Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: May 2015

Fathers of Confederation Table

If a table could tell stories

John A. Macdonald and Edgar Dewdney were good friends.

One was the Conservative prime minister of Canada, the other the Indian Commissioner for the North-West Territories.

Their friendship was based on mutual trust.

When Dewdney wanted to step down as Indian Commissioner in 1881, after only two years on the job, Macdonald offered him the lieutenant governorship of the North-West Territories and an increase in salary if he stayed on to help implement federal Indian policies.

Dewdney agreed and held the two positions until 1888, when he entered Parliament as a cabinet minister.

Three years later, when the prime minister suffered a severe stroke, Dewdney was at his bedside on June 6, 1891 when Macdonald died at his Ottawa residence. He was also one of the executors for Macdonald’s will.

Dewdney’s loyalty to the old chieftain – as Macdonald was known – might explain why the Indian Commissioner was allowed to ship a special table from Ottawa to Regina for the Indian offices.

It was no ordinary piece of furniture.

Constructed of oak and basswood, with rounded corners and drawers, the rectangular table was apparently used by the Fathers of Confederation during their deliberations at the 1864 Quebec Conference meeting.
It was then transferred to Ottawa for use by the new government of Canada. The cabinet held its meetings around the table.

When a larger table was built for this purpose, Dewdney arranged for the old table to be sent to Regina – sometime between 1883 and 1888 – as part of the furnishings for the Indian offices in the new territorial capital.

It’s debatable whether Dewdney could have secured the cabinet table without Macdonald’s agreement, especially given its connection to the founding of the dominion.

Maybe it was a recognition of Dewdney’s faithful service to the government and the Conservative party.
A series of draconian federal Indian policies likely passed over the table in Dewdney’s Regina office – ironically, the same table at which the Fathers of Confederation sought to end their colonial relationship with Great Britain. In 1896, the table became the property of the government of the North-West Territories. That was the year before responsible government came into effect and Frederick Haultain was named territorial premier.

Thereafter, the table served as house table for the legislative assembly of the North-West Territories. Its significance was not lost on the territorial representatives.

These were heady days in the territorial assembly, when there was a concerted push for provincehood for the region.

During a 1902 debate, R.B. Bennett, a successful Calgary corporate lawyer and future Conservative prime minister, declared that Territorial Premier Haultain’s call for one large western province “would make it impossible for the provinces to work together in harmony.”

Pointing for special effect at the Confederation table in the assembly, Bennett argued, “Let us be national in our aspirations and not sectional in our ambitions.”

But the presence of the table in the territorial assembly did not dissuade the Laurier government from creating western provinces with a difference.

In the 1905 autonomy bills, Ottawa retained control of Saskatchewan’s and Alberta’s public lands and resources – just as it did with Manitoba in 1870.

In 1908, the confederation table suffered something of an indignity. In preparation for the meeting of the legislative assembly on the top floor of the new Post Office building, a carpenter had to remove six feet from the centre of the table so that it would fit.

The table was transferred to the Legislative Library in 1914 and accorded a place of honour.

It was no coincidence that Saskatchewan government officials used the table in 1930 to sign an agreement transferring federal control of resources to the province. At present, it is on loan to the Canadian Museum of History as part of a confederation display.

What stories the table could tell – if it could only speak.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Photograph: Saskatchewan Archives Board

The short life of Sask’s grain-for-tuition plan

It’s not unusual these days for students to graduate from university with not just a diploma, but several thousands of dollars in debt.

In fact, some university students hold down part-time jobs while attending school. Others take only a few classes each year to try to cover their expenses as they earn their degrees.

The problem 50 years ago, however, was not necessarily the cost of post-secondary education, but too much unsold grain.

In the late 1960s, Saskatchewan lived up to its reputation as the wheat province by producing some of the largest crops in its history.

The record harvest in 1966 plugged the grain handling system at the same time that world demand and prices began to fall.

But farmers never reduced their wheat production because of their dependence on the crop, and actually seeded an even larger acreage the following year.

Wheat constituted two-thirds of total farm sales in the province at the time.
By 1969 and the harvest of the third-largest wheat crop in Saskatchewan history, the province’s farms were literally swimming in unsold wheat.

It was estimated that 400 million bushels were in storage in all kinds of makeshift bins, including former one-room schools.

To help alleviate the distress and ensure that farm families could afford to send their children to university, the Ross Thatcher Liberal government, in co-operation with the University of Saskatchewan, introduced a grain-for-fees program for the 1969-70 academic year.

Students – in this case, farmers or the children of farmers – were able to pay a portion of their university fees in either wheat, barley or oats at Canadian Wheat Board prices. The value was credited against the student’s account, up to a maximum of $300. That represented almost three-quarters of the cost of tuition in 1969-70.

The only qualification was student need … and the ability to get the grain to a specified delivery point. It could not simply be trucked down the road to the nearest elevator.

That’s when the complaints started. Some student participants were shocked to learn that they had to take their grain to either Cumberland House or Green Lake. And the shipping costs would reduce their tuition benefit.

Consequently, only 258 students out of an approved 300 participated in the program. But that did not deter the provincial government from offering another grain-fortuition credit the following year. This time, though, the Thatcher government removed wheat from the list of eligible grains because there was too much on hand.

Student leaders responded by questioning the effectiveness and fairness of the program, and the government cancelled its participation for the 1970-71 school year. That left the University of Saskatchewan with its own grain-for-fees program: oats and barley for experimental feed purposes. But before delivery could be made to the university farm, a test sample had to be checked for quality.

In the end, the program may not have provided much relief to the province’s wheat farmers who were unable to move their crop.

But it represented one of the most unusual ways of paying university tuition fees in higher education history.

Students today who face annually increasing tuition costs would probably welcome such bold thinking.

Addendum: In response to my recent column about the Northwest Territories’ first capital at Fort Livingstone, John Lyons informed me that the early settlers in the Swan River area used to boil the snakes in large pots and then feed them to their pigs.

Questions or comments? Email Bill Waiser at

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Photograph: U of S Archives and Special Collections