The Classroom on the Escarpment: Where does “The Road Past Altamont” go anyway?


IMG_5846 copy

Altamont c.1950                 Photo credit: R.B. Marshall

Revised March 26, 2019


I often use this space to write about Parkinson’s disease and what it is like to be a Person with Parkinson’s (PwP). The only message I have about Parkinson’s in this post is that we Parkie’s are capable of serious, meaningful, and even frivolous discourse on many subject matters other than Parkinson’s. Today, I take you onto the Manitoba Escarpment for a walk around the “High Mountain,” complete with a glimpse into my own personal history.

Be forewarned this essay is a lengthy one so if you decide to proceed, you probably should make some tea, or get something stronger, and settle in.  

I am neither a literary scholar nor a historian of literature. However, one does not have to be an expert to read great literature, and to the extent that literature speaks to you, it is not out of place to comment on what is written on the page or what you believe to be between the lines.  I will be doing a bit of both as we put Gabrielle Roy and her classic work, The Road Past Altamont under a microscope with a sociological lens. 

Disclaimer  While certain positions and arguments presented in this article may be construed as controversial, it is not my wish to diminish the integrity of the good folks who reside in Altamont currently or who have ever lived there, nor is it my intention to misrepresent their positions, arguments, thoughts, or actions. My selected personal recollections arise predominantly from the 20-year period between 1950 and 1970.

Caveat  Gabrielle Roy wrote La route d’Altamont in French.  The version I am using here is a very fine English translation by a translator of some renown, Joyce Marshall (no relation.)  I believe however that there is always a degree of “misalignment” in any translation – a misalignment stemming from the “voice” of the work itself. Something written by a French Canadian or a Quebecois (there is a difference) in a French Canadian or a Quebecois voice will never be re – imaged perfectly in the brain of anyone other than a French Canadian or a Quebecois.  It is rather like the difference between sympathy and empathy.  Sympathetically we may be able to acknowledge the situation others face but empathetically it is impossible to understand the deep visceral emotions from the outside. In short, my reading of The Road Past Altamont will evoke in me feelings that are quite different from those felt by a  French Canadian or a Quebecois reading La route d’Altamont and vice versa. I am not saying that all differences can be reduced to a matter of perspective but I am saying that some concepts have a degree of subtlety that can only be understood if one has lived the experience.

Geology, Flora, and Social Change in the Pembina Hills

The prairies are a product of all that has happened in the past just as each of us is a product of what has happened to our ancestors and ourselves through time. We tend to think that land masses and geological features are everlasting, but, in reality, change is the only continuing fact. Changes in the land occur more slowly than in our lives, but change leaves its mark on both.

Many nostalgic tales from the past suggest that there have been changes in the flora, not only of the Pembina Hills, but of the whole prairie region. When we examine the stories we find that they are not entirely larger than life memories but are based on changes that occurred and on the natural consequences of those changes. 

~ Dr. H. H. Marshall, Pembina Hills Flora, Morden and District Museum (1971) Inc. 1990

The two passages above are excerpted from a study of flora in the Pembina Hills conducted by Dr. Henry Heard Marshall. The book is quite technical and scientific as it catalogues and classifies some 530 species of flora in 84 families.  It also speaks to the processes of change in both nature and in human affairs. In fact, I find the approach inspires me to think of the social and political changes occurring on the Pembina escarpment as more than a collection of “larger than life memories” and random events. Each change has a dynamic which can be analyzed systematically to reveal the past, present and predicted future outcomes of human behaviours.

IMG_0246_2 copy

Looking east through a ravine in the Pembina Hills toward the Lake Agassiz basin. Photo courtesy of the Joseph Henry Ellis Collection, University of Manitoba Archives,1941.

IMG_0248_2 copy

looking west toward the Pembina Hills from the Lake Agassiz basin. Photo courtesy of the Joseph Henry Ellis Collection, University of Manitoba Archives, September 1942.

The Beauty and Mystery of the “High Mountain”

The following description of Altamont, Manitoba could not be more complimentary if it had been lifted directly from a cheesy travel brochure. In fact the news correspondent (name unknown) for Altamont penned this prose as an introduction to a story in the Manitou Western Canadian July 26, 1906  announcing Altamont’s first ever Sports Day to be held on Friday August 3, 1906. [1]

Altamont, meaning high mountain, nature’s garden of Manitoba, which with its hills and valleys, covered here and there with its numerous poplar groves, can rightly be called the most picturesque beauty spot of the province. It is situated 40 miles south of Winnipeg and 55 miles west of Morris, having an altitude of 1,500 above Morris. Nestled among poplar groves it is cool in summer and warm and sheltered in winter. Many springs and streams abound, thereby producing the best of water. It is a natural pleasure and health resort for summer and winter.”

Sixty years later La route d’Altamont by Gabrielle Roy is published by HMH in Montreal and its translation, The Road Past Altamont, is published by McClelland & Stewart in Toronto.  In this book Roy, one of Canada’s (Quebec’s and Manitoba’s) preeminent authors [2] also waxes poetic about the beauty of the hills and the mysteries of the roads around Altamont. 

“… the dirt road was perceptibly climbing, without pretense, with a sort of elation, in joyous little bounds, in leaps like a young dog straining at the leash, and I had to change gears in mid-hill. From time to time as we passed, a liquid voice, some flow of water over the rocks, struck my ear.”

“… hills are exciting, playing a game of waiting and withholding with us, keeping us always in suspense.”

“… they showed themselves to be covered with dry bushes, with small trees insecurely rooted on inclining slopes but warmed by the sun, shot with ardent light, the luminous tones of their foliage trembling in the sunlit air.  All this – the patches of scorched rock, the red berries on their slender branches, the scarlet leaves of the underbrush – was delightfully tangled together, almost dead, and yet meanwhile what a shout of life it gave!”

Sumac IMG_0662 copy

© The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall)

Those of you who frequent my writings know that I spent my formative years in Altamont, Manitoba and I often use this small community on the edge of the Manitoba or Pembina escarpment [3] in southern Manitoba as a touchstone for my commentaries, opinions, and stories. Today I provide an interpretation that you may not have already heard about The Road Past Altamont. For some odd reason, I had never read this book and I thought it was high time to rectify this oversight. Santa heard my request and the Penguin Modern Classics Edition 2018 pictured here was in my stocking on Christmas morning.


Nice Christmas Gift!

Light Reading?

At first glance The Road Past Altamont appears to be a relatively ‘light’ read divided as it is into four interconnected short stories. I spent two leisurely days reading it through for the first time. After the first two chapters I thought, “This is going to be a fun book to review,” but as I delved into the last two stories I discovered a complexity and depth that I had not anticipated, along with an added challenge as I began to realize that this was not a straight forward ‘review’ but a serious commentary which might require a deep dive into the Manitoba collective psyche.

In the end, I read various sections of this text four or five times as the story Roy tells becomes more nuanced and indeed more intricate. Growing old is a theme with chameleon – like features where age is the determinant of perspective e.g., a teenage reader will see the images and feel the emotions differently than someone who is in middle age or someone who is a senior citizen … which I guess I am even if I am still just a young lad as I recollect my memories. I have concluded that if you wish to understand The Road Past Altamont in all its complexity, it would be ideal if you were: a feminist, geographer, geologist, philosopher, gerontologist, demographer, social historian, political sociologist, political economist, literary critic, social commentator, religious scholar, constitutional lawyer, expert in Aboriginal and Métis affairs, and an expert in social movements. I apologize if I have missed any essential specifications for this job. 

At first glance Gabrielle Roy treats us to an exploration of the interrelationships among three women across three generations within the same family as seen through the eyes of the youngest, Christine. The presence of an elderly male friend of Christine’s adds an element of adventure as well as a perspective that puts some issues into sharper, if not comic, relief.  The underlying theme of growing old and its multi-generational dimensions is never far from the surface.

Reading in the Proper “Voice”

My first challenge is to understand these stories as told by someone who is not my gender. Some may argue that it is not possible for someone of the opposite gender to transpose thoughts, analyses, feelings, and understandings from one gender to another. Put more simply as a question: can I, a man, know what Christine, a woman, is saying, thinking, feeling, etc.? Gabrielle Roy gives Christine a voice but can I read it (receive it) in that same voice, or is it only possible for me to filter it through my maleness?

A similar matter of “voice” arises if I read the English translated version when the original was written in French. I am afraid that my caveat above will have to suffice as an answer for this particular instance. 

These questions may seem too abstract or too obtuse to bother answering but I have always felt that the litmus test of a ”compleat” story i.e., a story that has all the elements necessary for it to approach perfection, is that it must be capable of being delivered and received with the greatest commonality possible. The storyteller and the reader [4] must share the lens sufficiently to make the story viable [5] and the reader can insert her/himself into the story with ease.

My Almighty Grandmother

In the first chapter, My Almighty Grandmother, Christine’s grandmother creates a doll (Anastasie) from the remnants of ‘this and that’ dredged up from ‘here and there’, which works well as a metaphor for the stitching together of a new life in Manitoba after Christine’s grandparents migrated from the also beautiful hills of the little Assomption River in Quebec. This accomplishment warrants, in Christine’s eyes, an elevation in her grandmother’s status to “God.”

The Old Man and the Child

Christine’s friendship with her elderly neighbour, Monsieur Saint-Hilaire is the perfect vehicle within which to explore the many thorny questions and fears that the young have about the inevitable conclusion of the aging process. The unlikely duo, 76 years difference in age, conspire to convince Christine’s mother to allow them to make a day trip by train to Lake Winnipeg. It is a most marvellous adventure and they explore the inherent qualities of the lake itself – its breath, its beauty, and its vast expanse defying the definition of beginning and end “because they are fundamentally the same.” In turn, the lake prompts a profound conversation between sage and pupil such that, while it is not possible to decipher exactly who is playing each role, it is Christine who goes directly to the heart of the matter.

“Is it bad to be old?” Christine asked. When the answer is unsatisfactory, she persists, “When one is very old, … does one have to die?”

The old man ventures that to die is natural. “The most natural thing there is. One has had one’s life. One has a sort of inclination now to go and see what it’s like on the other side.”

Christine prods further, “Ah! Because you’ve learned and loved enough on this side?”

Monsieur Saint-Hilaire surrenders the point by admitting,

“… Learned enough … loved enough … I don’t know. Perhaps one has never learned and loved enough. I would like just a little more time. I suppose one would always like just a little more time.”

Gabrielle Roy could easily have ended her story here with this understated affirmation of the human desire to defy nature (and God?) and to live past our assigned due date. 

As I said earlier, I did re-read large portions of the text in order to ensure that I was not confounding Christine’s story with my own interpretation of Gabrielle Roy’s text. It is critical to the storytelling itself that we view empathetically the changes that the relentless march of time brought for each of the three generations.


Never give ‘light reading’ to an academic. Look at all those tabs! Heavy thinking ahead!

The Move

Christine’s adventures continue in the third story, The Move, where, in daring defiance of her mother’s wishes, she accompanies her friend Florence and Florence’s father on a day’s work in the moving business. One tends to think of “moving on” as a moment in one’s life filled with potential and excitement but Roy reminds us that there is usually pain in moving on and the pain most often weighs the heaviest on the one left behind. There is no respite from metaphor in this chapter as Roy illustrates how the journey of the three generations leads to enlightenment prior to inevitable death. However, contrary to Monsieur Saint-Hilaire’s earlier musings about living just a little longer, the cost may be great if you are not walking hand in hand with the one you love. 

Mémère (Christine’s grandmother) chastised her dead husband for dying first and leaving her “alone on this western prairie, in exile.” Christine was quick to correct Mémère, “Manitoba isn’t exile … it’s home” … as if setting down the proof that the definition of ”home” takes at least two generations post-migration to change. In her own way, Christine was paying homage to the wisdom and courage of her grandparents when they opted to migrate from the hills of the Assomption River in Quebec to the valleys and folds of the Pembina Escarpment in Manitoba.

As a mere mortal I have no knowledge of whether there is sentient life after death, and as such I do not have the ability to comprehend the pain, or lack thereof, of those who die first. These are unchartered waters and fortunately for you, my own musings on such spiritual matters will have to wait for another time and place.

