting, trapping, or on farm for varmints or other needed uses) are somewhat more susceptible and have higher rates of gun suicide.

At the household and individual level, there are additional factors. These include poverty, lack of access to good mental health care, loss, or adversity. Combine these with proximity and impulse, and you arrive at horrifying statistics: 80% of gun deaths are suicides, and one quarter of suicides use guns.

What we do know is that a gun suicide is often a choice made in an acute crisis, not a chronic illness. In other words, it’s not necessarily the choice of someone who has been in therapy for years, battling depression and anxiety, an illness that won’t release. It’s the choice of those in acute, sudden distress, those who haven’t had time or know how to reach out for help.

And by the way, I’m not going where you think I’m going. The solution to this is NOT, in fact, more gun restrictions. Research has indicated no direct correlation in Canada between gun restrictions and registrations, with fewer gun suicides. Increased gun restriction or registration is not the answer.

I want to see a formal request in our provincial mandate letter for our new Chief Firearms Officer: open this tough conversation, make it part of the office, make it visible and audible and everywhere and NOT hidden. Add it to the training and recertification, have posters and a campaign, look people in the eye and show them the statistics. Don’t hide. Meet our gun owners where they are: at the gun ranges, in the gun clubs, in the pages of magazines, in blogs, grumpily filling out their registration and transportation papers and in their firearms training sessions.

I challenge — no, I DEMAND — that our Chief Firearms Officer find a way to make gun suicide, a significant part of the reality of gun ownership, visible and visceral and open, no longer hidden in the shadows.

By doing so, we might just save a life. And if we save even one person in Saskatchewan, it’s worth it.

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I’m so honoured and proud to announce that my most recent book, A Radiant Life: The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk Scientist, Sports Icon and Stateswoman (University of Regina Press) was both nominated for, and won, the 2021 Saskatchewan Book Award USask President’s Award for Non-Fiction. My biggest thanks to the Saskatchewan Book Awards and to the three judges in my awards category: Anne Budgell, Annahid Dashtgard, and Ariel Gordon.

The other nominees are luminous, with critically important and/or really fun books:

Genocidal Love: A Life After Residential School (University of Regina Press) by Bevann Fox.
Flat Out Delicious: Your Definitive Guide to Saskatchewan’s Food Artisans (Touchwood Editions), by Jenn
Sharp (photography by Richard Marjan).
Loss of Indigenous Eden: and the Fall of Spirituality (University of Regina Press) by Blair Stonechild.
In Search of Almighty Voice: Resistance and Reconciliation (Fifth House Publishers) by Bill Waiser.

If you’re so inclined, and didn’t get a chance, I recommend that you take the time to watch the two videos created by the Saskatchewan Book Awards for the event. The first is the video for the shortlist, so you can stock up the next time you’re in a bookstore:

Saskatchewan Book Awards: Shortlist 2021

The second is the video with this year’s chosen award winners and gala:

I’m absolutely gratified by the nomination, and then by the win, in part because I had such an unexpected hiccup while writing the biography. I came to the biography by way of friendship with C. Stuart Houston, a Canadian radiologist, medical historian and ornithologist. He had the idea that Sylvia’s biography should be written, and that he thought I should take the lead on that and he would help. Our partnership was not in writing (my job) but in background research, as Stuart spent a bit of time searching out some of Sylvia’s published journal articles, and spoke with several of her colleagues. It soon became clear, though, that we had quite different visions for the book. I was deeply interested in Sylvia’s sports and volunteer history, as well as her medical research after her groundbreaking cobalt-60 work and her role as the first female USask Chancellor and first female Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor. She had a huge life, well-lived, that deserved time and energy. Stuart’s focus tended to the firsts, lists of her many accolades, and would often veer into side biographies of men and women that Sylvia hadn’t necessarily worked with or even met. I pulled him back, and off he’d go again. Even so, those differences were navigable, more or less, until we hit a rather large snag.

