Flatlander readers talk about the Prairies

The international media described the Prairies as idyllic, pleasant and innocent. Flatlander readers described them differently.

Last week, I wrote about how in face of tragedy, the international media has described life on the Canadian Prairies as idyllic, pleasant and innocent. (How do we talk to the world about the Prairies?) Flatlander readers responded by writing how they would describe the Prairies to the rest of the world.

Here is what they said:

Thank you for this issue and the subjects you raised in it. The tragedy of the deaths in James Smith Cree Nation and the village of Weldon must touch everyone who hears about it. The loss of life through violence should affect and impact all of us. The way some journalists choose to portray the prairies and the people who live there speaks to their lack of research and integrity when providing such background colour rather than trying to  focus on the people lost and the impact on their families. Yes agriculture is huge in our province and is economically  important. Farming is serious business as well as dangerous and full of unpredictable outcomes when you rely on Mother Nature. Farming families do not live a bucolic life  nor are they guileless. First Nations do not live a bucolic life nor are they guileless. As Canadians we are  beginning to see that  our country is not free from violence. In the end we are each responsible for how we react to this horrific event. Hopefully we will learn and do better in whatever corner of the province, country we are in.

A grain elevator in Weldon, Saskatchewan on September 6, 2022. LARS HAGBERG/GETTY IMAGES).

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I am amused by the description of Saskatchewan people by folks who have likely never visited here or have any connection!  We travel quite extensively, and have always found the people of the United States to be very much like they describe us!  Many of them have never traveled out of their own state, and have very little idea about the world about them!  On rather horrifying incident happened when we were at the PBR in Las Vegas and some woman from some dinky little town in Idaho quite close to the Nevada border sat in the seat next to me fuming because she couldn’t bring her gun in to the show!!  In her words, which we’ve never forgotten, “I just feel naked without it.”  We wondered why, since neither of us has ever carried a gun in our lives!!


Potash on the prairie horizon outside of Saskatoon.
Potash on the prairie horizon outside of Saskatoon. GETTY IMAGES

I think it is important for the Arts to describe the Prairies. Observant and penetrating, art will not be beguiled by scenery. Factors like the extreme climate, the space (dominated by a succession of global corporations), the mixing of people–a hybridization unseen by unfamiliar eyes–need to be examined with a poet’s precision.

Mitchell, from Jessica Lake, Manitoba
Oil Jacks pumping on a windy Saskatchewan morning. GETTY IMAGES.

Mitchell’s email had me looking up some of the Prairie classics on my bookshelf to see how the Prairies were described.

Here is the opening paragraph of Who has Scene the Wind, by W.O. Mitchell, who was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, but spent time living in Winnipeg.

Here was the least common denominator of nature, the skeleton requirements simply, of land and sky—Saskatchewan prairie. It lay wide around the town, stretching tan to the far line of the sky, clumped with low buck brush and wild rose bushes, shimmering under the late June Sun and waiting for the unfailing visitation of wind, gentle at first, barely stroking the long grasses and giving them life, later, a long, hot gusting, that would lift the black topsoil and pile it in barrow pits along the roads or in deep banks against the fences.

Who has Seen the Wind, W.O. Mitchell

The book, if you haven’t read it, is about a boy growing up in the Prairies in the 1930s. The main character runs into the harsh realities of life and death at a very young age. He watches rabbits be born and accidentally kills a baby pigeon when he tries to take it home.

Although The Economist described Prairie people as “guileless,” rural Saskatchewan is not a place you can keep your innocence for long. Here is a passage from Never Sleep Three in a Bed by Max Braithwaite that recalls his life growing up on the outskirts of Nokomis, Saskatchewan in the 1910s and 1920s.

Big busy chickens roamed at will, chasing the grasshoppers, and pecking viciously at unwary toads. One of my earliest recollections is of the big bronze rooster, lifting his head high, cocking his beady eye, and then tearing across the barnyard to jump a hen amidst flying feathers and fearful squawking. How he knew which one was ready I never figured, but I never tired of watching his torrid dash to fulfillment. No nonsense there.

Never Sleep Three in a Bed, Max Braithwaite  

A free-range rooster and hens. GETTY IMAGES.

How would you describe the Prairies to the rest of the world? Off the top of my head, my answer is this. The Prairies grow, harbour, and apologize for racists and bigots. I’m sure I’ll have more to say but I’m flipping out about the Regina Public Library just announcing its plan to tear down the Modernist Central Branch in favour of a new internationally-designed building! Backward, backward, backward.

Bernadette, from Regina

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Racism is definitely alive and well in the Prairies. If you go through the local newspaper archives looking for examples of racism, you will not be at a loss. Here is one incident:

How would I describe the Prairies? Well, the Prairies, my home from birth is just a flat tabletop stretch of land populated by people that are no better or worse than any other person on earth because after all we are all just humans. But what makes us in any way different from others? What changed us into “Prairie People” because in our own way we are if not unique, we are as different as anyone else can say. Well, I have a theory and because my family has been here in Manitoba since at least the 1870s I think I have maybe some insight into it. I think what coloured us the most is our environment. We live in a challenging one no doubt. So for instance when you come by someone whose car is stuck in the snow you get out to help push them out. I have myself assisted a couple of folks whom I found wandering in a blizzard lost to get to a place of safety. We know that if you do not help our fellow Manitobans, it could be a matter of life or death. That comes from our ancestors who knew that same fact, even more so. They knew that if they did not step up and help then who would? This is an unwritten and un-mentioned rule of the prairies. That simple fact I think colours who we are as a people. I think we can come off as cold and distant to strangers sometimes. I think we are hard to get to know. But people should never confuse that as not caring because when the time comes, we will be the ones to step up to help out. Or to push your car out of a snow drift.

Ron, Manitoba

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