Valley of the Birdtail: How two Manitoba communities came together to build a road toward reconciliation

By Matteo Cimellaro

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

There’s a common question posed to the co-authors, one Indigenous, the other not, of Valley of the Birdtail: An Indian Reserve, a White Town and the Road to Reconciliation. It goes something like this: how does a non-Indigenous person deal with the fear of acting on reconciliation?


Andrew Stobo Sniderman, the non-Indigenous co-author of the book, finds the question absurd. Non-Indigenous Peoples created the mess of colonization, and so it’s their responsibility to take us out of it, Sniderman said the morning after a book tour event in Ottawa last week. Douglas Sanderson, the Indigenous co-author, has a more charitable view: he thinks Indigenous Peoples should teach their non-Indigenous counterparts how to walk with them because “it’s a relationship.”


“Whose job is it to ask somebody on a first date? If one or the other doesn’t do it, is it wrong?” Sanderson said.


“They should go on the date,” Sniderman responded.


Sniderman and Sanderson didn’t exactly date. But they joined hands to write a book about walking together and hearing each other.

It’s done through a collection of stories between two communities and shows how those communities created a bridge of reconciliation through education.


The book started as two articles Sniderman wrote for Maclean’s about two small communities in Manitoba divided by a valley and river. Rossburn is a small, rural and largely Ukrainian settler community; Waywayseecappo First Nation is a small reservation that sits in the valley on the western bank of the river.


For years, the two communities were illustrative of a larger education gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities, where only four in 10 Indigenous students graduate high school and where for decades students received thousands of dollars less per capita than their non-Indigenous counterparts.


But everything changed in June 2010 after Waywayseecappo First Nation signed an agreement with the federal and provincial governments to merge the reserve’s school with the larger provincial board.


The federal government matched provincial funding following the merger, creating a financial parity most First Nations wouldn’t see until 2021. After the school boards of Rossburn and Waywayseecappo merged, reading levels stabilized and more students began to graduate.


Sniderman initially thought the story was worthy of a deeper dive and that he could write the book himself. He had trained as both a journalist, covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the North, and as a lawyer, representing Indigenous clients. But after three years of conducting interviews in Rossburn and Waywayseecappo and countless hours of archival research, Sniderman felt stuck, aware of his limitations when inhabiting the Indigenous perspectives in the book and unsure of the policy steps forward in reconciliation.


“ 1/8It was 3/8 partly stuff I knew I wasn’t getting right, and there was stuff I knew I didn’t even know I was getting wrong,” Sniderman said.


He turned to his old law professor and friend, Sanderson, who is Swampy Cree and a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Sanderson’s research and writing focuses primarily on Indigenous institutions and Indigenous-Crown relations through a policy perspective. He normally works as a researcher, penning papers destined for scholarly journals marked by jargon and theory. Valley of the Birdtail offered a chance for him to “take some of that complicated, theoretical language into much more simpler terms that turn on the facts of people’s real lives, and to be able to put out some version of what that future might look like,” he said.


The book’s writing then took a pandemic turn, with long stretches of isolation in basements trading the manuscript back and forth. The two wanted the language to be as clear and simple as possible, it’s their hope the book will be taught in secondary schools.


“Part of the project of the book is to face up to the past 150 years, to educate ourselves to what happened before us, to equip ourselves for what may follow,” Sniderman said.


The book itself, however, is not righteous in tone, Sniderman said. The authors wanted it to be fair to all its characters, even the historical ones.


It’s why the book is faithful to specificity and detail; it’s an academic tendency to verify every single historical fact.


It culminates in a book that investigates, among topics like residential schools and funding disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, a white town’s belief without judgment, exploring why non-Indigenous Canadians hold prejudices against Indigenous Peoples.


For example, Valley of the Birdtail touches on the common falsehoods levelled against Indigenous Peoples about paying less in taxes or funding the education of their community members while a rural town faces the brunt of economic decline, which is the topic of an entire chapter of the book.


“There’s these parallel stories being told, in this case in communities right next to each other, and part of what we’re trying to do is articulate those stories so that people can hear each other telling them,” Sniderman said.


Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer



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