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What you get out of it

“It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” — Tom Lehrer, then 37

Earl Fowler

Fellow gets to a certain age, he gets to wondering about where he came from and what he has done with his one and only precious life.

Professionally, I’ve mowed lawns, vacuumed pools, conducted interviews, written words and tried to improve other people’s written words. These accomplishments seem pretty meagre when stacked against the backdrop of my great-grandfather’s career, say, which was more checkered than a NASCAR flag.

All I knew about William Fowler growing up was that like my grandfather, my father and me, he had no affinity for farming. This didn’t matter much in the Prairies of my youth, when the suburbs of Saskatoon or Regina could have been switched with those in any small North American city with a flick of the transistor radio dial.

But it mattered in 1882, when William’s dreams of a stable, affluent future were upended by his father’s loss of all the family money on a failed sawmill venture near Fort Frances, Ont. Well. Not so much a failed venture as a case of being swindled out of a $1.75-million operation (in 1882 dollars) by a shady politician and an unscrupulous lawyer, according to my grandfather’s account, but that’s another story.

(In any case, it was surely First Nations people who were the rightful owners of the stolen resources, but that’s another ’nother story.)

The point is, young William had to find a way to support himself. And did he ever.

“First,” Grandpa wrote in a family history he patched together in 1969, well into his eighties, William “went with the Dominion Survey group or crew who were surveying the line across the continent dividing Canada and the United States of America from coast to coast. …

“Surveying was not a very fast job, whether it was a line miles ahead or around the lots in a townsite along the Canadian Pacific Railway or the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway lines, especially due to the means of transporting their equipment and supplies. It was not too pleasant in the summer with flies, mosquitoes, crossing streams, lakes and sloughs, and chopping their line through bush and scrub.

“One item they did not try to carry very far was their meat supply, outside of dried bacon. They managed to get considerable wild game. Due to the poor water that they were forced to drink time after time, Dad (William) was one of the unfortunate ones as he was hit with Bright’s disease, which plagued him for the rest of his life.”

Bright’s disease — a form of nephritis — included such symptoms as hemorrhages, swelling, apoplexy, convulsions, blindness, high blood pressure, heart disease and comas.

So try to imagine suffering from any of those conditions while driving a dog team for the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company on a circuit between Winnipeg, Prince Albert (more than 800 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg) and Battleford (another 200 km west of Prince Albert).

That was William’s job around the time of the North-West Rebellion (or Resistance, depending on one’s point of view) of 1885.

Quick refresher course: This was the military action of Métis people under the leadership of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, and an associated uprising by Cree and Assiniboine people of what was then the District of Saskatchewan, against the Canadian government for failing to protect their rights while appropriating their land.

Before being crushed at Batoche by 900 Canadian militia and armed white residents, the Métis scored several early military victories in the Prince Albert region. A Cree raiding party looted Battleford, where eight Indigenous men would be hanged later that year. Grandpa makes no mention of what William and the Indian runner who accompanied him on his route personally encountered. But holy Tim Hortons, Batman, that sled cut a swath through and around one of the seminal events in Canadian history.

The violent deaths of hundreds of people, the subjugation of the Plains Indigenous Peoples and the hanging of Riel — causing widespread outrage in Quebec and an anglophone-francophone rift that has bedevilled much of our history since 1885 — is right up there with the building of the railways in the forging of our national identity.

Speaking of which. Never one to hold a job for long, William had found employment even before the dogsled gig “with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company when they were putting the rails from east to west over land and through the mountains,” Grandpa writes.

William would return to the railway to work as a rock foreman in 1897-98 as the CPR line was built through the Crowsnest Pass, across the continental divide of the Rockies on what is now the Alberta-B.C. border. But it was during his first CPR stint that he met and married the young school teacher who would become my great-grandmother, an Irish immigrant whose family had squatted on an unsurveyed section of ranch land in what is now southeastern Saskatchewan in 1876. The province itself didn’t come into existence until 1905.

By 1887, William, Susan and their two sons — a daughter would join the fold two years later — had become what my grandfather claimed was the first non-native family resident on Texada Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands off the B.C. coast.

