A settler’s atonement
Herriot reads from his new book in Ottawa April 3.
“The prairie landscape,” Trevor Herriot says, “has become one of the most altered on the planet.”
Herriot is a Canadian writer, naturalist and activist whose new book, Towards a Prairie Atonement, laments how early settlers mistreated not only Indigenous peoples but also the land. He spoke in Ottawa last month at an event hosted by the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) and Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ). His thinking and writing have been influenced by faith, he said, and in particular by Catholic social teaching. He is usually reluctant to talk publicly or to write about faith as that is often unwelcome in media, academic and environmental circles. Therefore he expressed gratitude for being able to have such a conversation at the Ottawa event.
Herriot’s grandparents were settlers on land just north of the Qu’Appelle River, which flows through Southern Saskatchewan and into Manitoba. Herriot has staked his writerly claim on the Qu’Appelle and its valley as well as the surrounding prairie grasslands. He developed a strong naturalist bent in his work, writing in illuminating detail about what he sees and hears on the ground, and about what has been lost.
Community pasture on the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border.
Herriot pays tribute to a mentor whom he never met. R.D. Symons was born in England in 1898 and as a child became infatuated with writing about the Canadian North-West. At age 16, he arrived in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan on a train and spent most of his life in the province. He worked as a cowboy, a game warden and a homesteader but he also became a successful writer published by Doubleday in New York. Symons loved the natural world and was both heart-broken and incensed by its destruction in the name of progress. Herriot writes, “Symons was our first home-grown voice of protest against the excesses of agriculture and the diminishment of native peoples and wild places on the prairie.”
Herriot, like Symons, has been prolific, publishing five books in 16 years. Most of his other literary influences are more contemporary than Symons. They include the priest ecologist Thomas Berry; Wallace Stegner, an American writer who spent part of his childhood in Southwestern Saskatchewan; and Peter Matthiessen, the American novelist, naturalist and wilderness writer. Matthiessen’s deep reverence for nature moved him toward solidarity with Indigenous peoples who were displaced and often killed off by encroaching settler civilization in the U.S.
Herriot also mentions William Faulkner as a literary influence. Faulkner was grounded in what he called his “little postage stamp of soil” in and around Oxford, Mississippi which he fictionalized as the town of Jefferson in fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Herriot is similarly grounded. He quotes American poet Gary Snyder, whose advice to people is to “stay put.” Herriot has stayed put. He has spent his life in Regina where he and his wife Karen have raised a family of four. Prior to retiring a few years ago, he had spent his entire career with Sask Tel, the province’s publicly-owned telecommunications company.
Herriot’s writing as a naturalist has also led him to a lament for how Indigenous peoples who lived on the land for thousands of years were dispossessed by governments who wanted to attract white settlers. He is, like Andrew Suknaksi, another Saskatchewan writer, now deceased, loyal to his own ancestors but also deeply regretful for settler society’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. In Herriot’s estimation, their dispossession and despoliation of the land have gone hand in hand. That is the theme of Towards a Prairie Atonement. In it, he spends a day in the company of a Metis guide at a settlement which was forcibly abandoned in the 1930s.
A Red River cart wheel encircles this Metis cross at Ste. Madeleine.
The historical arc here is instructive. In 1869, the recently-Confederated country of Canada purchased the vast North-West which had been the private preserve of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Indigenous peoples were never consulted about the sale and were considered obstacles to agricultural settlement. First Nations people were forced onto reserves and the government’s answer to Metis grievances at Fort Gary and later at Batoche was to send in the militia.
Between 1900 and 1902 one small group of Metis people, fleeing from the Red River and accompanied by a Catholic priest, established a settlement called Ste. Madeleine near what is now the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. The land was sandy and marginal but in the 1930s the Metis were evicted even from that land when governments decided to create a community pasture for grazing livestock. The families were given only short notice to leave before their homes were burned and their dogs shot.
Herriot laments what has been lost and yearns for what might be. He understands that he has to accept responsibility as a descendent of settlers for what has happened and is still happening. He does so by writing an “atonement” and hoping to bring people together in a way that will be friendlier to the land as well. Herriot’s effort is especially timely, coming after the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which calls for individuals, governments and churches to engage in authentic reconciliation. Indian residential schools were only one of the destructive attempts to eradicate Indigenous peoples and culture. The forced surrender of land was another.
Short native grasses on the sandy plains of the community pasture.
When my wife Martha and I were living in Regina in the 1980s, we would get together with a small group of other people for potluck meals. We shared food and companionship and talked about social justice issues from a faith-based perspective. Trevor and Karen Herriot, younger than us by a decade or more, were a part of that group. We left Regina in 1990 and I was surprised when in the year 2000 Herriot’s first book, River in a Dry Land, appeared amid much critical acclaim. Herriot had never mentioned to me that he wanted to be a writer or was working at becoming one. I resolved to ask him about that should I have a chance.
I was asked to interview Herriot in Ottawa at the CCC & CPJ event about his book and his associated efforts as an environmental activist. So I finally did get to ask him how it was that I shared many social occasions with him without knowing about his passion to become a writer. Had I been too self-absorbed and inattentive? No, said Herriot. He knew even back then that he wanted to write but he did not know how exactly or about what, so he did not talk about it. Any questions about what and how have now been answered in the most articulate of ways.