The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews 2016 Governor General's Award Winner Bill Waiser

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We start our special coverage of this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winners with a conversation with Bill Waiser, author of A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905.

Of the book, the Governor General’s Award jury says, “From its first page, Bill Waiser’s A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 surprises the reader with its reconsideration of Canada. In a sweeping blend of narrative, historical detail, and compelling images, Waiser refocuses the country’s story by putting Indigenous peoples and environmental concerns in the foreground.” 

Author and historian Bill Waiser specializes in western Canadian history. He has published over a dozen books—many of them recognized by various awards, including a shortlist nomination for the 1997 Governor General’s literary award for non-fiction. Bill is
 a frequent public speaker and contributor to radio, television, and print media. He has also served on a number of national, provincial, and local boards. Bill has been awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, named a distinguished university professor, and granted a D.Litt.

THE CHAT WITH BILL WAISER

How did your Governor General Award-winning book come into being?

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My award-winning centennial history of the province (Saskatchewan: A New History) was once the topic of a conference session. In the critiques that day (including my response to the reviewers), there was unanimous agreement that the front end of the story—the period before Saskatchewan became a province in 1905—now had to be re-visited and re-considered. 

I decided to take on the task and write a companion volume to my Saskatchewan centennial history in the hope that the two books (one dealing with the period before 1905, the other after) would complement each other and offer a broad sweep of the region’s history over several hundred years. Researching and writing the Sask prequel, as the project became known, took several years because of the new source material that had to consulted and digested, especially in archaeology and climate history. Sometimes the thinking delayed the writing. But I knew that the story could not be hurried because of what I was learning along the way. And I had to figure out in my head first how things fit together (the vision) before tackling the writing (the voice).

 

Your book views the history of Saskatchewan through an Aboriginal and environmental lens, broadening our understanding of the province’s history pre-Confederation. Can you share a few highlights of what you learned during your research?

Much of the writing on the early history of Canada tends to focus on newcomers and their activities. In most traditional treatments, white people tend to stride larger than life across the pages of the region’s history, while Indigenous people seem to be part of the flora and fauna. 

In most traditional treatments, white people tend to stride larger than life across the pages of the region’s history, while Indigenous people seem to be part of the flora and fauna.

Take Englishman Henry Kelsey, for example, who was sent inland on a trading expedition by the Hudson’s Bay Company. During the summer of 1690, Kelsey and his Cree and Assiniboine escorts walked out of the boreal forest of present-day east-central Saskatchewan and into a new world—the northern great plains. It was a landscape never encountered before by another European. In fact, he was probably the first “outsider” to see the great bison herds of the region. Kelsey has been lauded as “first in the west” and the “discoverer of the Canadian prairies.” 

But these accolades overlook the simple fact that any European and later Canadian activity in what would become the future province of Saskatchewan was entirely dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of Indigenous peoples of the region. After all, Kelsey had to be taken inland. He was a passenger, not a pathfinder, and was only able to complete his inland journey because he was welcomed by Indigenous peoples and treated as a guest. 

A World We Have Lost consequently takes the traditional way of telling the early history of western Canada (and the future province of Saskatchewan in particular) and turns it on its head. In other words, the story of the region is told from the inside.

A World We Have Lost consequently takes the traditional way of telling the early history of western Canada (and the future province of Saskatchewan in particular) and turns it on its head.

What’s your own litmus test for compelling historical non-fiction?

John Grierson once described documentaries as the “creative treatment of reality.”  That concept should shape and inform good historical writing. 

Compelling historical non-fiction should be written with an urgency in an effort to make the reader care about the story. The writing also needs to be engaging and accessible so that anyone and everyone can dip into the history and get pulled into the story after only a few pages. 

The writing also needs to be engaging and accessible so that anyone and everyone can dip into the history and get pulled into the story after only a few pages. 

