Book Review: Valley of the Birdtail

By Ian Van Haren

How well do settlers understand the experiences of Indigenous people in present-day Canada? An excellent new book provides a comprehensive overview of the government’s treatment of both populations and concludes with suggestions on how historical wrongs can be corrected through a fresh approach to public policy in Canada.

Valley of the Birdtail, a non-fiction book by Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Douglas Sanderson, provides an in-depth and multi-generational study of Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of the valley surrounding the Birdtail River in Manitoba. Two communities are on opposing sides of the river: Rossburn, a small town with a significant Ukrainian population, and the Waywayseecappo Indian reserve, an Anishinaabe community. Their histories, like Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across this country, are markedly different due to government policies.

Valley of the Birdtail book cover

This disparity comes to life through a detailed account across generations of two specific families. The book opens in 2006, with Maureen Twovoice crossing the valley to go to school in Rossburn, taking a bus from her home in Waywayseecappo. At the same time, readers meet Troy Luhowy, a teacher who lives in Rossburn and works in Waywayseecappo. Then, across the pages of the smoothly narrated book, readers learn about Maureen and Troy’s ancestors, as the experiences of previous generations inform present-day realities.

The strength of the book is in connecting the past to the present through personal and historical accounts. Troy’s father, Nelson, has some mobility concerns from childhood polio but worked as a teacher. Coming from a Ukrainian immigrant family, he believed hard work led to success in a new country, and that others should be able to do the same. Nelson learns in semi-retirement that many prejudices he previously held were unfounded, as the challenges adults in Waywayseecappo faced were very different from his upbringing.

Maureen’s mother, Linda, was sent to the Brandon Indian Residential School as a child, but after grade four studied at Rossburn Elementary. Maureen’s paternal grandfather, Michael, was a community leader and author who had advocated for integrated education, while others in his community wanted a separate school system.

These personal accounts reach back to the 1800s and are put into context. The book discusses Louis Riel’s activism and Clifford Sifton’s vision for settling the West with European farmers while policing Indigenous communities. Other prominent historical figures in Western Manitoba are described, with particular attention to the pass system, residential schools, and education policy. The authors do not shy away from complexity, revealing debates about how to best provide education to First Nations communities. At the same time, the harms done by underfunding education and residential schools are clear.

The concluding chapter of the book turns towards clear policy proposals to grant greater autonomy to Indigenous communities by increasing their taxation powers, particularly over resource revenues, and by expanding the jurisdiction of Indigenous governments. The policy proposals may seem bold if read on their own, but when they come after a careful account of the historical development of crown–Indigenous relations, they are compelling. Sniderman and Sanderson emphasize the need to better understand the experiences and histories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. However, “listening more is one thing, but acting differently—as individuals, as a country—is another” (282). Actions that provide justice for Indigenous people require radical rethinking of taxation and jurisdiction in current-day Canada.

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