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"It Was Home": Reflections on Losing Place

Louise Million

The following transcripts are of interviews conducted by psycholo­gist Louise Million with two rural families who were forced to leave their lands and homes in 1989 when the Oldman River Dam was constructed in southern Alberta.
     The first family interviewed, the Verigins, had owned their own farm in the area to be dammed since 1938. Mr. Verigin's great-grandfather, grandfather, and father had been members of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, commonly called
Doukhobors, who had settled in the Oldman River area in the early 1900s. Although the Verigins were retired and did not live on the farm at the time of the dam announcement in 1984, they had hoped to keep the farm "in the family."
     The second couple interviewed, Ron and Karen Buchanan, had taken over the daily operation of the family ranch from Ron's parents a few years before the dam announcement was made. Ron and Karen were the third generation to own and work the "Glenburn Ranch." Forced to relocate, the couple found a homestead near Fort St. John, British Columbia, where Karen's mother lives and where it is "more like pioneer country." It was here, some 600 miles north of Oldman River, that Million interviewed them.
     The complete interviews, as well as several others, were the descriptive base for Million's phenomenological dissertation,
"It Was Home": A Phenomenology of Place and Involuntary Displacement as Illustrated by the Forced Dislocation of Five Southern Alberta Families in the Oldman River Dam Flood Area (San Francisco: Saybrook Institute, 1992; see EAP, 3, 3, 8-9). The complete interviews can be found in appendix 5 of that work.  

THE VERIGINS

Mr. Verigin: I think of the Native people who say, "These are our lands." I don't blame them. Their people lived with this place and it goes back for generations. It matters that you live with it. Also perhaps some of their land was lost legally, but not rightly, to my way of feeling, and that's the way I feel about my land. There is no justification to lose our lands...

Yes, I still think about the farm, very much. All my history, my background, my roots are there. Every­thing that happened is down along the river. I still go down there often, even if the land has been sold. I go there even now when there's noth­ing left standing. I try to clean it up.

It's sad to see it now. They cut down all the trees. Just the stumps left now. The caterpillar tractors moving things around‑-breaking ground. They burned everything... Even to this day, I go there, move the stones‑-trying to make it look good again.

Mrs. Verigin: He still feels the emptiness, you know...

 Mr. Verigin: But the saddest part was when the place was sold. The understand­ing we had was that you could not touch anything in the build­ings once they were sold. But other people‑-vandals‑-went in there and destroyed every­thing!

I do not think it was only our house. I under­stand the stone house below us‑-the old Esterbrook house which Reners owned‑-vandals were in there and destroyed beautiful win­dows, tore the walls inside, and the staircases, balconies... Everything was destroyed.

Our house was just ordinary with plain win­dows like most older homes; little nine-by-nine or eight-by-eight inch panes. Every one was knocked out. The walls and doors were kicked in. It was very, very sad to go to the farm and see all this.

It would have been better if the Government went in and moved the buildings over, or burned them, and leveled it all off. But to see it all vandal­ized. I just stood there, the doors flapping around. I'd go and close the doors. And the next time you'd come everything's open again. And all those broken windows... I even found some rocks in the house. It is hard to see. It's a kind of torture.

I talked to the people in charge of the demolish­ing and the cleaning up: "I'd sure appreciate it if you'd clean it up, or burn it down, or do whatever you're going to do, but don't let this happen."

They said, "We can understand your point." And it took a while, about six to nine months, but they did.

And the trees... All those trees that were in the bottom, they cut them down, and dragged them up on the hill. You saw them there, just left lying in a pile. Why not clean it up? To somebody else they don't mean anything‑-just a tree. Just leave it laying there. A tree's a tree.

But to me those trees have meaning. Like that big stump we measured when we took you down there‑-that tree was eleven feet around. It was a huge tree. And it was the gateway to the garden. That was our tree. And there was one just a bit smaller next to it. The gate hung between them. We brushed up against those trees every time we went out to the garden. We walked through them every time we went to the garden for more than forty years.

And I still think about the little attic in our house. A room was fixed up there, and it has a little win­dow. I used to sleep there, and when I think of that room, I think of a poem I memorized at school. I forgot who wrote it, but it went some­thing like this:

I remember, I remember the house where I was born

The little window where the sun came peeping in at morn

He never came a wink too soon, or brought too late a day

But now, I often wish he'd borne my breath away.

Seeing the house and the village‑-everything gone, everything destroyed. You know yesterday, you were looking at what's left of the old village barn‑-one side of the stone foundation. When you think back over the years of toil, the work people done then‑-they didn't do it for themselves. They did it for the generations that would live there after them.

For any of these old farms, its the same. People had dreams. They'd build a house, and a barn, and other things. People were born there. They were married there. And they died there.

People come in to work on the dam, mostly people from outside..., and they bulldoze the house down, or fall the trees‑-there's no meaning for them. They never lived here. They're not going to be here after the job is done... But it's my history, my life.