That large snag was the story of USask student, Christopher Lefler. Lefler came to Saskatoon to pursue a masters in art, and he was a cutting edge student doing avant garde artistic installations which regularly pushed audiences to places that they hadn’t expected to be. As I went through Sylvia’s files in the archive, then pored through newspaper articles and W5 CTV segments and documentaries and spoke with people, the connection between Lefler and Fedoruk was impossible to ignore, and impossible to leave out of the biography.

In essence, the story is simple: Christopher Lefler created artistic installations that worked to ‘out’ Sylvia Fedoruk as a gay woman, while she was the head of government as the Lt Governor of Saskatchewan. The result was a university, a provincial media, and a provincial government who moved entirely in lock-step to protect her: removing and censoring the art installation, retracting Lefler’s funding and supervisor, eventually expelling him from the university; media refusal to publish her name in connection with the story and censorship of the student newspaper (The Sheaf) when they aimed to publish the story; and the provincial government rescinding a jury-awarded Saskatchewan Arts Board grant to Christopher Lefler, the only time in Saskatchewan history that an awarded grant has been rescinded.

It was a huge, huge story and Stuart did not want the book to include it. A sentence or two, a paragraph at most, he declared. It didn’t deserve more. Stuart and I were at an impasse. I knew something was a bit wrong when he tried, on a regular basis, to steer me away from speaking with certain people, people that I knew had been close with Syl. It’s only in hindsight that I managed to put it all together: Stuart thought that even including this story would give readers the indication that Syl was, indeed, a gay woman. I, on the other hand, didn’t care at all about trying to ‘prove’ one way or the other Sylvia Fedoruk’s private life and sexual identity. I saw the story instead as one of power, of how it moves and can be focused, how it is actioned and how it protects and ostracizes. It also was a story that, in the end, showcased just how much Sylvia Fedoruk meant to the province: its government, university, media and the general public. Stuart said, vehemently, that he did not want to be part of a book that included that story. So we broke the planned co-authorship and I continued writing. It was a sad time, yet I knew I couldn’t make any other choice, and neither could he.

Even so, with the chapter fully written, I worried: should I include it? Would it overpower Sylvia’s story and her many contributions? So I asked my Mom, who in 2018 was dying from metastatic lung cancer. Mom, this is the story. Should I include it? Yes, she said, with fervor. Yes. You must include it. It’s when we see the dark parts of Sylvia’s life, Mom argued, that we also see how bright she shone. The book was dedicated to my Mom, Mary Kirychuk McGowan.

When I submitted the too-large manuscript to the press and asked for some help and direction in cutting the thing down to manageable size, I started to wonder: are they reading it? Had they got to the Lefler chapter yet? I had politely enthusiastic responses and some vague directions. Then BANG: my phone started to hop with texts and emails. A ha, I laughed. They got to that chapter. My editor was retired newspaper journalist Sean Prpick, and we meshed as a team over that chapter, in long phone calls and discussions, some cajoling, and some recalcitrant stubbornness to polish that chapter and make it as smooth as we could.

When I submitted the draft manuscript to the publisher in January of 2019, I also took a copy to Stuart and Mary Houston, for their review and editing. I gave them two different coloured pens, and instructions that I wanted both of their comments, but in different pens. It’s clear that Stuart read it first, with copious comments in red in the margins, especially about the medical history contained in the book. Mary’s pen was green, and hers made me laugh uproariously. If Stuart made a comment with which she disagreed, the green pen would gently stroke out his red exhortation and calmly say, ‘no’. It was a masterclass in editing, and in marriage.

There were no pens, of either colour, on the Lefler chapter. I wasn’t expecting them.

When the book finally went to press in 2020 and the author copies came in July, I drove to Saskatoon to take one to Stuart. Mary had, to everyone’s sadness, passed away in 2019 but Stuart and I toasted the book with a drink. Then I left and he read it, again and again and again over the course of the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021. Every few weeks, there would be another phone call and either a long chat or a message on my answering machine: I’ve read the book again, and underlined so much, and I only underline what you got right, and now the whole book is full of underlines. His praise meant so much.

On one of those calls, he quietly admitted that he saw why I included the Lefler chapter, and recognized that it belonged, even if he didn’t like it. It was, for both of us, a warm ending.

