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Bill Waiser on digging deeper into Saskatchewan's history

The author and historian on his Governor General's Literary Award–winning book, an account of the history of Saskatchewan before 1905, when it became a province.
Historian Bill Waiser lives in Saskatoon.

Saskatoon-based author Bill Waiser won the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction for his book A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan before 1905. In this segment, Waiser discusses how he used non-traditional sources to draw out the perspective of the province's Indigenous peoples.

A World We Have Lost is different piece of writing for me as an historian, in the sense that when most people write about western Canada and its history, they look at it from the outside — they use the term "opening up." And I decide to tell this story from the inside — to look at newcomers as outsiders, as visitors. I didn't want newcomers striding larger than life across the pages of western Canadian history. It may sound logical to look at it from the inside, but it's not done that often. I wanted to emphasize that newcomers encountered an Indigenous world that they had to adjust to. They didn't simply impose their will on Indigenous peoples. I also wanted to make sure that climate was an actor in the story — climate was a real force that both Indigenous societies and newcomers had to respond to.

In doing the research, I had to look at non-traditional sources. For example, I looked at the work of climate scientists, archaeologists and paleolimnologists, who study ancient lakes and rivers. I even tried re-reading traditional Hudson's Bay Company sources, but reading them with different eyes, looking for references to Indigenous peoples and societies.

Bill Waiser's comments have been edited and condensed.

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