Don Wilkins

Don WilkinsIf you're one of the many drivers navigating Saskatchewan's Highway 11 between Regina and Prince Albert, you'll see much more than open fields and hay bales. Tall metal sculptures commemorating the region's rich history stand along the highway, each one the work of Don Wilkins, a grain farmer with unbridled creativity and a fascination with the past.

Armed with only a hammer, cutting torch, stick welder, and pry bar, Wilkins, who lives near Girvin, Saskatchewan, has spent the last several winters building a sculptural history of the southern part of the province, particularly focusing on the critical role the Métis people played in the region's settlement. And there's no shortage of history here: at the north end of the three-hundred-kilometre highway the famed Northwest Rebellion took place; at the south end, in Regina, Louis Riel's trial was held. But to Wilkins, the most salient story is that of the everyday Métis people, the establishment of their farming communities, and their skills as hunters, freighters, horse breeders, and translators.

"I've always had an interest in the history of the Métis people, especially the period between 1860 and 1905," explains Wilkins, who has two Métis grandchildren. "There is an important story to tell here, one that I don't think many people know about." To recount the tale, Wilkins has combined this passion for times gone by with his welding expertise (he has remodeled nine antique cars). "I love working with steel, and thought it would be a good idea to use my skills and interests to promote history."

Wilkins's first sculpture went up in 1996—a buffalo and Red River cart that sit near the town of Girvin. Since then, he has added more than a dozen impressive displays to the collection. There is a Métis buffalo hunter from about 1878, gazing out at the horizon at the disappearing herds, and a large white man surveying the land. The ominous, three-metre-high surveyor depicts the anxiety of the Métis of the time, says Wilkins. "They were using the river-lot system and were nervous about the American [square-lot] system taking over."

Wilkins's latest sculpture shows a Métis man holding a buffalo skull next to a horse and cart. "The Métis were a lost people after the Rebellion, and bone-gathering was a way for them to make money." Shipped off via rail, the bones were used for things like fertilizer. In the near future, Wilkins hopes to add a Métis fiddler and a piece called Birth of a Métis Nation, the latter to pay homage to Métis women. These will also line the Saskatchewan highway, recently renamed the Louis Riel Trail, thanks to Wilkins and a committee of volunteers who lobbied the government for the change. The group believes the Trail and the statues of the people that crossed it spur interest in local communities. "If we tell the story right, it could be good for the economy."

This article appeared in the August/September 2004 issue of the Beaver.