Nonfiction Review by Maureen Scott Harris

Trevor Herriot, Towards a Prairie Atonement. Afterword by Norman Fleury. (Regina: University of Regina, 2016). Hardcover, 125 pp., $22.95.

Towards a Prairie AtonementA rich repertoire of feelings—sorrow, fear, guilt, anger, love, longing, hope—accompanied my reading of Trevor Herriot’s Towards a Prairie Atonement. Though I’ve lived in Toronto for most of my adult life, I grew up in Manitoba. The prairies are the landscape of my heart and, like many places, they are in decline. As early as 2000, in River in a Dry Land, Herriot wrote that to remember our failures and imagine possibilities might lead to a needed “reconciliation and atonement” with the land. Writing (as do I) from within settler culture, he reflected in Riveron the feelings of exile and yearning characteristic of settler experience: “… we are yearning, not so much for ‘home’ … as for the time when we were still on speaking terms with our landscapes.” The reconciliation and atonement he hopes for is a shift in our relationship to the land that would acknowledge, with love, the land’s claims on us. Such a shift requires “a willingness to make actual, hand-and-foot contact with the land, to accumulate an intimate knowledge of local lives and ecologies, and to tell and retell the right stories.”

Sparked by the Harper government’s 2012 dissolution of community pastures, Towards a Prairie Atonement continues Herriot’s quest for knowledge of local lives and the right stories. Established in the 1930s to salvage marginal farmland badly eroded by settler farming practices, these pastures have become reservoirs of native prairie—now thrown open to the appetites of private development and the extractive industries. The reality of the steady decline in grassland habitat with its consequent losses in plant and animal life, and the historically fraught relations between First Nations and whites, form the subject of part one. Atonement (at-one-ment), “begins with the act of recognizing and honouring what was and is native but has been evicted from the land—native plants and animals but the original peoples, cultures, and languages too.” Herriot’s hope is that prairie dwellers, settler and Indigenous, might come together through shared love for the land and its wellbeing—the land itself the foundation for reconciliation.

The middle part of the book braids a history of Métis presence on the prairie from the fur trade to the present, together with a conversation Herriot had with Norman Fleury, a Michif Elder who became his informant. Herriot’s map and timeline at the beginning of the book are good aids for following this history. Fleury asks: “How do you talk about loss?” Though referring specifically to the fate of Ste. Madeleine, a Métis community established on unproductive farmland in the Sand Hills that straddle the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, the question resonates beyond. People came to Ste. Madeleine from the Red River and then from Batoche, following Riel’s failure to establish a provisional government. They made the transition from buffalo hunting to subsistence farming, supplemented by hunting and fishing, cutting wood, clearing stone, and farm work for settlers who owned more productive land. In 1938, their land was taken, without consultation, for the Spy-Hill Ellis community pasture, its houses and community buildings burned, and the people forced to leave.

Fleury often speaks directly in this section, his words set in quotation marks. It’s good to have his tempered voice present. The conversation is thoughtful and respectful, full of the kind of listening required if people are to come together. Through it, Herriot learns about Métis land tenure, a system that evolved from long experience and knowledge of the prairie. A communal way of dwelling based on shared use, attentive to the wellbeing of land and people alike, it generated an enduring sense of home. Though Ste. Madeleine today is only the cemetery, people who came from the community continue to be buried there, and gather yearly to celebrate it, enacting the on-going survival—and revival—of Métis culture.

In his last chapter, Herriot asks us to consider the land as a commonwealth, in which we participate, and for which we take responsibility—like the Métis did. Such an idea breaks through the usual Western binary of public or private property and echoes the English commons. Not that this will be simple, as Herriot acknowledges throughout the book. Not to try, however, is to abandon the land. Herriot puts it in perspective:

 There will and should be more talk about who must be compensated for past wrongs, who should be granted land, but those conversations too often resolve down to a discussion of worthiness—the kind of worthiness that comes from a quotient of victimhood bound to this or that quantum of blood. If there is a contest for innocence in our centuries-long drama, then the prairie earth will win every time. Compensating the prairie, by restoring our grasslands, wetlands, and rivers to health is the good work that would reconcile and bind all of us together, but we have scarcely begun to talk about it.

Norman Fleury has contributed an afterword to the book, noting Herriot’s hope that “some small good thing” might come from his learning about Ste. Madeleine, and adds, “I hope and I think it has in this small book.” He reminds us the Métis have suffered and lost much, but have survived, and are an increasingly vibrant presence. He and Herriot both are hopeful in spite of the losses, historical and current. Many of the stories we tell about the land now are of loss and despair. If we care about safeguarding and restoring what we still have of this native land, we must move through loss, bring the left-out stories into our conversations, and listen for the possibilities that will emerge from coming together in a good way. Herriot and Fleury are waiting for us to join in.

—Maureen Scott Harris

As in The Malahat Review, 198, Spring 2017, 119-121