The Land and the People
Alberta is a land of geological contrasts. So, too, are its people. It’s trite to talk about flatland and mountains, boom and bust, black and white, right and left, native and newcomer, but that’s what one has to talk about in order to understand this place.
Albertans deal with the contrasts and the uncertainties they bring every day. It makes us tough. Inside each of us is an uncertainty that has nothing to do with dreams, plans, or goals — it has to do with the land and its bounty. Farmer, rancher, oilman, skier — regardless of the business we’re in, we are born into uncertainty and it keeps us wary of sure things in the same way our ancestors were wary of snake-oil salesmen. That wariness is nothing more complicated than the realization that all of this — a bumper crop, a gushing oil well, a boom in the stock market — can vanish in a moment. The land has taught us that through cycles of prosperity and poverty, through drought and deluge, through all the vicissitudes of weather. It’s our legacy.
We Albertans are anchored to the land, even as we sit in offices forty and more storeys above it. Agriculture is one of the legs on the tripod of our economy. Scratch an Albertan — any Albertan — and you’ll find a connection to the land in more than mere spirit. It is the land that roots us. It is also what makes us eternally hopeful. No one who has seen what the prairie can deliver in a bumper year ever loses the optimism that another harvest, another spring, another season awaits us. We just can’t be certain when.
Like Scarlett O’Hara, Albertans know that all that really matters is land. That’s what stays. It’s what brought immigrants to Western Canada.
The Alberta most of us know is one part myth, two parts hope, and 100 per cent new. Not in the sense of just being uncrated, but because we have yet to become complacent about who we are, what we own, and the sheer scope of both.
There first was, of course, another Alberta and other owners. Europeans came here as interlopers and took over, settling the status of some of the First Nations through treaties, most notably Treaty 7, signed in 1877, in which the Blackfoot, Peigan, Blood, Sarcee, and Stoney ceded ownership of their territory in exchange for one square mile of land reserved for each native, some cattle, including a bull to be given to each chief, farm implements, and an annual treaty payment: twenty-five dollars to each chief; twenty-five dollars to each councillor, and five dollars to each tribe member. Chiefs also received, when the treaty was signed, a “suitable” suit of clothing, a medal, a flag, a Winchester rifle, and money to buy ammunition.
The treaty was between the Indians and the government of Canada, in the name of Queen Victoria, but the real organizer and beneficiary of the deal was the railroad. When British Columbia was admitted to Confederation in 1871, the government of Canada promised a railway to link the country within ten years. Until the First Nations conceded the land, the so-called National Dream was going nowhere. Treaty 7 took care of that. The natives still get their treaty money, but few of them have seen a cent of the billions of dollars in profit the railway made for developers and businesses. As for oil revenues, which have lined the pockets of so many Albertans and put Persian carpets on their hardwood floors, few of the original owners of the land and its resources benefit. The most notable exception would be the Hobbema-area Cree, whose reserves are about eighty kilometres south of Edmonton. The four bands, notably the Sampson Cree and the Ermineskin Cree, occupy land that is rich in resources. The Sampson Cree have accumulated more than $400 million in oil and gas royalties and each child has a trust account established at birth.
The Hobbema Cree are an anomaly, though. Most reserves in Alberta, indeed most reserves in Canada, struggle daily with poverty and hopelessness, caught between the well-meaning bureaucracy that comes with grants from the federal government and the certain knowledge they live in a kind of benign apartheid, battling the racism that makes an expression like “drunken Indian” tautology in Western Canada. They are, in a sense, legal wards of Canada and can thus be ignored by the provinces.
In light of that, and the treaty money still paid to the chiefs — which only serves to remind them of what they gave up — it’s little wonder that negotiations with native tribes for any land concessions have been fractious since 1871. There is, though, a sort of ironic revenge being extracted: When the urban sprawl of Calgary butted up against the reserve of the Tsuu T’ina First Nation to the west and the city kept expanding ever-southward, the clamour of suburbanites for another north-south freeway — which, ironically, we call “trails” — became deafening. The easiest solution to the traffic woes of Calgarians living in the “deep south” was a road parallel to the Deerfoot Trail on the west side of the city. That would take it directly across Tsuu T’ina land.
This time, the natives weren’t going to be bought off with a few dollars, a rifle, and a medal. For more than forty years, they were patient, they waited, and they drove the city administration crazy. Few people were betting against the natives getting the best of the deal, especially as the only other route for the road is right across an environmentally sensitive area called the Weaslehead.
For four decades, various city councillors, mayors, and lobbyists were flummoxed. Perhaps it was merely a long-delayed retaliation from the prairie gods. Then, in 2003, an agreement was signed between band and city for a land transfer after the Tsuu T’ina negotiated a provision for the city to build a roadway into their just-approved casino. There is, ahem, no correlation between Calgary’s need for a road and the Tsuu T’ina’s desire for a money-making casino. For, it has come to this: The vast roaming tribes of Plains Indians, who supported their communities on the land and the buffalo, now see gambling as the future mainstay of their economy.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Against the Grain by Catherine Ford. Copyright © 2005 by Catherine Ford. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.