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Local History

A Brief History

Because Saskatchewan became a full member of the Canadian federation only in 1905, much of the area’s historical interest depends on events vastly older than the province. Dinosaur and mammoth finds have been common. The first known human inhabitants were present at least 12,000 years ago; they were mainly hunters. On the eve of European colonization, First Nations people from a variety of cultural and linguistic origins occupied the forest and prairie regions. With the coming of the Europeans, First Nations became involved in the fur and provisioning trade. The first European known to see the Saskatchewan River was Henry Kelsey, who in 1691 explored part of the plains for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which received its charter in 1670. Fur trappers, traders, and buffalo (bison) hunters, many of whom were First Nations or Métis, along with European traders, explorers, and missionaries, made up the bulk of the area’s inhabitants until the second half of the 19th century.

The First Peoples

The Indigenous People of The Region - The Plains Cree

The most numerous of the various indigenous peoples in this region of Canada belongs to the Cree Nation. The term “Cree” is derived from the French renderings (Kristineaux, Kiristinous, Kilistinous) of the Ojibway term Kinistino. The proper term in the Plains Cree language is nēhiyawak. The Cree occupy a large area of Saskatchewan, from the northern woodlands areas to the southern plains. While being one people, there is a great variation amongst the different regional groups. One of the main differences is in terms of dialect, of which there are three main ones: “ Woodlands, “ Plains, and “ Swampy Cree. There are also important differences in terms of culture: the Sun Dance, for example, is practiced only in the southern areas. Despite those variations, the Cree are bound together by shared collective memory, worldview, religious practices, and experience of colonialism.

The nēhiyawak began to move onto the Prairies with the Fur Trade in 1740. The Cree in the south was part of the Iron Confederacy, an alliance with the Saulteaux and Assiniboine; they were middlemen in the fur trade, trading with the English and the French, as well as with other Indigenous groups. As the nēhiyawak began to move onto the prairies in greater numbers, they slowly adapted from using Canoes to using horses; the latter also replaced dogs as pack animals. Despite these changes, the nēhiyawak retained many of their Woodland beliefs and practices. In their worldview, it is believed that humans are intimately linked with the world around them: for instance, hunters would have pawākanak (dream helpers) to guide people towards game; the pawākanak would also help the person in times of need. Furthermore, one of the key values of the Cree was sharing: the game was shared as well as any other resources. Another key concept was wāhkotowin (kinship), important not only for the way in which people were related but also in terms of peoples’ connection to the land. An important part of nēhiyawak oral tradition is reflected in the stories of wīsahkēcāhk, commonly referred to as the “trickster.” wīsahkēcāhk links humans to the rest of creation (e.g., other animals), makes the world safe for humans, teaches humans many things, and also is a joker who often gets caught up in his own jokes. These stories, which taught children lessons about life, are referred to as ātayōhkēwina (sacred stories).

In the 1870s, the Canadian government began to expand westwards and initiated a Treaty process with the Indigenous people, including the nēhiyawak. One major difference between the English and Cree accounts is that the latter understood the deal as tipahamētowin (rent), whereas the former understood it as land surrender; also, the Cree used the pipestem to invoke the powers of the land (asotamēkēwin: a sacred vow). Some leaders such as mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) were skeptical of the process. He did not stand against the Treaty process, but rather against the way in which the Crown was handling matters. He tried, therefore, to organize his people peacefully, but the Resistance of 1885 brought trouble; and despite Big Bear’s efforts to avert trouble, many people lost their lives. While this series of events is called the North-West Resistance (or Rebellion) in English, in Cree it is referred to as ē-mēyihkamikahk, which means “when it went wrong.”

The Cree of the woodland and northern areas entered into Treaty through later adhesions. There was also less pressure for European settlement in their territories, and as a result, they were able to maintain their traditional hunting and trapping much longer than the southern Cree. The Cree are today the most numerous Indigenous group in Saskatchewan. Many efforts are made to revive the language through immersion programs, writing of dictionaries, and increased use of Elders in the classrooms. Cree people have revived many ceremonies which were banned for a long period of time, and social gatherings such as Pow Wows and Round Dances enjoy popularity amongst many people. nēhiyawak are becoming more and more significant in the culture and Economy of Saskatchewan.