I remember my grandmother there and my parents, and my children running around. Grand­mother died there on June 13 1951, and the funeral was on the farm, since we had no prayer home. My brother Philip died Sept 28, 1957, and the funeral was on the farm, too. They were both buried in our cemetery at Lundbreck, and we were married on the farm. And in July or August 1959, my brother Nick had a wedding on the farm.

So there were two funerals and two weddings in that house. And people used to come there to have St. Peter's day celebrations on the farm. The history, the stories, the people and everything‑-everything's there‑-Everything's gone now. It's just like burying something.

So I still think about it and talk about it with my wife and my children, and the little grandchild we have. I've taken some photographs of her there.

I said to my daughter, "Well, she's still small, and doesn't know about this place. And the years will go by, and there'll only be a body of water there." At least from the pictures I've taken of her there she'll be able to say, "This was the farm, this was Great Grandfather's farm of Grand­father's farm, and where they lived. There's the old barn, and the house, and everything."

So with my brother Nick, his wife, and my daugh­ters when they come down to visit, we go down there. I say, "Remember how we used to live‑-used to go swimming down there. Go take a look now."

And with the other people that are affected, that have had to move, we talk about it too. But to a lot of people it has no meaning. To them a river's a river, and a dam's a dam...

******

Mr. Verigin: All that's left of the farm now is the Verigin barn and the bathhouse. In the summer of 1989, the bathhouse was moved, and on August 10, 1989, the barn was moved. They built a foundation for the barn down at the Pincher Creek Museum and put it there.

They moved the bathhouse from the farm to the museum, too. The bathhouse was repaired, and a large cauldron was donated by some Doukhobor people from Shouldice, Alberta. And the barn was reshingled with new cedar shingles.

It's good that people are talking about "histori­cal value"‑-about keeping something with history in it. Before it was "knock it down and destroy it." Now people realize perhaps we can save it, or if we can't save it, perhaps we can move it.

And at the opening [of the museum], it was good. People came and talked about our history, and we sang. And it's there now for people to know about the Doukhobors. ­But it's not the same, not the same as living with it.

******

One time I remember sitting at the dinner table at the Heritage Inn in Pincher Creek with four law­yers. Our lawyer had brought three of his partners, and we sat down. There were four were trying to con­vince me that I should settle, and I disagreed with them. I knew what the prices were around then. And if it came to the point that we would have gone to expro­priation, we would go, because we weren't getting anything this way any­way, so we weren't going to lose anything.

The thing is we had no choice. We didn't want to sell. If you wanted to sell, then sure they were in a position of coming down on their price. But you didn't want to sell, and they wanted the land. The Government wanted the land bad, and they were displacing you.

It's only right they should pay you for that. And they offered way too low. It hurts when a person comes in and tells you that you have to move, and then they tell you your land is worth so much, and your house and buildings are worth nothing.

You're coming to my place and telling me my land's not worth much‑-my house and buildings aren't worth anything! Well, they talk about dicta­torships‑-I don't know exactly what a dictatorship is‑-but isn't that dictating to a person? Telling you what you're worth, and what you should do or shouldn't do?

They said, "We don't pay for sentimental value"‑-what the place is to me. Well, that's fine for them to say. If I came from the moon or from Edmonton or Calgary, it might be the same for me. But it's not. This is my home. The Verigin home passed on for generations. My grandmother lived there and my parents, and I lived there....It's home.

Mrs. Verigin: He's hiding a little bit there. I think it's the peoples' feelings toward what took place. A lot of people were hurt, and there's no harm to express that. The Government, they knew they were forcing people out, so actually they know there's some hurt.

Once we had [grain] elevators here in Crowley [the town where the Verigins now lived] and they were demolished, for what reason I don't know. There was a woman who wrote an article in the newspa­per. She writes that the people who demol­ished those two elevators they just set a match to it and they're gone.

But, she says, the feeling of those elevators going down for the people who lived there‑-how they were built and everything about them‑-those elevators made the town and all of that has been demolished....She said people should stop and think how people are hurt by it all. And that's what Mike is trying to explain about his farm and about the farms here, you know. It's just not burning the place, or taking it away; its the feeling that was left amongst the people. The sadness and the sorrow. Just set a match and it's all gone. But there's your life...

Mr. Verigin: Like Doris said, those elevators, they made the town. The town centered around those elevators. They were landmarks. They were the first elevators when you came from British Columbia. Here they were in the middle of a little prairie town.

And like Doris said, everything was centered on them. Farmers would bring the grain there, and go to the café, or go in the beer parlor, or get mail, or buy groceries... All of a sudden, in one day, both eleva­tors were gone‑-demolished. People stood out in the streets watching them go down. Since then, Crowley doesn't look the same. It doesn't feel the same.