Through the magic of Gabrielle Roy’s ability to transpose her imagination onto the page in the first three stories, I found myself slipping, momentarily at least, into a coterminous existence with Christine, bypassing some ‘gender-brain barrier’ as if it is completely permeable. At the outset, I was not certain that Roy would be able to envelope me in a consciousness other than my own, in my role as ‘reader’ in this ‘storyteller – reader dyad.’ When it does happen it is brilliant but unfortunately the reverie of coincidental consciousness is rarely lengthy and never permanent, over powered as it is by the weight of the reader’s philosophical orientations and worldviews acquired over a lifetime of experience. In short, the more experience and knowledge the reader has and the more her/his ideas are set in stone ironically, the more the reader will think outside of the box the storyteller is creating. i.e., the reader thinks too much, and abandons the storyteller’s voice.

The Road Past Altamont

I was a few pages into the fourth and last story, The Road Past Altamont, the story that lends its title to this book, when I began to realize that I was consciously analyzing everything about this final chapter in a critical way – the moment the ‘voice’ of the ‘storyteller’ no longer lives inside the ‘reader’ is the moment that the story becomes subject to analysis, scrutiny, interpretation, and judgement. Christine and her narrative was no longer transporting me as much as my own narrative was. My life experience and knowledge of the Pembina escarpment, the “High Mountain”, the village and people of Altamont, and the political, economic, social, cultural, religious, ideological, and geographical contexts that produced the literary genius of Gabrielle Roy in The Road Past Altamont all came into play.

Altamont looking north copy 2

This road is at the western edge of Altamont and goes north to St Lupicin. It doesn’t look to be hilly enough or scenic enough to match the road Gabrielle Roy describes. Photo c. 1982.

I am in no way implying that Gabrielle Roy has failed as a writer just because I abandoned Christine’s voice.  Ironically, quite the opposite is true.  As I slide seamlessly from Christine’s narrative into my own interpretive machinations it dawns on me that this may be exactly what Roy intended.  I must provide something value added in order to receive the maximum benefit from the “truthfulness” Roy is seeking.  It leaves me wondering, “Just how brilliant is Gabrielle Roy?”

The Beauty and Mystery of the “High Mountain” Revisited

There are many descriptions of the beauty and mystery of the “High Mountain” scattered throughout The Road Past Altamont. When speaking of her Uncle Cléophas’s farm Christine says:

“… [T]he air is good there. It is brisk. When I arrive at my uncle’s, I eat twice as much as I do here and I find everything good.”

“It is a beautiful day. There is only the wind in the aspens” … “But the wind isn’t blowing.” … “Yes it is in the aspens. Listen.”

“For as soon as you came out of this wood at my uncle’s you found yourself on the edge of an immense plain, quite open and almost entirely in crops. So that at my uncle’s I never knew which I liked best – the grove of aspens that sheltered us, served as a hiding place, and made us feel at home, or the great spread-out land that seemed to summon us to voyages.”

As the years pass Christine and her mother (Maman) began to make the long trek to Uncle Cléophas’s farm more often with Christine driving and Maman protesting loudly as they drove across the interminably flat, dreary, and desolate flood plain before reaching its western boundary marked by the blue grey hills of the escarpment. On these trips Christine was astonished that her mother disparaged the beauty of both the Pembina Escarpment and the long stretches of the flood plain, preferring instead to invoke sixty-year-old memories of the Assomption River in Quebec in a wistful and nostalgic longing for the hills of her youth.

On these treks to the farm, Christine would sometimes deviate from the usual roads and make their way through the hills guided by instinct and good fortune rather than sophisticated cartography. The path was in some senses predetermined as the roads followed a familiar checked pattern of one square mile intervals. If you grew up in a rural location on the Canadian prairies, you are almost certainly familiar with the Dominion Land Survey (DLS) begun in 1871 utilizing a large grid to divide most of western Canada into squares. In effect, it meant that there were roads (or road allowances if there was no road per se) every mile going each direction. These roads created a predictability of direction but not always an identifiable location, as they were largely unmarked.

In the days before Global Positioning Systems (GPS) became commonplace in our automobiles and indeed, in our pockets, the DLS grid established a commonly understood legal address for any property using section, township, and range e.g., on the figure below, Altamont is located partly in the NW ¼, Section 16, Township 5, Range 8, West of the 1st Meridian and partly in the SW 1/4, Section 21, Township 5, Range 8 W. The corresponding GPS coordinates for Altamont are 49° 23′ 11.49″ N     98° 28′ 48.01″ W


If you know the DLS address you should be able to get there. Of course, if you ask for directions you might hear the following in a dry, rural Manitoba drawl, “You can’t get there from here.” Or “You go to where the big white house used to be but that’s not it.”  Good luck.

While Christine and her mother did not possess a GPS to guide their journey to Uncle Cléophas’s farm, they probably had an inkling of the location if they knew the DLS coordinates. The thing is that once they entered the twists and turns of the valleys and hills intersected randomly by rivers, creeks, streams, ravines, gullies, cliffs, heavy forests, and rough terrain – all of which made road building difficult or impossible and denied advance in a straight line, forcing them to turn right when they wanted to turn left and vice versa – the checkerboard grid would become useless.

In fact, it appears that even on the flat open flood plain where you would think the DLS would be the most helpful, it did not guarantee that you knew your precise location. As Christine observes,

“Do you know the rectilinear and inflexible narrow roads that crisscross the Canadian prairie, making of it a huge chess-board, above which the pensive sky seems to have been deliberating for a long time over which piece it will move, if indeed it will move any. One can get lost there; one often does. Before me, meeting and parting in the same instant, stretched flat upon the grass like the arms of a huge cross, were two little dirt roads, absolutely identical and without sign posts, as taciturn as the sky and the silent prairie all around, which absorbed only the rustle of the grasses and, from time to time, the far-off trilling of an unseen bird.”

The first time they found the “Altamont Road” with its hills rising almost imperceptibly Maman was visibly excited and she enquired, “… did you find this marvellous road by mistake?” Then she began to worry that they would not be able to find it again. “There are roads, Christine, that one loses forever.”

“… the hills opened out a little and, lodged completely in a crevice between fir trees, a tiny settlement appeared, rather like a mountain village with its four or five houses clinging at different levels to the uneven ground. On one of them, a red Post Office sign. We had barely glimpsed the poor hamlet before it was hidden from our sight, though the singing of a stream, somewhere on the rocks, followed us for a moment longer. Maman had had time to catch the name of the place from the Post Office sign, a name that had fixed itself like an arrow in her spirit.”

Altamont looking west copy 1

Looking west on Market St. with Post Office on right. The “real” Altamont c. 1982

“It’s Altamont,” she said, glowing.

“Well, there’s your landmark,” I said, “since you’re determined to have something definite about the journey.”

“Yes,” she said, “and let’s never forget it, Christine. Let’s engrave it in our memories. It’s our only key to these hills, all we know for certain, the Altamont road.”

When they return to the farm the following year everyone, especially Maman, has grown older and the memories and themes are not the same. Cléophas defends the decision to leave Quebec for Manitoba … He says, “The west was calling us. It was the future then. Besides, it proved to be right. “

It was our future,” said Maman. “Now it’s our past.”

Maman claims to remember the hills of her youth in Quebec but Christine wonders,

 “… what was she [Maman] recalling exactly? The bygone hills she had not seen since childhood? Or the quite unexpected ones in Manitoba, which we had one day discovered, which had been the source of change I had observed in her, for, come to think of it, it was only since the reappearance of the hills in our life that I had noticed that attention to voices from the past that I found so bewildering and took her to some extent away from me.

Christine and Maman decide to take one last trip to Cléophas’s farm before Christine leaves for France. However, the drive is not as exciting or enjoyable as in the past. The hills are diminished; their spirit dampened; their beauty dulled. The bloom is off the rose so to speak. They drive in silence and Christine is concerned that Maman is falling asleep right in the middle of the hills. Inwardly Christine knows that her mother’s indifference is a consequence of aging, a process where “something is taken from them each day.” Maman defends her indifference by accusing Christine of losing the Altamont road. It seems to be a classic case where each generation blames other generations for the current state of affairs.

Christine wanted to understand the lure of the hills so she posed a question to Uncle Cléophas, “do you know the village of Altamont?

“Altamont!” My uncle repeated, tranquilly smoking his pipe. Queer little spot, Isn’t it? It’s been half dead for a long time. I’ve never liked that region. It’s too cramped and narrow. I have never been able to understand why, with the choice of homesteads on the level of easy prairie, anyone would look at that clump of hills. Yet it happened some fifty years ago. At least the region attracted some Scottish immigrants who, I imagine, found a smaller edition of the country they had left. But what folly! The Highlanders couldn’t make a go of it and scattered after a short while, some returning home, others going to the towns. An experiment that turned into a disaster, that’s Altamont.”

What’s that!?

Up until this last chapter Christine had carried me along in the current of the three generations, gently flowing for the most part, lazily swirling in few places, but threatening to break into white caps where they dive too deeply into the waters, dredging up memories that maybe should remain at the bottom, or have thoughts that are too prescient for comfort about the future. Nevertheless, the overall pace is neither hurried nor somnolent and the general effect is that I am encapsulated by beautiful stories about beautiful places and beautiful people. I was lulled into a very pleasant reverie following the stories to find that spot where time permits generations to converge.

Then wham! Something happened and it happened most specifically in Cléophas’s description (or is it a scathing condemnation?) of Altamont.

If you will, for a moment, return to my earlier comments about the ‘reader – storyteller’ dyad. Sometimes the ‘reader’ is not in concert with the ‘storyteller’ and even the most clever and carefully laid out plot can be subverted by a recalcitrant reader who takes the story off course, into another dimension, toward another truth. Gabrielle Roy had infused my consciousness with the storytellers’ voice – until Cléophas offers his view of Altamont. Was this diversion by accident or by design? Did Gabrielle Roy intend to invoke, evoke, or perhaps provoke certain memories, experiences, and knowledge with Cléophas’s description? Intentional or not, Uncle Cléophas abruptly awakened me to the possibility of another interpretation within the mysteries of The Road Past Altamont and unlocking it will require some explanation rooted in the historical determinants of life in Manitoba, particularly on the escarpment. Yes, we might have to go back a few years!

Explorers Pierre La Verendrye and his sons passed through the Pembina Hills c. 1738 in their search to open up new territories for the fur trade and new water routes to the lucrative markets of the far East.  Many of the French, Scottish, and English traders and their French Canadian employees who came to Pembina in 1740 and after inter – married with the Native Aboriginal population.  Their descendants are known as Métis. [6] 

Turbulent Times: The Riel Rebellions

The late 19th Century and early 20th Century were turbulent times in Manitoba. The Red River Uprising of 1869 was sparked by a proposal to transfer Rupert’s Land to the nation of Canada. Métis hunters and farmers feared for their culture and land rights and mounted a rebellion by creating a Provisional Government to negotiate terms on which Manitoba would enter confederation.  

The Red River Uprising also thrust Louis Riel and Thomas Scott onto the national stage, a stage some would argue, they have never left.

By November 1869 Louis Riel had emerged as the spokesperson for the Métis who had concerns about the manner in which the Dominion Land Survey (DLS) was proposing to survey and record Métis lands. As agreement on Métis land was a key condition for entry into confederation, it was understandable that Riel was instrumental in forming the Provisional Government to negotiate and secure the terms.

The powerful Loyal Orange Lodge (we shall learn more about this organization and its membership very shortly) vehemently opposed Riel and the Provisional Government of Assiniboia in 1870.  Thomas Scott, an Irish Protestant and member of the Orange Lodge, arrived in Red River in 1869.  It wasn’t long before Scott was arrested and jailed twice for actions against the Provisional Government. Scott was arrested yet another time, charged with treason, tried in a court martial, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed by a firing squad of the Provisional Government led by Louis Riel on March 4, 1870.

Scott’s execution created even greater outrage from the Orange Lodge and their voices joined many others in condemning the Provisional Government. Moreover the Orange Lodge called on the Canadian federal government led by Sir John A. Macdonald to bring Louis Riel to justice. The Orangemen reasoned that it was impossible for Scott to engage in a treasonous act against a government that was itself illegitimate, as they believed the Provisional Government of Assiniboia to be.  By definition then, Scott was not guilty of treason and his execution was nothing short of murder.

