Prairie Fire Review - Reading the River

Reviewed by: Graeme Voyer

Several years ago, Edmonton-based writer Myrna Kostash read a book about the Danube, which recounted the lore and literature associated with that major European river. She wondered if a similar book could be written about a great Canadian river--for example, the North Saskatchewan. Having decided that it was a feasible project, she and a researcher set out to gather all the writing they could find that pertained to the North Saskatchewan River. The result is this book.

Kostash intersperses her narrative with extensive quotations from the memoirs, journals, and diaries of explorers, traders, missionaries, settlers, and various travellers and adventurers, from the eighteenth century to the present. What all these excerpts have in common is that they relate to some aspect of life along the North Saskatchewan, which Kostash describes as "an essential river" (2). 

The North Saskatchewan originates at the base of Saskatchewan Glacier in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. It flows east through Alberta and Saskatchewan, finally discharging its water into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, travelling a distance of 1,287 kilometres.

Kostash explains that the river functioned as a trade route, both for Aboriginals and Europeans. One of her themes is the rivalry between fur trading companies--the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company--in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which led to the founding of trading posts even farther westward along the river, as each company sought to secure the furs of Aboriginal trappers.

Indeed, the east-west flow of the river and trade formed the basis of the Canadian nation-state. As Kostash says, "the 'distinctive economy' of the fur trade had laid down the communications grid that incorporated as a single coherent until the east-west orientation of the British and French colonies distinct from the colonies that would become the United States" (333). The river, then, played a remarkably significant role in Canadian history. 

And this role is ably delineated by Kostash, who, making extensive use of primary sources, has produced a sort of biography of a river, depicting the culture of the North Saskatchewan.

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