Summer Solstice 2024: Land Acknowledgement

Posted on Jun 19, 2024 in Books, Nature, Photos, Reflections, Seasonal Messages
Wild rose in mixed and poplar woods, Dawson Park, Edmonton, June 2024.

Friends and taxi drivers are always getting lost trying to find my address in Edmonton. In Boyle Street, the streets and avenues seem squished together; there are no straight lines. I used to blame it on the bend in the river. Turns out, it goes much deeper than that. As we approach this National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, I want to offer a partial archeology of this place, a kind of cross-section from the archives. There are so many layers, so many Indigenous Peoples, so much wildlife, so much loss. But this Summer Solstice I want to focus on those times and people in-between the First Nations and the European settlers: the Métis and their footprints on this land. Specifically this small patch of ground beneath my feet, River Lot 20.

One thing about the pandemic is how it washed all our structures away, stripped us back to the essential relationships: family, home, immediate community and land. Allowed us to imagine a different present, a different future. To imagine not some kind of dreamy ideal but to know that things weren’t always like they are now and may not be tomorrow either.

At one time (1906-1920) there was a federal penitentiary on the very spot of ground where I now live (p. 26) and just south of that along the river’s edge was a coal mine that the inmates had to work. Further south and earlier yet (1893), Mr. J. B. Little started his successful brick yard on the flats of the valley (Riverdale). But before any of this and the reason for all the angles in my neighbourhood has to do with the river lot system.

The surveyor maps of 1882 show there were already forty-four river lots on the North Saskatchewan either side of Fort Edmonton; even numbers on the north side and odd numbers on the south. The lots on the south side ended at what is now University Avenue. The lots on the north (a mile long) ended at Rat Creek or 118th Avenue.

There were river lots all over Alberta before settlement and after the Métis practice at the Red River Settlement (inherited from the French practice in Quebec). River lot settlements thrived for decades along the southern rim of Beaverhills Lake, at Laboucan on the Battle River Crossing, further up the North Saskatchewan near Smoky Lake (now Métis Crossing), out at St. Albert along the Sturgeon River and around Lac Ste. Anne to name a few. Several families moved west after the 1870s after the failed struggle for a Métis homeland in Manitoba. And while many of the names on the Edmonton river lots sound Scottish, the men often married Métis women or were of mixed Indigenous and European heritage themselves. Here is a just sampling.  

In 1860 two brothers-in-law, James Rowland and Kenneth McDonald staked (respectively) River Lot 18 and River Lot 20. They were the first Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) men to live outside the Fort. Kenneth McDonald was a Scot from the Isle of Lewis who signed on as “middleman” (rower) to a York boat with the HBC at the age of 19 (1847). In 1886, after gaining legal title, he built a new house for his growing family on what is now 92nd Street and Jasper Avenue, a little south of me. The McDonald house still stands as part of Fort Edmonton Park. Just before his death in 1906 he sold a chunk of his property. Was it for the new penitentiary? Perhaps as a way to care for his remaining family?

His wife, Emma, remained in their house until she died in 1929. Emma was a midwife, herbalist and healer; Indigenous knowledge. Besides James Rowland, her other brother, Fred, occupied River Lot 22. There were Métis with kin further east on the river too, at River Lot 28, John Fraser, the son of a Colin Fraser (Scottish) and Nancy Beaudry (Métis); the Fraser sisters Betsy and Flora resided with their husbands on lots 30 (William Borwick) and 32 (James Guillion). River lots 32 and 34 had further family and Métis ties: James and George were brothers from the Orkneys and George was married to a Métis woman, Marguerite Brazeau. These ties were the beginnings of Edmonton. The river lot system allowed each family to have access to needed resources: wood, water and game as well as land for grazing and planting. But perhaps more important for the Métis were the kinship ties the river lot system allowed them to maintain with all their relatives: human, water, land, sky, and forest.

The river lots on the north side of the river had closer ties to the HBC than those on the south. And their land rights were more likely to be honoured after the Northwest Resistance. That conflict divided Indigenous families on all fronts. Three of James Rowland’s brothers (William, John and Alexander) served as scouts on the government side during the Resistance. Nothing is said about the other nine siblings involvement, but in 1885 their mother (and Kenneth McDonald’s mother-in-law) Elizabeth Rowland claimed Métis scrip at Edmonton as did James. One can imagine the talk of the Resistance around the kitchen tables all up and down the river. Especially among the women.

