I have fond memories of my grandmother’s farm. In the summers, we would often go there to visit for a weekend. I remember feeding the chickens, milking the cows and mowing the large lawn. I remember catching frogs with my brother down by the creek and drinking water out of a pail. I remember going to the town fair. The picture of my dad and I in a new outhouse hole that he dug one summer, is a family classic.
My dad’s mom grew up on this farm. Her family emigrated from England in 1929, when my grandma was 10 years old and my youngest great aunt was only a three-month old baby. To get from England to Saskatchewan, it was a seven day voyage by boat and then another seven day trip by train. The first thing they bought on arrival was a dairy cow because the baby needed milk.
In England, the family had been farming in a small township in Lincolnshire, on a small plot where they grew onions and mangels (a turnip-like fodder for animals). They had horses and cattle. But the land was not large enough to subdivide for the family’s three sons. They came to Canada to make a better life for their children. This was a common reason for coming to Canada, but so too was the thrill of adventure. One of my grandma’s neighbours described the Canada he thought he’d find. “Before leaving England I had seen Buffalo Bill and his Indians performing and I thought, if that was Canada, that was where I wanted to be. I expected cowboys and Indians and lots of shooting and horseback riding. Things in Canada were a little different, but I enjoyed it all” (Chapman, 1980, p. 209).
My grandmother’s family didn’t see the Buffalo Bill show, but word of the opportunities in Canada reached them all the same. A cousin of my great grandfather had previously emigrated to Ontario and on a visit back to England had talked up farming in Canada. Also at that time, the Soldiers Settlement Board (SSB) was touring England to advertise settling in the Prairies and they spoke at my great-uncle George’s school.
In the end, my grandmother’s family came to settle in the township of New Osgoode, Saskatchewan near Tisdale. At the time, New Osgoode did not yet have passenger rail service. The family got off the train at the nearest stop which was Eldersley, ten miles from New Osgoode. At the station, they were met by an SSB man who lived in Tisdale. He drove the girls and my great grandmother to the farm in his car while a neighbour took the boys and my great grandfather in a sleigh. It was the end of April and it was storming that day. The neighbours fed them dinner.
There had been a bachelor living on the land before my grandmother’s family arrived. He had retired and left. The house had bed bugs. My grandmother’s family used coal oil and put up heavy brown paper to try to get rid of them. Besides the small house, there was an old log barn, an ice house, a coal shed and a blacksmith on the property. Most of the land had already been cleared except for the south-east corner. That area had never been cultivated. In the years to come, the land was “scrubbed” with an ax, while the oldest two children pulled roots.
The Canadian government encouraged settlement in areas like New Osgoode that were densely forested by enacting the Dominion Lands Act (commonly referred to as the Homestead Act). Under the Act, any person who was 18 years or older could file for a homestead of a quarter section or 160 acres of land. The only payment was a $10 registration fee. To qualify, the homesteader had to reside on the land for six months of the year and have at least 10 acres under cultivation at the end of a three year period. Once these conditions were met, the homesteader received clear title to the land (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.163). The Canadian Dominion Lands Act of 1872 was modeled on the American Homestead Act of 1862. One important difference between the two Acts though, was that farmers in Canada could acquire a neighbouring lot for an additional $10 fee, once they had met the requirements on their original plot. This allowed homesteads to easily double in size.
Growing up, I had always believed that my ancestors came to this country with nothing. That they built this life here with their bare hands. That our family’s prosperity was due to hard work.
But my ancestors didn’t have nothing. They had land. Free land.
Under the Dominion Lands Act, 1.25 million homesteads were made available on 80 million hectares. The survey grid used to organize this mass immigration is the largest in the world (Regehr & Yarhi, 2017). The Dominion Lands Act was repealed in 1930 when the management of lands and resources was transferred to the provinces. My grandmother’s family, arriving as they did in 1929, was among the last families to benefit from the Act. Currently farmland in the area is being sold for $695,000 for 320 acres (Point 2 Homes, 2017). Less than a century ago this same land could have been acquired with the payment of $20 in registration fees. Calculated with inflation, $20 in 1929 is equivalent to $280 dollars today (DollarTimes).
The fact that this land grant was even possible was due to the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876, in which the Cree, Saulteaux, Nakota and Dene First Nations agreed to share the land. The Treaty 6 text reads that the “Plains and Wood Cree Tribes of Indians… do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to … Canada all their rights, titles and privileges, whatsoever, to the lands” (p.2). However, the meaning of land cession and surrender was not discussed during the treaty negotiations (Taylor, 1985, p.15). Indeed, Treaty Commissioner Alexander Morris (1890) reassured the Chiefs who had gathered to sign Treaty 6, that he “did not wish to interfere with their present mode of living” (p.184). In describing the previous negotiations for Treaty 4, Morris went into more detail about his message from the Queen in regards to sharing the land.
