The long stretches of highway in Saskatchewan have a reputation for being a bit mundane, but there are eight pieces of art to look out for along Highway 11 between Prince Albert and Regina.
The metal sculptures by retired Davidson farmer Don Wilkins portray the vast legacy of the province’s Métis people.
“It came about really not by accident. I was involved with a local volunteer group about 16 or 17 years ago. We decided we would try to get the Number 11 Highway named the Louis Riel Trail,” Wilkins explained.
“The Department of Highways said they would not just give us a name by itself there had to be something else to go with it.”
With a strong interest in history and plenty of skills welding from his farming days, Wilkins said he was quick to come up with the idea for sculptures. A proud grandfather of two Métis grandchildren, Wilkins said it was important to him to portray the significant role Métis people have played in the province, specifically between 1850 and 1895.
“They were a close knit community. Before confederation, I take that period when they were hunting bison and they made long treks into Montana and North Dakota and of course in the far west of the prairies. And in the winter time they got together and socially had a very good time. so one of my sculptures depicts a fiddler, that’s in Davidson,” Wilkins explained.
“Of course the Red River Carts were very much a part of their life, they used them to haul goods for themselves and for the Hudson’s Bay Company…They were a vital link for the Hudson’s Bay and the North West fur trading company’s. They actually could not have functioned very well without them.”
One of Don Wilkins’ sculptures along Highway 11. Photo from website.
The sculptures reference contributions to music and the economy but Wilkins said they also connect to some of the fears of the time.
“When the settlements were in the Prince Albert area the federal government in 1872 decided to resurvey the west. Métis communities who were already well established on the south branch of the Saskatchewan river were fearful that they would lose title to the property that they’d been living on… that became a great deal of anxiety for them,” he said.
The new four-meter sculpture near Bladworth is called The Invitation and depicts Louis Riel. It is connected to that time when a delegation of Métis people went to Montana to ask Riel to “be their negotiator with the federal authorities”.
“I think (understanding the history) is very important not just for our jurisdiction but all over because it gives us a cultural understanding,” Wilkins said.
“I want people to see them as educational because each site has a written interpretation of why they are built the way they are and why that subject matter was part of this project.”
Each sculpture takes Wilkins about two years and he donates his time and most of the cost.
“People actually have made me feel good, for most cases they appreciate the fact that my work hasn’t been passed on to them as a tax burden,” he said with a laugh. “It’s my effort and it seems to be respected.”
At nearly 78 years old, Wilkins said he doesn’t have plans to slow down although he might downsize the projects to something a bit more manageable.
“I enjoy shop work and I plan on continuing doing that. It will probably be smaller projects but I still have ideas about great things that I’d like to do in terms of our historic values and there is a purpose,” he said.
“I get quite excited, I get up everyday, and I’m really quite enthused. There is so much to work for and to live for.”
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