Two months later, despite this opposition from the Orange Lodge and its members in Ontario where Thomas Scott had been a member, the Provisional Government’s delegates obtained an agreement with the Canadian government to lead Manitoba into confederation as an officially bilingual province with a denominational public school system. The Manitoba Act received royal assent on May 12, 1870.

Central to this agreement, the federal government agreed to reserve 1.4 million acres (566,560 hectares) for the children of Métis residents of Manitoba …. 

History confirms that the Métis were correct to worry that this agreement was in jeopardy.  Moreover, some actions of the Canadian and Manitoba governments seemed to be not just unsavoury but duplicitous e.g., immigration policy favoured incoming white settlers (many of whom had not even arrived yet) over the negotiated and mutually agreed upon rights of the Métis.  While the Métis put their faith in the letter of the law the governments were attempting to disperse the Métis population and dispossess them of the land promised in the Manitoba Act. [7] 

Many of the new settlers from Ontario were supporters of Charles Mair and the Canada First Party, formed in 1868 as a nationalist party campaigning for exclusively British immigration through which they hoped to develop a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon “northern race.” [8]  Such ideas were not to bode well for the Métis.  

Charles Mair also organized the North-West Emigration Aid Society to provide assistance to new migrants. In particular, the Society advised those entering Manitoba from Ontario to cut across country from Pembina to Portage La Prairie avoiding Fort Garry altogether –  and avoiding, maybe not so coincidently, the stronghold of Métis leaders and decision makers. The Pembina to Portage La Prairie short cut took the settlers into land earmarked for the Métis by the Manitoba Act (1870) and by 1871 the settlers were acting like they owned the place. In addition to erecting shelters the settlers took it upon themselves to post signs re-naming the river known by the Métis as Rivière aux Îsles de Bois, to be the Boyne River, drawing on their heritage from Northern Ireland.

The upshot was that Métis reticence to engage in militant action to halt the settlers’ encroachment on their lands, coupled with such duplicitous settlement policies and practices by the Canadian and Manitoba governments, and the Ontario migrants’ sense of entitlement because they constituted some form of superior ‘northern race’, resulted in the promises made to the Métis being broken, and broken badly.

The creation of the Province of Manitoba with some protections for Métis culture and land solidified Riel’s status as a hero among the Métis and the execution of Thomas Scott by the Riel-led Provisional Government solidified Riel’s status as a criminal in the eyes of the Canadian government and English – speaking Canadians. In fact, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald sent an expedition to confront the Métis at Red River.  Protestant Ontarians, especially members of the powerful Orange Order, continued their cry for retribution for Scott’s death.

Riel remained in Canada though and was elected to the House of Commons in a by election in 1873 in the constituency of Provencher in Manitoba. Mackenzie Bowell, MP and prominent leader of the Ontario Orange Lodge, successfully introduced a motion to expel Riel.  Riel was re-elected in the 1874 general election but again never took his seat and was expelled once again. On February 12, 1875, the federal government adopted a motion granting amnesty to Riel conditional upon his banishment for five years from “Her Majesty’s Dominions” forcing Riel into exile in the United States. [9] 

Almost 10 years later, Riel returns from exile in the United States at the request of Gabriel Dumont and Métis leaders in the Northwest Territories (known today as Saskatchewan) to support the Métis in securing their land rights. He arrives at Batoche in July 1884.  The lessons from 1870 in Manitoba were not lost on Riel and the Métis this time around and they begin the task of negotiating permanent title to land for Métis in an effort to avoid the false promises contained in the Manitoba Act. 

The Métis sent a petition, also signed by several non-Aboriginal farmers to voice their dissatisfaction with the fact that the Canadian Pacific Railway had not yet reached their lands to open up new markets, to the Canadian government in December 1884.  The government acknowledges receipt of the petition but takes no action.

The Métis at Batoche grow impatient and, at a meeting on March 5, 1885, they propose to take up arms to force the Canadian government to recognize their land rights.  At a second meeting on March 8, 1885 Riel proposed that they create a provisional government in the Northwest Territories. The proposal was defeated but a 10-point “Revolutionary Bill of Rights” was drafted to include Métis rights to their farmland.

Whatever you may think of the logic of the argument that Thomas Scott could not commit treason because the Provisional Government was illegitimate, the Orange Order successfully pressured the MacDonald government to seek retribution from Riel for the “murder” of Thomas Scott and to put a halt to the Métis unrest in the Northwest Territories.  The Canadian government responded by sending Major General George Middleton and 500 troops to Batoche. The Métis retaliated in turn by seizing the parish church at Batoche and formed a Provisional Government with Riel as President.

Parish Church at Batoche SK

Parish church seized by the Métis at Batoche  Photo credit: Stan Marshall

Fighting continued for two months with many skirmishes and two major battles – the Métis were victorious in the first but Middleton and his troops prevailed decisively in the second. Riel surrendered and the Orange Lodge got its long awaited retribution for Thomas Scott’s ‘murder’; Riel was arrested, charged with high treason for his role in assisting the Métis with their land claims, tried, found guilty, and hanged on November 16, 1885 in Regina.


Batoche SK

The Parish Church at Batoche Photo credit: Stan Marshall

I am getting a little ahead of myself but these are the agreed upon facts of the two “Riel Rebellions.” We shall return to Riel’s legacy a bit later.

Turbulent Times: The “Manitoba Schools Question”

The “Manitoba Schools Question” was another major political crisis that left a huge rent in the social fabric of Manitoba especially between Francophone Catholics and Anglophone Protestants. The outcome left Francophones with diminished language and religious rights within the province and within the school system. There is no doubt in my mind that a young Gabrielle Roy would have been aware of these issues and would have strong opinions.

I always find that a historical timeline helps me to understand related and complex events which take place over a relatively long period of time. [10]

The “Manitoba Schools Question”: A Timeline

1870 – Manitoba joins confederation as an officially bilingual province with a denominational public school system i.e., publicly funded separate schools for Catholics and Protestants.   In Catholic schools religious instruction was central to a child’s education. In protestant schools no religious instruction was given.

Almost immediately there are moves to erode Francophone rights 

1875 – The use of French in elections was abolished in ridings where Anglophones are in the majority.

1876 – The Legislative Council of Manitoba, seen by many as the guardian of minority rights, was abolished to cut expenses.

Note: The population of Francophones and Anglophones is roughly equal in the province at this time but the demographic trends were changing. French speaking Métis were forced further west partly because Métis rights to land per the Manitoba Act (1870) had been abrogated and partly because national immigration policies of the 1880s and 1890s favoured immigrants arriving from Britain.  In a very short period of time Anglo-Saxon Protestants occupied the lands previously settled by the Mètis. The result was that  Francophones were becoming a linguistic minority in Manitoba.

1890 – In March the Manitoba legislature passed three very significant Acts codifying the erosion of French in the province:

An Act to Provide that the English Language shall be the Official Language of the Province of Manitoba, abolishing French as an official language of Manitoba;

An Act Respecting the Department of Education eliminating the system of two sections of the Board thereby creating only one;

An Act Respecting Public Schools eliminating denominational schools such that if Catholics wanted religious education they had to fund their own schools in addition to paying taxes for the public schools.

1894 – Manitoba passes legislation to prohibit municipalities from making expenditures to schools outside the public system. The result is a further reduction in the number of Catholic schools.

It is important to note that for French Catholics the right to a religious education becomes a struggle of, and for, identity.

1895 – 1896 – The rancor subsides slightly amid attempts to find a non-legislated solution.

1896 Laurier-Greenway Compromise – On November 16, 1896 the Government of Canada and the Government of Manitoba reach a compromise, Terms of Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of Manitoba for the Settlement of the School Question. The “Laurier – Greenway Compromise” allowed religious instruction in the province’s public schools, under certain conditions, for half an hour at the end of each day.  Also under certain conditions, Catholic teachers could be hired in the public schools, and French, like other minority languages, could be taught where numbers warranted.

This compromise hardly seemed satisfactory and concerted, vociferous lobbying and, on occasion, outright hostilities continued as French Catholics sought to defend their cultural, language and religious rights, and Anglophone pressure groups such as the Orange Lodge lobbied their Conservative allies to maintain English Protestant domination in Manitoba politics and cultural life.

Don’t forget the idea of a superior Protestant Anglo-Saxon “northern race’ as promulgated by Charles Mair and the Canada First party resonated strongly with the migrant settlers from Ontario who carried the principles of the Loyal Orange Order close to their hearts.  Judging from the three pieces of legislation adopted in the Legislative Assembly, in 1890, Manitoba’s Francophones, Métis and Catholics were being systematically and systemically stripped of their identities.

1916 – The Thornton Act – The question of language and religion in schools was squarely on the political agenda during a twenty – five year period spanning the turn of the century until the Conservative government in Manitoba passed the Thornton Act in March 1916 to make English the only language of instruction in the public school system. Instruction in any language except English was limited to one hour per day effectively banning French as a language of instruction in the public school system.  The French language teacher’s college in St Boniface closed and new teachers at the Normal School would be educated in English only.

The “Manitoba Schools Question” was a defining ‘moment’ [11] in the formation of the consciousness and identity of Francophones and Catholics.  March 1916 marks the

“point that Manitoba’s Francophones began organized resistance to ensure the survival of French in their province.” [12]

The struggle to preserve French Catholic culture and language has never completely disappeared from the Manitoba political and cultural landscape.

Enter Gabrielle Roy

So it was that in 1909 Marie Rose Emma Gabrielle Roy was born into a society fractured and wounded by conflict around language, religion and race. Sure, Gabrielle was only seven years old when the Thornton Act was passed in 1916 but I am certain that the consequences of the Act were both severe and lasting enough to continue as a topic of discussion in her educated, erudite, and politically active family for years after its passage. After all, she was born in St. Boniface, a predominantly French district, to parents whose backgrounds favoured advocacy for Francophone autonomy and the preservation of cultural heritage. Gabrielle’s father, Léon Roy, had Acadian roots in New Brunswick and her mother, Mélina Landry, was from Quebec.

Interestingly, Margaret Atwood interprets the Thornton Act and its consequences as a legislative “quirk” and a stroke of good fortune for Gabrielle Roy personally. 

“Roy’s family was francophone, but due to a legislative quirk she received a bilingual education. When Manitoba was established as a province in 1870 it was bilingual. However, over the decades the status of French as an official language had declined, and in 1916, when Gabrielle Roy was seven, Manitoba passed a law making English the only language of instruction in public schools. (This move was deeply resented by francophones, who saw it as a gross betrayal of the province’s founding principles.) But Roy attended the nun-run Académie Saint-Joseph for twelve years, where she was educated in both English and French. Thus not only was she fluently bilingual, she had access to the great literatures of both languages. For a future novelist, this was a tremendous advantage. [13]

I am certain that most of Gabrielle Roy’s contemporaries would not characterize this legislation as a “quirk”. 

Banished to the Manitoba Escarpment

Gabrielle Roy’s early schooling experience was remarkable for the fact that she failed her grade in 1921 and was banished for the summer to her uncle’s farm in the Pembina Hills of Manitoba. For whatever reason (let’s credit the magic of those Pembina Hills) Gabrielle found a new enthusiasm for education in Grade 8 and in 1923 she won the L’Association d’éducation des Canadiens français du Manitoba (AÉCFM) prize for best composition in French in the province. She will win this competition five times. She also wins a second place in the Grand concours littéraire, a competition hosted by Le Devoir in Montreal. In 1928 Gabrielle received the Lieutenant – Governor’s medal awarded to Manitoba’s best students graduating from high school.

The significance of the AÉCFM and the fact that Gabriel Roy won its literary prize five times must not be understated.

