[draft preface for a new project]
The bunchgrass prairie was brown and brittle and the leaves on the saskatoons and aspen beginning to turn red and yellow when Leonard and Leon-Adelard arrived at Fort Edmonton. It was September 5 and they had just spent three months walking the 1300 km distance between the Metis settlement at Winnipeg and this isolated fur trading post on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River. The buckbrush lining their rutted prairie trail was heavy with white fruit. Plump red rose hips adorned the tangled shrubs along the river breaks. The low, clear flows of late summer made the river crossings easy and thousands of geese and cranes were gathering into noisy flocks, preparing to migrate south.
For Leon-Adelard Fafard, born and raised in southern Quebec, the wild prairies through which they had travelled must have been disconcertingly strange. No tall forests and shady ways, no villages and farms: only space and wind.
“Here was the least common denominator of nature,” W.O. Mitchell would write nearly a century later, “the skeleton requirements simply of land and sky…stretching tan to the far line of the sky and waiting for the unfailing visitation of wind…”
Leonard Van Tighem was even further out of his element. Barely 24 years old, it was only a little more than a year since he had left his family’s home near Meulebeke, Belgium for the first time in his life. It was no tentative first step, either; he had agreed to accompany Bishop Vital Grandin back across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World and serve for a few years in distant Roman Catholic missions. Bishop Grandin’s Oblates missionary order was devoted to spreading their faith into what were then considered the godless peoples of North America. Grandin had made the trip to Europe to raise funds and find new recruits; Van Tighem was one of fifteen young men who travelled back with him to New York and thence by train to Lachine, on the Saint Lawrence River.
Leonard had become friends with the Canadian-born Leon-Adelard during his first frontier winter while he built furniture and did paintings for Notre Dame des Anges church. The following year, as part of a group of aspiring missionaries, the two young men accompanied Bishop Grandin across the Great Lakes by boat and then by land to St. Boniface, near what is now Winnipeg. It was early June when they continued west from there — mosquito season in the tall grass prairie of the Red River lowlands. The days were noisy with the screeching of wood on wood, as they followed a train of eighty Red River wagons pulled by oxen and horses.
It was 1875 and the Metis of the Red River colony were off to kill bison for the hide trade. Although rutted bison trails laced the open plains, the animals themselves were already becoming hard to find because of overhunting and a deliberate campaign of extermination south of what the Blackfoot and Cree people called the “Medicine Line” — the invisible border between what were considered to be Britain’s colonial holdings and the young United States of America. It was only five years later when the Metis did their final, futile hunt; bison had been virtually wiped out.
The wild roses were in full bloom when they set out. The subtle sweetness of their bouquet permeated the more overwhelming odours of manure, trampled grass, alkali dust and sweat. Thunderheads dragged curtains of grey rain across the gentle swells of prairie greenery, darkening the ground with shadow, then wheeling off into distance so immense it must have been almost unfathomable for the two skinny young lads marking off each day’s endless miles. Long billed curlews and marbled godwits came shrieking across the prairie only to veer away at the last moment, beaks open in mock threat, defending hidden nests from the passing travellers. Pronghorn antelope stared, then wheeled and dashed away, flashing their white rumps. During breaks in travel, when the cart wheels finally stopped their shrieking, the thin swirling songs of pipits and horned larks became audible in the sky above and small brown sparrows and longspurs with unfamiliar markings sang from low shrubs and grass tussocks on all sides. It was a land rich with life but, to European eyes, empty of purpose.
Leonard had been raised in a pastoral agricultural landscape outside an ancient town. In his youth, the Van Tighem estate had been a sprawling parkland — mowed lawns, flowering hedges and borders, Spanish conifers and summer shelters. Neighbouring farmers grew potatoes and flax for trade and raised livestock and vegetable crops for their families. They sold their produce in nearby towns, each with church spires, cobbled streets and somber, settled families. It was a pastoral and long-civilized country. It was also a place in crisis, its economy suffering from potato blight and competition with the New World’s agricultural exports that were flooding Europe and disrupting markets. In the late 1880s optimism and hope were in scarce supply in the once-prosperous farm country around Muelebeke; that was one reason that Bishop Grandin had such success at finding new recruits from among the devout Catholics of the Flemish netherlands.
So, to the young Belgian, this endless prairie landscape must have seemed as devoid of civilization and meaning as it was godless. It was the rawest of raw materials from which settlers would have to fight hard to forge some kind of facsimile of the Europe from which they were fleeing. It seems ironic, in retrospect, that most of the settlers who followed the young seminarians’ footsteps over the ensuing half century were escaping from a continent that had failed them, yet felt nonetheless compelled to recreate a new version of it. They could imagine nothing else.