Local Indigenous People Quill Lakes Region

Yellow Quill Band - Fishing Lake Area

The First Nation was originally part of the Yellow-quill Saulteaux Band, a Treaty Band named after a Treaty 4 signatory Chief Ošāwaškokwanēpi, whose name means “Green/Blue-quill.” Soon after the death of Chief Ošāwaškokwanēpi, the Band divided into three groups, of which the central division about Nut Lake became the Nut Lake Band of Saulteaux, located on the Nut Lake Indian Reserve. In 1989, the Band changed their name to “Yellowquill”—one word—in honour the founding chief; however, when their post office opened in 1993, it was named as “Yellow Quill”—two words.

Day Star First Nation Located South of Kandahar/Wynyard

One of the featured ‘locals in our film is ‘Francis’. He is of Cree descendancy and part of the Day Star Band, which has their reservation close by.  Although he is from this region he has spent most of his life away from his traditional homeland – working in the oil industry and in other communities and cities like Saskatoon, Regina, Calgary, and Edmonton. He has now returned and retired to the village of Kandahar.

Day Star Reservation is located near the town of Punnichy to the south of Kandahar. This First Nation area is 6724 hectares in size with a population of 385, of which 117 live on the reserve. There are a number of reserve areas scattered throughout this area just south of Kandahar and among the Touchstone Hills.

Prior to signing Treaty 4 on September 15, 1874, Chief Day Star (Kii-si-caw-ah-chuck) and his people hunted near the south branch of the Saskatchewan River. A reserve was surveyed in September 1876, with alterations made to the boundary in 1881 and 1888. Day Star remained chief until his death in 1892. Initially, cultivation was done using spades and hoes, and a plot is known as the “community garden” was maintained by the whole reserve. The community developed a fine herd of cattle, each farmer keeping his herd until they numbered 10 to 12 animals, then giving half of them to someone else who could then get started. After the band received walking ploughs they began to grow wheat, barley, and oats, and with the arrival of the railway in Lipton in 1905, an outlet was created for the sale of their produce.

In 1946 Chief Kinequon and Willie Buffalo purchased the first tractor, and as more modern equipment appeared, people began to farm as individuals. Social events involved a variety of games including football for men and lacrosse for women, as well as horse racing, rodeos, and powwows; after a hall was built in 1938, dances and bingo parties were also held. In 1953 a hockey team was organized, and bingo parties were held to raise money for equipment. The 6,724 ha reserve is located 16 km north of Punnichy, with land also near Last Mountain Lake. There are 426 members of this band, 130 of whom live on the reserve.

George Gordon First Nation

The ‘George Gordon First Nation’ is also located near the village of Punnichy. The First Nation has a population of 2,774 people, 1,060 of whom live on-reserve and 1,714 who live off-reserve. Elected Chief Byron Bitternose leads this First Nation. Their territory is located on the Gordon 86 reserve, as arranged by Treaty 4.

In 1874, Treaty 4, which brokered the sale of indigenous land to the British Crown, was established between Queen Victoria and the Cree and Saulteaux First Nations. On September 15 of the same year, Kaneonuskatew (or, in his English name of George Gordon) was among the first of the indigenous leaders to make the agreement, signing as Chief of the George Gordon First Nation.  By 1884, half of the families belonging to the nation were farming, a development which had commenced in 1876, and would continue for many years. Although both George Gordon and his son, Moses Gordon, were originally hereditary chiefs, the people have since adopted the practice of democratically voting their chiefs and councillors into office.

Saskatchewan Is Formed

Saskatchewan was first granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company and then, in 1869, surrendered back to the British crown, so that it could be turned over to the newly formed Dominion of Canada, (1870). Canada administered its western territories like colonies and in 1873 created the North West Mounted Police to maintain law and order. In 1885 the national authorities sent out troops to quell the second Riel Rebellion, an uprising in which a large number of Métis, by then deprived of their main sustenance, the buffalo, sought to establish their rights to western lands in the face of growing settlement. Constitutionally, the territories in 1875 were granted an executive council, and by 1897 they had won responsible parliamentary government on the British model.