The dates 1916 and 1968 mark the founding and the disbanding of L’Association d’éducation des Canadiens français (AÉCFM) (Manitoba French-Canadian education association). The AÉCFM, which many authors describe as a parallel, francophone Department of Education, was directed from the shadows by the clergy. The association encouraged francophone teachers to keep teaching French and to keep using French as a language of instruction without letting the authorities find out, even if that meant lying to school inspectors. The AÉCFM also provided financial assistance to help future teachers pay for their studies. From 1923 to 1966, to strengthen pride in the French language in Manitoba, the association also held an annual French contest for students in grades 4 through 12 and published the results in the newspaper La Liberté. The most talented young Franco-Manitobans went on to represent their province at the Canada-wide competition, held in Québec. [14]

I find it difficult to believe that Gabrielle did not share or at least understand the orientation of the AÉCFM and its importance in the preservation of the French language in Manitoba, or that she was indifferent to current events. There is every probability that she was extremely savvy to the politics of education, language, and culture playing itself out in Manitoba, Ottawa, and London, England.

After graduation Gabrielle Roy attended Provincial Normal School for one year in Winnipeg achieving her teaching certificate. Recall that after the passage of the Thornton Act in 1916, English is the language of instruction at the Normal School.

Roy’s very first teaching assignment is in the small Métis village of Marchand in south eastern Manitoba bringing her into close contact with a minority Francophone society and its struggle for survival. The following school year (1929 – 1930) she takes a contract at École Saint-Louis in Cardinal, Manitoba which is very close to her uncle’s farm where she spent the summer after her failed year. Cardinal is on the edge of the Pembina Hills and is very close to Altamont and St. Lupicin. There is no doubt that Gabrielle Roy had an intimate knowledge of this small and well – defined area of Manitoba.


Cardinal to Altamont (9.3 miles), Altamont to St. Lupicin (5 miles), St. Lupicin to Cardinal (6 miles).

Uncle Cléophas

I have inundated you with a large quantity of  historical information so let’s take some time to re-orient ourselves to The Road Past Altamont.  

Shortly after Roy introduces Uncle Cléophas to us, I began to wonder about him. Sometimes authors play clever games when constructing characters. Uncle Cléophas may be entirely a fiction but I can’t shake the idea that Roy is pulling our leg a little, having a little fun in naming him. You see, from 1906 – 1959 there was a school district in Manitoba named Cléophas and interestingly, it was located very close to Altamont.  It was established in October 1906 and existed as a one-room school until 1958 when it merged with St. Leon Village Consolidated School District and later into Mountain School Division. [15]

Would Gabrielle Roy have enjoyed this little irony? I like to think that she would … and did, as she searched for the perfect name for the character who would proclaim that Altamont was an “experiment turned into a disaster.” I have to say that if Roy did this purposefully, I am enjoying it immensely but even if Uncle Cléophas was named innocently, I find the coincidence to be equally humourous.


Source: Yvette Brandt comp. Memories of Lorne 1880 – 1980, Somerset 1981

For whatever reason, Gabrielle Roy choses Uncle Cléophas to wade in with a statement about immigration patterns in the Altamont area, a statement which is a thinly veiled attack on the intelligence and capacity of the Scottish immigrants who purportedly settled there. I think Roy purposely wrote a little misdirection into the plot here in order to support the fiction of Altamont as a mythical place.

In actuality, Scottish immigrants made up only a small proportion of new arrivals to that area. Moreover, Altamont was not the first port of call in Canada for most settlers who arrived in the first two waves from 1880 to 1900. These families consisted of a few Scots, a smattering of English and many Irish Protestants who hailed from the Ottawa Valley (Merrickville, Innisville, Fitzroy Harbour, Carp, and Kemptville) as well as Lucan in Southern Ontario and Williamsford in Grey County. [16]

The Loyal Orange Lodge (L. O. L.)

I referred to the Loyal Orange Lodge earlier when we addressed the fact that Thomas Scott, an Orangeman, was executed at Red River by the Riel – led Provisional Government. The execution sparked outrage among members of the L.O.L. who demanded the federal government extract retribution from Riel.

A few of the new settlers to the Altamont area came directly from County Armagh, acknowledged to be the birth place of the Orange Order, in the province of Ulster, Northern Ireland where problems existed between Catholics and Protestants.  Some immigrants were staunch Protestants and members of the Loyal Orange Order and they not only brought these long held ideas with them but they “passed these prejudices down a couple more generations.” [17] 

Many new arrivals were already members of Orange Lodges in Ontario so it is hardly surprising that they organized the Altamont L. O. L. No. 1741 in 1900. Talk of building an Orange Hall was in the air as early as 1898 and the hall was built and opened on November 5, 1903.  A sister organization, the Altamont Ladies’ Orange Benevolent Association (L. O. B. A.), was founded in 1914.

Altamont looking East5 copy 2

View to the east on Market St. with Orange Hall on left c.1950

For most of the next 100 years the Orange Hall served Altamont as the social centre of the community for meetings, socials, dances, plays, concerts, memorials, funerals, harvest suppers, many other events. The Orange Hall is no longer in existence and the Altamont Centennial Community Centre [18] is now the non-sectarian social hub of the community.

Two fundamental tenets of the Loyal Orange Order [19] put them into direct conflict with French Canadians, Catholics, and the Métis. The L. O. L. were unwavering in their commitment to the British monarchy and were equally strident that the Protestant way was superior. More bluntly put in the negative, the L.O.L. was opposed to Catholicism and to the recognition of French as an official language in any jurisdiction.

The L. O. L. was equally adamant that Louis Riel and the Métis Provisional Government at Red River were guilty of the murder of fellow Orangeman Thomas Scott. It is not difficult then to understand how English Protestant Ontario Orangemen, and Catholic French Canadians and Métis came to be on opposing sides of the Riel Rebellions and the Manitoba Schools Question (French as a language of instruction and Catholic religious instruction in schools), and official bilingualism in Manitoba (or in Canada or any other province for that matter.)

At the turn of the 20th Century, the issue of religion in the schools drew vehement commentary and resistance from the Orange Lodge as we can see from the opinions below, printed in the Manitou Sun March 15, 1906

“A number of Orangemen have condemned the Manitoba government for the manner in which popery has been allowed to influence schools in some portions of the province. … Roman Catholic catechism is being taught in several Manitoba public schools and it is high time the government enforced the school act. The Church of Rome has ever been an oppressor and wherever this church has power we see the big cathedral and the little cottage, the affluent priest and the downtrodden people….

“… in Europe we find the oppressive hand of Rome crushing the people and extorting their hard earned cash. This also is true of the province of Quebec. The sooner all Protestants awaken to the fact that popery is the enemy of freedom, the better it will be for our country”

It is not difficult to find similar opinions published in newspapers around Manitoba at that time.

The social climate into which Gabrielle Roy was born and raised in Manitoba, partly on the Pembina escarpment, was rife with division. Two generations later I began my formative years on the cusp of that same escarpment in a village where some people were still clinging to the old emotions and beliefs and where others were struggling to discard and discredit such ideas as divisive and harmful. That village was Altamont and the time period for my recollections here is c.1950 – c.1970. 

The Classroom on the Escarpment

When I was a young lad in the 1950s and early 1960s my father and I spent a fair amount of time wandering through the usually shallow waters of Roseisle Creek which, over several centuries, had cut a valley through the escarpment north of Altamont from a point just east of Cardinal (at Lyles Creek) to Babcock to Leary’s and Roseisle before joining the Boyne. [20] We knew the valley as Leary’s Valley named after the Leary family and their Brick Works located midway through what is usually identified as Snow Valley on most Manitoba maps. [21]

Roseisle Creek at Babcock Leary's Valley

The Classroom on the Escarpment, Roseisle Creek at Babcock

It seemed to be one of my father‘s family responsibilities to take me – the red headed hellion – into the open spaces where I could do little damage and provide some respite for my mother. On our meanderings, my father would tell me about the types of soils and microclimates that supported different flora and how these varied from the stream to the streamside to the higher levels of the escarpment and then down to the lower plains reaching out over the floor of Glacial Lake Agassiz

But geology, biology, and botany were not the only topics my father expounded upon as we made our way through the escarpment. He also ventured his views on current and historical events and the politics that made Manitoba unique. There was no set curriculum for my education on the escarpment. Just as our rambles led us in many directions and to parts unintended so did the discussions with my father.


North of Roseisle Creek the Rivière aux Îsles de Bois (as named originally by the Métis) runs off the escarpment through Carman to the east and out across the Red River Valley to the Morris River. I recall that my father was aware that the Rivière aux Îsles de Bois had been renamed the Boyne River by Protestant settlers [22] and he was sensitive to the fact that white colonizers had usurped not only Aboriginal and Métis heritage but had also taken lands that had been ceded to these groups by treaty and other agreements e.g., the 1.4 million acres that were reserved for the children of the Métis in the Manitoba Act of 1870.

I believe to this day that my father understood that breaking these agreements was wrong but I also believe that while he saw these actions as historical injustices, he thought they could not be undone, that reparations would be too costly and disruptive, and therefore impossible. The status quo remained … conveniently.

The Classroom on the Escarpment: The Loyal Orange Lodge

King William III crossing the Boyne to defeat the Roman Catholic forces of James II on July 12, 1690 at “The Battle of the Boyne,” has been a cause for celebration by Orangemen ever since. The Orange parades and picnic celebrations held every July 12 were very popular and well attended in Manitoba from 1850 until after WW II when the symbolism and the enthusiasm for organizing the parade and celebrations waned. Some analysts credit the decline to a social maturing in Canada, a decline in loyalty to the crown, and a change in anti – Catholic sentiment. These trends coupled with the likelihood that the concept of “lodges” was no longer a drawing card for young people led to a decline in Orange power in Manitoba after 1950. [23]

My father and I would often drive through Graysville, a small community on the Boyne River just 4 miles (6.4 km) east of Roseisle and equidistant (13 miles or 20.9 km) from Altamont to the southwest and Cardinal to the west. When we reached Graysville, my father always seemed nostalgic and exhibited a bit of reverence about something I couldn’t quite identify at the time. Perhaps, it was because “the home place” where my father was born and raised was not far away … or perhaps, as I know now but I didn’t know then, he was showing deference to the Graysville L. O. L. No. 1515 that had many members and was also home to Royal Black Preceptory No. 543. Although the Black Preceptory is a separate institution, membership in the Orange Lodge is a prerequisite to admittance to the Black Preceptory, effectively making it a second tier of the Order. [24]


“The Home Place” c.1930 on the escarpment between Deerwood and Roseisle. Photo courtesy of Western Canada Pictorial Index, University of Winnipeg Archives.

From my earliest days I knew that my father attended meetings of the Orange Lodge and my mother attended meetings of the L.O.B.A. in Altamont. These facts should not be surprising I guess, as my parent’s were Protestant and the Orange Lodge was the largest and most active social organization in Altamont at the time. I am sure it seemed natural to join the Lodge as my father and mother were newly arrived with few friends in the community.


The area within heavy black lines is the area we are considering in this post. The escarpment runs diagonally from southeast to northwest through Deerwood, St. Lupicin, Cardinal, and Notre Dame de Lourdes

I recall that my father attended meetings of the Lodge in other communities but the ones that stuck out to me as being special meetings were the ones he attended in Graysville. He always seemed to be especially hyped about attending those meetings. My father kept to his oath of silence beyond the Brotherhood and I never knew who attended the meetings with him.  

I am not aware of any other family member(s) who were (are) members of the Orange Lodge.  My mother’s family were Anglican and my father’s were Presbyterian United. There is some evidence that the Marshall family roots go back to Fermanagh County, Northern Ireland which would put us in Orange territory but family lore has it that we have more Scots’ heritage than Irish as we stayed in Ireland only for about 30 years before leaving for Hamilton, Ontario in 1834.

“The short stay in Ireland has haunted us ever since. We are expected to call ourselves Irish when in fact we are Scots who stayed only briefly on the old sod.” [25]

Nevertheless, there is concrete factual evidence that my father was a member of the L.O.L. in 1957 and 1958 at least as the Annual Return of Altamont L. O. L. No. 1741 to the Grand Lodge of Manitoba dated October 31, 1957 attests that my father was the incoming “Worshipful Master” of the Altamont Lodge for 1958.  I am not certain just what a “Worshipful Master” is or what he does but I shall be pursuing these matters in subsequent research. 

