The View from Saltcoats

By Rob Wilson

I wrote this piece nearly twenty years ago.  It is amazing how little has changed.


I brake and gingerly ease my truck to the edge of the road.  Although I live in Saltcoats, Saskatchewan, I am overlooking the Assiniboine River. I was raised a few miles upstream in the town of Kamsack.

For years oil from Kamsack’s refinery slid conveniently into the Assiniboine River.  Downstream at Shellmouth, a dam curtails the steady flow of the river, creating an artificial reservoir.  Water quality is greatly diminished due to an explosion of algae growth triggered by agricultural fertilizer, human sewage and animal wastes.

These are painful reflections and sad realities of my time along the Assiniboine River Valley.  Why must natural systems be denigrated by most human endeavours?

I walk to the crest of the valley and pass over.  I walk a sufficient distance to eliminate my vehicle and the road from my sight.  The valley has a power and an energy.  The view is immense.  Land, trees and water sweep to the east.  The flow of time, like  he river current, is in exorable. It is easy to imagine the date to be 1793.  The river valley was then alive with the bustle of the fur trade.

The Grants and  their kin, Robert, Peter, David and the two Cuthberts (father and son) built a series of forts to support their efforts in the fur trade.  Cuthbert Grant’s House, also called Aspin House and Fort de la Riviere Tremblante (1791), stood somewhere along this stretch of the valley.

The “second” Curthbert Grant gave his name to Grantown, now known as St. Francois-Xavier, the town so-named to affirm Cuthbert’s achievements.  Cuthbert is remembered as spokesperson and leader of the Metis in their struggle against the Selkirk settlement and the Hudson’s Bay Company.  In 1816, he led the party which killed Governor Semple and twenty-one of his men in an engagement which is known as the Battle of Seven Oaks.  This historic encounter took place within the borders of present day Winnipeg.  Cuthbert later held the prestigious title of “Warden of the Plains.”  He contributed greatly to a peaceful transition from the days of the buffalo hunt to permanent settlement in the area west of Winnipeg.

Returning to the truck, I cross the valley and continue north in a line east of Kamsack and west of the Duck Mountains.  Within thirty minutes I am sitting in the kitchen of Bev and Bill Helmkay.  Bev’s maiden name is Grant.  She knows very little about the fur trade Grants, although other relatives inform her that these Scottish and Metis traders are indeed her forbears. 

We discuss hunting, farming, politics, education, and employment.  Economics pervades all.  The future appears gloomy.  Opportunities seem restricted.  How will our children find employment?  The climate may be changing due to the Greenhouse Effect.

I am moving again, returning southward to Saltcoats.  I am reflecting upon my visit with one of Cuthbert Grant’s descendants.  I realize with a mixture of pleasure and excitement that my youthful adventures along the Assiniboine Valley occurred in the same physical space as the Grant fur traders. I share the river hills with Robert and Cuthbert.  We, in our respective times, have paddled our canoes along the watery track of the Assiniboine.

Less than a dozen miles to the east lies Veregin, site of the original Doukhobor settlement.  I remember that my own community of Saltcoats claims the distinction of having been the first village to register in the Northwest Territories. Why have I always thought of history as an entity with finite boundaries?  I realize that history, like the river, flows and that my existence is but a minuscule part of this flow.  Friends, neighbours, and the river reach back in an unbroken stream to an infinity I cannot fully comprehend.

Again I must cross the valley as I return to Saltcoats.  I swing off the pavement along one of the grids. I will cross the river on an obscure bridge away from the main highway, away from our provincial and federal deficits, far from cutbacks to education and healthcare, distant from layoffs, unemployment and mortgage payments.

The river and the valley have a power and an energy.  It is a power which can stimulate and excite. It is an energy which can fascinate.  I will descend the side of the valley to river along a hillside where Cuthbert Grant once sat patiently and silently searching for signs of approaching buffalo.

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