When A Radiant Life was awarded the Saskatchewan Book Award for non-fiction in late June of 2021, I tried calling Stuart. No answer, and a full voice mail so I was unable to leave a message. I kept trying, for weeks, covid still keeping restrictions on visitation. I never got through. At the end of July, I learned that Stuart had suffered a stroke and seemed to be recovering, but on July 22nd, he slipped away to join Mary. We never got that chance to connect and celebrate the win — but, I think, he knew.

I am intensely proud of this book, and I hope each and every one of you takes a chance on it, and reads it. Sylvia Fedoruk was a life force; her energy still radiates. I welcome you to come and meet her — you won’t regret it.

The University of Saskatchewan hosted the online book launch for A Radiant Life in September 2020 — with Merle Massie and Dr. Vera Pezer

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So, something quite odd happened on social media in early January.

My dad, Sargent McGowan (born in 1938) had a somewhat viral social media post.

There are two reasons why that was odd. One, the post was written by Dad back in 1969.

Two, Dad passed away from cancer in 2005.

Welcome to social media, where time is a loop and somewhat irrelevant. After all, we can see hand-written pages of Shakespeare’s plays and Egyptian papyrus on the internet alongside posts from mere seconds ago around the world.

Nonetheless, it’s not the time loop that sent his post shooting through social media, but its content.

In 1969, Dad was the principal of Gronlid School outside of Melfort. As per usual, he wrote the annual Principal’s Message for the school yearbook.

One of the people who had a copy of that yearbook – Val Rilkoff – was sorting through pictures and books. When she reread the Principal’s Message, she said, she found it very moving, especially after the events in the US.

So she snapped a picture and posted it to the Facebook group, Old Saskatchewan.

Old Saskatchewan is a great place to share old photos and time capsule pieces and stories. Anyone from the Gronlid area might enjoy the walk down memory lane.

Soon, my phone was hopping with texts and messages: you have to read this post on Old Saskatchewan. It’s by your Dad.

Sure enough, I opened my phone and there is Dad’s voice coming through the typewritten pages from over 50 years ago, with words to share that sound incredibly prescient.

They are worth reporting in full.

He opens with a quote: “Paper will put up with anything written on it.”

He then continues: “This quotation is credited to one Josif Vissarionovich Djugashvili, better known to the world as Joe Stalin.”

“While his claim to fame is certainly not based on his literary accomplishments, he did not hesitate to make use of papers and the press to distort the truth and glorify himself.”

“Alas, Joe Stalin is dead; but if God in his Wisdom and Man in his Ignorance could combine to produce such a one as him, they are certainly capable of creating another.”

“Indeed, unless people become more adept at disseminating substance from style, fact from fiction, wisdom from irrelevancies; then the future of mankind is bleak indeed and the opportunities for tyrants are vastly improved.”

“I must feel depressed today to think such dark thoughts and draw them to the attention of my favourite people – but the challenges of the future are not all connected with outer space, racial relations or population explosions.”

“I foresee where the greatest difficulty which will confront mankind will be in the selection of its leaders.”

“It is to this difficult problem I would alert the students and graduates of this year.”

He then signed it: Sargent E. McGowan.

Over a thousand people on that Facebook site have liked the post, and hundreds more have commented: “Wise words.” “Great message so relevant for today.” “Powerful.”

I decided to cross-post it to Twitter, as a bit of a counterpoint to the news coming out of the US.

Again, hundreds have liked and shared Dad’s words. “A timeless message.” “So honest to young people, zero cliches, beautifully written.” “Wow! Amazingly prophetic!”

My favourite responder said, “Inspiring words, written with care and elegance. That is wisdom! You must be so proud of your father. Thanks for sharing this with the rest of the world.”

I am quite proud of Dad (even though I’m pretty sure he should have said discerning instead of disseminating – that’s the kind of argument we could have had – word nerds). He was a talented teacher, a farmer, a reeve, a reader and a deep thinker.

But it really is a uniquely modern accomplishment to deliver a post from fifty years ago, and have it resonate so strongly today.

