Further Reflections on the Swift Current to Battleford Trail Walk

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I’m still thinking about the Swift Current to Battleford Trail walk and the reasons I found the experience so meaningful. I’ve come up with several, and it’s likely that if I keep thinking about the walk I’ll come up with others. But this is what I’m thinking this afternoon.

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I’ve lived in Saskatchewan for almost 20 years, but my life in Regina has given me few opportunities to make connections with people in rural areas of the province. The walk helped me to understand more about the lives of those people, their concerns, their needs. I was moved by the pervasive sense that rural Saskatchewan’s best days are behind it, and I came to admire the way that the people living there are defending their communities and their way of life. Hearing the stories of ranchers and farmers was an important part of the walk for me. At the same time, particularly towards the end of the walk, I noticed a stark division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, and seeing that division first-hand has helped me understand some of the uglier aspects of life in rural Saskatchewan, such as the killing of Coulten Boushie last year. The walk, in other words, was an important learning experience for me.

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Getting to know the landscape by walking through it was a powerfully intimate experience. This might be hard to explain to someone who hasn’t participated in a walk of this kind, but when you walk through a place, you engage with it using all of your senses. You don’t just see the landscape, the way you might through the windshield of your car; you hear the birds and the wind, you smell the sage, you feel the dust and the heat of the sun. Moreover, you experience place with your body as you walk. A hill isn’t just a hill; it’s something you feel in your legs and back as you ascend or descend. A walk of this kind is a visceral and physical experience, and the Swift Current to Battleford Trail walk was powerful for that reason.

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The walk was also a physical experience of history, and the physicality of that experience was important. One could learn about the Trail by reading about it, for instance, but walking the route of the trail—particularly walking in the ruts created by the wagons and Red River carts 130 years ago—is a more powerful experience of that history. At times we were literally walking in the footsteps of the teamsters and soldiers and settlers and others who used the trail, and I found myself thinking about the differences between our experiences and theirs. So the walk became an example of the past coming to life.

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At the same time, the walk gave me a chance to think about the events of 1885. That history is still hot, still controversial, especially around Battleford. And thinking about the different users of the Trail—the soldiers marching to Fort Battleford, for instance, or the Métis freighters who brought the Trail into being—helped me realize that the stark divisions between the ways that different groups view that history have their roots in the events of that history, in the events of the 1870s and 1880s, and that those events continue to shape our ways of seeing each other.

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All this thinking happened in part because a long walk, even with a group of people, gives one a lot of time to think and imagine and consider. That too is part of the nature of a long walk, part of what makes that kind of walk so valuable.

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I’d also like to think the Swift Current to Battleford Trail Walk had an effect on the communities the walkers passed through and the people they met. One would have to ask the people living in those communities, of course, but my sense is that it’s rare for outsiders to take an interest in the history of those communities, and that by engaging with that history the way we did, we showed those people that their history is important and valuable and worthwhile. It’s even possible that by showing an interest in those communities, we helped to confirm their value and purpose. I think that’s true of the settler communities we passed through, but it might be true for the people we met at Mosquito First Nation. When you listen to someone’s stories, you confirm that those stories are worth hearing. And those stories are worth hearing: we need to pay more attention to each other, to listen to each other.

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Given the logistical complexities of the walk—the need to make arrangements for places to camp, or to organize sources of water—it would’ve been difficult for any of us to have these experiences without the support of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society, and in particular the detailed planning of Hugh Henry. I’ve said that in previous posts, but Hugh worked for a year to make that walk a reality, and nothing would’ve happened without him. Plus he can find his way through a community pasture like nobody else. So thanks again, Hugh!

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