Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: February 2018

Saskatchewan is no stranger to bad winters

Saskatchewan has had its share of hard winters. They don’t need exaggeration.

One of the most deadly was the killing winter of 1906-07. The winter began innocently with the first fall of snow on Nov. 5, 1906. Then, a little more than a week later, a brutal three-day blizzard raged across the West, dumping several feet of snow.

Pioneers called it “the earliest, most violent, and longest storm in living memory.” December hinted at a return to normal weather, but a series of heavy snowfalls, accompanied by record low temperatures, pounded the region through most of January and February.

Spring brought little relief. It was as if winter would never let go.

When ranch hands in southwestern Saskatchewan went to assess the carnage in the spring and count the stock losses, they found dead cows hanging in trees in the coulees because the snow had been so deep.

Wallace Stegner, in his classic Wolf Willow, named it “carrion spring.” Rancher R.D. Symons was blunter. He called it “the big smell.”

There was also a terrible winter in early 1947. A staggering four feet of snow fell in parts of southern Saskatchewan in January. Then, the wind started to howl. For one long week — from Jan. 30 to Feb. 8 — one of the nastiest winter storms in Canadian history raged across the prairies.

The blowing snow created incredibly huge drifts that made travel dangerous, if not impossible. Rail lines and roads were choked by snow, while telegraph lines were either blown down or buried.

People in rural areas were completely cut off from the outside world and had to survive as best they could. One farmer reportedly cut a hole in the roof of his two-storey barn to get inside to milk the cows.

The record for several consecutive severe winters probably belongs to the late 18th century — the consequence, in part, of a protracted La Niña event over the Pacific Ocean in the late 1770s, followed by the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783. Hudson’s Bay Company’s servants kept a sobering record of the dismal conditions.

The snow was so deep during the winter of 1783-84 that dog teams could not be used at some HBC posts for several months.

The winters of 1788-89 and 1789-90 were even worse, arriving in the early fall and lasting into the late spring. “In the whole of this winter,” Mitchell Oman at South Branch House complained in early April 1790, “there has been the most Snow that has been seen Inland this 15 years past.”

Before the month was over, another foot of snow fell. Malcolm Ross at Cumberland House was just as exasperated. “I never knew the spring to be so backward before,” he observed on May 4, “nor the ice to stay so long.”

These colder temperatures drastically reduced glacier melt in the spring, and the annual canoe brigades could not leave the region on time because “there was no water in the river.”

Indigenous people were accustomed to these climatic fluctuations. But their newly acquired horses were not, and they died in great numbers in the 1780s. Hunting bands responded by raiding rival bands for replacement stock.

The late 1790s were little better. Winter arrived so early in the fall of 1795 that it was possible to ride horseback across the frozen North Saskatchewan River by mid-November.

The annual canoe brigades were delayed again in these years — not because of low water but the lateness of the spring. “The Country around has the appearance of Winter,” James Bird gloomily reported on May 2, 1797, “the Snow being still deep on the ground.”

The HBC canoe brigade somehow managed to reach Cumberland House on June 4, only to find “the (Cedar) lake is still frozen over apparently as solid as it was in the middle of winter.”

The next two winters were just as hard.

“I have never experienced so miserable a time … inland,” William Tomison complained in November 1798, “and no prospect of its mending.”

But the weather did mend. All Tomison had to do — as Indigenous people knew — was wait until next season. The winter of 1799-1800 was so unseasonably mild that bison herds and the hunting bands that pursued them stayed out on the plains.

People probably forgot, at least momentarily, how bad Saskatchewan winters could be.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: Even a locomotive is challenged by Saskatchewan winters. 
Photo Source:Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A27895

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Agricultural potential of southern prairies was much debated

Desert or garden? These conflicting images were at the centre of the mid-19th-century debate over the agricultural potential of the semi-arid prairie district of present-day Saskatchewan.

Could farmers make a living from the prairie soil? Was the region better suited for stock raising? Or was it marginal land that could provide only a bare living?

In the late 1850s, the Palliser (1857-59) and Hind (1857-58) expeditions were sent to the western interior to assess the region’s future as a commercial farming frontier.

Neither expedition was impressed with the open prairies and both declared that the area south of present-day Saskatoon to the international border formed a triangle of infertile lands – also known as Palliser’s triangle.

This finding was not surprising. Both expeditions were asked to identify areas where agriculture could best be initiated, and they clearly favoured the prairie parkland or what they called the fertile belt.

Palliser and Hind were also outsiders, unfamiliar with the peculiar plains environment, and simply assumed that the treelessness was a sure sign of aridity, if not barrenness.

Jump forward two decades to the late 1870s and the southern grasslands were reassessed, but under different circumstances.

Ottawa had acquired the region in 1870 and expected most, if not all, of its new western empire to be fertile. How else would it entice hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of prospective farmers to the region?

The potential of the prairie district therefore had to be reconsidered — the very idea of bad land was no longer acceptable.

Enter botanist John Macoun, whose enthusiasm for the North-West and its future knew no bounds.

Traveling during exceptionally wet summers in 1879 and 1880, Macoun found growing conditions in the South Saskatchewan country ideal for the large-scale agricultural colonization envisaged by Ottawa. He even challenged the common assumption that settlement should be initially confined to the parkland and instead promoted the virtues of homesteading the open prairie.

Where Palliser and Hind had once found an irreclaimable desert, Macoun discovered a garden of unlimited potential.

This portrayal of the grasslands as a kind of agricultural eden — where the land would flower if broken by the plough — was reckless and potentially harmful. Just like Palliser and Hind before him, Macoun was guilty of misreading the landscape.

Instead of recognizing the prairies as a distinctive ecosystem, the botanist saw only what he wanted to see, or more accurately, what he expected to see.

There was, however, another, more nuanced assessment of the southern prairies during this period.

In 1873-74, Great Britain and the United States jointly marked the 49th parallel across western Canada. Canadian geologist George Mercer Dawson served as one of the scientists on the British side.

For two consecutive field seasons, the diminutive Dawson wandered widely — as much as 50 miles from the boundary — carefully investigating the landscape and any interesting phenomena. He paid particular attention to geological formations, especially any lignite deposits and their possible use as fuel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He also worked up the natural history.

Dawson’s report, published as a thick monograph, did much to foster his reputation as one of Canada’s foremost scientists.  He would later serve as the director of the Geological Survey of Canada.

His book was also important for recognizing the agricultural challenges of the short-grass prairie. Unlike other investigators who imposed their own values on the grasslands, Dawson argued that settlement of the region should be “a natural growth taking advantage of the capabilities of the country.”

Some districts might support grain cultivation, while other areas might be better suited to stock raising. In other words, variability was the region’s defining feature. It was too simplistic to make sweeping generalizations, like desert or garden.

But the Canadian government wanted settlement policy to be uniform across the prairie west and adopted a homestead plan where every settler got the same 160-acre grant, regardless of the land quality.

This system may have made for administrative efficiencies, but farming success on the open prairies varied from place to place and from year to year. In many places, more than a quarter-section was needed. It also took several years of practical experience to convert a pioneer farm to a commercial operation.

Until then, the story for many first homesteaders was one of disappointment, hardship, and abandonment.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo: George Mercer Dawson’s sketch of the Great Valley in southern Saskatchewan. 

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.