Never underestimate the power of words. Or try to imagine or predict when they might come around again.

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One of the most interesting projects to ever land in my lap is the new Women For Saskatchewan site.

Back in August, I was contacted by the one and only Winter Fedyk . She said, I have this idea. I want to build a website and invite Saskatchewan women to write posts. The posts can be about anything they want, but with a view to giving policy suggestions for Saskatchewan. What do you think?

Well, when an opportunity like that drops into your lap, you say yes, and fast!

I was smack dab in the middle of the release and online launch of my most recent book A Radiant Life (I have a blog post or two about that story…) so I was a bit busy to start with. Then, things really got rolling and the site launched on October 1st.

What a whirlwind! I had a post on the site right off the bat, from the launch. It’s my challenge for Saskatchewan’s new Chief Firearms Officer, and it’s not what you might think. People see the word ‘firearms’ and they think ‘gun control.’ But that’s not what I call for. It’s a really personal story. I talk about my family’s walk through gun suicide, and what I think we, as a gun community, can do to help address that issue. The post started as a Twitter thread; the blog version is tighter, tougher, and direct.

The blog post led to a call from CBC Saskatchewan — would you please talk about this idea on the radio? So there I was with Stefani Langenegger, chatting on CBC Morning.

A week or so after the first post, I had another post drop into the site. This one also has a story, and argues that Saskatchewan has a map problem. It’s a piece that I had in my mind from the minute that Winter contacted me: Merle, what policy issues would you bring up? I thought: Saskatchewan has a map problem. And that became the title, and the argument.

Then, things somehow started to snowball. First, Loleen Berdahl, the new Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, asked me to join a lunchtime political panel hosted by the Department of Political Studies at USask. I stepped in at the last minute as one of the panelists came down with an illness, but it was nonetheless an illuminating and really fun event.

My task was to bring in a farm and rural perspective to the debate, so I did — pointing out that a few things look quite different from the farmgate versus the city. The points caused a lot of head-nodding, and a few ‘I never thought of that’ comments. The “I never thought of those points” responses were reiterated a couple of days later during a Women for Saskatchewan editorial meeting. I thought … hmmm… I seem to be onto something. So another tweet string erupted!

The tweet string brought lots of comments, retweets and likes, which always indicates when I’ve hit a bit of touchstone. So the Women For Saskatchewan Editorial committee decided, hey, let’s make this into a podcast!

So we did…

It’s been an absolute joy to be a part of this amazing initiative — and I’m excited to see where it’s going to go. Please, please, take your time and go through the Women for Saskatchewan site. There are so many excellent, visceral, deeply intriguing or painful or sharp or insightful articles. I promise, they are well worth your time.

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Live book launch link

The University of Saskatchewan hosted an online book for A Radiant Life on September 15th 2020.

A Radiant Life Launchhttps://youtu.be/qyylYhMvFF4

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It’s here! It’s here! It’s here!

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The University of Regina Press has released my new book, A Radiant Life: The Honourable Sylvia Fedoruk Scientist, Sports Icon and Stateswoman. 

Isn’t that the most spectacular cover you’re ever seen? At first I was, hey, it should be green! She was Saskatchewan’s best and loudest cheerleader and that’s our provincial colour. But my son said, Mom, she was the lieutenant governor. The Queen’s colour is purple. And I thought — that’s right.

It’s been such a journey. I began thinking about the book along with Dr. Stuart Houston in about 2013, and began writing in 2015, off the side of my desk in the bits and drabs of time I could give. In 2018, I was awarded a Saskatchewan Arts Board Independent Artist grant, which gave me four months of concerted time. A full manuscript in January 2019 (much too long) got edited (40,000 words cut) at a writers’ retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster in early May 2019. A lot of polishing, editing and copyediting, choosing photographs, typesetting and printing and ta-dah — it’s here!

The team at University of Regina Press has been absolutely stellar. From Karen Clark who gave me encouragement to keep going, to Kelly Laycock the managing editor, Sean Prpick who was my original editor (I could tell when he got to certain chapters — he got really excited!), Duncan Campbell the artistic director, and ZG Stories who has taken on the marketing and publicity for the book, I just couldn’t be better served by a Saskatchewan-based publisher — and I know that’s what Sylvia Fedoruk would have wanted.