Saskatchewan, in 1905, entered confederation with its present boundaries and the status of a province equal to the others except that, as with Alberta, the federal government retained control of its natural resources. The new provincial government, chose Regina, as its centre of operations, and the first premier appointed was Walter Scott, a believer in partisan politics, as opposed to those who favoured a continuation of the kind of cooperative effort that had led to the creation of Saskatchewan as a separate province. The Liberal Scott was the first of several able politicians who kept the party in power in Saskatchewan except in 1929–34 and 1944–64 and after 1971. The 1944–64 period was unique in North American history. During that era, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), successively led by T.C. Douglas and Woodrow Lloyd, established the first avowedly socialist government on the continent, and the party won international attention in 1962 when it implemented the continent’s first compulsory medical care program.

Regardless of which political party has been in power at any given time, the Saskatchewan environment has always demanded much governmental intervention in the economy. The provincial telephone company and the power and gas utility, for example, were publicly owned) into the 1980s. then privatization began under a Progressive Conservative government. The cooperative movement has been encouraged by all parties and has been influential in a wide range of service, retail, and wholesale activities that include large credit unions and an oil refinery. In the handling of grains, once the backbone of the province’s economy, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool was also a cooperative until it became a publicly traded corporation (known as Viterra) in the 1990s. It was subsequently acquired by Glencore International PLC, a large multinational corporation. The co-ops helped many individuals survive the drought and economic depression of the 1930s, during which Saskatchewan society is considered to have sustained setbacks as severe as any suffered in Canada. After World War II the province attained a major development in mineral exploitation and industrial growth, and its diversified base was combined with new farming techniques to increase economic potential. Unfortunately, periods of prolonged low commodity prices continue to drive outward-migration.

Immigrant Communities

1870-1940: The Struggle for Cultural Survival

The prairie west adopted recognizably ‘modern’ institutions in the half-century after 1840. By the end of the 1890s, prairie society changed almost as drastically as it had in the preceding three generations. Its population increased sixfold from just over 400,000 in 1901 to 2.4 million in 1931, and its ethnic composition, as a result of an influx of hundreds of thousands of Britons, Americans, and Europeans. Its major cities grew rapidly and, like their counterparts in other developed nations, endured increasing tension among social classes. A vast rural community was built on a foundation of thousands of school and railway sidings, villages, and churches. New solutions to the eternal human issues of freedom, order, justice, and equality were made the subjects of economic and political debate. New political parties contested elections. Around the turn of the twentieth century, in brief, the prairie west entered a new phase in its evolution as a region.

Cultural diversity was one striking feature of prairie society in the opening decades of this century. To descend from the train at the CPR station in Winnipeg was to enter an international bazaar: the noise of thousands of voices and a dozen tongues circled the high marble pillars and drifted out into the street, there to mingle with the sounds of construction, delivery wagons, perambulatory vendors, and labour recruiters. The crowds were equally dense on Main street, just a block away, where shops displayed their wares in a fashion more European than British North American: fruits and vegetables, books and newspapers, coats and jackets stood on sidewalk tables and racks, even on the outer walls of buildings when weather permitted. The smell of fresh earth at an excavation site, of concrete being poured and lumber being stacked, reminded the visitor of the newness and vitality of the place. But the smells were mixed with beer and whiskey and sweat and horse manure to remind one, too that this was not a polite and ordered society but rather was customarily described as Little Europe, Babel, New Jerusalem, or the Chicago of the North. Prairie society was much more than cosmopolitan Winnipeg.

Visitors who travelled further west might have chanced on quite different scenes: at the southeastern edge of the plains, where the rough wooded terrain of the parkland stretched to the international border, they would have discovered an English parish church identical to those in Surrey or Sussex except that it was constructed of wood rather than stone. In this district, now known as Manor, Saskatchewan, there were indeed, manor houses; near the church, there was, if not a high street, at least the makings of one.

