David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Need to Track Changes on the Prairies

Brandon Sun, July 5, 2007; Part Two of Three - David McConkey

In last week's column, I recalled the Palliser Expedition that travelled through the Prairies 150 years ago. I also outlined a proposal for a new Expedition today that would re-trace the original route and report its findings.

A new Expedition would be a way to commemorate the original journey. It also would be a great learning experience for all of us living on the Prairies. Flourishing today and into the future depends on how well we know our past.

The major concern in 1857 was political and global. Could the Prairies – then mainly controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company – be kept British, and out of American control? The newly agreed upon border, along the 49th parallel, was not mapped or marked. Americans were advancing west.

The Prairies were populated mainly by First Nations and Métis people. There were Hudson’s Bay fur trading forts, especially in the north where furs were the best. There was also an agricultural settlement at Red River (Winnipeg).
The Palliser Expedition (1857-1860) concentrated its explorations along the southern boundary. The Expedition recorded the location of the new international border, assessed the feasibility of transportation routes for a future railway, and considered the potential for agriculture and settlement.

John Palliser determined that the region could be secured as part of British North America. Palliser also predicted that there would be problems integrating future European agricultural settlers and the First Nations and Métis people.
The Expedition documented a number of important places in Western Canada. During their travels in the Rocky Mountains, for example, a member of the Expedition was almost killed by a blow from a horse’s hoof. The group gave the name Kicking Horse Pass to the route, which the CPR used 27 years later.

Palliser and his company travelled the same way as others did in those days. From Lake Superior to Red River, they travelled by canoe. Over the Prairies, in the summer, they walked or rode on horseback, carrying their supplies in Red River carts. The carts were made entirely of natural materials, and could be repaired from wood and bison hides found along the way.

When they encountered rivers too deep to ford, they fashioned their tents and carts into temporary boats or made rafts from trees on the spot. People and horses swam across.

Horses required constant care. The animals tired out, they could not always find enough grass, they sank in swamps, their hooves were worn down on the hard ground, and they injured their legs in badger holes. Horses were even killed by wolves that attacked the camp. Not surprisingly, some of them ran off.

The Expedition traded or purchased fresh horses and other supplies at Hudson’s Bay Company forts or from First Nations and Métis people they encountered.

They wintered at the Hudson’s Bay’s Fort Edmonton and Fort Carlton (between Saskatoon and Prince Albert). Using the fort as a base, they made excursions on snowshoes using dog sleds to carry their equipment.

Globalization was already a major dynamic for the Prairies 150 years ago. The fur trade had brought Europeans to the Prairies and also drawn the First Nations people into the global economy. Furs took on new value, based on international fashions and markets.

When Palliser met the aboriginal people, their way of life had already dramatically changed. Many had converted to Christianity. Many were of mixed First Nations and European ancestry. The introduction of horses and rifles had changed their hunting.

Products such as cloth and metal tools from Europe were commonplace. New foods – such as bannock from Scotland which was prepared using flour from Europe – were becoming staples. Other foods including sugar from the West Indies and tea from Asia were also available.

Today, of course, millions of people from all over the world live on the Prairies. We import and export ideas and products from and to every part of the globe. Yet Prairie crime rates that are higher than other parts of Canada, for example, indicate that all is not well here among the population.

The new “Palliser” Expedition should look at political challenges in the light of 150 years ago and today. Areas of interest could include the potential for Western separation, annexation to the US, racial tensions, immigration, globalization, and the important issue of unresolved First Nations land claims.

In the third and final column in this series, I’ll look at Prairie Expeditions (old and new) and environmental sustainability.

* * * *
See also:  

Part Three of This Three-Part Series

"On the Road with Captain Palliser" by Joyce McCart

Solitary Rambles and Adventures of a Hunter in the Prairies

"The Palliser Expedition" by Irene Spry

Future Change May Be Dramatic

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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