Swift Current to Battleford Trail: Herschel to Fort Battleford
I set out to write a straightforward narrative of the second half of our journey in this post. Of course, the time to write that kind of narrative would’ve been during the walk, if I’d had the time and the cell signal and the battery power to write a blog post every day, which I didn’t. So instead, while the photos in this post are in chronological order, the text is more reflective, a series of musings on what I learned while walking from Swift Current to Battleford.
We arrived at Fort Battleford on Sunday afternoon after walking some 350 kilometres. At Battleford, we were met by two very different groups of people: folks from the local historical society, on one hand, and Cree drummers, singers, and dancers, on the other. It was as if we were seeing the history of the area, and by extension the history of western Canada, from two very different perspectives. And not just history, either: we were also seeing two different versions of our present and future, too.
As we got closer to Battleford, the conflict between those different visions of our past and present and future seemed to become more stark. After Hugh’s presentation on the Battleford Trail at Cando, for example, a friendly woman told us how frightened she’d been when she saw us walking past her farm. Strangers had recently come into her farmyard, she said, and she’d wondered who we might be and what we were up to. That remark reminded me of the shooting of Colten Boushie last summer–another stranger who wandered into a farmyard–and of the fact that my white skin would likely protect me if I entered a farmer’s yard uninvited. What’s behind the fear she described? Who was she describing with that word “stranger”? Is her fear related to the proliferation of signs reading “No Trespassing” as we got closer to Battleford? As an outsider to that part of Saskatchewan, I couldn’t help feeling that we were seeing the outlines of a deep racial or cultural divide. “There are 13 reserves around the Battlefords,” one fellow reminded us–a suggestion, perhaps, that the settlers in the area feel surrounded. Of course, it was the federal government’s decision after Treaty Six was signed in 1876 to force chiefs who would have preferred reserves somewhere else to settle around the Battlefords. The federal government’s subsequent behaviour led to the tensions that erupted in 1885, despite the efforts of chiefs like Poundmaker and Big Bear to prevent violence. And the town of Battleford was one of the centres of the events of 1885.
So much of the history of Battleford looks back to 1885. I suppose that’s not surprising: it was an important event, one of the few times that Indigenous people and the Canadian state engaged in open warfare. The fellows from the historical society showed us the land titles building, the first brick building constructed in Saskatchewan and the only structure from the original town of Battleford that still stands. Much of the town was burned in 1885, and as a result it was moved across the river, closer to the fort. More recently, vandals burned down the few remaining buildings, including the former Government House. After the capital of the Northwest Territories was moved to Regina in 1883, Government House became an Indian Industrial School, and many former residential schools have burned down, by accident or on purpose. That wasn’t the only way Government House was used–after the Industrial School closed in 1914, it was a Seventh-Day Adventist boarding school, and in the 1930s it became a Catholic seminary–but as I looked at the foundations of the building, it was the Indian Industrial School I was thinking about, and its nearby graveyard, where some 50 students at that school are buried. “Students got a top-notch education at the residential school here,” one of the local historians told us, and I had a hard time squaring that description with the school’s deliberately genocidal purpose–and those graves. I walked away and left some tobacco at the bottom of the building’s chimney in honour of the children who’d been incarcerated inside those walls. I would’ve left it at the cemetery, but that’s on private land and we weren’t allowed to go there.
The fellows from the historical society were primarily interested in the settler’s perspective on the 1885 Rebellion, or Resistance–the different connotations of those words are signs of our continuing divisions–and the military details of that conflict, rather than in its causes or what it might tell us about Indigenous-settler relations, then and now. They pointed out chips in the land titles building’s bricks that were, they said, caused by rifle fire from First Nations warriors. Later, they showed us trenches on the other side of the Battle River where Colonel Otter’s Gatling gun and riflemen had been positioned. Then we walked up Colonel Otter Drive to Fort Battleford, where settlers took refuge in 1885. There we were treated to a demonstration of Plains Cree dancing, singing, and drumming. We were told how the dances and songs have developed over time, where they came from, and what they mean. There was a sense of a living and changing tradition, and an openness to the future that was absent in the descriptions of the past we’d heard earlier that morning. Then Hugh and Rick spoke about the walk, about what we’d tried to accomplish, about what reconciliation between these very different perspectives on our past and our future might look like. Afterwards, we began to say goodbye to each other. We’d been strangers to each other when we met in Swift Current 19 days before, but we’d become a little community as we walked together, and it was sad to see that community break apart.
Perhaps the settlers’ focus on the past isn’t surprising. After all, rural Saskatchewan’s best days might’ve been some time before the disaster of the 1930s, which led to a process of depopulation and abandonment that appears to be accelerating. We passed many cairns and signs commemorating towns or schools or post offices that had disappeared years before. We stayed in ghost towns and abandoned farmyards and in communities that were struggling to survive. There’s no surprise in any of this, of course. Given high costs and tight margins, the only way to survive in agriculture is to operate the biggest farm you possibly can, and the fewer farmers there are, the harder it is for villages and towns to survive. And most of the communities we visited lost their elevators and rail lines decades ago, when the grain handling industry shifted to bigger inland terminals. When that happened, those communities also lost their economic purpose. Ever since this land was pulled into the global capitalist system, it has seen wave after wave of rapid change: the fur trade, the extirpation of the buffalo and the destruction of the grassland ecosystem, the forced relocation of First Nations people onto reserves, the development of homesteads and towns and grain elevators and rail lines and their subsequent abandonment. The signs of that abandonment, the decaying buildings and empty farmyards and struggling towns, create a pervasive sense of melancholy.
