Bill Waiser

Monthly Archives: December 2016

The baby in the Depression photograph

On Oct. 17, 2016, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix carried an obituary for 82-year-old Peter O. Fehr of Warman, Saskatchewan.

Peter might not have been widely known, but in June 1934, he was captured on film — in his mother’s arms — in one of the most famous photographs in Canadian history.

That’s when his parents, Abram and Elizabeth Fehr, and their seven children were stranded in Edmonton’s Market Square, barefoot, hungry and broke. A newspaper photographer for the Edmonton Journal snapped a picture of the impoverished family standing in front of their car and trailer. The photo would become one of the most enduring images of the Dirty Thirties.

Abram and Elizabeth Fehr were Mennonites from the Nuenlage Colony north of Saskatoon. They were a hard-working family, but hard work didn’t count for much when the Great Depression descended on Saskatchewan. Record-low wheat prices, combined with a prolonged drought, sent shock waves through the provincial economy.

Many people were forced to go on relief. Others left dried-out areas to chase the promise of a new start along the edge of the northern boreal forest.

The Fehrs had heard there was good farmland in Alberta’s Peace River country. Desperate for a better life, they sold everything they owned, bought an old car, and headed for northern Alberta in 1932.

But life in the Peace River district was little better. Their first crop was hit by frost. The following year, the Peace River flooded.

Anxious to return to Saskatchewan, the Fehrs started for home one month after baby Peter was born in March 1934. For the next eight weeks, they battled mud, breakdowns, and constant hunger. Abram worked at local farms along the way to earn a few pennies to feed his starving family and buy gas for the car.

By the time they reached Edmonton in late June, Elizabeth was too weak to nurse baby Peter. Abram sent 10-year-old Corny to go from house to house to beg for food.

Two city policemen found the family — “the most pitiful case” they had ever encountered — and took them to the station, where the Salvation Army gave them a meal and some clothing.

The next day, before the Fehrs left for Saskatoon, the now famous photograph was taken — with Peter safely in Elizabeth’s arms.  The accompanying article described them as “a pitiful spectacle of depression dereliction.”

When the Fehrs returned to Saskatchewan, they faced several more difficult years. But they survived without seeking government relief.

Abram eventually secured land when farming conditions improved at the end of the 1930s. That was the same land, according to his obituary, that Peter took over in 1963 and worked for the next four decades before retiring to Warman with his wife Olinda.

The photograph of the Fehrs, in the meantime, has come to symbolize the desperate plight of young prairie families during the Great Depression.

The picture is a regular fixture in Canadian history textbooks. It also appears in popular literature on the Dirty Thirties. In James Gray’s book, The Winter Years, for example, the Fehr family photograph is the lead illustration in a section entitled, “The face of the depression.”

It’s also been used in displays. At one time, the photograph was prominently featured in an exhibit at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

But the story behind the picture — how thousands of western families doggedly survived the Great Depression with “nothing of everything” — is equally important.

During the 1930s, government relief assistance was provided as a last resort and at a minimum level, while people found it hard to put their pride in their pocket and ask for help. Saskatchewan citizens somehow managed to get through these bleak years to the end of the decade and the return of better times. But it came at great personal cost — one that people who lived through the depression never forgot. The Fehr photograph serves as a poignant reminder of what many families went through.

Peter Fehr was certainly thankful for how things turned out. When I interviewed him for my CBC TV news history show, “Looking Back,” and asked what people should think about when looking at the photograph, he responded, “Oh, how good we’ve got it now … how things have changed.”

He could have added … how we survived.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: The 1934 photograph of the Fehr family came to symbolize the desperate plight of prairie families during the Great Depression.
Photo Credit: Glenbow Archives ND-#-6742

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary 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

Asked for bread, given a stone; the 1910 Farmers’ Siege of Ottawa

It was supposed to be a triumphant tour.

In the summer of 1910, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier embarked on a gruelling, two-month rail tour of western Canada.

Officially, the visit would give the prime minister the chance to see first-hand how the region had changed so dramatically during his time in office. The more likely explanation, though, was that Laurier was genuinely worried about the rumblings coming from the farm community.

And there was good reason.

Saskatchewan had grown so fast that the 1911 national census would reveal the province to be the third most populous in the dominion, behind Ontario and Quebec, and would require more seats in the House of Commons.

Farmers’ votes would matter in any future election.

The prime minister’s special five-car train entered Saskatchewan on July 19, 1910. Wherever the 69-year-old Canadian leader stopped — 13 major speeches in just 19 days — he was warmly greeted by throngs of well-wishers.

The crowds never wavered. All wanted to hear, if not see, the man whose administration had been largely responsible for settling the prairie west.

Laurier used these public meetings to talk about how the province’s diverse settlers were building a greater Canada. But once the formal addresses and presentations were over, the prime minister was politely but firmly questioned about the Liberal government’s agricultural policies.

