PRAIRIE EN­COUN­TERS

Canada's History - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ray Ar­gyle, a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Canada’s His­tory. His his­tor­i­cal novel An Act of In­jus­tice will be pub­lished in April 2017.

A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Be­fore 1905

by Bill Waiser Fifth House, 733 pages, $70

The Banker and the Black­foot: A Mem­oir of My Grand­fa­ther in Chi­nook Coun­try

by J. Ed­ward Cham­ber­lin Al­fred A. Knopf Canada, 398 pages, $34.95 The cy­cle of life on the Cana­dian prairies has al­ways re­volved around the land. From Abo­rig­i­nal re­liance on the bi­son, to the pur­suit by fur traders of the beaver, the de­pen­dence of Euro­pean settlers on their

har­vests of grain, and the crit­i­cal role of oil, nat­u­ral gas, and po­tash in the mod­ern econ­omy, it al­ways goes back to the land.

Two books ex­plore this re­al­ity from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. In A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Be­fore 1905, noted his­to­rian Bill Waiser re­veals a sweep­ing panorama of the ar­chae­ol­ogy and In­dige­nous life of the re­gion and the fac­tors that played into its devel­op­ment. J. Ed­ward Cham­ber­lin takes a more per­sonal ap­proach in The Banker and the Black­foot, a mem­oir of his grand­fa­ther John Cowdry’s pi­o­neer­ing ad­ven­tures in the years be­fore Saskatchewan and Al­berta at­tained province­hood in 1905.

Waiser sets the stage with the ar­rival of Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany trader Henry Kelsey in 1691. He has “en­tered a land­scape never en­coun­tered be­fore by a Euro­pean … a new world, at least to him, fea­tur­ing gen­tly un­du­lat­ing grass­lands, small iso­lated groves of aspen po­plar, chains of wet­lands, and oc­ca­sional dense brush-filled ravines.”

Kelsey was “al­lowed to en­ter an Abo­rig­i­nal world that had its own dis­tinct ter­ri­to­ries, na­tions, tra­di­tions, and leg­ends.” How the Euro­peans be­trayed the good­will shown them, forc­ing prairie First Na­tions into sick­ness, sub­mis­sion, and star­va­tion, is a re­cur­ring theme of A World We Have Lost.

Al­most half of this hefty, hand­some book, re­plete with dou­ble-page colour spreads of the land, is de­voted to the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany. Waiser cred­its it with hav­ing had a more hu­mane at­ti­tude to­ward the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants than did Cana­dian politi­cians and bu­reau­crats af­ter the pur­chase of Ru­pert’s Land by the new Do­min­ion of Canada in 1869.

Cana­di­ans had lit­tle in­ter­est in the North­west but feared Amer­i­can ex­pan­sion­ism af­ter the United States bought Alaska. “If English­men will not go there, Yan­kees will,” de­clared Sir John A. Mac­don­ald. Waiser de­fends Mac­don­ald against charges of racism, say­ing that if he “be­lieved In­di­ans were a hope­lessly doomed peo­ple … he would not have wasted time deal­ing with them.” In­stead, Mac­don­ald be­lieved, “They had to be ed­u­cated, Chris­tian­ized, and en­fran­chised.” Such think­ing led to the hor­ror of the res­i­den­tial schools.

Waiser charts the course of the Riel Re­bel­lion, the fal­ter­ing ef­forts to bring set- tlers to the West’s fer­tile belt, and the even­tual cre­ation of the prov­inces of Al­berta and Saskatchewan. “If Saskatchewan was go­ing to se­cure its des­tiny, then In­di­ans [and the Metis] were ex­pected to ride off into obliv­ion and never be heard from again.”

J. Ed­ward Cham­ber­lin’s mem­oir of his grand­fa­ther’s life in southern Al­berta, where the Black­foot held sway, of­fers a more op­ti­mistic tone. The point of view is that of the white settlers, but Cham­ber­lin in­sists that they “tried to fash­ion a Com­mon­wealth in Chi­nook coun­try that would ac­com­mo­date Black­foot sovereignty and new set­tle­ment.”

In Fort Macleod, John Cowdry found a town con­sist­ing of a “wide muddy lane with a row of dirty, half-fin­ished wooden shanties.” Rid­ing down that street, Cowdry spot­ted a rider com­ing to­ward him. They eyed each other war­ily, com­mu­ni­cat­ing by sign lan­guage. Cowdry had met Crop Eared Wolf, adopted son of the chief of the Blood tribe of Black­foot. Cowdry be­came known as Sor­rel­top Jack, for the burnt chestnut colour of both his hair and his horse. The two men would be­come life­long friends and al­lies.

The white traders and settlers, ac­cord­ing to Cham­ber­lin, came with but one in­ten­tion: to make money. Their en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit led them to open stores and sa­loons, livery sta­bles, ho­tels, and law of­fices and to build churches and schools. Most ar­rived with money in their sad­dle­bags: gov­ern­ment cash if they were North West Mounted Po­lice (NWMP) or vet­er­ans of the Cana­dian mili­tia; pay handed out by trail bosses if they were cow­boys; or cap­i­tal ad­vanced by old coun­try in­vestors if they were ranch­ers. Even the Black­foot had cash: Chiefs re­ceived twenty-five dol­lars per year and band mem­bers five dol­lars by the terms of Treaty Seven.

Although cow­boys had a few coins in their pock­ets, their bosses needed ac­cess to credit while they awaited the pro­ceeds of cat­tle sales. When Ned Maun­sell, an exwhisky trader, for­mer NWMP mem­ber, and would-be cat­tle rancher, wrote home to Ire­land for start-up money, he found no tak­ers for the let­ter of credit he re­ceived. (Maun­sell tried to ride to Fort Ben­ton, in Mon­tana, but he fell through the ice while cross­ing a river and froze his feet.)

John Cowdry told his brother Nathaniel, “That’s what banks are for.” The two launched the Cowdry Brothers Bank in Fort Macleod in 1886. It would thrive in the ser­vice of a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion, al­low­ing them to sell out to the Cana­dian Bank of Com­merce in 1905 for a com­fort­able $105,904 — the equiv­a­lent of $2.5 mil­lion to­day. John in­vested part of his wind­fall in a twelve-thou­sand-head cat­tle ranch with Maun­sell. He per­se­vered, de­spite los­ing two wives and two chil­dren to var­i­ous ill­nesses.

These books of­fer com­pelling ac­counts of how Euro­pean so­ci­ety col­lided with In­dige­nous peo­ples in the West and how those on each side of the di­vide con­tended with the con­se­quences.

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