Road Allowance Kitten

25 January 2017

Road Allowance Kitten
by Wilfred Burton, Illustrated by Christina Johns, Translated by Norman Fleury
Published by Gabriel Dumont Institute
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$15.00 ISBN 978-1-926795-72-0

This bilingual (English and Michif) children’s picture book – with the green-and-yellow-eyed, plot-important kitten on the cover – gently tells a true and unpleasant story in prairie history: the poverty, hardship and displacement of the Road Allowance Métis. Like it sounds – and as explained in the back-notes – a road allowance is “a strip of [government-owned] land adjoining a parcel of surveyed land … set aside in case roads will be built in the future.”

One need not know the historical truth to appreciate this well-delivered story about family and friendship, sharing, and both the joys and hardships of living a basic lifestyle, but it bears a reminder. After the 1885 Resistance, numerous Métis displaced from their traditional homes and land used scrap materials to build new, often uninsulated and tar paper-roofed shacks on road allowances. They worked for local farmers (ie: clearing fields of rocks and trees), and picked Seneca root and berries, grew gardens, trapped and hunted (though a 1939 law made year-round and unlicensed trapping and hunting illegal, and expensive fines resulted). “Squatters” don’t pay tax, and their children, therefore, were not allowed to attend school. The government began relocating (aka “evicting”) the Road Allowance people in the 1930s, and Burton’s story concerns the 1949 displacement of Métis from the Lestock area to Green Lake. It’s a story he’d heard told, in slightly different form, by three women.

The author does a lovely job of unobtrusively painting a realistic picture of the lives of the Métis characters, complete with jigging, sashes, and bannock in the grub box. Cousins and best friends Rosie and Madeline crack ice in the ditches, play a game called Canny Can, and chase “flittering butterflies and nectar-seeking bumblebees.” The girls discover a calico kitten “in a dusty Christmas orange box under a pile of rubble,” and proceed to share the beloved pet.

It’s a happy, if simple, existence for the children, but when “strange men in suits from town” arrive, their families are given just a few days’ notice that they’ll have to move “way up north in the bush”. Rosie’s father tries to put a positive spin on it: “‘They promised us our own land. There are lots of trees to build a log house. There’ll be good fishing in the lakes and good hunting in the bush. Maybe even a school for you!'” Will the kitten go with them?

The colourful illustrations tell their own stories, ie: clothes drying over a barbed wire fence; beaded moccasins and a homemade quilt; a wagon transporting families’ entire, boxed-up lives to the train station. The softcover comes with its own soundtrack – the story’s read in English by Wilfred Burton; Michif narration’s by Norman Fleury- and includes a glossary, map, and even instructions for Canny Can.

Road Allowance Kitten tells an important story that prairie children may not learn in school, but should. “This was their home. The only home they knew. The home they loved.” How tragic that it should all go up, literally, in smoke.


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