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Ordinary Heroes

Many French settlers had heard second-hand, from colonizing priests or family members who had immigrated, about the vastness of the Canadian prairies. They would have listened to stories about the harsh winters and the challenges of breaking new soil in a foreign land. One French pioneer, Marcel Durieux, recorded his first impressions of the western plains in a journal chronicling many of his family’s adventures and struggles in their new prairie home. The following is an excerpt from the book Ordinary Heroes—The Journal of a French Pioneer in Alberta by Marcel Durieux describing one of the first nights he spent on his father’s new homestead.

From Chapter Five: The Cruelty of First Winter

by Marcel Durieux

Although breath-takingly beautiful, a prairie winter could prove deadly for pioneers unprepared to meet the unforgiving elements.This winter scene was captured in Edmonton in 1924The wind blew through the large black hole of the deep valley, carrying along with it the noise of the river flowing on its gravel-bed. Stronger gusts would bring us its whisper as it reached the tops of the spruce on the other slope of the ravine. It seemed to me, however, that it carried other lugubrious noises . . . like a Tyrolean song. I questioned my father, who smiled and said very simply:

“Coyotes!”

I’ll grant that this long howling complaint in the night did impress me. It seemed to me that the coyotes, too, were frightened, because I wasn’t at ease. . . and my hand instinctively sought the place where I had left Bonnevie’s gun on the harness. My father, who had seen my gesture, got up on his knees, and, lifting the opening of the tent, motioned to me to follow him.

We walked out for about fifty feet.

“Look at the reflection of the moon’s crescent right over the elbow of the river.”

Through the enormous crevasse, thirty metres away, I could see, far away and very deep, the glimmer of the crescent in the water.

“Now turn around,” said my father.

Through the tent walls, the reddish glow of the lantern seemed like a huge firefly. I heard my father say:

“Good Lord! How all this appears small in this immensity!”

I was trembling in spite of myself because the air was brisk.

“Let’s go in, I’m cold.”

“Yes,” he replied, “we’ll go to bed even though it is only seven o’clock.”

Inside the tent, the stove had given off a certain amount of heat, which warmed me up and set my heart back in its place. In this fragile cloth rectangle, I had the impression of being in a citadel. . . and that the two of us could resist anything; . . . however, father thought it might not be a bad idea to check the stakes and the tent ropes. . .

Source:

  • Durieux, Marcel. Ordinary heroes: the Journal of a French pioneer in Alberta. Translated and edited by Roger Motut and Maurice Legris ; with an introd. by L. G. Thomas. Edmonton, Alberta: 1980.

 
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