I have an invitation for you: The University of Saskatchewan (which is both my and Sylvia’s alma mater) is hosting an online book launch on September 15th at 7pm. You can register for the event here, and an email link to the online launch will be sent to you in about a week. Please join us!

Timeline of Sylvia Olga Fedoruk: 

Born: May 5, 1927 at Canora, Saskatchewan

4. Sylvia and Annie 1927

Annie Fedoruk and Syl, 1927

Schooling: Chaucer and Scotland Schools, near Wroxton Saskatchewan. Then move to Walkerville, Ontario during WWII.

3. Sylvia in 1945 riding a bike

Syl Fedoruk, Walkerville Ontario 1945

Sylvia Fedoruk returned to Saskatchewan with her family in 1946 and entered the University of Saskatchewan. She took medals on 12 intervarsity sports teams, and won the Spirit of Youth Award at Convocation.

In 1951, Syl would make a Canadian scientific splash as the female Saskatoon team member of the cobalt-60 therapy breakthrough for cancer treatment. Dubbed the ‘cobalt bomb,’ it would become Syl’s best-known scientific accomplishment.

14. Sylvia showing the cobalt bomb treatment head, 1951

By 1960, Syl was making waves in the Canadian curling scene, playing third for Joyce McKee. Their team won the first Canadian ladies curling championship.

Once her sports career finished, Syl turned her attention to building the game and was instrumental in bringing Canadian ladies’ curling on par with men’s curling in the 1970s. By then, she was both a professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the college of medicine, and Director of Physics Services for the Saskatchewan Cancer Association. Elected as the first woman to the Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada, she retired from all of her positions in 1986 — but didn’t stay retired. She was elected as the first woman chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan in 1986, followed by her appointment, in 1988, as the first woman Lieutenant Governor for Saskatchewan.

Syl was also awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, the Order of Canada, and became a Dame of the Order of St. John. She served twice on the board of Governors for the University of Saskatchewan, and was awarded five honorary degrees — the last, in 2006, from her own University of Saskatchewan.

In her spare time and for fun, Syl could be found with her dog (in her lifetime, she owned three: Tinker, Charli, and MaxC), gardening and canning, playing poker, fishing up north, collecting curling pins, cheering at Huskie games while screaming at the refs, taking photographs and videos, or cooking — though she would send all the leftovers home with you.

Everyone in Saskatchewan who had the honour and joy to meet her, found an impressive mind, a warm spirit, an earthy humour, a no-nonsense viewpoint, and a new friend.

Syl Fedoruk passed away at age 85 in 2012, and was given a state funeral in Saskatoon.


It has been both an honour and a pleasure to be the first to delve into Sylvia Fedoruk’s files in the archives of the University of Saskatchewan, and to bring you this amazing story of a truly unique, truly Saskatchewan woman.

Listen to Merle Massie discuss A Radiant Life via these media stories: 

With Peter Mills on CBC August 29th 2020

With John Gormley: John Gormley – Merle Massie August 28th 2020

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This is not the first time that Saskatchewan has been ravaged by a major pandemic.

The so-called Spanish Flu, now thought to be a derivative of H1N1, set the entire world on fire in 1918-1919. It was a killer, with a virus that linked to a bacteria, leading to influenza infection then bacterial pneumonia, then death.

The death rates were high: in Canada, about 55,000 Canadians died. In Saskatchewan, its grim death toll by the end of 1918 was nearly 4000 people, and it continued to stalk rural, remote and northern regions until about 1922. The death toll likely reached well over over 5000 people, but records are patchy and we’ll never know for sure. What is known is that the impact on Saskatchewan’s First Nations population was worse, and the disease and Saskatchewan’s efforts to combat it took over everyone’s life in the fall of 1918.

The flu came to Canada with the soldiers, those returning home from the WWI war front, but in reality, it raced ahead of them. The first recorded death from the Spanish Flu was Robert Callander, a drayman in Regina who was sick for a week before succumbing.

