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Canada 150: Shackleton

It turns out I have almost no photos of Saskatchewan. Apparently it is a place I only drive through or fly over.

To the best of my memory, the only night I spent in Saskatchewan was the time when the car in which I was a passenger hit a deer. The car was a mess, the deer even more so. Do you know how dark it gets in the middle of the prairie? We could not see our hands in front of our faces. Eventually my parents and my sister and I were rescued by an RCMP officer who dropped us off at some motel in Estevan.

However, it also turns out that the province where I have spent so little time actually played a huge role in my family’s history. My grandparents — two people I never got the chance to meet — immigrated to Saskatchewan. They left the Netherlands by boat intending to go to Alberta, but changed their minds somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and decided to head to Saskatchewan instead.

This was in 1928.

For those readers who don’t know much Canadian history, let’s just say the 1930s were not kind to prairie farmers. Twelve years and six children later, my grandparents abandoned the farm to the bank and made a beeline for Alberta, their original destination, where potatoes became the crop that finally turned their fortunes around.

Many decades later, I asked my dad to show me the farm where he was born and the nearby village of Shackleton. It wasn’t more than a few hours’ drive from Lethbridge, where he was then living.

I expected to learn something about my family’s history during our little road trip, but when I saw the almost-deserted village that is Shackleton today, I was surprised at my reaction. It was visceral and all I could think was: How on earth did my grandmother have the strength to not get right back on the train and insist that she and her new husband return to Holland?

The farmer who owned the land my dad’s family had farmed remembered my dad and gave us free rein to wander around. Dad had me take a photo of him standing in the middle of the vegetable garden where he estimated the house he had been born in once stood.

The house was long gone as well as all of the other buildings dating back to the 1930s — except for this shed. Dad says his father used it to store his McCormick Deering steel-wheeled tractor.

One last thought: Apart from my reaction while looking over the village of Shackleton, what struck me most about our visit was a low dike-like mound that separated the fields from the house and other farm buildings. When I asked Dad what it was for, he told me it had been formed by the dust storms. The dirt blew in across the fields, but was stopped from reaching the buildings by a row of shrubs. With each successive dust storm, the mound grew taller. Eventually, when the dust storms finally stopped, grass began to grow on top of it.

And there we were, some 70 years later, standing on land that still showed the scars of the great dust storms of the 1930s.

If that’s not one of the most powerful history lessons I’ve ever had, I don’t know what is.

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