A question I put to my father more than once was: what happens in meetings of the Orange Lodge? What do the members talk about and what do they do? My father would deflect my question by saying that it was a secret fraternal society and the workings and business of the Lodge would remain with the membership. At other times, usually not in response to my questioning, he would remind me that the Loyal Orange Lodge was a “fraternal” society, a “benevolent” society engaged in “good works” in the community. They had a legitimate role in picking up the pieces that the capitalist society of the 1800s and early 1900s let fall between the cracks. There was no unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation had not yet been implemented to cover families where the breadwinner was not able to work because of injury, or heaven forbid, if the breadwinner was killed at work or as a result of an accident outside of work. Few families could afford life insurance or insurance any kind. Hailed out crops, barn fires, business fires, house fires, droughts, floods, health epidemics and many other calamities could strike any family with horrendous consequences.

My father did not say whether only Orangeman could receive this assistance or if Catholics or Jews could qualify if they were equally in need of aid. I suspect the answer would be that the Catholics and Jews had their own organizations including their respective churches and synagogues to care for them.

The Classroom on the Escarpment: Louis Riel and Thomas Scott

It almost goes without saying that my father had strong views on Louis Riel and the two “rebellions” and he offered his opinions freely to me.  Earlier I outlined the essential details of the Red River Uprising, the execution of Thomas Scott, and the battles at Batoche in 1885. I will not bore you by repeating details here but be patient as I must highlight the perspective my father held on these events

The story of Louis Riel in 1870 and in 1885 – years that serve as bookends on his period of exile in the United States – is one of the most compelling stories in Canadian history. It is a story of province building, indeed nation building, that ironically left the country divided into two opposing camps – Riel as hero or Riel as traitor. It is difficult to know the respective proportions of the Canadian population that would support each view today, but I suspect that ‘Riel as hero’ is trending as the winds of time have swept some detritus from the battle fields putting the Métis struggle for inalienable rights into sharp relief against the colonial self-righteousness and sense of entitlement held by the English settlers. However, I also suspect that any breakdown of hero vs. traitor will have strong demographic determinants centred on religion and language. The controversy that is Riel remains emblazoned on the collective Canadian psyche.

From what I recall of our discussions on the escarpment and elsewhere, I believe my father was heavily influenced by the Orange Order’s view of the world – a view with several interconnected mutually reinforcing features: Protestant faith was pitted against Roman Catholicism; English was to be the language of instruction in education and conversely French was not to be used in schools; Métis and Aboriginal People’s land claims were not in the category of inalienable Rights; and assimilation of minorities into the dominant culture and language was preferable to multiculturalism. 

The Classroom on the Escarpment: What was my Final Grade?

Of course there were no formal grades given for the lessons I received in the classroom on the escarpment but I confess that I was not a good student; or maybe I was not a good “Orange” student; or perhaps I was just a “bad son” – because I was attracted more to trying to understand the injustices the Métis faced e.g., why the white settlers disregarded Métis claims to the land that was allocated to them by mutual agreement in the Manitoba Act; why the settlers refused to return said lands to the Métis; and why Métis names for places and rivers e.g., Rivière aux Îsles de Bois, were changed by the settlers unilaterally and with no concern for the heritage of the Métis or Aboriginal peoples. I could not understand why the imperialist colonizers exercised their power as if it were absolute. Most importantly, I think, I failed to see how carrying Protestant – Catholic conflict from Ireland to the new world would have a beneficial effect on life in my small part of Manitoba.

Louis Riel monument 1971

Original statue of Louis Riel created by Marcien Lemay and Etienne Gaboury.  Originally installed on grounds of Manitoba Legislature in 1971.  It was replaced in 1996 and moved to St. Boniface College  Source: Government of Manitoba, Sports, Culture and Heritage

In 1970 a statue of Riel was commissioned as part of the centenary celebrations for Manitoba’s entry into confederation. A tortured looking Riel was hidden within two semicircular walls located on the bank of the Assiniboine River behind the Manitoba Legislature. By this time my father and I had long stopped our forays on the escarpment. I was being influenced more and more by leftist interpretations of the world at university and by a new cadre of student friends.

Judging from my father’s reaction to the installation of Riel’s statue in 1970, he still harboured considerable resentment towards the Métis at that time. He was not in favour of Riel having a statue period, and certainly not one that depicted him as a hero or as a “founding father” of Manitoba. My father took some glee in telling me that Riel’s statue was relegated to a spot behind the legislature; that the statue was grotesque and tortured and largely hidden from public view. My father was no art critic so I have no reason to believe that he was doing anything but recasting the views of the Loyal Orange Lodge. [26, 27]

Ideologically and politically, my father and I had been growing apart since the mid-sixties and I can pinpoint the date of the solidification of that rift as June 25, 1969 when the NDP won the most seats (but a minority) in the Manitoba provincial election. I had actively supported and campaigned for the NDP much to my father’s chagrin.

The NDP were able to form a government when Laurent Desjardins, a Liberal MLA, ironically representing the constituency of St. Boniface where Gabrielle Roy was born, agreed to cross the floor and sit as a “Liberal Democrat.”  Pledging support to the NDP seemed like a logical move for Desjardins, a move that was more than coincidental, as he had emerged as far back as 1961 as a champion of government funding for private and denominational schools. Desjardins was a Roman Catholic and a Francophone and regarded such funding as necessary for redressing anti-Francophone legislation that had been pursued by previous Manitoba governments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [28]  

It was common for my generation in the 1960s to be on opposite sides to our parents on many issues and so it was with me and my father.  In particular I landed squarely on the opposite side to my father on the Riel controversy.  Perhaps, “rebellion” is in the soul of each succeeding generation. In my case, the opposition to my father’s views revolved around my politics of collectivism/socialism vs. the entrepreneurial individualism of my small business owner father. This difference was to drive a real wedge between us; a rift that never healed entirely. These differences are stories for another time.

Change was in the wind in Manitoba as Francophones continued their struggles to keep and, in some cases, re-gain their identities complete with a unique cultural and linguistic heritage. Throughout the 1960s the Societé du franco-Manitoban was developing a stronger and more militant voice calling for French language rights in schools. In 1970, events such as the Festival du Voyageur in St. Boniface and similar festivals throughout Francophone Manitoba were fun festivals attracting tourists and boosting local economies but they were also venues to preserve Francophone and Métis culture and heritage, all the while highlighting and strengthening Roman Catholicism as its religious base.

At the same time the prejudices of the Orange Lodge and its members began to wane and, after 150 years of conflict in Manitoba, the social, ideological, religious, linguistic, and cultural terrain shifted once again. The province of Manitoba slowly began recognizing education rights in 1955, when the province granted the right to teach French between grades 4 and 6. This was gradually expanded until the right to full French education was recognized in 1970.  Struggles over education continued however, and the right of the community to manage its own full-French schools was not settled until 1994 when, as the result of a Supreme Court ruling asserting the rights of linguistic minorities to control their own education, the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine was created. [29] 

Untitled 4

The red circle denotes the area on the Manitoba Escarpment which is the focus of this paper. Source of map: J. D. Bamburak, Roadside Geology of Manitoba – a user’s guide to the province’s unique geological features, Manitoba Mining and Minerals Convention, November 20, 2010

On the Cusp of a Demographic Divide

Geographically, Altamont sits in the Pembina Hills on the cusp of the Manitoba escarpment just a few miles west of the flat fertile prairie that was once glacial Lake Agassiz.  Demographically, Altamont sits on the cusp of a watershed from which language and religion flow in different directions.  Predominantly  English speaking Protestants settled immediately to the south (Manitou), the east (Deerwood, Miami), and the northeast (Roseisle, Graysville) of Altamont; French speaking Catholics settled in communities immediately to the north (St. Lupicin, Cardinal, Notre Dame de Lourdes), to the west (Somerset), and to the southwest (St. Léon) of Altamont.

Map Demographic Divide 1

The “Demographic Divide”

The personality of each of these communities was in large part a product of the immigration and settlement policies of the 1880s and 1890s. These villages maintained these characteristics through the period that Gabrielle Roy was writing about the “High Mountain” as well as through the time period I was living on the escarpment in Altamont. In other words, for at least a century (1875 – 1975), what I call a “demographic divide” was evident on that part of the escarpment.

Francophones were approximately 50 percent of the total population of Manitoba when it entered confederation in 1870 but an influx of English-speaking Ontarians to southern Manitoba soon decreased the Francophone proportion to well below 50 per cent.  About that time there were many Francophones who left Quebec to go to the USA and wanted to return to Canada to settle in an area with a Francophone Catholic base. In 1874 the federal government approved Charles Lalime in Massachusetts as a “repatriation officer” for the Roman Catholic clergy run Manitoba Settlement Society.  Father Lacombe in Canada was already working as a settlement or immigration agent for Bishop Taché in the west.  While this strategy was not totally successful as a broad recruitment strategy it did have some success in creating some “islands” of Francophones in southern Manitoba [30] e.g., to the St. Léon and Somerset areas. 

Five Villages, Five Personalities

Let’s bring the demographics into sharper focus through a brief exploration of Altamont and four other communities I have selected because they are in close proximity to Altamont: St. Lupicin (3 miles or 4.8 km), Cardinal (3 miles or 4.8 km), St. Léon (5 miles or 8 km), and Somerset (5 miles, or 8 km). [31] [32]


Given the Ontario origins of the early migrants arriving in Altamont, it is hardly surprising that approximately 95% of settlers who arrived in the Altamont District [33] before 1900 were English speaking and Protestant. Both Presbyterian and Methodist services began in the district as early as 1878.  The Presbyterians built a church in 1897 while the Methodists bought and moved the former Mussellboro School into Altamont in 1903 to be used as a church. After unification of the two churches this building stayed in use as the United Church until 2018 when it was deconsecrated and sold.

The Anglican Church (Church of England, Parish of St. Barnabas) was established in Mussellboro in 1896. A church was built and consecrated in 1918 and remained in continuous use until the congregation moved their services to the United Church building in 2003, sharing it every other week. The old St. Barnabas church building was closed and deconsecrated in 2005.

To the best of my knowledge there has never been a Catholic Church in Altamont although there was a report that work had begun on a new Catholic Church building in 1900. [34]  I have not been able to find any subsequent record confirming its existence. Catholics who lived in Altamont generally joined parishes at St. Lupicin, Notre Dame de Lourdes, St. Leon or Somerset. 

The first school was built of logs in 1882 and named Mussellboro School No. 115. It was destroyed by fire in 1883 and replaced with a wooden structure in 1884.  In 1902 the Mussellboro area was divided into Altamont School District and Victory School District, each with a new school. The Altamont School had two rooms and expanded to four in 1924. In 1958 the school districts of Sylvan, Victory, Deerwood, and Altamont merged to become the Altamont School District.  The “old” school built in 1902 closed in 1961 and the “new” Altamont School opened in 1962 and closed in 1986.  As the number of pupils in Altamont declined, the pupils gradually were bussed to Miami, Manitoba until the Altamont School closed completely in 1986.  

St. Lupicin

The earliest settlers to the St. Lupicin area came from France in 1891 with others to  follow from France in 1893 and 1894.  After that, migration opened up from Quebec, Belgium and the USA. Migrants from the USA were usually French Canadians from Quebec who made a short stopover in USA before settling in Manitoba. By 1924 the population of St. Lupicin was 238 with 46 Catholic families, 28 French families, 15 French Canadian, 1 Métis French, 2 Flemish, 1 English, and 1 Swiss family. [35]

The first school was a log school built in 1898 and named “Faure” in honour of the then President of France. A wooden school was built in 1912 and moved closer to the community and by 1929 there were 66 students. The Faure School District existed until 1963 when it merged with Notre Dame de Lourdes.

Pumpkin Creek Tea Set final 101 IMG_3964

St. Lupicin sometimes goes by the name Pumpkin Creek. This tea set was purchased c. 2014 at a  craft gallery in a building we knew to be “Mary Lou’s Cafe” in the 1950s and 60s.

Priests from Notre Dame de Lourdes were serving the spiritual needs of the community as early as 1893. Faure school was used as a chapel until a chapel was constructed in 1908. The Parish of St. Lupicin was established in 1920 and a new church was built and blessed in 1939. In 1960 St. Lupicin once again became part of the Parish of Notre Dame de Lourdes. 