What made the Spanish Flu so frightening was its rapid transmission, and its targets. It killed the healthiest working people — soldiers, farmers, teachers — in the prime of their working lives. Its death rate were described as a ‘W’: those aged 0-5 were highly susceptible, ages 5-20 less so, ages 20-50 were very susceptible, then 50-65 less so and another surge in deaths for the elderly population.

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Calgary Daily Herald October 7, 1918

It also came in three waves. The first wave came in the spring of 1918 and was dubbed the ‘three day fever,’ since people were very sick for just a few days, then mostly recovered. This wave was less noticeable in Canada when compared to other regular grippes, flu bugs and the regular items of a Canadian winter. It was the fall 1918 surge that was the killer, while spring 1919 saw another resurgence, but less severe.

In Biggar, Saskatchewan, we have a more limited view of the fall of 1918. While our local newspaper, the Biggar Independent was then (and remains now) in operation, we have few copies of newspapers from that killer fall — likely because people destroyed newspapers rather than risk them being contaminated with the killer virus. We have a newspaper from September 5, 1918, then nothing until November 21st 1918 (side note: they were five cents per copy!)

September 5th saw no mention of the virus or the disruption to come. A circus was coming to town on September 11th, promising local kids and adults alike some smiles and delights.

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Biggar Independent, September 5, 1918

But what happened after, throughout the rest of September and October, is unclear. What we do know is that we had local disruption, much the same as we are having now in 2020 with Covid-19. Schools, the pool halls and bars, the Biggar Majestic Theatre, and all churches were closed. And, people died.

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Biggar Independent November 21, 1918

The article actually lists seven deaths, including an infant and Percy Talbot from Oban region, who died in Calgary — and that’s just from the past week. In all, it could be estimated that as many as fifty people from Biggar and surrounding regions died throughout October and November of the scourge year.

One of the things that the Town of Biggar had to fund was an ’emergency hospital’. In the November 21st copy of the Biggar Independent, the town’s financial report listed over $60 put toward the emergency hospital.

Ernie Hoppe of Biggar said that his mother told him stories of the 1918 epidemic. Their home, 14 miles north and west of town, was “where the sick came for help,” and it’s probable that it became a rural triage and emergency space for those stricken with the awful virus. “Many people died in their home,” he added. I have yet to discover where the town emergency hospital was located, but if you know, reach out.

But by November 21st, things were starting to ease back. The ‘ban’ on gathering had been lifted, and the Biggar Majestic Theatre, along with churches and the pool room, could once more reopen.

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“Theatre Thoroughly Disinfected” Biggar Independent November 21, 1918

By November 28th, there was a town annual meeting. One of the things discussed: “Those who were present however helped along the urgent need for a hospital one step by appointing S. H. Curran J. T. James and S. E. Shaw as a committee from the town to interview the Council of the Rural Municipality of Biggar with a view to building a Union Hospi­tal in Biggar next year and of continuing the operation of the present emergency hospital until a more permanent building can be arranged for.” [Biggar Independent, “Citizens Show Lack of Interest”, November 28, 1918].

The churches came back: the Methodist church resumed services on November 24th, with St. Paul’s Anglican — the same building we see today — resuming morning and evening services, choir practice, and Sunday School on December 1st.

It took longer to reopen the schools. School terms were more fluid at the time, and could shift according to local need, particularly those in rural areas. It was a disconcerting prospect for many, to consider not only the schools not reopening, but the absence of Christmas concerts and other timely entertainment.

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Biggar Independent November 28, 1918

But even as life started to return to normal and people moved more freely in the town, the flu and its aftereffects were still to be seen.

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Biggar Independent November 28, 1918

With only patchy newspaper records — we have no extant papers from December of 1918 from the Biggar Independent — the record ends there. But those interested in reading for themselves, and following the stories told through newspapers should find their way to the Saskatchewan Historical Newspapers Online and the Google Newspaper Archive.

Whether you’ll be relieved, or horrified to know that we’ve been here before, is entirely up to you.

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