On special occasions, visitors might have seen mounted huntsmen assemble at the sound of a horn to assault the unsuspecting coyote or might have watched neighbours congregate in the library for a reading evening. The observer could then have taken the new train service north through Saskatoon and alighted at Hague, to be greeted by utter silence. A buggy might move slowly past the single row of stores behind the station, dark-skirted women might avert their eyes, and a murmur of phrases in low German would identify the distinctiveness of a Mennonite village. The examples could be multiplied many times: Mormons at Cardston, Alberta, where the great white temple dominated the district; Ukrainians near Wakaw, Saskatchewan, where the small onion dome of their frame church transported one to the steppes of Russia; Jews at Bender Hamlet, where the rows of houses suggested yet another settlement on the steppes; Hungarians at Esterhazy, Doukhobors at Verigin, Swedes at Erickson; the map of the southern half of the western interior was a giant checker-board of culturally and linguistically distinctive settlements. The population of the western interior had been overwhelmingly Canadian by birth and British by national origin in the late nineteenth century, but within one generation the cultural composition changed dramatically.

Almost half of all prairie residents at the start of the First World War had been born in another country, and the proportion was still one in three as late as 1931. Those who were British by ‘origin’ (a census term defined by the ancestral roots of a family’s male line) had similarly declined to about 50 per cent of the prairie total (of this group, half were English, one-quarter Scots) , while the various eastern European groups (Ukrainian, Austro-Hungarian, Polish, and Russian) numbered about 20 percent, and Western Europeans (German, Dutch, French, including French Canadians) also numbered about 20 percent. As a community of immigrants was created in the opening decades of the twentieth century, phrases such as ‘New Canadians, ”strangers within our gates,’ ‘foreigners,’ and ‘ethnic groups’ gradually became part of the Canadian vocabulary. Even today, westerners use the term ‘ethnic’ in everyday language and make broad generalizations about ethnic behaviour, tell crude stories known as ethnic jokes, and celebrate the changing seasons with ethnic festivals. Definitions of the term ‘ethnic’ or of its many close relatives, from ‘immigrant’ to ‘New Canadian’ and ‘displaced person,’ are vague.

According to popular convention, however, the term ‘ethnic group ‘does not apply to Canada’s aboriginal peoples and founding nationalities but does include all other minority groups whose identity is derived from racial origin, national origin, language, religion, and historical or contemporary consciousness. To exclude the British interior would be a mistake. Their unique status in the west derives more from linguistic and historical precedence – for French and English are Canada’s ‘official’ languages – than from officially sanctioned cultural privileges. In other ways, the English and French, like all other peoples, were immigrants to western Canada and behaved as members of ethnic groups.

Saskatchewan's Five Significant Immigrant Infusions

The first, a product of the fur trade, resulted in the establishment of a fur post society and in the birth of the most numerous new element in the area, English and French speaking Metis.

The second occurred in the decades after Confederation and, because it was composed largely of British Canadians, resulted in the establishment of a new, Ontario-like agricultural community; despite the apparent homogeneity of this society it is well to underline that it contained pockets of a quite different nature, including British ranchers and artisans, non-British agricultural settlements of Mennonites and Icelanders and Jews and, of course, continuing communities of indigenous people and metis.

The third infusion of immigrants, and by far the largest, occurred between 1897 and 1913, and was comprised in equal parts of British, Canadian, American, and continental European arrivals, with a sprinkling of others from around the globe.

The fourth, an extension of the third in terms of national origin, took place in the 1920s. And the fifth significant addition occurred in the decades after the Second World War.

Canadian immigration policy was, according to the BNA Act of 1867, a subject of concurrent jurisdiction between the federal and provincial governments but the central government retained paramountcy in case of conflict. In practice, however, the Federal government took the lead establishing immigration offices in Britain and Europe, quarantine stations at the three ports of importance (Halifax, Saint John, and Grosse Isle, Quebec), and domestic branches of the service in a number of Canadian cities. Restrictions were few and entry of immigrants who were destitute, or physically or mentally unfit, and thus likely to become a public charge, was permitted only on payment of a bond; and criminals could be denied admission.

This unusually open policy was limited once in the following three decades: as of 1885, most Chinese immigrants were required to pay a tax.

The policy was established by regulation as well as by statute, however, and with the appointment of Clifford Sifton as Minister of the interior in 1897, clear but informal guide-lines worked to encourage some immigrant groups and to discourage others. Sifton was young, pragmatic, a westerner, convinced of  ‘the potential of the West, and its centrality to the future development and prosperity of Canada. Thus the promotion of immigration and settlement was, he believes, a crucial ‘national enterprise He worked to encourage the immigration of experienced farmers by spending considerable sums in the agricultural districts of the United States, Britain, and Europe, and he tried to discourage others, such as blacks, Italians, Jews, Orientals, and Urban Englishmen, who would not, he believed, succeed on farms and would thus end up in the cities. These informal recruitment entry qualifications were based more on occupational than race criteria, therefore, and worked to encourage such a diverse group as Ukrainians and Doukhobors while also discouraging English mechanics.