Cardinal’s existence can be directly attributed to the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway which established a line from Carman, Stephenfield, and Leary’s to Somerset. The NPMR passed over Philippe Cardinal’s farm in 1905. In order to take advantage of the railway, people formed a village at that spot on Cardinal’s farm. Philippe Cardinal was born in Quebec in 1852, emigrated first to the USA and then back to Canada at Notre Dame de Lourdes in 1888. By 1910 Cardinal had a population of 81 people in 16 families – all Francophone. The community was within the Parish of Notre Dame de Lourdes.

Cardinal School, a two-storey, wooden building within the St. Louis School District, until August 1933 when it became Cardinal School No. 2239 with its own school district. The school closed in 1965 and the district dissolved in January 1966 and students went to Notre Dame du Lourdes Consolidated School No. 2390. [36]

St. Léon

The village of St. Léon five miles to the southwest of Altamont has the distinction of being the oldest village on the Pembina Mountain. Its history is punctuated with several important watershed moments and events. For brevity, I have listed some of them below in point form. [37]

  • The explorer Pierre La Verendrye and his sons explored the region near St. Léon as early as 1738 in their quest for a route to the riches of the far east and to establish a fur trade and trading posts in competition with the Hudson’s Bay Co. 
  • The earliest settlers came from Quebec and the United States and arrived at a settlement called “La Prairie Ronde” before Archbishop Taché christened it St. Léon in 1878.
  •  Thanks to the federal government’s deliberate recruitment policies targeting the USA, the population of St. Léon exceeded 500 by 1881, mostly Francophones.
  • The Roman Catholic Church had established itself with a new building and rectory.
  • The years 1883 – 1885 are described as “glory years” for St. Léon. The flour mill and saw mill were in great demand and drew clientele from many surrounding communities.
  • Schools were established and despite certain legislation in 1890 and 1896, French was the language of instruction.
  • The Municipality of Lorne was established in 1880 and covered an area with both Francophones and Anglophones.  Reports indicate considerable dissension on matters of representation and language at Council especially in the St. Léon area.
  • Roads were not common in the area until 1900 so there was vocal support for establishing rail transportation routes to major shipping points such as Emerson.
  • The Canadian Pacific Railway missed St. Léon when it’s southern route took it through Manitou. The Canadian Pacific northern route also missed St. Léon going through Treherne. In 1889, the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway went through Altamont and Somerset missing St. Léon by a mere three miles. A shorter line of the NPMR was built from Carman through Leary’s and Cardinal to Somerset also missing St. Léon which seemed to be left high and dry in the fight for access to markets.
  • In January 1887 disaster struck when Mr. Messner’s store was destroyed in a colossal conflagration that left Messner ruined financially.

These events marked the end of “La vieux St. Léon.”

But St. Léon was not to be dead forever. Church and community, priests and citizens, business owners and patrons, bound by a common cultural, linguistic and religious  identity came together to begin a long journey back to health. There were ups and downs and you can read about those in Memories of Lorne. The upshot is that St Léon became the home of a Caisse Populaire and a Cooperative leading the way on a new movement of cooperatives in Manitoba. Known first as the St. Léon Coop and then latterly as the Pembina Cooperative, the Coop started as a grocery store but expanded over the years to include fuel delivery, construction (houses, commercial buildings, schools, churches,) a lumber yard, garage services (in Altamont in 1958), pig and hog operations and has led the way in administrative services for cooperatives.

Today, the population of St Léon is about 100 or 150 depending on which source you tend to believe [38] of whom 90 percent are described as being bilingual (French and English).


Historical accounts of Somerset describe it as being more “biracial” (English and French) in its beginnings. There seems to be some agreement that the Foster family was the first to settle there and hailed from Somerset, England. The Clarks and other English – speaking families arrived from Ontario c. 1880 – 1900. About the same time the first French families (Labossière) began to arrive came from Québec via the USA. 

An interesting and relevant side note is that Léon Roy (Gabrielle Roy’s father) is reputed to have built a hotel in Somerset. [39] If this is the case then the Roy family was very familiar indeed with this area of the country.

The early school system in Somerset seemed to be segregated into English and French classes but housed in a common structure.   

Somerset had only one school house, a two storey frame building. It housed both French and English pupils. The French occupied the main floor and the English speaking pupils occupied the upper storey. We met and mingled at recess and at lunch hour. There was no language or religious barrier. A satisfactory lease-lend arrangement where one picked up a smattering of French in return for English. [40] 

Children attend Theobald School initially before the Richard School was built in 1903. Richard School was subsequently extended and rebuilt 1952 and the Somerset Collegiate was built in 1963.  In 1959, the district was consolidated with Bertram School No. 2097 and Harmer School No. 415 to form the Richard Consolidated School District No. 1092. [41] 

In 1900 there were three Protestant Churches in Somerset: The Anglican, congregation was established in 1895 and the St. Barnabas Anglican Church was built in 1903. The Methodists moved a church into Somerset in 1906 just as their first minister arrived. The first Presbyterian  minister arrived in 1896.  First Protestant burial ground was in use in 1902. The first Roman Catholic Church was constructed in 1907 and the first priests arrive. A new Roman Catholic church was built in 1939.

In 1969 the population of Somerset was estimated to be approximately 640. In 2016 the population of Somerset was 437 according to Statistics Canada. [42]

When we review and summarize these five communities which all exist within a 50 square mile (5 miles x ten miles) area on the escarpment, we can see that while none of the five are identical to each other, it is also very apparent that one in particular is an outlier.  Altamont, with its Ontario, Protestant, Anglophone immigrant base complete with an Anglo-conformity orientation is absolutely different.

Community   Year*   Origin                      Religion        Language     Policy

St. Leon          1877     Quebec via USA       Catholic         French       Francophone

Altamont       1878     Ontario                      Protestant     English      Anglo – conform

Somerset       1880     Ont., Que. via USA   Cath., Prot.    Eng., Fr.     biling & bicul

St. Lupicin     1891    France                        Catholic          French      Francophone

Cardinal         1905    Que. via USA             Catholic          French       Francophone

*Year of first settler

French speaking settlers arrived in the region from different sources – Quebec, Quebec via the USA, and France with a few from Belgium. English speaking settlers came from Ontario primarily with a few directly from England, Ireland and Scotland.  St. Léon was staunchly Catholic and Francophone.  Somerset had the greatest diversity in matters of religion and the schools, and has origins that are closer to bilingual than the others. The early settlers in St. Lupicin were from France and had a natural affinity to their original parish of Notre Dame de Lourdes. Cardinal’s early settlers were from Quebec.

Consolidation of schools: Geo-politics at work

In 1958 the newly elected Duff Roblin Conservative government in Manitoba was faced with an educational system bulging with the baby boom generation and in need of drastic reform.  The province had 1651 school districts and 1410 one room schools, all controlled by 5500 school trustees.  Administrative efficiencies had to be found and ‘consolidation’ was the word of the day. It was a time of tremendous change with some new school divisions being created e.g., Mountain School Division was created on April 1, 1959; Some changed e.g., Altamont merged with Midland and began sending high school students to Miami, Manitoba in 1958.  Other school districts such as Cléophas merged and disappeared. 

Patterns of immigration and settlement i.e., language and religion were factors informing the decision-making process for consolidations.  I recall the discussion and debate at our house revolved around three particular issues: language of instruction, religious content in the curriculum, and distance to school. There is no question that the first two items outweighed the last factor by far.

The residents of the Consolidated School District of Altamont No. 115 (comprised of Altamont plus the School Districts of Deerwood No. 926,  Victory School District No. 1143, and Sylvan School District No. 137)  voted to join Midland School Division No. 25 on the eastern side of the demographic divide i.e.,  their votes flowed to a school in an English – speaking, Protestant School District where the driving distance is 13.2 miles (21.2 km) away.  The driving distance to Somerset is 9.6 miles (15.5 km) and to Notre Dame de Lourdes it is 11.8 miles (19 km). This information only serves to illustrate the point that cultural, linguistic and religious factors are strong predictors of social behaviour and decision-making outcomes. 

The consolidation of school districts also meant that large portions of the Municipality of Lorne were now in the Mountain School Division which was Francophone and Catholic. 


Schools in Mun of Lorne 1970 2

The consolidation of school districts had very real effects on the student population. It meant of course that those with the same or similar cultural traditions, religion, and language continued to associate with each other as they were placed in schools which emphasized the same curriculum. On the formal institutional side of things, the curriculum for Francophone Catholics was different from the curriculum for Anglophone Protestants. Beyond the Lord’s Prayer religion played only a small role in the day to day schooling of the English Protestants. On the other hand, for Francophone Catholics instruction in catechism was part of their public education.

Impact on dating, courtship and marriage

For school age children, especially teenagers, it was the informal relationships that were most affected by the demographic divide – courtship or dating behaviour as the sociologists would describe it. Propinquity or nearness is an important concept in the lives of teenagers ever in search of love, or some equivalent. Consolidated school districts provided a first screen in the dating and courtship game. Young people are most likely to meet and date those who are near to them in some sense e.g., attending the same school, speaking the same language(s), going to the same church. This fact was evident on both sides of the demographic divide. 

I do not have enough data at my disposal to make a statistically significant case one way or the other about intermingling or dating behaviour between Francophone Catholics and Anglophone Protestants.  Institutional screening of potential mates is one thing; the role of family pressure is another. I do know of instances where family elders stated in no uncertain terms that teenage sons and/or daughters were under no circumstances to become involved to the point of considering marriage with someone from the other side of the demographic divide.

I could provide chapter and verse here but I won’t because this is not a “tell all” book and I don’t want my commentary to be interpreted as mere gossip.  Suffice it to say that there were strong familial strictures in some Orange families on the “High Mountain” against marrying a Catholic. Sometimes the ways of the old world do travel across the oceans unblemished or perhaps it is more accurately said that sometimes the ways of the old world travel across the oceans retaining every blemish with which they started. To be fair, some young couples did swim against the tide in their families and marry across the demographic divide.  While these “mixed” Protestant/Catholic marriages did cause some strife especially among the older generations and I am sure that the family squabbles were significant, the issue seemed to fade with the arrival of grandchildren. 

Canadian “identity”

Over the years there have been several popular beer commercials which play on the theme, “I am Canadian…” referring to the uniqueness of Canadian life… as well beer. It seems that there is no universal understanding of the core characteristics of Canadian “identity.” In fact there is usually much debate about its specificity.  

Depending on your vantage point you may interpret “Canadian” in  vastly different ways and it has more to do with what you think Canadian society “should be” rather than what  Canadian society  actually “is” i.e., it is a political view and is indicative of the public policy you support. [43] Consider the following approaches: 

  • You may argue that there are two founding “races”, or three if you include Aboriginal populations.
  • You may agree with a policy of “Anglo conformity” where all elements of society from the time of immigration onward are designed to facilitate assimilation into the dominate culture i.e., English – speaking and Protestant, primarily.
  • Some politicians advocated for bilingualism and biculturalism and these approaches were very much a matter of national debate in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s Liberal government struck the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963 in response to concerns from Francophones that their language and heritage were being lost, absorbed or assimilated into the dominant English Canadian culture.  The Commission’s report advocated that the government should adopt policies to preserve the bilingual and bicultural nature of Canada. These recommendations were not popular with those who promoted Anglo-conformity; or who were Québec nationalists; or who were from minority nationalities;  or who were from Aboriginal Peoples. 
  •  Some argue that a Quebec nationalism or “Franco-conformity” exists in Quebec for immigrants required to assimilate into Quebeçois culture and the French language.  
  • Some Francophones outside of Quebec adopted a strong allegiance as Francophones and Catholics within their own unique regional communities. 
  • Some others including Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau supported the position that Canada is a multicultural country in a bilingual context (English and French). In fact, this position was a adopted by the federal Liberal government under Trudeau in 1971.

I will not pursue this analysis much further here as I cannot presume that Gabrielle Roy could see into the future.  Suffice it to say that the concepts of bilingualism and biculturalism were in the political air at that time Roy was writing The Road Past Altamont and I will assume, once again, that Roy was politically astute and aware of the implications different policies re: language and culture would have for French Canadians.  She would have not just an empathetic understanding but direct personal experience from being raised and educated in a milieu that placed a high value on the preservation of language and culture.