The landscape we walked through was spectacular–huge fields of barley and wheat and canola beneath incredible skies–but at the same time it’s an industrialized landscape. Nature has been pushed to the margins, for the most part, to road allowances and ditches and occasional patches of native grassland. That doesn’t mean nature isn’t present. Badgers and skunks crossed the road in front of me. Hawks kept us under surveillance, suggesting there must be mice and voles and gophers, too. We saw lots of deer and antelope, and listened to the songs of coyotes every night. But it does mean that the landscape is devoted to a single purpose: producing food. Sometimes that means the road allowances and ditches disappear under cultivated fields. And it almost always means that the fields have been treated pesticides and herbicides and desiccants–as we walked, we saw crop-dusters flying overhead and spraying rigs in the fields, looking like huge, ungainly insects. Someone must be making money from all this activity, but it isn’t the farmers. I remember Harold asking one fellow who’d stopped to chat with us about the yield he was getting from his fields of peas. “Oh, maybe 20 or 30 bushels an acre,” he replied. “Well, that’s enough to get your inputs back,” Harold said. Whether that was encouragement or commiseration, I wasn’t sure, but one thing was clear: breaking even is sometimes all you can expect when you’re a farmer in this place. It’s a hard job, one I could never do. I just don’t have the necessary skills, or the fortitude and optimism that’s required.
Farming isn’t the only industrial use of this land. I remember my surprise when we saw our first pump jack, on the third or fourth day of the walk. For a while they were commonplace, along with oil storage tanks and oilfield service vehicles and a railway siding filled with black tank cars for carrying petroleum. We passed signs identifying the oil companies responsible for particular wells, and everywhere we saw signs telling us that we were crossing oil or natural gas pipelines. The money that comes from surface leases might be important to some farmers, but others clearly wish that industry wasn’t there. “I don’t like looking at those tank cars,” a woman at Otter Springs told us. “They don’t belong on the prairie.”
Otter Springs, in the Bad Hills, had been one of the stops on the Swift Current to Battleford Trail. A roofed dugout there had accommodated passengers on the stage coach. It was comfortable enough, apparently, as long as you didn’t mind sharing your bed with a host of mice. The place got its name because of the fresh water that flows out of a spring in a coulee. There’s a wooden well there, but we tasted the water straight from the spring. I was apprehensive about doing that, because of the cattle wandering around the pasture, but the water tasted sweet and clean. We were told that Indigenous people sometimes conduct ceremonies at the springs, and in such a dry land, it’s not surprising that fresh water would be considered sacred. After all, the water in most of the sloughs we passed would be salty and undrinkable, even without the addition of chemical runoff from the surrounding fields.
Water was a constant concern on the walk. In some places, there was no water available, and we had to rely on the water we were carrying in our support vehicles. In other places, the water wasn’t fit for consumption: signs over the sinks at the community hall in Cando warned us to use hand sanitizer after washing our hands. But while we had enough water for cooking and drinking, we rarely had enough to wash ourselves or our clothes. When we decided to stay in hotels–at Kyle, Elrose, and Biggar–it was primarily for the luxury of hot running water–and because we needed showers. Badly.
Even though we needed those showers, the people we met along the way were always friendly. The people from the historical society in Battleford bought us coffee and doughnuts and sandwiches. As we passed a Hutterite colony, the women came out to greet us and give us cucumbers and carrots from their garden, and cinnamon buns from their kitchen. That same rainy day, we were invited into a farmer’s home for hot soup and coffee. Several times farmers invited us in for muffins and coffee or cold water–so welcome on a hot day, when the water you’re carrying is, at best, lukewarm. When we stayed at Mosquito First Nation, the community provided us with supper and allowed us to stay inside their community centre because the weather forecast was calling for cold and winds too strong for tenting. The drivers of passing vehicles always waved, and sometimes they stopped to ask how we were doing and if we needed anything. And many people we met shared stories with us, which helped me, as an outsider to rural Saskatchewan, to understand something about what it might be like to live there. We heard stories about ranching and farming, but also about what it’s like to live on a reserve and to be a residential school survivor. Those stories enriched our experience of the walk, especially the ones that were difficult to hear, and I’m so grateful to the people who shared them.
I’m going to keep thinking about this walk, about what I learned, about the community we created as we walked, about the landscape we walked through, about the kindness of the people we met. I learned a lot during the walk, but there’s still much I don’t know, much I don’t understand. And I’m going to keep feeling grateful for the privilege of making this walk, for the people I met and the people I walked with, and for Hugh Henry’s work in making this pilgrimage possible.