Toxic Domestication in Alberta, or
How to Read a Canadian Landscape
Following the river east from Red Deer, Alberta, a jarring sight emerges from the prairie. It is the river itself, billowing up into the sky from a series of stacks that, at first, seem out of place in the rolling green expanse dotted with cattle and bound, here and there, by roads, railways, and fencing (Figure 1).
How these stacks came to be here might as well be the story of the settler state itself.
Only the mind’s eye can reveal what the prairie might have looked like before the treaties, the cattle, the railway, and the petrochemicals. For those steeped in story and ceremony on these lands, the image is sure to be ingrained.
For those of us who arrived during the era of colonial violence, which extends to our times, the image is more of a flash, captured in words, for example, by a historian paraphrasing a European explorer who had been welcomed at a Siksikaitsitapi encampment along the shores of Pine Lake in the middle of the 18th century:
“The camp consisted of at least 200 large teepees. They were arranged in two long rows with a broad ‘avenue’, nearly a kilometre in length, down the middle. At the one end, was the chief’s tent. It was large enough to comfortably accommodate 50 people. In the centre was a large white buffalo robe, upon which were seated 20 elders smoking grand pipes.
There was food in tremendous abundance. Boiled buffalo meat was served in large baskets. Large haunches roasted on the fire.”
A short distance to the north, at Tail Creek, were Métis settlements that swelled to 2,000 people during the bison hunt.
Large mammals – bison, and elk – roamed according to their own logics and shared the Prairie with the people who lived with and from them since time immemorial until these lifeways were systematically scraped off the prairie.
The last of the bison
The birth of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 coincided with the disappearing of the bison (Figure 2). The last wild herd observed near what is now Red Deer, Alberta, was reportedly spotted in the summer of 1884, a few kilometres from Pine Lake and less than a decade after Ottawa dispatched a general to Fort Carlton, in what is now Saskatchewan, to nail down a treaty with the Cree. Treaty 6 was signed in 1876 against the counsel of Cree leader Pitiwkahanapiwiyin, or Poundmaker.
“This is our land,” Pitikwahanapiwiyin declared during those Treaty 6 negotiations. “It isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.”
But little pieces are just what the occupying government sought to implant with its models of industry, first in the form of real estate, cattle and railways, and later in the form of mines and oil wells, pipelines and petrochemicals.
The last of the bison were seen shortly before the pass system was imposed to keep Indigenous people confined, physically and commercially, in the new reserve subdivisions, and to enable the parcelling of the rest of the prairie for settlers. This was a decade before the opening of residential schools to which Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families, first in Red Deer – identified in a federal government report as the deadliest residential school in 1907 – and two years later in Ermineskin, a little further to the north in Maskwacis, one of the biggest residential schools in the new dominion.
“Not only has Canada’s assimilationist policies and practices resulted in cultural genocide, including the dispossession and loss of Indigenous lands, languages and cultures, these events confirm that genocide of Indigenous Peoples occurred in Indian Residential Schools.”1
The Maskwacis Cree Chiefs, from Treaty 6 communities now based near Ermineskin (Figure 3), 150 kilometres north of Red Deer, issued this statement of condolence following the identification of unmarked graves at the residential school site on Tk’emlùps Te Secwêpeme Nation territory in what is now known as the Province of British Columbia in 2021. The Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations has asked the Alberta government to locate graves on the sites of the former residential schools in that province.