“When you have made your treaty, you will still be free to hunt over much of the land included in the treaty. Much of it is rocky and unfit for cultivation, much of it that is wooded is beyond the places where the white man will require to go, at all events for some time to come. Till these lands are needed for use you will be free to hunt over them, and make all the use of them which you have made in the past. But when lands are needed to be tilled or occupied, you must not go on them any more. There will still be plenty of land that is neither tilled nor occupied where you can go and roam and hunt as you have always done, and , if you wish to farm, you will go to your own reserve where you will find a place ready for you to live on and cultivate” (p.29,emphasis added).
Just 28 years after the signing of Treaty 6, New Osgoode began to be tilled and occupied, preventing Indigenous peoples from roaming and hunting there as they had always done. This trend was repeated over and over again throughout the province until the lands that First Nations could use were reduced to a very small portion of Saskatchewan (see small map for a visual of this ratio). In Canada overall, Arthur Manuel (2015) has calculated that Indigenous peoples control only 0.2% of the land (p.8).
This does not feel like sharing.
The first settlers to arrive in the New Osgoode area were a family from Ontario. In 1904, when they acquired their plot, the district was a rolling land covered with willows, poplars, tamarac, alder, birch, and spruce bluffs. Wild berries were plentiful: saskatoons and choke cherries by the river and strawberries and raspberries in the fields. Wildlife was also abundant: moose, black bears, lynx, deer and prairie chickens. The first settlers relied on the trees, berries and wildlife to sustain them as they began to clear out the land for farming. These first settlers named the township New Osgoode after the county of Osgoode in Ontario where they had come from, which in turn had been named after William Osgoode, the first Chief Justice of Upper Canada.
The name makes the land sound new. We like narratives of new.
Governor General David Johnston spoke of the courage and audacity of the pioneers in his speech from the throne in 2013. “Nearly 150 years ago, they looked beyond narrow self-interest. They faced down incredible challenges—geographic, military, and economic. They were undaunted. They dared to seize the moment that history offered. Pioneers, then few in number, reached across a vast continent. They forged an independent country where none would have otherwise existed” (par. 15). This is the origin story that I was raised believing, that my ancestors forged a country where none had otherwise existed, that they came to an empty land. However, the more I learn about the settling of New Osgoode, the less empty this land seems.
In 1904, as the first settlers arrived, there were no roads, only trails and the survey lines that had been cut every mile through the bush. One of the most established trails, that passed through the centre of New Osgoode, was the “Indian Trail” a footpath that led from The Pas to North Battleford and which is drawn on an early map of the area. There were other signs that the land of New Osgoode was not empty. “[O]ld Indian graves” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.9) were found on a number of homesteads and were still visible as late as 1983. Artifacts were also found. “Indian arrowheads, hammerheads, pemmican, and other Indian artifacts have been located by several farmers on their land” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.9).
The New Osgoode local history book, Preserving Our Heritage, was written by the residents in 1983. It is a comprehensive account of the settling of the township. However, in the book’s 470 pages, there are only a few mentions of “Indians”. Little interest in the first inhabitants of the area is noted. The section entitled “Indians” is only half a page long. “It is not really known what the area held for them [Indigenous peoples] prior to settlement in 1904” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.9). Nonetheless, there are a few hints, scattered throughout the book.
In some cases Indigenous peoples are recognizable in their absence. For example, in October 1906, the “first white baby” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.134) was born. The parents were presented with a scroll and an engraved silver spoon. Clearly, the settlers were aware that Indigenous children had been born there for thousands of years otherwise the specification of “white” baby would not have been necessary.
A few settlers in their family history sections mention explicitly the presence of Indigenous peoples on their lands. Dorothy Murton (1983) wrote about the old Indian Trail that cut through her family’s farm yard, and about picking berries with her sisters. “Outside our lane a three cornered piece of land grew a yearly crop of wild strawberries, so was named “The Piece of Pie.” Up a small hill and around a bend saskatoon bushes took over with berries so plentiful that people came from miles around to pick them. We knew where to watch for the first green leaves in spring and hear the noisy frogs. As sure as the robins and blackbirds appeared in the spring, a few Indian tents would also appear, to disappear again in autumn. Slightly curious and shy, we would walk quickly by them with subdued chatter. Later we learned they came from Nut Lake Reserve and helped farmers clear the land of bush. We considered them friendly” (p.393).
