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History plaques on Traffic Bridge to address Indigenous experience with settlers

Revisions have been made to educational plaques planned for Saskatoon’s new Traffic Bridge after an advisory group asked that various Indigenous groups be canvassed for their take on the historical narrative being prepared for the public.

The new Traffic Bridge opened to traffic in October 2018. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Revisions have been made to educational plaques planned for Saskatoon’s new Traffic Bridge after an advisory group asked that various Indigenous groups be canvassed for their take on the historical narrative being prepared for the public. 

The chair of Saskatoon’s Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee says inclusiveness is a priority for the committee, and the text revisions will be discussed by the committee Wednesday at city hall.

“That’s an issue that I’ve been pushing for as part of [the committee] for a long time and that a lot of us have been: to work with the city council and city administration [on] continuing to enhance the voice of our Indigenous community,” said Lenore Swystun.

In early 2018, the City of Saskatoon asked the Meewasin Valley Authority to write the text for a series of plaques telling the histories of both the Traffic Bridge and the city itself. 

The authority wrote material for seven plaques, stretching from Saskatoon’s early history to the 2012 demolition of the original century-old Traffic Bridge. The material was reviewed by city archivist Jeff O’Brien and three members of the heritage advisory committee.

‘Ensure that history is accurately reflected’

In the report going to the heritage advisory committee this week, the city says the committee asked last May that “various Indigenous stakeholders be consulted to ensure that history is accurately reflected” after reviewing the initial content.

“[We] just said, ‘These are some things that we need to consider: our Indigenous history, our settler history, the built component of it, the intangible component of the Traffic Bridge and the telling of it through time,” said Swystun.  

The panels, which now total nine, were revised in the wake of the committee’s feedback and consultation with Indigenous groups, according to the city. 

Andrea Lafond, the authority’s CEO, said the MVA reached out for feedback as early as fall 2018 to the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, the Saskatoon Tribal Council and the Gabriel Dumont Institute.

“It took us a bit of time to get all the right knowledge experts to get that information together,” said Lafond.

When the first batch of text was reviewed by the committee in May, “we were still trying to identify the right individual” to contribute knowledge of early Indigenous history, she added. 

A statue of Chief Whitecap, seen here, and Temperance Colonization Society land agent John Lake stands at the bottom of the new Traffic Bridge. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

A review of the text for the original seven plaques versus the text for newly-tweaked set of nine plaques reveals several additions reflecting both Indigenous people’s early claim to the land and their experiences with settlers. 

The first sentence on the first plaque — originally titled Saskatoon’s Humble Beginnings and now titled The Original Inhabitants — remains largely unchanged: “The area around what is now called Saskatoon has been inhabited by First Nations people for more than 11,000 years.” 

The first in a series of plaques planned for the new Traffic Bridge was originally titled Saskatoon’s Humble Beginnings before more information about Saskatoon’s original Indigenous population was added and the plaque was renamed The Original Inhabitants.

But whereas the original first plaque focused mostly on the early Métis presence in and around Saskatoon, the second version now reads: “Over time, the [Saskatoon] area brought together many Indigenous nations, including the Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cree, Dakota, Métis, and Saulteaux (among many others), each with their own name for the area and reasons for occupation.”

Both the Métis and Cree names for Saskatoon are now mentioned: “Arrow Woods” and “the place where the willows are taken,” respectively. Also included is the name the Dakota had for a South Saskatchewan River crossing near what is now the Senator Sid Buckwold Bridge: “mighty water.” 

Mention of Indigenous servants

The new text also touches on settlers’ disruption of Indigenous life. Major roads and highways were built atop significant trails used during large bison hunts, the plaque says.  

The second plaque, titled Establishing Saskatoon, touches on some of the economic ties between settlers and Indigenous people, including the use of Dakota women as servants in some Saskatoon homes. 

One particular setback faced by the Métis has been added to the second plaque. 

“The federal government granted the Temperance Colony 213,000 acres of land in a block straddling the river and stretching from Clarke’s Crossing in the north to the present-day Whitecap First Nation,” the second plaque reads. 

Another revised plaque mentions how Métis river lots were transferred to settlers with the Temperance Colonization Society. (Meewasin Valley Authority)

“Métis river lots in the process of being surveyed were cancelled by colonial officials and the land was provided to Temperance Colonists,” despite the fact that “the Métis had settled permanently in the region since the late 1850s-early 1860s and had used the region’s resources much earlier.”

Swystun said the goal of inclusiveness remains a “work in progress.” The committee already has one Indigenous member — Garry Anaquod of the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre — but still has room for one more, she said. 

Anaquod could not be reached for comment Sunday. 

‘Always room for further discussion’  

While the city said it expects the $42,000 project to be installed this fall, Swystun said she expects the process of preparing the plaques will continue. 

“Maybe some people think it’s closed but I think there’s always again room for further discussion on this based on what the committee says when we get together on Wednesday,” said Swystun.

How many words can fit on each plaque needs to be considered too, she said. 

“It’s as much a technical exercise as it is a content exercise,” she said. 

Lafond of the Meewasin Valley Authority said she’s satisfied with what’s now on the table.

“That was the end result we hoped for, so [we’re] very pleased,” Lafond said. 

The plaques wouldn’t be the first markers of their kind near the new Traffic Bridge. At the southern foot of the bridge stands a 2008 statue of Chief Whitecap and Temperance Colonization Society land agent John Lake titled The Founders.

The statue of Chief Whitecap and John Lake was installed in 2008. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Nor is this the first time the Indigenous experience and the bridge have come up in the same discussion.

In early 2018, after a public consultation session, some residents called for the bridge to be named “The TRC Bridge” in recognition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

City council ultimately voted in favour of a motion from Darren Hill to retain the Traffic Bridge name “in recognition of the original name from 1907.”

Councillors did allow for the walkways on both sides of the bridge to be named in the future. 

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