by Michelle LeBaron

In the dusty town of my childhood, Indigenous people and settlers didn’t mix much. Sightlines joined us, but seldom words and never touch. All around Lethbridge were Indian reservations. And in the river valley, Indian Battle Park. No one told us what the battle was, but we knew who had won. Or so we thought.

Two experiences changed my perspective. The first was in 1994 at George Mason University in suburban Virginia outside Washington, DC. It was my first position as conflict resolution faculty, and I was pleased (and nervous) to be invited to speak on a panel commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Montreal massacre. Also, on the panel was Madeleine Dion Stout, a health care professional who grew up on the Kehewin First Nation in Northern Alberta. She was one of the first native women to graduate from the nursing program at the University of Lethbridge in 1982 and had gone on to work on the Peigan Reserve just outside the city. Madeleine spoke powerfully about pervasive violence against women, particularly Indigenous women. I found my eyes welling with tears as I realized our paths had not crossed until we met outside the country of our birth. We came from two communities in the same territory, mine so dominant it had foreclosed opportunities for contact, replaced curiosity with labels and judgment, and stolen voice, culture, health, and vitality. We spoke after the panel. It was the first time in my life I’d had a significant conversation with an Indigenous person. I was thirty-eight years old.

The second experience is from 2020. By phone, I met a Swiss scholar living in the UK with whom I had been paired for some research. Isabel had just finished her PhD. By chance, she shared that, a few years before, she had left her Swiss mountain village to do a junior year of high school on exchange in Lethbridge, Alberta. She said she had spent the year weeping as she felt the unaddressed suffering arising from the land at Indian Battle Park. “It was terrible,” she told me, “and made worse because no one I encountered that entire year had any idea about the unattended sorrow still emanating from that place.”

The City of Lethbridge website includes a single sentence about the Indian battle (for which Indian Battle Park was named) between the Blackfoot and Iron Confederacies in October 1870.[1] Only outside of government websites is the epidemic of smallpox mentioned that, in 1869 – 1870, had wiped out over half of the population of the Blackfoot tribes, weakening them to attack.

These two stories, half a lifetime apart, raised many questions. Why did I know nothing of the people who lived on these prairies and the memories the land held for them? Why did I (and my childhood peers) assume that the battle had been between settlers and natives, and won by settlers? Why did my education not include the devastating spread of disease by settlers, and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s role in arming Nations and pitting one against the other which are part of the story of the battle? If truth is a human quest, why was the truth of the land where my grandparents had homesteaded hidden? If shelter is a human need, why did we not receive the shelter that shared stories might have yielded between settlers and Indigenous peoples?

On this day of remembering how First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples’ stories are held in the land, I plan to learn more of the stories that went untold in my childhood. Which new stories might you learn from the multitude available now, and how will it change your sense of yourself, and of the history of this place called Canada?[2]

[1] Accessed 5 June 2020.