The history of the prairies is complicated. In Towards a Prairie Atonement, Trevor Herriot delves into the weeds of this landscape's story, asking whether the destruction of its natural state could have been avoided, whether there might have been another way forward.
He argues there was, and there still is, a system based on the Metis commons. A way that combines European and Indigenous practices. Land that is both public and private. The Metis had rules for farming the land in this way, resulting in a system that protected both the land and the people.
When the Depression hit, years of poor farming practices and drought caused rich top soil to blow away. In 1935 the Canadian government set up Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) to help deal with the problem. Community pastures were one way to stop the destruction. While PFRA pastures have been lauded for their success, their history has a murky start.
Herriot frames his argument in the book with a visit to Ste. Madeline, a cemetery that was once a Metis town on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. In 1937-38, the Canadian government forced the 250 people living there to leave, converting the land into the Spy Hill-Ellice community pasture.
PFRA pastures have been wonderful for preserving prairie ecology, but their history is tied to colonialism and all of the injustices that entails. Herriot does not shy away from these sort of complications.
While Herriot’s tone is often angry and bitter, his overall message is clear: These endangered lands need to be protected. No matter our history, it is up to us now, all of us, together.
“Reparation, reconciliation, repatriation -- the work that comes with seeing that ‘our tipis are held down by the same peg’ centres on land and includes restoration of title, but we must also restore Indigenous models of honouring the community interest.”
This is no small task, especially in the face of corporations and governments that believe in a limitless economy. It’s the same mindset that drove the buffalo from the land, and today eats up the last remaining prairie landscapes. In this economy, Herriot sees the Wiihtigo spirit of Algonquian and Metis traditions.
“The Wiihtigo is a demonic force often personified as a gluttonous monster whose hunger can never be satisfied,” Herriot writes. “Watching traders gather and ship thousands of tons of meat and hides out of the prairie, the old and wise might well have warned that Wiihtigo was taking charge. Today the prairies suffers more than ever under a Wiihtigo economy, making it harder for people to hold together the kind of community that supports the private stewardship of our grasslands.”
To move forward, we need to know how we got here. Herriot doesn't offer a specific solution, but does shed some light to guide our path.