Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: April 2016

Radio opened new world to Sask residents

The 1920s have been called the roaring decade. That was certainly true in Saskatchewan in the latter part of the decade, especially with the return of good weather and higher wheat prices.

In 1928, the province’s farmers harvested an astounding 321.2 million bushels of wheat (almost a third of a billion) with an average yield of 23.3 bushels per acre. The crop, representing sixty per cent of the wheat produced in the three prairie provinces, was the largest ever produced by any province or state in the world.

These kinds of returns brought about the gradual mechanization of agriculture. Trucks, tractors, and the new combine-harvester enabled farmers to get their crop planted and harvested in a shorter period of time, as well as work larger holdings.

Farm prosperity, in turn, energized the provincial economy. There was a sharp rise in retail and wholesale trade in the late 1920s, effectively lifting many urban centres out of their postwar gloom. And with the return of good times, people purchased the latest technology on the market.

Many Saskatchewan homes had a telephone, an innovation that led to a popular, new hobby: listening in to conversations on the party line. There were also new labour-saving domestic devices, such as a washing machine — but only for those households with electricity.

Not as many people owned cars, but those who did were able to get around more easily, if not go to town on a more regular basis. Come winter, the vehicles were often put away for several months.

The most memorable addition to the home, though, was the wireless radio. People recall nostalgically how the wireless opened a new world to them. They would lie on the floor, propped up by their arms before the radio’s speaker, and listen for hours to shows from stations whose call signs were memorized like the ABCs.

Harlo Jones of Dinsmore was one of them: “Just as today’s children would find it difficult to imagine a world without television, I would have difficulty trying to envision our world … without radio. We children didn’t find the news a great matter of import at that age, but Sunday dinner without Jack Benny or Charlie McCarthy was unthinkable. And it was dangerous for anyone to utter a sound during the broadcast of the grain quotations.”

Every family member had their favourite program, but Saturday night hockey proved the most enduring and the most memorable for at least two generations. Regina’s CKCK, Saskatchewan’s first commercial station, made broadcasting history when Pete Parker called the play-by-play between the Capitals and the visiting Edmonton Eskimos on March 14, 1923. Foster Hewitt made his radio debut from Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens nine days later.

Because airwaves were relatively uncluttered at the time, Saskatchewan radio listeners were able to pick up American broadcasts from as far away as Denver and Chicago.

But the medium was also used to showcase local talent. In 1923, Horace Stovin of Unity began broadcasting under the signal 1OAT (later CHSC) from the dispensary at the back of “Our Drug Store.”

That same year, CFQC went on the air in Saskatoon. One of the regular guests was the “Famous Farmer Fiddlers.” Even the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool opened a Regina station in 1927 to convince farmers to renew their delivery contracts.

Most of the local radio announcers were British in origin and regularly mispronounced the name of the province, when not mangling local terms and names such as slough (called “sluff”). Martha Bowes, the province’s first woman announcer for Saskatoon’s CJWC and one of three in Canada at the time, had no such trouble, often assuming several different roles during a day’s broadcast.

Under an agreement with Canadian National Railways, local radio programming was also fed into transcontinental trains as they crossed the province during the 1920s. CFQC radio participated in this service using the call sign CNRS. One Sunday morning, passengers in the observation car listened to a church service being held in Saskatoon, more than a hundred miles away. When the train pulled into the station later that day, the on-board radio operator turned over a collection of almost $30.

That was the power and reach of radio.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: Frank and Jim Bentley listening to a Westinghouse radio in 1926. (SAB S78-102)
Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board
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The starvation summer of 1879

Bison were essentially gone from Saskatchewan territory by 1879.

Many in the West believed the animal would be lost one day, but that was supposed to be at least a decade away.

Assistant North-West Mounted Police Commissioner James Macleod was personally shocked by how suddenly it happened. So too was the new Indian Commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, who claimed in his first annual report that the “disappearance of the buffalo had taken the Government as much by surprise as the Indians.”

It was quite an understatement.

Dewdney toured the North-West during the summer of 1879, and according to his diary, was forever encountering Indians who were anxious about how they were going to survive the coming winter.

Henriette Forget, the wife of Amédée-Emmanuel Forget, clerk for the North-West Territories Council (and Saskatchewan’s first lieutenant-governor), also kept a record of how the disappearance of the bison was playing out at the new territorial capital at Battleford.

“Rumours of starvation, from different parts of the country,” she wrote in late April 1879, “the buffalo having disappeared rendered the condition of the Indians most deplorable, what a question to solve.”

Then, in early May, 200 starving Cree arrived, soon followed by hundreds of others, including Blackfoot, all wanting to see the lieutenant-governor to beg for government assistance.

An uneasy Forget nervously prepared meals in her home with the windows closed and the blinds down — even covering the key hole to keep cooking smells from escaping. But the weeks passed without incident.

Territorial officials eventually convened an emergency meeting at Battleford in late August. It was resolved that “the fears entertained of an approaching famine are only too well grounded … unless a very large supply of provisions is furnished by the government.”

This motion capped two days of official discussion during which letters and telegrams were read aloud and entered into the record, minutes carefully recorded, and regular adjournments held. The contrast between the formality of the meeting and the dire situation on the northern plains was surreal.

It was abundantly clear, though, that extra food supplies had to be secured. What was on hand, Dewdney estimated, would last no more than a month.

Several Indian bands responded to the looming famine crisis by heading south across the international border in search of bison. Canadian government officials knew about this movement but did nothing at first to discourage it, especially because it reduced the number of Indian mouths the Canadian government might have to feed over the winter of 1879-80.

Ottawa, meanwhile, had a much different assessment of the situation.

During a debate on Indian policy, Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that “the utter disappearance of the buffalo” was not a bad thing.

“I am not at all sorry,” he stated, “that this has happened. So long as there was a hope that buffalo would come into the country, there was no means of inducing the Indians to settle down on their reserves.”

In other words, the Indians would never abandon their migratory lifestyle and become self-reliant farmers if they continued to pursue the bison hunt.

No one on the opposition benches took issue with Macdonald’s remarks, but they chose to question why the government was continuing to spend so much feeding the Indians — on what the Liberals regarded as a dying race.

Indeed, by the end of the 1870s, Ottawa was already regretting the financial commitment it had assumed in the western numbered treaties. Eleven percent of all territorial expenditures went to meet treaty obligations, an amount that alarmed federal parliamentarians.

This penny-pinching ran contrary to the Indian understanding of the treaty relationship. During the negotiations, both Crown representatives and Indian leaders had talked about the treaties as the beginning of a long-term, reciprocal relationship rooted in the concepts of family and kin. Indians were prepared to accept the Queen’s hand because of the repeated assurances that assistance during the difficult days ahead would not only be forthcoming but generous — in much the same way that Indians had been generous in sharing their territory.

In the end, the disappearance of the bison severely tested the relationship between the Crown and the Treaty 6 Cree.

(Note: Bison is the scientific name for the North American animal. Buffalo are found in Africa and Asia.)

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo courtesy Bill Waiser.
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