Gerhardt Gaertner (1983) farmed on the same land as the very first settlers to New Osgoode. He noted the long history of his plot of land. “Norman’s father, Fred Howes, homesteaded here and was one of the first settlers in the area. We have found many Indian stones and arrowheads so I guess the Indians had it before that” (p.244).
I asked my great aunt about any contact with Indigenous people she had growing up. She told me a story about her father chopping wood when she was 10. She was helping pile the wood when a “native came out of the bush”. Her dad asked the man what he could do for him and the man replied that he was hungry. My great grandfather offered to take him to the house for a meal but the man refused to go into the house. So my great grandmother brought out sandwiches. After eating, the man offered to chop wood. My grandfather said that this wasn’t necessary, but the man did it anyway before heading back into the bush (M. Barnett, personal communication, July 16, 2017).
These are all just fragments. Arrow heads. Graves. Berries. A trail. Sandwiches. But these fragments tell a bigger story, a counter-narrative to brave pioneers in an empty land. They tell an unsettling story of continuous Indigenous presence; they hint at Indigenous sovereignty.
Tuck & Yang (2012) tell me that “forwarding a thesis on decolonization without regard to unsettling/deoccupying land, [is an] equivocation” (p.19). In this chapter, I recount my family’s story of colonization and I try to imagine decolonization. But I am afraid my efforts are only an equivocation.
I have told you the story of the settling of New Osgoode, the land of the Cree, in Treaty 6 territory. This is the story of my ancestors. This is my story.
I don’t have a story of unsettling.
However, the land is more empty now than it has ever been. My grandma’s farmhouse is gone, as are the grainaries and the outhouse.
There is no town anymore. No church. No school.
All that is left are a few markers and a lonely railroad siding.
The spruce bluffs are gone. The berries are gone. The moose have long since “moved back north” (New Osgoode Restoration Club, 1983, p.243). What is left are field upon field of wheat and barley and rapeseed.
Even if we were to imagine giving the land back to the Cree, what would they think about what we have done to it?
It must be noted that my ancestors were kind, generous, hard-working people. It is important to recognize that their lives on the prairies were incredibly difficult. This story does not intend to make light of their sacrifices. However, this does not change the fact that they were given vast tracts of land for free. Furthermore, regardless of the kindness, generosity and incredible work ethic of my ancestors, the result of their occupation of this land is the complete and utter devastation of the ecosystem that thrived there just a century ago.
I have just read the New York Magazine’s article “The Uninhabitable Earth” about our planet’s rapid climate change. “[A]bsent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century” (Wallace-Wells, 2017, par.2). “Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it” (Wallace-Wells, 2017, par. 8). “[N]o matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough” (Wallace-Wells, 2017, par. 6).
I can’t help thinking about the role the settling of the Prairies has played in our global environmental disaster. Surely widespread deforestation has not helped. Moreover, by becoming the “breadbasket” of the world, we have helped feed a rapid and unsustainable global population growth.
Perhaps it is time to unsettle.
What would it look like to plant spruce bluffs and berries, to reintroduce prairie chickens and moose, to re-wild this township? What would it feel like to forge a path anew along the “Indian Trail”? Would I be considered friendly if a Cree family were to pass me along the way?
I imagine taking my daughter with me on the weekends to dig holes not for outhouses but for trees.
What could one hundred years of unsettling look like?
While Elon Musk imagines colonizing Mars, might it not be wise to consider decolonizing Earth first?
Calculate the value of $20 in 1929. (July 20, 2017). DollarTimes. Retrieved from: http://www.dollartimes.com/inflation/inflation.php?amount=20&year=1929
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Chapman, H. (1983). Harry and Flossie (Thurman) CHAPMAN. In New Osgoode Restoration Club (Eds.), Preserving Our Heritage: New Osgoode & District 1904-1983. (pp.209-210). Saskatoon, SK: Midwest Litho Limited.
Gaertner, G. (1983). Gerhardt and Wanda (Lloyd) GAERTNER. In New Osgoode Restoration Club (Eds.), Preserving Our Heritage: New Osgoode & District 1904-1983. (pp.244). Saskatoon, SK: Midwest Litho Limited.
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New Osgoode Restoration Club. (1984). Preserving Our Heritage: New Osgoode & District 1904-1983. Saskatoon, SK: Midwest Litho Limited. Retrieved from: http://www.ourroots.ca/page.aspx?id=1080560&&qryID=43fdcfee-732a-474a-8a0f-bb84483f66c5
Point 2 Homes (Accessed July 19, 2017). Ridgedale Farm Land, RM of Connaught No 457, Saskatchewan S0E 1L0. Retrieved from: https://www.point2homes.com/CA/Commercial-For-Sale/SK/RM-of-Connaught-No-457/Ridgedale-Farm-Land/45503158.html
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