Early Pioneers on the Canadian Prairies
An assignment for Visioneers, Toastmasters, from
"The Touching Story" in the Storytelling Manual, Ottawa, Ontario, Feb. 23, 2000.
By Koozma J. Tarasoff. All rights reserved.
Some of the pioneers of the century are well known: Such as Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone; Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity; and Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. Mr. Toastmaster, Fellow Toastmasters, I want to tell you about some ordinary folk, not well-known, who deserve the title of Pioneers of the Century.
One hundred years ago, a group of migrants from Europe set foot on the Canadian prairies. They were practically penniless, without knowledge of the English language, but they had strong backs and a spirit determined to survive in the Wild West. In the early spring, most of the able-bodied men went off to work in building the railroad, while the remainder found work on neighboring farms. They would not return home until late fall.
Women, old men, and children stayed behind to build dozens of villages and provide food for the family. Only a few horses and oxen were available; these were already occupied in transporting supplies long distances to their villages, as well as skidding logs for the buildings. With these limited resources, what were they to do? How could they cultivate the new soil and seed their first crops?
If we could come to a narrow strip of ploughed field, 100 years ago, we would see at the far end of it a colourful crowd of people slowly moving in our direction in a long file. Our eyes could not believe what we see. These are women who hitched themselves in tandem pairs to an iron plough. It was awesome when, stepping heavily on the wet grass; this somber procession began to approach us. There was something solemn, deeply moving, in the figures of these straining women pulling the heavy plough. The wooden sticks to which the rope was tied cut into their breasts and stomachs. With sun burnt hands the women pushed the sticks trying to reduce the pain.
In the lead is an older tall woman with a stern face; she moves with measured but heavy steps, looking down at the earth. She knows what life is like and even this work does not surprise her. She knows this is necessary otherwise her family will starve.
Being strong in spirit and body, she is prepared to go around the earth's sphere in this harness with the same quiet stern face, seeing this work as her duty.
Beside her we see similar calm, sometimes troubled faces, with sadness in the eyes. Here is the pale face of a girl with fine features. She walks with upraised head and her thin neck is marked by two tensely swollen veins. With her melancholy wide-open eyes she looks into the depth of the clear spring sky as if looking for something that would reconcile her to this harsh reality. In her eyes we could see a child's perplexity, sadness and a thirst for love and happiness.
Paired with her is an older woman. Industriously leaning her whole body at each step, her features are contorted with pain. Now and then she turns her good-natured face to two little girls — her daughters — walking after their mother across the field and said something to them. At such a moment her face lights up with some kind of inner light, as if she was happy that she not they must pull this plough. One of the little girls who tangled her feet in the tall grass gave her mother some branches of wild strawberries.
Pair after pair these women pass us by as in a dream; then come the last pair with faces apathetic from weariness, with strained eyes looking straight ahead. The plough rustled, turning over the furrow from under which the tops of partly-covered field flowers waved sadly — and the ploughers passed by. From a distance we could hear their song. It is a song of weeping; it is more a groan escaping at last from chests exhausted and over-strained by long suffering in the field, the groan of reproach and a wail calling for righteousness for all that is human in man.
And the brilliant river shone in the sun, sparkling through the leaves with its fast running streams. It laughed at the two-legged creatures calling themselves with the proud name of humans, able till now to do nothing to deserve the name, nothing. And the frightened poplars/aspens trembled with fear from head to foot, trembled with all their new spring leaves unused to life, muttering something senseless about the terror which passed them by. Several birds shook their heads in bewilderment as they looked with curiosity at the sight never seen before and which they could not explain to themselves.
And over all this spread the clear innocent sky. The last drops of dew shone with emeralds in the marvelous thick grass, as the untamed breeze caressed its tall feather leaves. And from the distance poured and poured the soul-searching groan — a song of the unheard-of harsh injustice and terrible grief. There all were pulling, pulling, pulling ....
Will you not agree with me that these courageous folk deserve the noble title of Pioneers of the Century?
[Reference: Adapted from L.A. Sulerzhitsky, To America With the Doukhobors, 1905, translated by Michael Kalmakoff. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1982. Pages 152-154.]