Books

Bill Waiser has been thinking about Saskatchewan's racism problem

The acclaimed historian and 2016 Governor General's Literary Award winner for nonfiction on why the past may hold a key to the province's future.
Bill Waiser is the author of A World We Have Lost, an exploration of Saskatchewan before 1905. (billwaiser.com)

Why Can't We Get Along?

It's a question asked by many about the current sorry state of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in Saskatchewan.

Indeed, the recent shooting death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, a Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation, has exposed a raw truth in Saskatchewan — that racism simmers just below the surface.

How else do you explain some of the disturbing social media comments after Boushie's tragic death — that the Biggar-area farmer who killed Boushie was just protecting his property and that Boushie's car had no business coming into the farmyard?

How else do you explain the reported treatment of Boushie's mother when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police coldly informed her of her son's death? That she was ordered to stop crying while several Mounties searched her home?

These tensions are not new in Saskatchewan. 

In the spring of 1963, Maclean's journalist Peter Gzowski was sent to the North Battleford area to investigate the murder of a young Saulteaux youth by nine white men from Glaslyn. What Gzowski found was "Canada's Alabama."

While the local First Nations "live[d] in conditions that would appall most civilized Canadians," Gzowski lamented, the nearby white communities were determined to keep them at arm's length: "off their streets, out of their businesses, and away from their children."

It could be argued that the situation is not as bad in Saskatchewan today, that the province has travelled some distance down the road to reconciliation. But there are still major obstacles for Saskatchewan's Indigenous population, from low high-school graduation rates to overrepresentation in correctional facilities to chronic underemployment. Add to that the deep-seated mutual mistrust — often unspoken — and it is little wonder some people ask, "Why can't we get along?"

There was a time, though, when Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples did get along. In A World We Have Lost, I examine the history of the region that would become the province of Saskatchewan. I tell this pre-1905 story through an Indigenous and environmental lens, with a decided emphasis on the view from the inside. In other words, the traditional way of approaching the history from the outside — of "opening" the region — is turned around in favour of the local or resident perspective.

I found that up until the 1880s, life in the western interior was characterized by racial integration — what is today called "hybridity." No one racial group dominated, except in areas where there was a large First Nations population, such as present-day northern Saskatchewan, and there was significant intermingling between First Nations, Métis and white peoples.

Work led to interracial contact, as did the search for marital partners. There were more men than women in the North-West, and Euro-Canadian immigrant men formed relationships with First Nations and Métis women. According to the 1881 census, 70 per cent of the formal marriages in the region were interracial.

Yes, there were misunderstandings, sometimes conflict, but race was not the great divider. The majority of the people of the North-West had fluid, if not complicated, identities.

But in the closing decades of the 19th century, when white settlement boomed and the region moved towards provincehood, there was no place for this "pre-modern" past and the distinctive society that had taken shape over more than two centuries of interaction between Indigenous peoples and newcomers. Stories of an earlier time did not fit with Saskatchewan's imagined future as a white Anglo-Canadian agricultural society.

And so, Indigenous peoples were expected to disappear — or at least, were excluded from Saskatchewan's future. Their history, full of rich stories, effectively became "a world we have lost."

But Indigenous peoples did not disappear over the 20th century, despite decades of marginalization and discrimination. In fact, given their growing population in this new century, it's no exaggeration to suggest that they are Saskatchewan's future.

To deal with the racial divide confronting the province today, an understanding of what happened in the past — and why — is crucial. This historical knowledge can lead to a more informed discussion, help us find solutions. Until then, "a world we have lost" will remain just that. And that would be a shame. We must find a way to get along.

WRITING IN WORRIED TIMES: New original writing from the Governor General's Literary Award winners


Author's note: "In writing my pre-Confederation history of Saskatchewan, I turned to new historical sources, using climate records and archaeological field work to situate the story in the region, rather than relying on the white outsider perspective. And in doing so, I learned that when Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, it also became a whitewash. The new Saskatchewan completely ignored the complicated but reciprocal relationship that had been building between white newcomers and Indigenous peoples over two centuries.

Prior to writing this book, I thought I knew the history of Saskatchewan pre-1905. I taught it, in fact. But in pushing myself to really look outside the dominant narrative, I realized I had to change my approach. And in listening to these voices that have historically been silenced, the autonomy of the region's Indigenous peoples during this time — and the degree to which white people depended on them — came to the fore.

But what I want to know now is, can what I found out help us move forward?"

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.