8. Bill Waiser, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905

waiser a world we have lost

Why would an otherwise sane person put a 630-page book on his comprehensive examination reading list? Good question. I bought a copy of Bill Waiser’s A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 in hardcover, when it first came out, partly because it won the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language non-fiction, and partly because I’m interested in the history of this place. My comprehensive exams would give me a chance to finally read the book, I reasoned. And so, as a change from reading about Deleuze and the fold, I opened Waiser’s history on New Year’s Day.

A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 is a work of narrative history, rather than, like Sheldon Krasowski’s No Surrender, a book that makes an argument. Waiser sets out to tell the story of Saskatchewan before it became a province. He begins with Henry Kelsey, the first European to see the prairies of Saskatchewan, near what is is today the city of Yorkton. Kelsey worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a trading monopoly in what was then called Rupert’s Land—all of North America that drained into Hudson’s Bay—and he had been sent by his employers with instructions to invite First Nations living in the interior of Rupert’s Land to trade with the Company. At that time—just 20 years after the Bay had been granted its trading monopoly by King Charles II—the HBC expected that First Nations people who wanted to trade would make their way to its post at York Factory, on Hudson’s Bay. It was a long and difficult journey, however, and few First Nations people wanted to make it. Besides, the Bay was already facing competition from Montreal traders who were making the long trip, by canoe, into the interior of what is now Saskatchewan. Kelsey’s journey was part of the HBC’s first venture into the continent’s interior. So, in June 1690, Kelsey set off with a group of Assiniboine or Nakoda people who were going home after trading at York Factory. Kelsey was hardly the heroic figure he has become in twentieth-century mythology, including his mention in folksinger Stan Roger’s anthem “Northwest Passage.” Instead, as Waiser points out, Kelsey was only there because the Assiniboine accepted him as a guest. “Simply put,” Waiser writes, “the HBC servant was a passenger, not a pathfinder” (10). 

More than half of Waiser’s book is devoted to the history of the fur trade in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, so beginning with Kelsey’s story makes a lot of sense. And the role of Indigenous peoples in the story of the fur trade, as Waiser tells it, is not unlike their role in Kelsey’s journey inland. With a few exceptions—the violence the North West Company perpetrated in the early years of the 19th century on First Nations peoples who decided to trade with the HBC, for example—the fur trade took place according to rules established by First Nations. Trading sessions took place according to Indigenous ceremonial protocols. Fur traders could establish posts inland (or, for that matter, on the shores of Hudson’s Bay) because Indigenous peoples allowed them to be there. Traders provided luxury goods, not necessities, and in the days before inland trading posts, when First Nations peoples were expected to make the difficult trip to York Factory or, later, Prince of Wales Fort (now Churchill, Manitoba), they might set out on a trading mission every four or five years, if that frequently. First Nations on the plains south of the boreal forest who hunted bison on horseback in the 18th century, such as the Blackfoot, could not be convinced to trade with any of the newcomers: the immense herds of countless bison fulfilled all of their material needs. Even in the early days of settlement in the 1870s and 1880s, and even after the Métis Resistance of 1885, when the balance of power was shifting dramatically in favour of Euro-Canadians, Waiser notes, “Indians chose to co-operate with the newcomers . . . and without their acquiescence, the history of the settlement in the North-West might have been written in blood” (598). But once settlers began to arrive, this long history of cooperation, in which Indigenous peoples were the senior partner in the relationship, was forgotten. “It was only the future that mattered,” Waiser writes (623). “For many of the newcomers that took up homestead land or moved to booming communities along an ever-expanding network of rail lines, Saskatchewan’s past had no meaningful place in their memory” (630). Of course, that future is now the past, and while farming and ranching towns celebrate their own history, anything that predates the arrival of settlers near their communities is ignored. 