William’s new job consisted of quarrying marble used in construction of several early Vancouver landmarks, including the old Hotel Vancouver and the post office. The work was back-breaking but the island idyllic before being badly scarred by mining and logging.

“Dad got on well with the Indians as he traded supplies with them for fresh meat such as deer and fish,” Grandpa writes. “We could always get clams, crabs and the odd lobster coming in on the beach with the high tide. One had to be there at the right time. Fish was plentiful.”

By 1892, William had itchy feet again. He found a job for a few months buying grain at an elevator in Medicine Hat, then took a homestead that Grandpa says “proved to be a stone pile” in what is now southeastern Saskatchewan. Then there was another marginal homestead. And another. Keep moving on.

“Dad had no use for the farm and did not care to stay on one,” Grandpa writes. “He did not care to be tied down to one spot. My brother and I looked after the farm and Dad was away every summer.”

There was a return to the West Coast, I infer, where a “W. Fowler” makes an appearance in this 1894 newspaper item from Nanaimo: “News arrived in the town last night from Texada Island that the skeleton of the late Hugh Kirke had been recovered. Kirke was an old prospector, and for years had been located on Texada Island. In the latter part of the year he was lost and though several search parties were out looking for him, no sign of his whereabouts was found until a few days ago, when another prospector, Fowler, stumbled across his bones about a quarter of a mile from his former home. A gun, with barrels discharged, was found by the side of the skeleton.”

Remarks Grandpa: “We never saw Dad too much in the summer as he was always out on some of those exciting events. He had to be like a lot of others, off to the Klondike Gold Rush.”

Of course he was.

“He was a little more fortunate than a lot who went on this mission. He came home with a few dollars. This was the year 1898.”

None of these exciting events could have been easy for William or his family. Homestead life came with sod shacks, hand threshing of grain with scythes and flails, teams of oxen to drive and brutal Prairie winters with blizzards that lasted for days.

Here’s an excerpt from an entry by Grandpa’s sister, my great-aunt Frances, describing one of the moves: “Then Father decided that homestead land must be found for my brothers, so our farm at Oxbow was sold and household goods, machinery and stock were loaded into boxcars and shipped to Saskatoon. This was a strangely exciting, yet sad time of our lives.”

Those homesteads turned out to be about 65 kilometres west of Saskatoon. The brothers, then in their early 20s, returned in 1905, Frances continues, for “Mother and I, with our possessions loaded high on wagons. And with pretty Mother perched high on one load, (we) set out for the homesteads … on the bald, lonely prairie. The men herded the stock along and I chose to walk many miles with my loyal companion, Collie, the family dog who could not or would not ride the wagons.

“I recall the dust, the heat and mosquitoes and often think how courageous and uncomplaining my pretty Mother was to leave her comfortable home and set out for she knew not where, nor what her lot nor that of her family might be! Our home here, a tent (no house for quite some time), pitched on what appeared to be the loneliest and barest stretch of land imaginable.

“Much of our household goods would not begin to fit in the tent and were piled nearby. I was sad to see dear pretty Mother burst into tears, and to daily witness her unhappiness as, for example, her shining, well-kept stove gradually rusted in the frequent rains. But then, gradually, the clouds lifted and more shelter was constructed, and we grew to accept our hard life and to appreciate the little variations which made it bearable.”

By his mid-fifties, the little variations of William’s life had all but worn him out. “The Bright’s disease that he contracted years before kept getting worse and worse as the years went by, until he finally passed in 1915,” Grandpa writes. Susan, William’s wife and Frances’s pretty mother, would succumb to cancer the following decade.

So three things.

• Uno: What a vastly different, barely imaginable world our ancestors inhabited, just a few generations out.

• Dos: How fortunate I am to have the account my grandfather left behind, and how I wish I’d had the wit to ask family-history questions when there were still people around who could have answered them. Is there anyone born before 1960 who doesn’t share this regret?

• Tres: And boy, this is the big takeaway: My curriculum vitae is even skimpier than I feared.

What was that poetic remark the great Tom Lehrer once made about life?

Oh yeah. That it’s like a sewer.

“What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

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