But before the river lots? There is just a hint at an earlier time and earlier peoples in Kenneth McDonald’s obituary in the Edmonton Bulletin: “The east side of the village was then where the Grand View Hotel now stands and the district between that centre and his farm was a dense poplar forest.”

A dense poplar forest… I’m imagining conversations now when I walk to the edge of the valley and look out on the dawn. The mix of cultures and languages and voices. The mix of species. How we could be together differently in this land.

In gratitude.

16 Comments

  1. Anita Jenkins
    June 19, 2024

    Thank you. I am insatiable for information about local history.

    Reply
    • Audrey
      June 19, 2024

      Well, it can consume can’t it. There are no end to the stories! Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  2. Margaret
    June 20, 2024

    Thank you for this research and reflection, Audrey!

    Reply
    • Audrey
      June 20, 2024

      You’re welcome, Margaret! As I said there are many layers. This one might interest you: Matthew McCauley (namesake of the McCauley neighbourhood) was the warden of the Alberta Penitentiary I mention. His house was on the corner of 92 Street and 106A Avenue.

      Reply
  3. Ruth
    June 20, 2024

    So interesting! (I love civic history…)

    Reply
    • Audrey
      June 20, 2024

      It is fascinating. Thanks!

      Reply
  4. Eva Radford
    June 21, 2024

    What a fascinating article, Audrey! I enjoyed looking at the map and could enlarge it to see the names, looking for them on the south side of the river where we live. I’ve caught the Edmonton history bug!

    Reply
    • Audrey
      June 21, 2024

      Yes, there’s so much been covered over. That’s why I liken it to archeology–there are so many civilizations that have been covered up by the dusts of time but were vital in their day around the world and here too. We only beginning to understand. If you want to learn more about the families on the south side of the river, you could run them through this site, https://www.metisnationdatabase.ca/ or this one, https://www.redriverancestry.ca/ and see what comes up. There are also some excellent local books: Tom Monto’s Old Strathcona : Edmonton’s Southside Roots (with Metis Strathcona by Randy Lawrence) and Jan Olson’s Scona Lives: A History of Riverlots 13, 15, & 17.

      Reply
  5. jano thibodeau
    June 21, 2024

    Thank you /Merci Audrey – so much work you have done – yes some of my ancestors have walked or by dog sleighs along this land or swam and drank the sweet water of those rivers –

    with deep admiration ~j.

    Reply
  6. Carolyn Pogue
    June 23, 2024

    Dear Audrey,
    I enjoyed your piece and hope that you will not stop, but dig down further. One of my favourite museums in the in the world is The London Museum. I love it because the story of the land we stand on (at the museum) begins at the beginning of the island… and then moves to the sabre tooth tigers and all. I tried to add that flavour to my book about the oldest rock, too. It gives us a holy sense, I think, as did your blog. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Audrey
      June 24, 2024

      Yes, I will go deeper in a future post; it could take many posts and many years. There are so many layers. Thank you for the London Museum inspiration!

      Reply
  7. Janice
    June 26, 2024

    As always with your posts, Audrey – I learn things I didn’t know before. Thank you. These days feel like a time for deepening knowledge and trying to find hope in the world as it is now…in so many places so much division, misunderstanding and hatred. Your messages always leave me feeling more centered and calm. I am grateful for your gifts!

    Reply
    • Audrey
      June 27, 2024

      Thanks, Janice, for putting into words what I am feeling too: the need to ground myself in life.

      Reply
  8. Linda Bumstead
    July 1, 2024

    I found your post so interesting. I did know a little about the brick yard and the river lots. I learned some of it by reading and some on Jane’s Walks and Historic Festival and Doors Open Edmonton walks. Your information about the Metis families and the river lots deepened my understanding of land acknowledgment. Colin’s middle name is Fraser and his cousin believed that they had Metis relatives through their paternal grandmother.
    I think it would be very interesting if you gave a Jane’s Walk about your neighborhood.
    I think many people would be interested and it would increase their understanding of Indigenous and Metis lives in the early days of Edmonton.

    Reply
    • Audrey
      July 1, 2024

      Yes, and there’s even a Colin in there! Very Scottish that use of the middle name to pass on old family names. My father’s family did that too. A Jane’s Walk? Now that’s a challenge I will think on! I will have to consult our good friend and Jane’s Walker, Anita Jenkins. Thanks, Linda, for reading and sharing your connections.

      Reply

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