Although Waiser relies on documentary history sources, rather than oral history, the fact that First Nations were the senior partners in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and newcomers is clear in this book. So too is the ecological impact of trapping, and later the pemmican and bison hide trade, on animal populations and, therefore, on the lives of the peoples who depended on those animals for survival. As areas were trapped out—as populations of beaver in particular fell because of over-trapping—traders pushed farther inland. And the fur trade itself ran on pemmican, made from bison meat: that is what fed the traders and the coureurs de bois who paddled canoes full of furs or trade goods to and from Hudson’s Bay or Montreal. In the 19th century, the demand for hides—used to make conveyor belts for the rapidly industrializing United States—was added to the demand for pemmican, and the bison population began to decline. By 1879, bison had been extirpated from the northern plains. It would have been an unthinkable change for First Nations peoples who had depended on the bison. The dwindling size of the herds was a crucial factor in the demand by First Nations for treaties with the new Dominion of Canada. What struck me from reading Waiser’s book—even though he doesn’t analyze the story of the bison’s disappearance in this way—was how the resources of the northern prairies and boreal forest were ravaged once the region became incorporated into capitalism. Once the animals became raw material, resources rather than entities in relationship with Indigenous peoples—a relationship that had existed since the end of the last Ice Age—they were consumed. Later, the forests went the same way, as the trees became a resource valued as a potential exchange rather than as something of value in themselves. In Heideggerian terms, the animals and the forests lose their essences and become a “standing-reserve” (Heidegger 19) through technology, but also through the extension of capitalism into what was known as the North-West. If we’re looking for someone or something to blame for the extirpation of the bison, we ought to begin there.

At other times, however, connections that ought to be made in Waiser’s account are missed. For example, the success of missionaries in what is now Saskatchewan plays a central role in chapter 11, “We Think It The Best,” but Waiser doesn’t hazard any guesses as to the reason First Nations peoples were ready to abandon their beliefs in favour of Christianity in the 1830s and 1840s. The next chapter, though, “If Something Is Not Done,” describes the disorder and suffering on the plains and in the forests caused by changes in the fur trade, the decline of the bison, and most importantly, epidemics of European diseases—particularly smallpox, measles, and dysentery—that killed as many as 50 to 75 per cent of the Assiniboine and Blackfoot (362-63). I know that correlation is not causation, but surely such apocalyptic epidemics would have had tremendous cultural and spiritual effects on their survivors. 

Waiser’s discussion of the numbered treaties—my particular interest—is short and focuses on Treaty 6, although he does rely on Métis translator Peter Erasmus’s account of the negotiations, Buffalo Days and Nights. He is, however, unsparing in his account of how the Dominion government planned for settlement. The relatively cautious assessments of the agricultural potential of the prairies—those prepared by Captain John Palliser and Henry Youle Hind, who mounted separate expeditions to study the prairies in 1857 and 1858—were ignored in favour of geographer John Macoun’s 1879 and 1880 survey, which produced an exaggerated account of the fertility of the plains. Macoun happened to be travelling during exceptionally wet summers, and as a result he concluded “that the shallow, light soils” of Palliser’s Triangle “would become productive once the ground had been broken and cultivated” (455). Those conclusions “were no substitute for reality,” Waiser writes, and “[t]hey were misleading and potentially harmful in the long run, especially because they suggested that the standard 160-acre homestead was appropriate throughout the region” (456). As a result, land that should have been left as prairie was broken for agriculture, with devastating consequences for farmers during subsequent droughts, and for the prairie ecosystem itself. Today, somewhere between 17 and 21 per cent of native grassland is left in Saskatchewan, with more being lost each year (Sawatzky). But the Dominion of Canada wanted settlement to be uniform, despite the variations in soil quality and aridity across the southern part of the province, with calamitous results for an ecosystem Victorian Canadians, in the main, neither understood nor appreciated.

There is much more to discuss about Waiser’s account of Saskatchewan history, but it is a readable narrative and its footnotes lead in many potentially fruitful directions. I would like to read his earlier book on the events of 1885, Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion, co-authored with Blair Stonechild, which I am sure informs the discussion of the Resistance in this book. But the need to stay focused on my list compels me to limit my curiosity, to leave Loyal Till Death for another time, and to push ahead with another book on the list.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, translated by William Lovitt, Harper, 1977, pp. 3-35.

Sawatzky, Katie Doke. The State of Native Prairie in Saskatchewan, 1 October 2018, http://www.prairiecommons.ca/?page_id=300.

Waiser, Bill. A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. Fifth House, 2016.