By Sean Graham
As an MA student, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Regina, a place that often gets criticized for its topography. Despite the jokes, I always countered that the Prairie sky was a sight in itself, somehow powerful and majestic while also being a calming presence. In my conversation with Trevor Herriot, he offered the possibility that one of the reasons I was so drawn to the sky is that the Prairie landscape has been so heavily altered to be almost unrecognizable from its native condition. When put in those terms, it becomes abundantly clear that the land has been completely altered by human beings.
A few years ago, Herriot came across the story of forced Métis relocation in the Spy Hill region along the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border in the 1930s as part of the Community Pastures Program. Since the program was discontinued, however, the area has become the centre of questions about what to do with the land. That’s where his new book Towards a Prairie Atonement can provide some answers.
Working with Norman Fleury, who, among other roles, has served as the Director of Michif Languages for the Manitoba Métis Federation, Herriot started to ask questions about how settlers can atone for the past and work towards reconciliation. In telling the story of the land, Herriot and Fleury, whose voice can be heard throughout the text, provide a framework through which communities can be brought together and, in time, past wounds can start to heal. As they write in the book’s final section, “Any chance to create an economy that nurtures the prairie instead of devouring it, to break down the garrison holding the wealth of the land and keeping its First Peoples out, will require us to embrace the best of Indigenous and settler values.”
In talking with Herriot, this final point struck a cord for me. When I asked about a settler telling this story, he pointed out that it wasn’t exclusively a story of Indigenous peoples. Whenever issues around reconciliation are discussed, too often they are presented as Indigenous issues. But the story, by its very nature, includes settlers and, therefore, is also the story of contemporary settlers. That collective ownership of the past is a rather powerful motivator to get people invested in reconciliation and, in this case, atonement.
Towards a Prairie Atonement is a terrific work that captures the reader’s imagination. Currently the writer-in-residence at the Regina Public Library, Herriot’s literary skills are on display in the book. And despite not being a historian, he is able to incorporate historical methods in a way that doesn’t detract from the prose and keeps the reader invested in the story. In addition, Fleury’s constant presence provides an alternative and unique perspective that gives greater gravitas to the overall analysis while also serving as a reminder of the collective effort required to work towards a better and more effective use of the land. How this story ends is yet to be seen, but Towards a Prairie Atonement provides a very useful framework.
In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Trevor Herriot about the book. We talk about the Prairie landscape, the challenges in telling the story of displacement, and his relationship with Norman Fleury. A self-described Prairie naturalist, Trevor also writes about these issues at his Grass Notes blog, which you can find here.
Sean Graham is an editor with Activehistory.ca and the host/producer of the History Slam podcast.