bison

I’m reading a book called Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life by Kingsley M. Bray right now.

In both Canada and the United States, the disappearance of the buffalo was the biggest humanitarian and environmental catastrophe that you’ve never heard of. Scientists are only beginning to recognize now that cattle also introduced diseases into wild herds that weakened them.

The American government wanted the bison gone — it had two transcontinental railroads to build and dealing with freedom fighters like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull was impossible as long as they had access to the food and shelter supplied by those big herds.

Here in Canada, the situation was slightly different. The government knew the bison would be gone eventually but their priority was not to be financially responsible for the First Nations people in western Canada. They thought they had time, and if you had ever seen one of those massive herds you would have understood why they believed that.

Let’s say you and I are standing on a rise in the prairie. We say to each other, “Do you hear that?” But that isn’t exactly what we mean. What we mean is do you FEEL that … the sound is coming out of the ground up through our feet. An hour later … look to the north as far as you can, look to the south as far as you can. That herd is a mile wide, and it passes us by for an hour. You would never, ever forget a sight like that.

Only two years after Treaty 7 was signed in 1877 (the agreement the Crown signed with the indigenous people and settlers in my area) the bison were gone from southern Alberta and the people here were starving. We talk about the bison on the tour of Chestermere that’s happening tonight — did we have bison herds in this area? Come to find out how glacier rocks and a natural prairie spring offer us some clues.

recommended read: frontier farewell

Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West

By Garrett Wilson

In 1870, the great plains were inhabited by European fur traders, Metis settlements, Plains First Nations people and millions of buffalo. By 1880, the landscape was unrecognizable – the First Nations people were settled on reserves, settlers were beginning to stream into western Canada, and the planning and construction of the great spine of the railroad was underway. The North West Mounted Police had the American whiskey traders on the run and were dealing with the delicate matter of American refuges. Perhaps most significantly of all, the buffalo were gone. This triggered the biggest ecological and humanitarian crisis that you’ve never heard of, but the landscape was open for the settlers that the Canadian government were depending on to make good on its investment in buying the North West Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

This is a great read for the 152th anniversary of confederation and is vital knowledge for any Canadian. I had no idea that smallpox had played such a huge role in the shaping of western Canada. Did you know that the law in Canada often applied very differently in the eastern part of the country? Garrett Wilson breaks down the contracts the Canadian government signed with indigenous people, exploring differences between the individual treaties and the needs and motivations of the people signing them. The book reveals that the important decisions made by a removed and detached government in Ottawa were to have a profound effect on the relationship that Canada has today with Metis and First Nations people. And what really happened to the buffalo?

Thrilling, engaging, frustrating, with many moments of clarity along the way, of finally getting it – why things are the way they are. That was my experience of reading this book. It clocks in at 527 pages so let your friends know that you love them and bid them a fond farewell. Stock up on all the groceries you could possibly need for the next two weeks and tell your family not to interrupt you unless the house is on fire. Then climb into your time machine (I sat in a patio chair on my back porch with an iced coffee) and prepare to disappear into the magnificent world of western Canada in the 1870s, a journey not so much through space as through time.

recommended read: high rider

High Rider

by Bill Gallagher

Many of the stories about the discovery and settlement of our province – and the proud civilizations that existed here long before we did – are so rich that they need no embellishment. And indeed, the most incredible stories are often the ones that are true to the life. But with all of the historic events that our home has witnessed through the centuries, it has always rather surprised me that we don’t have more historical fiction set in southern Alberta, with our local creative voices imagining and filling in the tantalizing gaps in the things that we “know”. Writer Bill Gallagher has done just that and created a narrative around one of our most beloved historical figures.

As the end of the nineteenth century neared, southern Alberta and its fledgling communities were attracting immigrants from all over the world. What we often forget is just how close to home some of those immigrants were, with many coming over the border from the United States. For example, veterans of the civil war, with both sides of that bloody and deadly conflict represented, are buried in Calgary’s Union Cemetery.

John Ware’s life had been formed and shaped by the events that had racked the country of his birth, but of course he had fought for neither side. He was born a slave on a plantation in southern Carolina, and it is here that Bill Gallagher introduces him to us. Gallagher makes you feel as though you are beside John Ware as he walks the one thousand miles from southern Carolina to Texas, and as though you are witnessing heartwarming moments as he befriends good people and wins their respect and admiration. The humiliating events of prejudice and the wistful longing for love and family that seem destined to remain unfulfilled make you feel as though you are standing next to someone you want to encourage and speak out for – and how nice it is to root for a good guy, and to realize that this story happened in places that are familiar to you, too.

Let’s suppose that I am offering a giveaway on this blog and if you win, you get to meet John Ware at the coffee shop of your choosing for one hour and ask him any questions you want. What would you want to know? What parts of his story are the most fascinating to you? Would you want him to myth bust – was he ever really a miner? Do you want to get to know him as a person – what was his favourite breakfast? Or his favourite way to spend a Sunday afternoon? Or, do you want his tips and tricks for calving, or gentling a horse that’s got the best of you at the moment? Read High Rider and then tweet at me (@shelly_mcelroy) with your #QuestionsForJohnWare!!