Mrs. Verigin: And like Mike mentioned, the lawyers and people who came down to assess the land‑-they don't know what life is all about here. They don't know what they're taking away from the people. They don't under­stand. It just seems to be the mon­ey, money, money, and that hurts a lot of people.

Like I said, Mike came out of there really, really hurt, when they just made statements that the land was worth this and wasn't worth that. This kind of thing hurts a person. It's not just money‑-it's the feelings.

Mr. Verigin: To a lot of people‑-maybe to newcom­ers here and to others, too‑-it's "I'm here today, tomor­row I'm there." There's some people that do not have this sentiment. They don't feel like I do.

Some people who sold might think, "Well, I got a good deal. I got a better farm now. I should­'ve sold it a long time ago."

But I think a lot of people, especially the older people, don't. For example, we'll say you came to live here in Pincher Creek. It would be a "town" and a "house" to you for many, many years. After you've lived there, after you've had happiness and sorrow in the house, and your children were born here, and your grandchildren come and other people, too, then somehow you'd become attached to it.

And you have to know things like that big tree I mentioned before, and the mud, and the river, and the attic. It becomes part of you. All you have to do is look at something, or touch something, and it will bring your past life back to you. And then the house will have value to you.

But again, as I said, there are some people‑-I think it wouldn't matter to them ever. Just another house, just another farm. A lot of people do that‑-travel place to place and never think about it.

Mrs. Verigin: You see, it's everything‑-all the build­ings and how they were built. And how Moth­er and I used to gather twigs for the fire, and little things we noticed there. How the trees grew. How the cattle came down to drink. And how they used to go up in the hills and bring them. And the dogs they had... and the chickens. And then as a person grows older all that is still there, that back life.

THE BUCHANANS

Ron Buchanan: This new place is ours in a sense, but we're not familiar with it yet to feel comfort­able like we did in Pincher. We don't know it very well. Even to the point of not knowing what names to give it yet.

You know, I'd name the places‑-all the fields right now‑-if I knew what name to give them, but I don't know what name to give them, so maybe over the course of time. Like "The Pig Field" at our old place. We probably had pigs for twenty years that I can remember, and I know my father had them longer than that, and at one time, it was just a field where the pigs were put.

I don't think it was called The Pig Field at first, but maybe ten years or so later after the pigs had been out there for a long time, it was "the Pig Field."

Yeah, that's why the naming hasn't happened here yet. I can see, just talking about it, that this is part of "turning the corner" that we were talking about before in the kitchen. I'm sure names will come and I don't think we should put pressure on ourselves for not having names‑-you can't make it happen. We just have to take our time about it and when a name comes up for a place, then it'll have a name. And not to worry about it in the meantime.

******

Ron: I did bring a lot with me: the farm equipment and the cows and the hand tools. For example, If I go to do some­thing in the shop I'm using the same tools I had down there.

But still things are different here because its a differ­ent set of buildings. And when you come across something that is different, some­times it strikes you‑-you remember how it was or where it was. That happens quite a bit if you let your mind do it.

You'd like a concrete example? Maybe I could tell you about our welder and the welding bench. I have the same welder and the same welding bench as I had in Pincher Creek. I use them a fair bit in the summer time to repair breakdowns in the farm machinery. In the former shop, the welder was sitting beside the door which faced west, so in the afternoon you had a lot of sunlight coming in. In this shop, I put it right beside the door for the most light.

But in this shop the door faces east so that in the afternoon you're kind of in a shadow. And very often when I'm welding in the afternoon you notice it the most. So, here you are with your welding helmet down and, without thinking you say, "It was a lot easier to see in my other shop." I remember, just like that, how it was in my other shop and how it was easier to work, because of how the door made better lighting in the afternoon.

I attempt to try and not remember, really. I've tried to condition myself not to think about it. Remember­ing is quite often painful. That's the reason why I try and prevent it. Very often at night, though, or when you first wake up in the morning, that's painful too. It's harder to condition yourself at those times, I think.

******

Karen Buchanan: When we first came here we talked quite a lot to other people about Pincher. I remember saying, "Well, in Pincher Creek we did this" or "In Pincher Creek we did that." Then I began to realize people might not be interested, or they don't know what you're talking about, so you'd better try not to always be talking about Pincher Creek. Now, I hardly mention it to other people....

We've been back three times. The first year we went back twice, then we skipped a year, and then we went back this past summer.

******

Ron: I think what I found most disconcerting [in returning] is seeing the things that didn't change. The hills right around where we lived‑-that's the only thing that didn't change. But seeing them sitting in a different setting‑-the same hills were there, the hills to the east and the hill to the north‑-nothing was changed on those hills.

But the valley itself, the trees, that's completely different. And just seeing those hills, you know they're the same hills, but it's like filming all your hills in a different setting. They just aren't the same... You take a close look at them, and you have to confess, "Yes, they're the same hills." You know they're identical, but there's a difference, and that's a little tricky for your mind.