Towards a Prairie Atonement
By Trevor Herriot
University of Regina Press, 2016
Reviewed by Dennis Gruending
Trevor Herriot is a gifted Saskatchewan writer who has published five acclaimed books within the past 16 years. His grandparents were European settlers on land just north of the Qu’Appelle River, which flows through Southern Saskatchewan into Manitoba. Herriot has staked his literary claim on that region. He has a strong naturalist bent and writes in illuminating detail about what he sees and hears on the ground, and about what has been lost. The prairie landscape, he says, has become one of the most altered on the planet.
Herriot is loyal to his ancestors but also deeply regretful for settler society’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. In Herriot’s estimation, their dispossession and despoliation of the land have gone hand in hand. That is the theme of his most recent book, Towards a Prairie Atonement. In it, he spends a day in the company of a Métis guide at a settlement which was forcibly abandoned in the 1930s.
Forced to the margins by European settlement in Manitoba, a small group of Métis people established a settlement called Ste. Madeleine near the Saskatchewan border. The land was sandy and marginal but in the 1930s the Métis were evicted even from there when governments decided to create a community pasture for grazing livestock. The families were given only short notice to leave before their homes were burned and their dogs shot.
Herriot laments this and other settler outrages. He accepts a share of responsibility, as the descendent of settlers, for what has happened and is still happening. He does so by writing this brief “atonement” and hoping to bring people together in a way that will be friendlier to the land as well. Herriot’s effort is especially timely, coming after the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which calls for individuals, governments, and churches to engage in authentic reconciliation. Indian residential schools were only one of the destructive attempts to eradicate Indigenous peoples and culture.
The forced surrender of land was another.