Finally, the reader should be able to make linkages or connections with other historical periods or issues—or at least be pushed to consider the bigger picture—and come away with questions that lead to more reading and more thinking. In a sense, it is not enough to know the words—the words have to be put to music.

What does winning a Governor General’s Award mean at this point in your career?

The GGLA is gratifying, if not flattering. I’m extremely grateful of the recognition. I’m not an overnight sensation. I published my first two books in 1989, and A Word We Have Lost is my fifteenth publication. So, the award—at this point in my career—would appear to confirm my development as a writer, that I’ve reached the top of my game with this latest book, and that story has resonance with readers and reviewers. 

The GGLA has also given me a boost. My next project examines Almighty Voice, a controversial First Nations figure who has been a boon to popular culture—from true crime and pulp fiction magazine articles to two plays and one bad movie (“Alien Thunder” starring Donald Sutherland). I’m anxious to get to work on it because of the award. 

 

49thShelf.com is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?

I’m reading Guy Vanderhaeghe. Guy can tell a good story—an intimate sense of place, complicated characters, natural dialogue, and great pacing and plot development. He works tirelessly at his prose, constantly massaging to find just the right phrase or turn of sentence. Vanderhaeghe is one of the most underappreciated writers in Canada—despite winning three GGLAs in the fiction category.  

Vanderhaeghe is one of the most underappreciated writers in Canada—despite winning three GGLAs in the fiction category.  

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Excerpt from A World We Have Lost

Led by a guide carrying a flag on a staff, the cart caravan, sometimes several miles long, slowly worked its way southwest across the plains. Advance scouts searched for bison, as well as kept a careful watch for the Sioux. There is no record of any Métis camp being routed—never more than a few scouts were ever lost. Once a herd was located, camp was immediately set up nearby and everything readied. The chief led the hunters out to the herd, and it was only on his shout that they charged the startled bison. Each hunter guided his horse towards a particular animal, drop the reins once close enough, and then fire across the saddle into the beast. He then rode after another animal and keep shooting and killing until any remaining bison were too scattered to pursue. The sounds of the slaughter saturated the air—the high-pitched cries of the hunters, the rapid pounding of the hooves of the bison and horses, the constant blasts of gunfire, the whinnying of the horses with each kill and redirection, and the bleating of the bison and the heavy, throaty breathing of those dying on the blood-soaked plains. Dust rose and enveloped the scene, adding a surreal quality to the killing field. It filled the eyes, nostrils, and mouths of the hunters, mixed with the taste and smell of blood and shit. The Métis were precision marksmen. But what made them so efficient during the hunt was their specially trained horses, known as buffalo runners. They had also perfected the reloading of their muzzle loaders on the fly. With a few balls of shot in his mouth and his front coat pockets filled with powder and more shot, each hunter frantically poured a handful of powder down the barrel of the gun after it was discharged, spit in a ball, and then whack the stock of the gun against his hip. The rapidity with which they were able to fire caused their gun barrels to overheat, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Spills, bruises, and sprains were also quite common.

The dead bison were butchered on the spot. Working quickly because of the hot summer temperatures, the hunters and their families removed the skin, tongue, back fat ordepouillé, meat, tendons, and any other serviceable body parts, before abandoning the carcass to the wolves, coyotes, and birds. Back at camp, the less glamorous but real work began. Women, sometimes with help from children, meticulously scraped the robes to ensure that any flesh was removed. Dressing and tanning the skin, to make it soft and marketable, took several days of painstaking labour. They also dried meat in long strips in the sun and either tied it up in bales or pounded and mixed it with fat to produce pemmican that was then poured into bison leather bags. At night, there was feasting, storytelling, and singing to the accompaniment of the fiddle. After several successful hunts, the heavily loaded carts, each carrying the meat and robes of eight-to-ten bison, trundled back to Red River, usually in late summer, where the Métis sold or traded the products of the hunt and paid off their debts

Reprinted with permission of the author.

November 15, 2016
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