Bringing Prince Albert history to light

Jodi Schellenberg
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After hearing for years that Saskatchewan is the prairies, one historian decided to change that point of view.

Merle Massie, a historian who is originally from the Prince Albert area, will be launching her book about her home area at Coles this Thursday.

Merle Massie, a historian originally from the Paddockwood area, recently published a book Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan.

The book focuses on the north Prince Albert region, stretching north of the river to Waskesiu and Montreal Lake area.

“What it is is what we call a very deep time history,” Massie said. “It starts with the glaciers and goes all the way to 1940. It is what I would call an environment history, place history, and it takes a look at the dance between the humans and the landscape over time in this particular place.”

Massie grew up in the area, where her father Sargeant McGowan was the reeve of the RM of Paddockwood.

When she would read Canadian history books that described Saskatchewan as prairies, it “drove me bananas.”

“The prairies were the place my grandparents left in 1934 in a dust storm, running as far and as fast away from Weyburn as they possibly could,” Massie said. “They ran up to Paddockwood to get away from the dust storm.

“To constantly describe everything from that prairie perspective, I just felt like the story was being told wrong,” she added. “When I went to become a professional historian, the first story I wanted to tell was basically my own story and show how you can be from Saskatchewan and not from the prairies.”

She explained that if history isn’t told from many perspectives, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“For example, if you tell Saskatchewan from the prairie perspective, you leave so much out and there is so much of the provincial story that is missing,” Massie said. “My book covers a lot of that provincial history and shows not only a lot of the stuff that is missing, but the stuff that gets told wrong when you only tell it from a perspective of the prairies. It covers all of those bases but just on a practical level, on a local level.”

Many people from the region might think “it is past time” for a history book about the northern part of the province.

The book is a very focused and deep, investigative history of the one area, instead of a more broad topic surrounding the entire forest fringe area.

“If you take a look at how humans have reacted to the landscape, it gives you a completely different perspective on how we have used the environment of Western Canada throughout the last 5,000 years,” Massie said.

She found her research fascinating and found many interesting details about the area many people may not know.

“To give an example, I was doing a lot of research on the lumber industry around Prince Albert,” Massie said. “I had all these photographs on my laptop and was working and showing my work in progress at conferences. I’d have colleagues, they would look over my shoulder and say, ‘Why do you have pictures of B.C. on your laptop? I thought you were a Saskatchewan historian.’”

When she would explain the photographs were from Saskatchewan, the people would then say they didn’t think of Saskatchewan as having trees.

“That is exactly the stereotyping I am trying to work against,” Massie said.

Another storyline Massie found interesting was overland freighting, which was the creation of transportation networks through the boreal forest.

“So many of them were homesteaders from across the forest fringe and they weren’t that busy in the winter time so they would take these two or three week contracts,” she said. “They would take their horses and their sleighs and come to Prince Alert to load up with goods and they’d take a contract to take the stuff through the bush up to Montreal Lake and Lac La Ronge and eventually even further north.”

The stories she found were phenomenal, Massie said. Often they would get together in groups of five to 15 and create a freight swing to help with the work.

“The reason why they would do it that way is because if you put the sleighs one behind another, you would have tremendous force and you could put a plow on the front, in front of the lead team,” Massie said. “I’ve seen tons of pictures, I’ve got a few of them in the book, that show these massive plows being pushed by these horses going right across the lakes because you don’t want to freight up into the north in the summertime. It is a bad idea. You just lose everything.”

Eventually, with changes in technology, caterpillars were used instead of horses.

She also found that many of the stories connected in ways she never expected.

“For example, the road going north from Prince Albert (originally) had to do with the lumber industry,” Massie said. “They were developing roads at the turn of the century and they were developing roads to go up around Round Lake and Sturgeon Lake Reserve and up through the park, which was of course first the Sturgeon River Forest Reserve and became the park in 1928.”

There was one link in the road between Waskesiu and Montreal Lake was non-existent at first and was build by the National Indian Department.

Montreal Lake and Lac La Ronge joined treaty six in 1889 and were worried about travel.

“When First Nations groups joined treaty, it wasn’t just the signing of the treaty but the treaty gifts that had to come in every year,” Massie said. “The Federal Indian Department soon realized they had to factor in logistics of transportation and freighting that they hadn’t thought about before.

“The Indian Department were total newbies at it and had not idea but they were actually the ones they were so scared by the transportation costs to take goods from P.A. to Montreal Lake, they actually spend the money to build the road between Waskesiu and Montreal Lake,” she added.

It was fascinating to find out all the history many people don’t even realize is in their own backyard.

“To think about how all of these things work together and you don’t really get that if you just write about transportation or just write about soldier settlements or that kind of thing,” Massie said. “You get this broad Canadian look, but you never get a chance to see all of these different things working together in place.

“That is what you get when you write a place history -- it is very detailed but you also get to se all that interconnectedness in the same place,” she added. “As a writer, it is fun to research because you have to be a jack of all trades -- you have to learn a little bit about so many different things and then spend the time to put together the puzzle and see how it all links together.”

She will be launching her book at the Coles in Prince Albert on Thursday at 7 p.m.

“I’m so pleased to bring it home to the people in Prince Albert and to show them a little bit of the history about the region … but also to show how important this region is on a national scale and what it shows in the way we have told Canadian history and how we still have so much to learn.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, Sturgeon River Forest Reserve, First Nations

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Montreal Lake, Paddockwood Waskesiu Weyburn Lac La Ronge Western Canada Prince Alert Round Lake Sturgeon Lake Reserve

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