Country Portrait: Lesson Plan

History and steel are this storyteller’s media. Canada’s western prairie is his frame.

By Will Stillman

Don Wilkins and The Lesson

Don Wilkins and The Lesson

During long winter months, working alone, Don Wilkins creates three-dimensional tributes to early prairie life in Canada’s west. His tools: a cutting torch, welder, hammer and pry bar with jaws for bending metal. His goal: to pass along lessons of the past to future generations.

Pictured here with Wilkins is “The Lesson,” the farmer-cum-artist’s latest creation. Two years in the making, it’s the seventh metal sculpture he’s built in his farm shop and placed along nearby Highway 11 between Craik and Dundurn, Saskatchewan. Wilkins led an effort to have a portion of the highway named after Louis Riel, a famous Metis, which is the name given to children of First Nations and European heritage.

The sculpture depicts a Cree mother standing 9 feet tall, with her 4-foot-tall Metis child, appearing to scan the horizon, looking over outstretched prairie. Wilkins says “The Lesson” is a tribute to the First Nation’s women.

“Reading about the native women in our Canadian history, you just pick up so much respect for them,” he says. “I really feel that they were undervalued. That’s why I think she had a lot to tell her son.”

The retired grain farmer grew up on a mixed farm just north of the Montana border. As a boy, he reveled in the outdoors, soaking up the sights and smells of nature all around him. He has not lost that passion for the land, and works hard to recognize and keep alive an earlier time.

“Probably she’s looking at the landscape and there’s something out there she thinks he should notice. I think her teaching goes on constantly. She’s imparting a prairie survivor’s philosophy—an understanding of this land.”