voices from west of the 4th meridian

I keep hearing them, voices from a hundred years ago, on the banks of the Red Deer River. I’m working on something I think of as an antiphonal essay, a series of calls and responses. Sometimes the calls are my own, back through the decades, to ask questions of my grandmother and her first husband, the other members of that early incarnation of my family who lived in a settlement of squatters in Drumheller from 1913 – 1917; and sometimes the calls are theirs — to the institutions and individuals who were part of the world they lived in. And the responses? They are often choruses of voices, or occasionally a single voice. The voice of Frank Collins, Superintendent of School Lands, Department of the Interior, Winnipeg, who wrote “I do not consider that we should force the squatters to vacate this land as it might seriously affect the operation of the mines…” He knew, as others knew, that the reason people had built shacks illegally on a quarter section of property known as School Lands was mostly because they were poor, there was nowhere else for them to live in the tiny community of Drumheller, and their labour was needed in the nearby coal mines. The voices of representatives from the Canadian Northern Railway who responded to Frank Collins: “The squatter situation has developed to our disadvantage.” The voices of the surveyors, the mayor of Drumheller (in a terse telegram): “Conditions are a menace to towns health and finances as we are practically debarred from any revenue from people on this land.” Later voices from people remembering what it was like to live in the settlement:”There were many coyotes running in packs. When they howled there were very noisy and would wake up the children. Each house had its scrap heap where you put out ashes, etc. The coyotes would come across the river in search of food from these scrap heaps. At night you could see them run from these heaps when you went outside…The houses were longer one way than the other, and could be converted into two rooms. They had a caravan roof, had tar-paper on the outside walls and roof and had no water or toilet inside. Those homes with children had bunk beds put along the back wall.” There were nine children in the home of my grandmother and her first husband so I am trying to listen to the voices inside their house (20×25 feet) and outside, as my grandmother chased her chickens and hoed potatoes in the big garden (its dimensions, 80×125 feet, found their way onto the list detailing the worth of the buildings in the settlement once a decision was made to allow the squatters to buy their lots). I hear them, I hear them across the decades, and it’s like a plain-spoken opera, an oratorio, the voices beautiful in their insistence on being heard. Even the questions on the patent application for homesteads:

When did you build your house thereon? And when did you begin actual residence thereon?

How much breaking have you done upon your homestead in each year since you obtained entry, and how many acres have you cultivated each year?

How many horned cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, of which you are owner have you had on your homestead each year since date of obtaining entry? Give number of each year.

So I listen and notate and try to find a shape for this material and all the while I have these photographs on my desk, a little gallery of lost time.


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