The future is always unfathomable, though; in 1875 there was no way that Leonard and Leon-Adelard could have pictured the unbroken plains around them as anything but an alien wilderness offering neither reassurance nor certainty. They must have lain awake at night sometimes, under that vast dome of stars, listening to the trill of night insects and the whine of mosquitoes, praying for their religious faith not to abandon them. Because there was no going back.
They had left even the carved-out colonial farmscapes of Canada behind. The British government considered this western territory to be a hinterland, un-ceded and still occupied by godless savages. The British had only gone so far as to grant an exclusive trading monopoly to the Hudson’s Bay Company that, until the agreement was terminated in 1870, had given the company commercial control over much of the territory. There was no actual government presence in the west. Or, there was none until 1874, the year before Leonard finally trudged into the company’s fort at Edmonton, only to learn that Catholics were no longer wanted there.
“It must be remembered that up to my arrival in the west, 1875, there was no militia nor police protection in these regions,” Leonard wrote in his second codex, three decades later. “The fact is that the Catholic priest was generally the guardian of the peace, the magistrate and soldier. All came for protection to him. Hence it was that the famous Hudson’s Bay Company was glad to avail itself of this efficacious security; hence it was that the priest was always welcome at the home and at the table of the bourgeois de la company.”
But the first detachment of Northwest Mounted Police had arrived in the west one year previously. As the company was switching its interests from controlling the fur trade to developing land, it no longer saw the need to offer space in its outposts to the Catholic missionaries. The Methodist in charge of the fort had little love of papists. Leonard’s first job upon his arrival at Fort Edmonton was to help tear down the chapel inside the fort while Bishop Grandin concluded arrangements to secure a new site a few kilometres away at Fort Saskatchewan.
Those were horrible years for the indigenous peoples of the plains, foothills and northern forests. Although their lives had reached a sort of material peak in the early part of the 1880s, by the end of the century destitution and ruin were everywhere.
Fur traders had brought cooking implements, glass beads and other previously un-dreamed of riches when they began to establish outposts in what is now Alberta a hundred years earlier. Horses and firearms changed bison hunting and travel. Trade for meat and hides turned bison from a central part of plains culture into valuable trade commodities too. For a few prosperous decades the western tribes had mobility, hunting success and material well-being unlike anything they had experienced before.
But they also had diseases they had never experienced before. Their immune systems were not ready for the recurring waves of smallpox, tuberculosis and other European diseases that swept west across the Great Plains ahead of the white colonizers. Their increased mobility meant that tribes who had lived in relative isolation from one another now met more frequently. Horses were valuable and valuable things are worth stealing. Stealing creates conflict. And the firearms that made hunting easier also made warfare more lethal, even as alcohol made conflicts less rational. Meantime, the profits available from dead bison and beavers led to increased hunting pressure, not only among the Indigenous peoples of the region but with Metis communities farther east and the growing number of white Europeans.
Worse, south of the invisible Medicine Line along the 49th parallel of latitude, the Americans had embarked on a deliberate scorched-earth strategy of exterminating the bison, correctly calculating that wiping out the source of their food and their culture would defeat the native people of the plains faster than genocidal wars had been able to do. Leonard arrived in the west at a time of terrible transition. He was part of it.
The old North Trail south of Fort Saskatchewan was an ancient route connecting river fords on the Red Deer, Bow, Highwood and Oldman Rivers. It offered a line of travel just east of the foothills, where there was good water and abundant food in the form of wintering bison herds, berries and medicine plants. It didn’t follow the easiest route from north to south but hung to the west, closer to sacred and storied landforms, glacial erratics and cottonwood groves. The Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot) and other peoples who used the trail were never just travelling from one point to another; they were living their culture. The landscape was full of spiritual meaning. Places had songs, ceremonies and sagas associated with them, and travelling their trails was as much, or more, a spiritual journey as a practical one.
Leonard travelled south to the Highwood River in 1883, having been fully ordained a priest and sent to help with a residential mission school the church was building at Dunbow. It wasn’t ready yet, however, so he continued further south along the Macleod Trail to the tiny settlement of Fort Macleod. He never got back to Dunbow — instead he spent the next twenty years as a parish priest for settler communities at Macleod, Lethbridge and the surrounding area.
The Macleod Trail was rutted deep with the marks of Indigenous travois and more recent carts and wagons. It followed a braided way across vast plains of ripening bunchgrass, dipped into valleys full of wolf willow and wild rose, and deepened as it cut down into the valleys of the Highwood and Sheep Rivers, Willow Creek and, finally the Oldman. To the west, the line of the Rockies etched the horizon at first until the long line of the Porcupine Hills obscured the view to what the Siksikaitsitapi still know as Miistakis, the backbone of the world.
