by Ryan Turnbull
In his landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si´, Pope Francis remarked that “The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good.” Yet the intensely personal meaning of places and our memories of places can also do much harm. I was raised on a small farm near Binscarth, Manitoba, and that place always invokes memories of intense personal meaning, yet, until recently, I was unaware that the place where my people have lived and belonged for almost 140 years has another history, another set of memories. Therese are memories and a history that have been kept alive by some of my closest neighbours, of a place and a community that once belonged to a Métis community but had been destroyed to secure the place and prosperity of the European settler community of which I am a part.
A World Lost
In the 1930s, the Canadian Prairies were hit hard by both a severe drought and the effects of the Great Depression. In response, the Government of Canada created the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration in 1935, and work began to rescue settlers from ecological and financial ruin. A variety of measures were implemented, but in extreme situations some lands were selected as being simply too fragile for cropping, and the decision was made to convert them to community pastures to prevent further soil erosion. There was much success with this policy in Saskatchewan, and by 1937 it was decided that this would be implemented in Manitoba as well. The Ste. Madeleine district, a Métis community south-west of Binscarth, MB, was selected for this pasture program.
As local paper The Russell Banner noted in 1938, the establishment of these pastures was not without cost, including the removal of several families who lived in the townships designated for conversion to pastureland. Between 1938 and 1942, Ste. Madeleine was dismantled. An alleged victory for governments who championed progressive, technological solutions to the problems of settler society, but yet another defeat for the Indigenous peoples whose land this had been from time immemorial. Those who were paid up on their taxes were remunerated with cash payouts or scrip for land elsewhere in the municipality; but, given the economic conditions of the time, few qualified for the payouts, and most were simply forced to leave. The houses were burnt, dogs were shot, the church was dismantled, and most of the community either had to disperse or ended up settling in two ‘road-allowance settlements’ known colloquially as Selby Town and Fouillard’s Corner. The Indigenous community of Ste. Madeleine was no more, but the European settler residents of the Rural Municipality of Ellice now had access to abundant, cheap pastureland.
The Settler Imaginary
While the former residents of Ste. Madeleine had to live with the trauma of forced displacement, the surrounding settler communities insulated themselves from this reality, focusing instead on the relief that the new pastureland provided for a drought-stricken community. Very few settler sources even mention the dissolution of Ste. Madeleine; the local papers reported in minute detail on the type of grass being planted, the amount of fence being built. There was even a feature article about people going to visit the new pastures as a social outing! Yet Ste. Madeleine, and its destruction, are not mentioned in the pages of these local papers until fifty years later. In the local community history book project entitled Binscarth Memories, Ste Madeleine is mentioned, and its end is attributed to the arrival of the community pastures, yet there is no hint that this ending was characterized in the slightest by any conflict. In fact, in the 1984 volume, the Ste. Madeleine entry is even penned by a former resident of Ste. Madeleine, Joseph Boucher, yet the end of the community’s existence is stated flatly, “In 1938 the government started to make the community pasture. By 1939 a lot of people moved to other places…The community pasture was opened to farmers to graze cattle in 1940.”
The records contained in the local papers and history books are a product of a structure called settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is a structure of power that seeks to naturalize itself, to remember itself as the natural and normal structure of reality such that its violent, extractive, and colonial roots disappear. If the violence of the past is raised, it is as a “sad chapter in our history,” not an ongoing structural violence. Canadian settler-colonialism remembers in a way that carefully edits out the violent histories that created its dominance in the first place. It is not simply that settler Canadians have ‘forgotten’ our own violent histories. Rather, it is that settler colonialism gives legitimacy to a remembering process that makes decisions about what counts as history at all, what counts as worthy of remembering. In the case of Ste. Madeleine, what was worth remembering to settlers was the achievement of a new community pasture, not the trauma and pain of forced displacement.
The agrarian settlers of my home community, with the support of their colonial governments thought that burning the houses and shooting the dogs of Ste. Madeleine, would cause the Métis to disappear, remaining only as ghosts and grave markers in the corner of a community pasture. But the Métis of Ste. Madeleine are no mere ghosts, they continue to use the land, they continue to visit and maintain the cemetery, and, since 1990, they have held an annual festival of Métis identity at the old site every summer. Ste. Madeleine and its people continue to persist, haunting the consciousness of settler colonialism by resisting settler efforts to misremember them into oblivion. The settler society of Canada may seek to obscure and naturalize its origins, but the people of Ste. Madeleine continue to be a presence in the land that point to a different vision of political economy of the land, one that invites us into good relations with kin who have for too long been regarded as spectral enemies. Belonging to a place is to at once be haunted and held by the memories and histories of that place. Pope Francis is right, revisiting the memories of a place is a good idea. But we should be prepared to be unsettled by the presence of relationships and histories that Christian complicity with settler colonialism has long sought to unknow. It is time to unforget the presence of all our relations, settler and indigenous, and to work to build a future where all have a place in this land, even if that means giving some Land Back.