We must keep in mind that multiculturalism as a political goal was only just on the horizon in the early 1960s.  On the other hand there were many nascent political movements across the entire political spectrum from left-wing to right-wing in Quebec who attached themselves to Quebec nationalism as a preferable goal but political movements calling for Quebec independence and sovereignty were not fully formed until the 1970s.  This nationalism of the 1960s provided the impetus for French Canadians in Quebec to adopt an identity as Québécois distinct from French Canadians outside of Quebec. Most Quebec nationalists did not see a bilingual and bicultural Canada as possible. French Canadians outside of Quebec had to take up the struggle for a Francophone identity on a regional basis and that was the case in Manitoba in the 1960s.

I shall also take 1970 as a not so arbitrary temporal cutoff point for any discussion of policies and politics related to the identity of Francophones in any part of Canada. The Road Past Altamont was published in 1966 so in order to be true to the period in our analysis we must not invoke knowledge or events that have not yet happened.   

Searching for Truth on the Borderline

It is time I brought some closure (Finally! You say!) to this exegesis on Gabrielle Roy and The Road Past Altamont in which I have invoked: two Riel Rebellions; the founding of the Province of Manitoba; the Métis actions at Batoche which led to the founding of the Province of Saskatchewan; the tenets of the Loyal Orange Lodge; the Manitoba Schools Question; the consolidation of school districts; the policies of multiculturalism; the tragedy of the Métis land promises; the classroom that my father created on the Manitoba escarpment; my own personal recollections of life on the escarpment; the many related aspects of the four stories that comprise The Road Past Altamont; and the socio/cultural/political specificities of the period in which Gabrielle Roy was writing.

{Whew! I am surprised I made it this far, never mind that you made it this far!]

I embarked on this winding path a month and a half ago because I had not read The Road Past Altamont and I thought I should given that I had spent 20 of my formative years living in Altamont.  When I finally read the book, just after Christmas 2018, I was jolted awake by memories of my own travels on roads in the Altamont area.

Uncle Cléophas’s description of Altamont was the point at which I could no longer accept that my consciousness was contiguous with Christine’s as narrator, and I became reluctant to let the story unfold as a cleverly written allegory or metaphor about the aging process and the sensitivities, or lack thereof, experienced by successive generations. Instead, I felt compelled to insert myself actively into a deeper understanding of the story, an understanding not driven by a wish to question what Roy writes in The Road Past Altamont but rather an understanding of why Roy wrote what she wrote. I don’t have the luxury of being able to ask her as she died on July 13, 1983 but she did come very close to providing an answer in a 1972 interview on CBC Radio. [44]

In this interview Roy explains that she wants to stand on the borderline of any situation so that her view is not obscured. “The main engagement of the writer is towards truthfulness.” We cannot just take one side. If objectivity is central to Roy’s methodology then it makes sense that splendour should not obscure tragedy and vice versa.

To illustrate she tells the story of two birds. One bird sings pleadingly and tirelessly in defense of an unjustly accused prisoner and the other bird, a poet, sings beautifully between the bars of the prison cell. In Roy’s eyes, one is not more important than the other; they are but two ways to help or bring joy to the prisoner.

What does this all this “theory” mean in the context of The Road Past Altamont? Altamont was a village on that borderline, that boundary which Gabrielle Roy identified as a place to look for factors that will guide you in your search for truth. Altamont had no place to hide on the demographic divide. Unlike it’s closest neighbours, it was firmly in the Anglo-conformity terrain which meant that it had an entirely different world view – a world view shaped by its unique history. From my own personal knowledge of Altamont, I am fairly certain of this assessment.

I am less certain about where the other four villages fell on the typology of national policy but I am quite certain that their respective histories mitigate against the possibility that they would favour Anglo-conformity.  It is more  likely that each of the four had a tendency to bilingualism but it would require more analysis to make any informed judgement about their receptivity to multiculturalism.

Roy volunteers that both splendour and tragedy are at play in The Road Past Altamont. There comes a time when the generations understand each other but only when the preceding generation is gone and it is too late to reach out. Every generation is blind to this fact. 

A Life Long Quest for Independence:

It wasn’t until I became a parent did I realize that, from the moment of birth, children grow away from their parents in a lifelong quest for independence. For Christine, not even the closeness she felt for her grandmother who crafted, seemingly from nothing, a most beautiful doll, Anastasie; nor the exasperation she felt at her mother’s desire to return to the Assomption River; nor the almost Socratic relationship Christine had with the old man Monsieur Saint-Hilaire; nor the beauty of her uncle Cléophas’s farm; nor the secretive yet inviting call of the Pembina Escarpment itself; nor the beauty of the plains that lapped at the hills forming the shores of Glacial Lake Agassiz, could restrain the innate urge in Christine to leave those environs in favour of a career and a life in France. Christine followed the path of independence all children follow, as did I with my own father, as my own children are doing with me. It is tragedy and it is splendour.

My main thesis in this post is that while The Road Past Altamont is a fictional work, I find it almost impossible to believe that Gabrielle Roy was ignorant of the economic, political, social, and ideological contexts and forces of her time. Quite the opposite; she was likely to have been influenced greatly by that context, setting the stage for a complex portrait with many layers, painted one on top of another, as if waiting for the restoration experts to decide how all layers can be preserved for public exhibition without sacrificing the topmost layers.   Perhaps Roy has figuratively painted a pentimento with layers that are translucent, transparent, or thinly veiled and as each layer is peeled from the canvas, the succeeding generation becomes aware of the preceding generation – but too late as the aging process always takes us by surprise at which regret and remorse inevitably ensue. Christine’s mother sums it up,

“Apparently we don’t notice from day to day or year to year that our parents are growing old. Then suddenly we find ourselves before the irreparable.”

 At the end of the last trip Christine and her mother took to Uncle Cléophas’s farm, there are promises of a return to find the Altamont road once again. It was not to be. The circle of life closed tightly and Maman dies before Christine returns home from France.

The “Disaster” that is Altamont is both Splendour and Tragedy

I do not want to leave the impression that I eschew the main theme of Roy’s brilliant work – exposing the complexities and effects of the passage of time on successive generations. However, I do insist upon drawing your attention to what I believe is a cleverly concealed sub-theme to be revealed only in the chapter for which the book is titled, The Road Past Altamont.  

I am convinced that Gabrielle Roy did not intend to provide a photo-realist depiction of Altamont as much as she wanted to create a “study” in the manner that an artist sketches in order to understand how to overcome some particular challenges in rendering the proper likeness in the finished work; or perhaps Roy constructed the village as an effigy, a composite embodying the tragedy of how French, English, Métis, Aboriginal Peoples, Catholics, and Protestants came to live in such conflict within an environment of immense natural splendour on the escarpment. In today’s vernacular, Gabrielle Roy “outed” Altamont for its Anglo-conformity. 

Gabrielle Roy lived this tragedy; felt its effects. Forty years later, I began to live that very same tragedy but from the other side with my father providing the voice of the older generation. The hoary ghosts of earlier disasters were still there in 1970 but considerably muted, with everyday life continuing politely in that so Canadian, so Manitoban way, cloaking the divisiveness of language and religion in amiability so that economic activity is not impeded unnecessarily nor is the formation of sports teams prevented just because neither Francophone Catholics nor Anglophone Protestants have enough players to field a team on its own.   

Roy also lived the splendour of the Manitoba escarpment, as did I, where light and colours can ruffle through the canopies of the trees on the Ridge Road near the “home place” creating a trompe l’oeil of leaves flittering to the ground as though it is autumn and not spring. Millions of years of natural forces and energies created a stunningly beautiful geological landform upon which a mere few hundred years of inhabitation by humans has been superimposed to create ‘civilization,’ fallible as it is.  Is this an oxymoron or is it irony?

In The Road Past Altamont Gabrielle Roy deliberately chooses to hide the ideology and practice of racism, discrimination, and exclusion in plain sight, yet deep in the valleys and folds of the Manitoba Escarpment (at least that is where I found them) accessible via a road which some have lost, and which I found only by accident.

Post Script

My father was awakened to the significance of Métis and First Nations’ politics when he lived and worked in The Pas, Manitoba and most particularly when he lived in Cudworth, Saskatchewan just a few miles from Batoche – the scene of those significant battles between General Middleton’s soldiers and the Métis led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. On one of our many visits to Batoche c. 1995 my father confided that the Métis “weren’t asking for all that dashed durn much” in the Bill of Rights they presented to the Canadian federal government in March 1885. [45]  

This admission by my father was light years from where his mind was 25 years earlier, in 1970. I think one reason for that change was that as my father explored the quietude of the park and museum at Batoche, he could  feel the animosity in the air; hear the gunshots in the distance; smell the gunpowder; know the difference between being feared and being fearful as warring combatants on both sides lent their throats to the cause as they leapt into battle; read the Métis demands for himself; and understand that the Métis were fighting for a just cause, their cause.  Maybe lessons at “The Classroom at Batoche” had begun?


The South Saskatchewan River just above Batoche was also a battleground. The Métis strung wires across the river to knock the funnels off Major General Middleton’s steamers. My father found this tidbit to be hilarious. Photo credit: Stan Marshall c. 1999.

However, I am not convinced that my father’s transformation extended to bilingualism or multiculturalism. While he may have become more accepting of Métis and Aboriginal Peoples’ unique place in Canadian history and society, he also held some values that assimilation to the dominant culture was inevitable and preferable … but his position wavered from time to time and place to place. As a veteran of World War II he had difficulty conceiving of Canada as something other than  a country within the British Empire (Commonwealth) with an English speaking majority and a French – speaking minority.  For many veterans the Union Jack and the Red Ensign carried great symbolic importance as they were the flags the veterans fought under in the two great wars. Today’s stylized maple leaf, the flag most Canadians now identify with most strongly, did not make its first official appearance until February 15, 1965 amid some considerable controversy.  This was yet another area on which my father and I differed and once again, it is a topic for another day. 

Perhaps it is Gabrielle Roy’s consistent and insistent reminders of the fragility of the relationships among and between generations in The Road Past Altamont that fuels me to explore my father’s transformation in some areas and steadfast adherence to conservative ideas in other areas.  Sadly though, I have failed to heed Roy’s admonishment not to leave it too late, as most generations have done. My father died May 16, 2009 close to Batoche in Saskatchewan but far from the Manitoba Escarpment of his youth and mine.  Nevertheless, my father’s ashes, and those of my mother, are buried in the Altamont Cemetery, about a 1/4 mile east of the road that many have postulated to be the true “road” in The Road Past Altamont.  I have returned, in some senses, to where I started this post.

Altamont Cemetery cropped-IMG_3231-Copy-Copy

Perhaps my father has created a new classroom on the escarpment and is prodding me from beyond his grave to continue my analysis.  I dearly wish I could pick his brain for hints on where secrets are buried in the geology, geography and demography of the escarpment, even though we would undoubtedly land on opposite sides of most issues. But it is not to be; time, in the end, marches more quickly than we want or can.


APPENDIX A: Selected significant events in the life of Gabrielle Roy.  

Source: Chronology of Gabrielle Roy (1909 – 1983) compiled by Michéle Vanasse and Darcy Dunton.

