Following on Saskatchewan historian Bill Waiser’s A World We Have Lost (a monumental work of retrieval and regret reviewed in the PM March 15), this slim volume by Saskatchewan author and naturalist Trevor Herriot is a call to enter into a new relationship with the prairie environment and with the peoples left behind by the gods of profit-driven development.
Herriot devotes special attention to the situation of the Métis, the mixed-blood descendants of indigenous tribes and Europeans who arrived with the fur trade. These people of the prairie still struggle to overcome a history of rights ignored, lands dispossessed and resistance suppressed. Dedicated “to those who take up the work of reconciliation,” Towards a Prairie Atonement aims to “inspire a second look at what we all have lost and could yet restore.”
Herriot observes that only 3.5 per cent of native prairie grassland has any protection in a “scattered archipelago of native prairie islands surrounded by a sea of cash crops.” And the risks to this remnant increased with the 2012 decision of the Harper government that ended the community pastures program which was a model of sustainability and conservation, and that removed “federal protection from these vulnerable landscapes.” In response a “Public Pastures-Public Interest” movement has mobilized to defend the grasslands.
Herriot sees in the narrative of agro-industrial “progress” an exploitive colonial system that has left wounded lands and peoples in need of healing. As he puts it: “The work of decolonizing, or atonement, begins with the act of recognizing and honouring what was and is native but has been evicted from the land — native plants and animals but the original peoples, cultures, and languages too.”
Herriot goes into considerable detail on the role of the Métis as an emerging prairie nation badly treated by a colonial historical narrative marked by prejudice and imposition. The Métis were regarded as obstacles to progress. Their caring for the land was replaced by a “fraudulent land scrip system.” The travails of the Métis are exemplified in the case of the former Ste. Madeleine Mission and community grassland in Manitoba, which Herriot visits and explores in depth. Métis families had lived there for many decades in harmony with the native prairie. But the Ste. Madeleine settlement was razed in the 1930s as part of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration program. The Métis lost the connection to that land although they were not the problem the PFRA was set up to solve.
In recounting this Herriot gives full voice to Métis friends and companions, notably Norman Fleury, a remarkable Métis elder and storyteller originally from St. Lazare who teaches Michif in the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education. Fleury sees his people as consummate survivors through “every advance of colonization and settlement on the prairie.” In an afterword he writes: “We are the best of both worlds — Indigenous and European — unified into one people.” His vision isn’t just a lament for what’s been lost; it looks to the future. Indicative of that confidence is the “Michif to Go” smartphone app he has developed.
The Métis way of sharing the gifts of the prairie as a commonwealth arises “out of a cultural and spiritual obligation to the creation that provided everything.” Herriot sees in that a path toward restoring our sense of responsibility for the shared well-being of the earth. It’s a welcome seed of hope in this prairie spring.