Farmers demanded transportation improvements, lower freight rates, better grain handling facilities — but, most repeatedly and vociferously, the scrapping of the protective tariff. The prime minister fended off the criticism as best he could, especially pointed reminders about his past support for free trade.

In Lanigan on July 23, the meeting took on a chill when David Rose, a farmer delegate, told the prime minister that farmers wanted “straight conversation.”

“We would like to see a little more being done than you have been doing,” he lectured.

It was just as testy in Saskatoon six days later. At a meeting with a grain growers’ delegation, John Evans bluntly reminded the prime minister: “In 1896 you promised to skin the bear of Tory protection. Have you done it? If so, I would ask you what you have done with the hide.”

Reporters travelling with Laurier suggested in their stories that the Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association, through its constant petitioning, had hijacked the tour. Whether Laurier felt this way, he gave no indication. Nor was it clear whether he was prepared to do something about the tariff — at the expense of alienating the Canadian business community.

The tariff question, however, would not go away. Nor would Western farmers.

In December 1910, at the request of the Canadian Council of Agriculture, 500 delegates from the prairie provinces descended on the capital to force the federal government to deal with agricultural issues.

The group met first in the Ottawa Opera House on Dec. 15 to discuss strategy and draw up the “Farmers’ Platform.” The next morning, they marched en masse up Parliament Hill and crammed into the House of Commons, filling both the chamber floor and galleries.

Delegates sat wherever they could, including the seat of the prime minister. Several cabinet ministers had to perch on the speaker’s dais. It was the first and only time in Canadian history that a delegation of this size had occupied the House of Commons.

The farm leaders, including Saskatchewan’s E.A. Partridge, addressed various concerns, but dwelled mostly on the tariff for four hours. As one delegate quipped, they were there to “talk turkey.”

But Laurier offered little in response. The delegates were then shuffled off to see the governor general at a Rideau Hall reception.

It was a bitter ending, especially given the distance that many had travelled to take part in the meeting, in several cases at their own expense. One disillusioned delegate told a local newspaper: “We have asked for bread, and you (Laurier) gave us a stone.”

Less than six weeks later, the federal government announced that the United States wanted to negotiate a reciprocity (free trade) agreement. Prime Minister Laurier believed he had found the issue that would serve as the capstone to his 15 years in office.

But the Liberals — and with them, reciprocity — were defeated in the 1911 general election. Farmers moved one step closer to independent political action.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. 

Photo: Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier (greeting twins) made a special prairie tour in 1910 to shore up western support for the Liberal party.
Photo Credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board (R-B1866)

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary 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

Pioneers of transplant surgery

Saskatoon has a long, significant history in the field of kidney transplants

I’m sitting in Dr. Mike Moser’s office at Royal University Hospital late one Monday morning in May. He seems remarkably relaxed for someone who is going to perform two kidney transplant surgeries later that night at St. Paul’s hospital.

I know from our conversation that the pending surgery still excites him, even though Moser has been involved in about 500 transplants during his medical career.

Moser contacted me last year to see if I was interested in telling the story of kidney transplantation in Saskatoon. The son of parents with history degrees, the Edmonton-born Moser was introduced to history from an early age; he learned it’s not something that happened someplace else and that Western Canada has a rich and vibrant history. But instead of taking up the discipline as a career, he chose medicine — following in the steps of his grandmother, a nurse who told “the best stories.”

It was during his final year of medical school in 1993 that Moser became interested in transplantation.

“This is something I’ve got to do,” he told himself.

After his residency, he secured a fellowship in the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at the London Health Sciences Centre in London, Ont.  There, he learned to perform several kinds of transplants, and received instruction in related areas such immunosuppression and organ preservation.

In 2005, Moser came to Saskatoon on a one-year locum; like others with similar intentions, he ended up staying and eventually forming a practice with Yigang Luo and Gavin Beck, two other graduates of the London transplant program. Today, they are the only dedicated kidney transplant surgeons in Saskatchewan. (Cornea transplants are performed in Saskatoon and Regina.)

That Saskatoon is the only place in the province where kidney transplants are performed is not really surprising, given the city’s connection to the larger transplant story.

The third kidney transplant in Canada was performed at Saskatoon’s University Hospital in December 1963. By the end of the 1960s, about 10 per cent of all kidney transplants worldwide were carried out here.


This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix: 

Photo: Stella Mossing (centre) endured a second kidney transplant when the first transplant failed. She is flanked by Dr. Betty-Lou Baltzan (left) and Dr. Manny Ty (right), members of the kidney transplant team.
Photo Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan StarPhoenix Collection S-SP-B28496-1

Questions or comments?

Email Bill at

Follow Bill on Twitter @billwaiser

Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary 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