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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Our Native Waterways

by Gilbert Bouchard

Ce texte a été publié en anglais et n'est pas disponible en français.

View of the North Saskatchewan River on the Victoria Trail

We crossed the North Saskatchewan River, then reached the fork where roads led to the east and west sides of the lake. We stopped at a small gas station where the clerk and all the customers were Cree. We were now on Frog Lake First Nation territory, near the northern limits of the Treaty No. 6 lands...When we could drive no farther, we got out and took an overgrown path towards the water. A hundred yards from shore, we came upon a clearing that had obviously had some recent ceremonial use, with fire pits, teepee rings, and ceremonial bundles tied to the trees. In the centre was a mound of reddish stones eight feet long by about three feet wide shaped like a funeral pyre. From here the path to the beach was narrow and reedy. As we reached the sandy shore a distant honking of geese grew louder and more insistent, until a flock flew over us towards the south. In that early spring when Wandering Spirit's young men made their war preparations along this beach, the geese would have been heading north.

Excerpt from Ancient Land, Ancient Sky: Following Canada's Native Canoe Routes, by Wayne Haimila and Peter McFarlane

View of the Oldman River from Fort Macleod"Going Down the Road"? Hardly. If director Donald Shebib had really wanted his seminal 1970 Canadian movie to be a Canuck icon, it should have been called "Going Down the River."

When you think about it, roads are a Johnny-come-lately; while vital now, they weren't the major movers of people and haulers of goods in Canada's not-so-distant past. That work fell to the waterways.

From early prehistory to the last few decades of the last century, rivers and adjoining lakes were often the only defensible travel mode in a country of abundant geography - dense forests, gummy swamps, unclimbable mountains, endless plains, and impassable badlands. Native, Métis, European or other - if you were living in rural Canada before or during the reign of Queen Victoria, you were likely handy with a paddle. You'd probably spend a big chunk of your life a virtual stone's throw from some body of moving water.

Sketch of fur traders in a canoeAlberta's rivers carry centuries of significance for Native peoples. Along the shores of the Milk River, rock art provides an artistic legacy of prehistoric Plains peoples. Blackfoot Crossing on the Bow River was a traditional gathering place, a place of peace, long before the signing of Treaty 7 on its banks. The North Saskatchewan and Peace rivers in the north were important for everyday survival and for annual cultural ceremonies.

Waterways loom as large in our collective imaginations as they loomed in practical reality in our ancestors' lives. In my own family, stories connected to the nation's waterways abound. My first Canadian-born ancestor, Antoine Bouchard, died in the woods just outside his Quebec farm in 1759. The reason he was hiding in the woods? The St. Lawrence River that lapped that ancient Bouchard's land had been transformed into a source of terror as General James Wolfe conducted a river-long pirate campaign as a way of weakening stubborn French forces.

In 1920, when my maternal grandfather Eugene Aubin arrived to homestead in Northern Alberta, he was quick to discover that neither his rural Quebec ways nor those he learned as a teenager working in the lumber mills and factories of New York and Boston would do.

He spent the first night on his homestead sleeping in a teepee, and in subsequent weeks he learned new skills. For sustenance, he depended on the Little Smoky River, which flows into the mighty Peace River, and on the old Prudhomme Trail where the game was plentiful.

Confluence of the Peace and Smoky RiversGrandfather Aubin learned to speak Cree and, astride his beloved horse King, was taught to hunt for big game on horseback (a barbaric practice as defined by some of his more rigid Habitant neighbors who were happier snaring small game). His Native teachers and friends were hunting and fishing along the Smoky and Peace Rivers as they had for centuries.

Recent archaeological work had contradicted the long-held paradigm of an overland migration by North America's original aboriginal inhabitants. Amazing finds off the Queen Charlotte Islands (the Ice Age-era shore, when the water was lower) support the theory that Canada's first inhabitants hugged the coastline and were a maritime, water-loving people. An anthropologist working with the Haida, descendents of those First Peoples, believes that legends passed on today recount cultural memories 10,000 years old.

View of the Athabasca RiverSurprisingly, though, little has been written about the history of Canada's mighty waterways (romantic fur trade epics aside), and even less about the importance of those waterways to Canada's Native population. Wayne Haimila and Peter McFarlane set out to tell that story with their recently released book Ancient Land, Ancient Sky: Following Canada's Native Canoe Routes.

"We definitely set out to write an educational work, but not an academic piece," says Haimila, a lawyer, journalist, and political advisor specializing in land claims issues. "We wanted to take the First Person's perspective and write and accessible book."


Gilbert Bouchard is an Edmonton poet, journalist, and broadcaster. Reprinted with kind permission of Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine and Gilbert Bouchard.

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