Immigration policy changed course slightly when Sifton was replaced by Frank Oliver in 1905. Oliver was also staunchly British in an era where the national reaction to ‘foreign’ newcomers was increasing. He was more inclined to reduce the recruiting activity in central and eastern Europe and to increase it in Great Britain, including its cities,  in order to preserve the ‘national fabric’ of Canada. But the unofficial consequences of Oliver’s rule was to permit and even encourage the immigration of many more British subjects, including thousands of paupers who were assisted by charitable organizations, and virtually to denied entry to blacks and orientals. Despite his preference for agriculturalists, Oliver was less successful than Sifton in resisting the pressure of business leaders and cabinet colleagues to recruit ‘alien navvies’ railway construction activity increased after 1907, the demand unsophisticated labourers also multiplied because the railway builders wanted nothing to do with workers who expected ‘high wages, a feather bed and a bathtub ‘ in their construction camps, the result was free entry for ‘foreign’ navvies in 1910-11.

Because Robert Borden’s new Conservative government was equally sensitive to the demands of contractors, mine owners, and lumber entrepreneurs, the policy was continued until the outbreak of war in Europe. Untold thousands of immigrants in this era belonged to this category of a foreign navy, to the dismay of observers such as Cliff Sifton. the hiatus in immigration caused by the war was extended into the early 1920s by the prohibition of Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites, and ‘enemy aliens,’ including Ukrainians and Germans, and especially favoured groups of Sifton ‘s days. The government re-imposed monetary requirements on all newcomers except those destined for farm or domestic work. But, in 1923, in the face of daunting pressure from such

European peoples as Mennonites, who faced very difficult times in the Soviet Union, the ban on enemy aliens was lifted. The failure of British population sources and mounting Canadian emigration to the United States may also have had a bearing on this decision. And, in 1925, in an even more important policy change, Mackenzie King’s government decided to permit the two Canadian railway companies, the Canadian National Railway (CNR) and the CPR to embark on an expensive recruitment campaign in central and eastern Europe among those very farmers who for almost five years had been viewed as ‘non-preferred’ classes. Nearly 370,000 continental citizens left for Canada in the next six years, half of them under the terms of the railway agreement.

The tide of immigrants was simply too great to be absorbed easily by the Canadian economy during the late 1920s. As hostility to foreigners and demands for restriction increased, the federal government moved to reduce the numbers of new arrivals in 1929. In accordance with an election promise, King’s successor, R.B. Benett, cancelled the railway agreement in 1930. The gates of Canada were essentially closed to immigration for the next decade. Immigrants of Asian origin found it virtually impossible to enter, and in 1931 only certain British subjects and American citizens, wives and children of legal Canadian residents, or agriculturists ‘having sufficient means to farm in Canada’ were permitted to enter the country. Where 1.8 million immigrants arrived in Canada between 1911 and 1921, and 1.2 million immigrants arrived in 1921-31, of the 140,000 arrived between 1931 and 1941.

In view of the wide variation in immigration during Canada’s one hundred and fifty years as a one might wonder why the government had not acted to implement a system that regulated the intake more effectively. The short answer is that the government seemed to have little control over immigration totals. Canadian recruitment of immigrants in the generations around Confederation had been something of a disaster. In every decade from the 1860s ~ the 1890s, Canada lost more citizens through emigration to the United States than it gained through immigration. In the face of significant western settlement difficulties, the weakness of the national economy in the 1880s and early 1890s, and the overwhelming presence of the American competitor, not to mention Australia, Argentina, and Brazil, western Canada failed to make an impact on the popular imagination in Britain and Europe. The well-tried tactic of immigration pamphlets, recruiting offices, assisted passages, free tours for delegates of various communities was employed consistently throughout these decades, but the results were meager.

The best results came as a consequence of negotiations with particular groups, especially those facing straitened circumstances or political oppression.