Confederation has always been a work in progress. The Canadian project–to form a nation state by bringing together immigrant and Indigenous peoples in a northern landscape–is far from complete. Saskatchewan was drawn into the federation in 1905, when Wilfrid Laurier’s government in Ottawa drew a quadrangle on a map of what was then the North West Territories. Those most arbitrary of provincial boundaries testify loudly and clearly that it was a colonial construction, an idea conceived by men motivated more by agendas of political control and economic opportunity than by concern for the well-being of the land and its peoples.
A century on, Saskatchewan is at the centre of the movement to advance Confederation by decolonizing it. Idle No More began at a teach-in at a community centre in Saskatoon. Around the province, artists, writers, academics, school boards, activists, and church people are beginning the work of learning what Justice Sinclair’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action mean for them. The province’s premier, the fourteenth since Walter Scott took office in 1905, meanwhile struggles to contain racial tensions that increasingly are making headlines in the national media–witness the divided and racialized response in the days that followed a farmer shooting a young First Nations man near North Battleford. Those same tensions too often define the dialogue between those who welcome reconciliation and those who fear what it might cost. Joining phenomena like Brexit and the ascendency of Donald Trump, Saskatchewan will continue to hear from those who want to protect privilege, retain or build more walls, and return to a time of “greatness.”
However, if Canadians are to take up “the unfinished work of Confederation” described by federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, they will need to abandon nostalgia’s smoke and mirrors and discover what was not so great about the nation’s past. Historians, even and especially when reviewing well-worn episodes from our past, can help non-Indigenous Canadians understand how policies and exploitation from centuries ago have benefited the colonizing races [End Page 167] while creating the crucible of economic and cultural disarray from which Indigenous people are now so impressively emerging.
James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains (University of Regina Press, 2013), Blair Stonechild, Loyal till Death (Fifth House, 1997), and other Saskatchewan writers of history have done much of the heavy lifting. Now the province’s unofficial historian laureate, Bill Waiser, has produced a volume that brings it all together in an authoritative and exhaustive re-examination of the centuries before Laurier’s government drew that arbitrary rectangle around the contested and colonized treaty lands between Manitoba and Alberta.
A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan before 1905 takes us from Indigenous stories of origin through the arrival of the territory’s first European (Henry Kelsey in the summer of 1691), the abuses of the fur trade, the birth of the Métis nation, the annihilation of the bison herds, the signing of treaties, and the events at Batoche to the ultimate arrival of non-Indigenous settlers in the late nineteenth century. Have other writers covered the same terrain? Yes, but none with Waiser’s thoroughness, understanding of the ecological context for that history, and capacity for shining a light on an astonishing detail that brings an event or document into sharp focus: the arrival of the horse on the Saskatchewan plains in the 1700s, creating more work for women (151); the Mortlach people travelling hundreds of kilometres to exchange bison products for food grown by farming peoples on the Missouri River at least five hundred years before Europeans came to the region (81); or the Hudson Bay Company’s (hbc) Peter Fidler dreaming in Chipewyan (228).
We have inherited a couple of centuries of history telling that romanticized the fur trade and its corporate players while depicting First Peoples alternatively as beneficiaries of civilization’s arrival or powerless victims of the trade. One of the many gifts of Waiser’s new book is his even-handed way of bringing complexity to...