  • 1883 Léon Roy moves to the parish of St. Alphonse, Manitoba. 
  • Created in 1870 on the heels of the first Métis rebellion, Manitoba was officially bilingual and had a confessional school system.
  • 1906 Emma Gabrielle Roy is born in St. Boniface, Manitoba
  • 1916 L’association d’education des Canadiens francaise du Manitoba (AÉCFM) is founded with objective to preserve the French language.
  • 1921 Gabrielle fails her grade and spends the summer at the farm of her maternal uncle, Cléophas, near Somerset, in the Pembina Mountain region of Manitoba.
  • 1923 In Grade 8 Gabrielle Roy wins best composition in the AÉCFM competition for all francophone pupils in Manitoba. She will win this competition for five years and will also win second prize in the Grand Concours Littéraire of the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir. (Gabrielle Roy by Andre Vanasse 2004.)
  • 1928 Graduates High School and receives medal awarded by the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba to the province’s best students.
  • 1928 Begins teacher training at Normal School in Winnipeg.
  • 1929 receives teacher certificate and teaches for several months in Métis village of Marchand in southeast Manitoba and for ten months at École Saint-Louis in Cardinal, Manitoba
  • 1929 -1937 Roy taught at various small communities in Manitoba including Cardinal (1929 – 1930 school year) near where her parents were married and where many aunts and uncles still lived. [Cardinal is situated a mere 15 km NNW of Altamont and is in close proximity to St. Lupicin (8 km from Altamont) (St. Lupicin is 9.7 km from Cardinal.]
  • 1966 La route d’Altamont and translation The Road Past Altamont are both published.
  • 1967 reacting to Charles de Gaulle’s speech (Vivre le Québec … libre!“) Roy issues a statement expressing her love for Canada.
  • 1967 Gabrielle Roy is named a Companion of the Order of Canada
  • 1968 Roy receives an honorary degree from Université Laval and is awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Medal.
  • 1971 Roy receives Quebec’s Prix David for her lifetime achievement in literature.
  • 1974 Gabrielle spends winter in Quebec City sick with asthma attacks.
  • 1975 Gabrielle spends time in Manitoba visiting her sister, Clémence, for the last time.
  • 1977 Gabrielle wins Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction for Ces enfants de ma vie 
  • 1978 Gabrielle Awarded Molson Prize by the Canada Council of the Arts.
  • 1983 Gabrielle Roy dies in Quebec City on July 13.
  • 1983 Gabrielle Roy is named posthumously to the L’Ordre des francophones du Québec



[1] A similar story ran in the Somerset Century, July 27, 1906

[2] Gabrielle Roy was a member of the Royal Society of Canada (1947), the recipient of three Governor General’s Awards (1947, 1957, 1978), the Prix Duvernay (1956), the Prix David (1971), was appointed Companion of the Order of Canada (1967) and was the recipient of numerous other honours.

[3] The escarpment is formed by the shores of Glacial Lake Agassiz and rises some 200 meters above the lake floor that is known as the Red River Valley today.

[4] Consider “writer” to be synonymous with “story teller” and “reader” to be  synonymous with “listener.”

[5]  We must be careful not to place the onus entirely on the reader or listener to ensure the commonality of the lens – it is incumbent on the writer and storyteller to ensure there is fertile ground upon which the commonality can flourish.

[6] Dorine Brown ed,, Pembina Country: Land of Promise, Miami Museum Inc. April 1974 p. 25

[7] Allen Roughan makes a convincing argument on this matter in “The Confrontation at Rivière aux Islets de Bois,” Prairie Forum, v. 14, no.1, 1989.

[8]  Vigod, B. I., “Canada First,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, March 4, 2015.

[9]  F. G Stanley, “Louis Riel,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia April 22, 2013 and updated by Adam Gaudy May 9, 2016.

[10]  For this timeline I have adapted information from Michel Verrette, “The Manitoba Schools Question,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, June1, 2016

[11]  Some moment! It has actually lasted close to 100 years.

[12] Verrette, op. cit.

[13] Margaret Atwood, Gabrielle Roy in Nine Parts, Mclean’s, 2017,

[14] Verrette, op.cit.

[15] Historic Sites of Manitoba, Cléophas School No. 1398, Rural Municipality of Lorne.

[16]  A quick look through Beula Swain, The High Mountain: A History of the Altamont Manitoba District and Beula Swain, Altamont: The Pembina Mountain will provide you with a long list of the families and the towns in Ontario from which they hailed.

[17] Yvette Brandt compiled, Memories of Lorne, 1880 -1980, Somerset, The Municipality of Lorne, 1980. p. 616

[18]  The Altamont Centennial Community Centre is the former “new school” which was built in 1961 and closed as a school in 1986.

[19]  Michael Wilcox, Orange Order in Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Nov. 30, 2016. 

“The Orange Order was founded as a political and religious fraternal society in the Irish province of Ulster in 1795. It takes its name from the Prince of Orange, King William III, who reclaimed Britain’s Protestant monarchy when his forces defeated those of the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, 12 July 1690. The Order emerged in Ulster as a product of the rivalry between Catholic-Irish and Protestant – British ethnic groups. Its principles included allegiance to the British monarchy, Protestantism and conservative values such as respect for the laws and traditions of Great Britain.” 

[20]  Roseisle Creek joins the Boyne River at a point close to what is currently the western end of the lake created by the Stephenfield dam in 1963 .

Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) Dam Stephenfield 1963

[21] Geographical Names of Manitoba, Government of Manitoba, Geographical Names Program. 

[22]  The dam on the Boyne River at Stephenfield was built in 1963. However, I do  remember walking with my father along that part of the Boyne River prior to that date, speculating as to where the dam might be and how much acreage might be flooded. See Stephenfield Lake Watershed Management Plan

 [23] Graham A. MacDonald, Manitoba History Review: Cecil J. Houston and William J. Smyth,The Sash Canada Wore: A Historical Geography of the Orange Order in Canada,” Winnipeg, Parks Canada.

[24]  A detailed structure of the Orange Lodge and Royal Black Preceptories can be found at 

[25] “Not Because of Beginnings,” unpublished Marshall family document, no date,

[26] Manitoba History, “Practical Results”: The Riel Statue Controversy at the Manitoba Legislative Building

[27] A second less controversial statue was commissioned from a different sculptor and placed on the legislative grounds in 1996.

[28] Wikipedia on Laurent Desjardins 

[29] Emmet Collins, “Francophones of Manitoba,” Canadian Encyclopedia, November 28, 2017.

[30] André Lalonde, L’Église catholique et les Francophones de l’Ouest,
1818-1930, Départment d’histoire, Université de Regina

[31] All distances are straight line “as the crow flies” distances. Source:

[32] Much of the information for this section has been gleaned from Yvette Brandt comp. Memories of Lorne 1880 – 1980, Somerset, 1981.

[33] Originally named Mussellboro (1884) it changed its name to Alta in 1891 when it was found that another community had same name. It was changed subsequently to Altamont in 1894.

[34]  Manitou Western Canadian September 12, 1900

[35] Yvette Brandt, op, cit. p. 191

[36] G.  H . Robertson, Historic Sites of Manitoba: Cardinal School No. 2239, Municipality of Lorne.

[37]  Lourdéon: CDC Re-vision Detailed Project Study Phase 2 April 2009 lists the population as 150.  The Community of St. Léon ( lists the population as 100 and further asserts that 90 percent of the population are bilingual (French, English).

[38] Yvette Brandt comp, Memories of Lorne 1880 – 1980, Somerset, 1981 p. 153.

[39] Vi Foster in Yvette Brandt, op cit. p. 154

[40] G. H. Robertson, Historic Sites of Manitoba: Richard School No. 1092, Somerset, Municipality of Lorne

[41] Statistics Canada, Population and Dwelling Count Highlight Tables, Manitoba 2016

[42] Rosa Bruno-Jofre, “Manitoba Schooling in the Canadian Context and the Building of a Polity, 1919 – 1971,” Canadian and International Education, Vol. 28, No. 2, December 1999.

[43]  Gabrielle Roy, Splendour and Tragedy, Interview, CBC Archives, October 14, 1972.

[44]  Ibid.

[45] What do you say? Have a quick look at the Métis Bill of Rights 1885 at Virtual Museum Canada  or see Inter.Canada Métis Bill of Rights.


Archives of Manitoba, Government of Manitoba, Loyal Orange Association Collection, annual returns of the Altamont Loyal Orange Lodge No. 1471, Graysville Loyal Orange Lodge No. 1514, and Graysville Royal Black Preceptory No. 543

Atwood, Margaret, Gabrielle Roy in Nine Parts, Mclean’s, 2017 

Bamburak, J. D., Roadside Geology of Manitoba – a user’s guide to the province’s unique geological features, Manitoba Mining and Minerals Convention, November 20, 2010.

Brandt, Yvette, Compiled, Memories of Lorne, 1880 -1980, Somerset, The Municipality of Lorne, 1980.

Brown, Dorine ed., Pembina Country: Land of Promise, Miami Museum Inc. April 1974.

Bruno-Jofre, Rosa, “Manitoba Schooling in the Canadian Context and the Building of a Polity, 1919 – 1971,” Canadian and International Education, Vol. 28, No. 2, December 1999.

Canadian Encyclopedia, various sections.

Collins, Emmet, “Francophones of Manitoba,” Canadian Encyclopedia, November 28, 2017.

Community of St. Léon

Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Roy, Gabrielle, Vol. XXI, 1981 – 1990

Ellis, Joseph Henry, Collection of Photographs and Documents held by the University of Manitoba Archives. 

Garr, Allen, Interview with Cecil Houston,: Orangeman’s Day losing glory, CBC Archives, Broadcast, July 12, 1984.

Goldsborough, Gordon, Abandoned Manitoba, Great Plains Publications, 2016.

Goldsborough, Gordon, More Abandoned Manitoba, Great Plains Publications, 2018.

Government of Manitoba, Geographical Names Program, Geographical Names of Manitoba…

Government of Manitoba, Sports, Culture and Heritage, Monument commemorating Louis Riel.

Grand Orange Lodge of Canada, sections on history, structure, and benefits

Historic Sites of Manitoba, Cléophas School No. 1398, Rural Municipality of Lorne.

Jones, Richard, “French Canadian Nationalism,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, March 4, 2015.

Laing, G. and Julie Smith,”Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, March 4, 2015

Lalonde, André, L’Église catholique et les Francophones de l’Ouest,
1818-1930, Départment d’histoire, Université de Regina

Lourdéon: CDC Re-vision Detailed Project Study Phase 2 April 2009.

McCullough, Alan B., “The Confrontations at Rivière aux Îslets-de-Bois” Manitoba History, Number 67, Winter 2012.

MacDonald, Graham A. Manitoba History Review: Cecil J. Houston and, William J. Smyth, “The Sash Canada Wore: A Historical Geography of the Orange Order in Canada,” Winnipeg, Parks Canada

Manitoba History, “Practical Results”: The Riel Statue Controversy at the Manitoba Legislative Building

Manitou Western Canadian, September 12, 1900.

Manitou Western Canadian July 26, 1906.

Marshall, H. H., Pembina Hills Flora, Morden: Morden and District Museum (1971) 1989.

Marshall, family document, Not Because of Beginnings, unpublished, no date,

Nodleman, J. N., Gabrielle Roy’s La route d’Altamont and Canadian Highway Narrative

Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) Dams in Manitoba.

Ricard, François, “Gabrielle Roy,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, March 4, 20153. Allen

Roadside Thoughts

Ronaghan, Allen, “Confrontation at Rivière aux Îlets de Bois,” Prairie Forum, Spring 1989, Vol. 14, No. 1

Ronaghan, Allen, “The Confrontation at Rivière aux Îslets de Bois,”Prairie Forumv. 14, no.1, 1989 as cited in “A Brief History” Carman/Dufferin Municipal Advisory Committee

Roy, Gabrielle, The Road Past Altamont, Translated by Joyce Marshall, Penguin Modern Classics edition ©2018. Original La route d’Altamont ©Gabrielle Roy 1966.

Roy, Gabrielle, Splendour and Tragedy, Interview, CBC Archives, October 14, 1972

Scott, Bryan, Winnipeg Love 2019.

Shaw, Ron W. Canada First Charles Adam Mair (1831-1927), 2016.

Somerset Century, July 27, 1906

Stanley, George F. G., “Louis Riel,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia April 22, 2013 and updated by Adam Gaudy May 9, 2016.

Statistics Canada, Population and Dwelling Count Highlight Tables, Manitoba 2016

Stephenfield Lake Watershed Management Plan

Swain, Beula, The High Mountain: A History of the Altamont Manitoba District, n.d.

Swain, Beula, Altamont: The Pembina Mountain, n.d.

University of Winnipeg Archives, Western Canada Pictorial Index

Vanasse, Michéle and Darcy Dunton, Chronology of Gabrielle Roy (1909 – 1983) in Michele Vanasse, Gabrielle Roy: A Passion for Writing, Quest Books.

Verrette, Michel, “Manitoba Schools Question,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, June 1, 2016.

Vigod, B. I., “Canada First,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, March 4, 2015.

Virtual Museum Canada, Back to Batoche.

Wikipedia on Laurent Desjardin

Wilcox, Michael, Orange Order in Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Nov. 30, 2016. 

Winnipeg Love by Brian Scott

 ©The PD Gardener (Stan Marshall) 2019