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.
I don’t want to overthink this. The point of this blog is that homebodies like us need wonder and learning and history and new experiences, just like the fearless world travellers who we love and admire. We too can be badasses! We just want to sleep in our own beds at night.
So, a lot of this adventure is going to be me walking around and saying, “Oh, look at that,” and pointing at things that are right in front of me.
For instance, the importance of the railway to little communities fifty or one hundred years ago can’t be overstated. The tracks of the train cross and recross the prairie the way the trails of the bison must surely have done, once. Trains were the lifeblood, connecting communities and transporting goods, especially the most important product of all… grain.
The way that we in southern Alberta now obsess over pipelines for gas, oil and bitumen echos the way that a line to transport grain was once the rallying flag of many communities. In fact, one of the reasons that there was so much animosity and ill will towards the federal government in 1885 was that the decision to route the CPR line through Regina and Calgary rather than north through Saskatoon and Edmonton as had previously been promised completely screwed over the settlers who had purchased land in anticipation of having access to that northern line. People were so furious and resentful that some of the First Nations and Metis people who started the Northwest Rebellion had good reason to believe that settlers would join their fight as they were almost as angry with Ottawa as indigenous people were. This is really important for us to understand as western Canadians today — that this break and disenfranchisement with Ottawa and the federal government that are such familiar themes now started from day one.
Many towns that are now nothing but a dot on the map used to be thriving and self contained little places, all connected and kept alive by the arteries of the railroad. When we were discussing this on Twitter, my friend @forevercalgaryred said,
“My home town had 2 grocery stores, [a] Chinese restaurant, hardware store, gas station…..now has a curling rink/community hall.”
Mine too! My “town” is now some houses, a hall and a row of mailboxes. There are no services (the community hall doesn’t have a curling rink, although we do have a baseball diamond). Once upon a time there was a post office, a grocery store, a gas station and tractor dealership (which was actually located in my house — but that’s a story for another day), and of course a grain elevator.
As grain collection became more centralized, many railway stops became redundant and then irrelevant. Some towns disappeared altogether when they lost their train stop, whilst others lost every single source of industry that they had.
Isn’t interesting how when I go even a few miles away I see things more clearly? Below there is a photograph of the old train line that used to run along 9th Avenue in Inglewood. The photo shows the remains of the old track that traveled right through Fort Calgary.
But below that, the photographs are simply from the walk that I take nearly every day through my own town — the raised scar shows where the train used to pass through, and stop. Now, the tracks and ties are gone and a longhorn with a very impressive rack of horns regards me with disinterested dignity as she grazes on the ghost tracks.