For Leonard, it was empty space and scenery through which he must travel before arriving at a lived-in place where there were souls to be saved and chapels to be built. He carried in his gear a jewelled container with a consecrated host at its centre; as a priest he was deemed worthy of stewarding his Church’s holy sacrament. Steeped since birth in the simmering cultural stew of European Christianity, in his mind there was no question that he was bringing sacredness to primitive peoples who, in his worldview, had no experience of it.
Ironic then, that for the Siksikaitsitapi and other tribes whose home he was traversing this was not scenery; it was their holy sacrament. Spirits were in everything. Simply to be on that land was to participate in the sacred. Travel, on trails that connected places of deep spiritual meaning, was liturgy. They didn’t need to wait for a priest to build a church to find a place of worship and meaning; they lived in one. Trails like the Macleod Trail and the North Trail were laid out as much as spiritual paths as practical transportation routes. Simply by tracing that ancient trail south across the living plains, Leonard spent the whole journey in church; he just had no way of perceiving it — just as most of his subsequent Aboriginal contacts would struggle to understand the meaning of his European church’s rites, relics and recitations.
I was born into that Catholic world half a century later, in Calgary. My father’s given name was John Victor, derived from the birth name of Leonard’s brother, Victor, who also went by the name John Callens. Although older than Leonard, Victor was a decade later in tracing his brother’s footsteps to Canada’s northwest territory. Victor crossed the Bow River in 1886 at the shallow ford near the confluence of the Elbow River, one of several stream crossings between the Oblate mission at St. Albert and his brother’s parish at Macleod. Each of those stream crossings today hosts a town that grew from campsites where travellers stopped to dry out and camp after crossing good fords. The town that grew up at the forks of the Elbow and Bow became the city in which I spent the first half of my life, long after both Leonard and Victor had been laid to rest.
Victor spent most of the ensuing decades working among the Piikani people at Brocket. His first impression of the native people in this far place was one of deep distaste: “On Saturday we see the first tents of the savages. They are a few poles put together and covered with linen or hides; what poor dwellings! The savages are crawling out. How grubby and dirty are they…They have brown skins, long hairs and are wrapped in a blanket or piece of rug. Unhappy in body and soul!”
It took many years for Victor to overcome his initial revulsion for Indigenous people. Eventually he became close friends with some, but only those who accepted his religious faith. He frequently expressed exasperation with the laziness and disinterest of the people whom he considered his charges. As a European, he knew what a productive life was meant to look like; he had no way of seeing any virtue in a life of hunting, gathering and strange ceremonies. As a dogmatic Catholic, he also had no way of recognizing the deep, abiding trauma that most Indigenous people were afflicted with now that the bison were gone, their freedom lost and a growing flood of aggressive Europeans arriving to kill the prairie sod and plant the exposed soil to foreign food crops. He believed that he offered them something they lacked: lives with meaning — farming and Catholicism — and was annoyed that for the most part they were passively resistant to it. It annoyed him right up until his final departure back to the homeland, where he could be among sensible people again.
The Siksikaitsitapi must have been relieved to see him go.
Leonard, working mostly among the white colonists, seems to have had a healthier attitude towards the original people of his adopted home. When Prime Minister John A. Macdonald embarked upon a policy of starving the plains people to whom his Queen had solemnly committed, by treaty, to provide food, Leonard became a passionate advocate to the Ottawa government on behalf of the desperate Blackfeet. The government stonewalled him; Macdonald and his cronies thought hunger would force indigenous people onto the reserves and make the job of agricultural settlement less difficult.
For all that he cared about the indigenous people of this place, Leonard harboured no sentimental feelings for their past, nor for the natural condition of the lands that were the foundation of their culture. His worldview told him that western Canada was a godless, wasted wilderness; it was natural and right that Christian people should arrive at last to bring their God to the people who lived here, to plough the prairie and convert it to proper farmland, and to bring civilized order to the forests, waters and wildlife. And so, although his prejudices may have been less overt than that of his brother, they were no less devastating to the place and its people. And he had no way of perceiving them in himself; everything about his mission and the colonial enterprise of the growing European communities of which he was a part seemed normal and right.
Leonard never went back to Belgium. Instead, when another brother’s children were left orphaned back home and in the care of an impoverished sister-in-law, Leonard applied for permission to foster the oldest boy. Barely eleven years old, little Joseph travelled halfway around the world to meet his uncle in Calgary in 1893. He grew up in the company of celibate males and constant religion; it can’t have been healthy. Leonard came to see his nephew as a kind of successor, but when Joseph went into seminary years later it eventually became clear that he was not meant to be a priest. Instead, he went to work for the Union Bank in Okotoks in 1903.
Seven year years later he married Janie Kelly, an Irish-Catholic farm girl from nearby Dewinton. That was the start of the family into which, 77 years after Leonard’s arrival in what would become the province of Alberta, I would be born.
[more to follow, but not soon…]