Taking up the Work of Reconciliation: A Review of Trevor Herriot’s Towards a Prairie Atonement

In Towards a Prairie Atonement, award-winning Saskatchewan naturalist and birder Trevor Herriot honours the prairie itself, and Indigenous and Métis people as the land’s original inhabitants. A 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award winner, the text focuses on reconciliation regarding the brutal 1939 final displacement of Métis farmers from the Ste. Madeleine area of eastern Saskatchewan near the Manitoba border, where the Métis had practiced a form of sustainable prairie land management for fifty years. Herriot laments “[a]nother loss indivisible from the first beyond the deprivation that comes with expulsion. That is the greater loss of not recognizing the land governance system for the common good to protect ‘ecological integrity’” (95).

Herriot is a settler-descended activist and writer of six books addressing the Great Plains habitat, its species, and its history. Underlying the book is Herriot’s lyrical appreciation for the interrelated life of the Plains ecosystem across species and time. Herriot interweaves site visits accompanied by respected Métis cultural and Michif language preservationist Norman Fleury, with astute historical and contemporary politico-economic commentary, and archival research of the region’s fatal clashes following the Pemmican Wars between the Indigenous Peoples, including the Red River Métis, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Northwest Company traders.

Herriot’s writing is noteworthy for the accurate summations of two centuries. For instance, he refers to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sale of Rupert’s Land around 1869 to the Dominion of Canada for £300,000 as a “backroom deal that would set off a cascade of policy and exploitation that would exterminate the buffalo, force treaties and starve Indigenous People into submission on reserves” (66).

These encapsulations set the stage for readers to appreciate the injustice of the 1873 Homestead Act that cut up the prairie into 160-acre sections only European settler men could claim despite assurances to Métis that their lands and hay privilege would be preserved. Herriot takes pains to portray the Métis land management system as one that respected Indigenous rights, private property rights, and commonwealth rights, but a federal law enacted in 1938 caused the Red River Métis’ descendants to be violently driven off the land—not only costing them their way of life, but costing the prairie and all future generations a sustainable model of land management that balanced social, economic, and ecological needs.

Herriot is deft at drawing insightful parallels between the past and the present’s political, economic, and socio-cultural dynamics. For instance, he notes that the strategies for creating a successful colony in the late 19th century are the same central ideas at play in the political present—the need to “fuel economic growth [in large part, through ensuring cheap food for workers], improve value for investors, [and] manage indigenous people” (36). Similarly, he observes, “All the elements that plague our decisions about these lands today were present then: powerful corporate interests, misguided public policy, groups of disenfranchised people with long tenure on the land” (32).

Sometimes Herriot’s lyricism is pure: “with a nest to crouch beside, all theories and apprehensions fade as the genius of the place … in contrapuntal melodies … carr[ies] notes from the continent’s boreal crown to the grassland at its heart” (12). Other times, it’s edged with an understandable Anthropocenic cynicism—“scattered archipelagos of native prairie islands surrounded by a sea of cash crops” (5). The former grasslands of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta are now recognized as the largest, most altered landscape on Earth, a fragile ecosystem, home, at the time of publication, to thirty-one species at risk.

Towards a Prairie Atonement’s release was and is timely in several ways. It resonated deeply following the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations for reconciliation, which called for restitution of oppression committed in the name of colonialism against Indigenous People and their descendants. One of the book’s major contributions to truth is its exposé of the dominant history—of Canadian Government agents’ falsified accounts, deliberate propaganda, and ongoing oppression of the descendants of the Red River Métis. An index would have made this valuable information more easily accessible.

Herriot’s descriptions of the Métis land management system may also have broken new ground for general readers and nature readers alike. Going forward, he addresses and holds out an activist’s hope for restoring the previously reserved federal community pastures whose protections were removed under the Harper government. As of the book’s writing, though the pastures’ futures were controversial, they were still in Crown care and not sold to private interests. Herriot’s insights on grassland reclamation also resonate deeply with the reality of the Anthropocene and climate change.

At just over 100 pages of text with a map, timeline of historical events, notes, references, and an Afterward by Norman Fleury, the book is an inviting one-sitting read. In its hip-pocket sized format, heartfelt humility, and meditative circularity, it invites the reader to return and also meaningfully engage with a concerned community of activists in the process of prairie reconciliation.

Herriot dedicates his 2016 meditation “[t]o those who take up the work of reconciliation” (v). Herriot’s own work begins “with the act of recognizing and honouring what was and is native, but has been evicted” (13). The honesty, humility, and compassion of Towards a Prairie Atonement offer lessons that extend beyond prairie horizons, enriching those of us seeking paths of reconciliation in all our relationships.

Review by Susie Hammond, a Seattle-based Canadian poet. Susie’s awards include the 2019-2020 Edney Masters Scholarship for International Understanding Through the Humanities and Fine Arts, and residencies from The Banff Centre and Catalonia’s Faber for the Humanities. She is an editor, arts educator, youth mentor, and member of the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild.

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