Despite broken dreams, cruel setbacks, misery and deprivation, people never lost faith in the land and its ability to provide a good living.
In September 1934, newspaper reporters D.B. Macrae and R.M. Scott toured the drought-stricken areas of southern Saskatchewan and filed stories along the way.
Wherever they went, they found that life had been reduced “to the lowest common denominator.”
Perhaps the cook at Fillmore restaurant summed up it best: “No crop, no garden, no oats, no potatoes, no feed. Nothing of everything.”
Saskatchewan was the hardest hit province in Canada during the 1930s.
The twin scourge of record-low wheat prices and prolonged drought walloped the province’s agricultural community.
Total farm cash income went into a nosedive, slipping from $273 million in 1928 to just $66 million in 1931 — and remained there for the better part of the decade. To put these figures in perspective, the average net cash income for a Saskatchewan farmer went from $1,614 in 1928 to a mere 66 bucks by 1933.
Saskatchewan’s retail trade, as a consequence, shrank almost 50 per cent from 1930 to 1933, the greatest contraction in any province.
Per capita income, meanwhile, fell a humbling 72 percent between 1928 and 1933.
It’s often assumed that Saskatchewan’s crop acreage and population also experienced negative growth during the 1930s — that people gave up putting in a crop, while the province began to bleed people.
But remarkably, despite the broken dreams, cruel setbacks, and the misery and deprivation, people never lost faith in the land and its ability to provide a good living.
Wherever reporters Macrae and Scott traveled in southern Saskatchewan, they were constantly assured by farmers that “the land is still all right. All it needs is rain.”
This continued determination to plant wheat every spring, as if by instinct, helps explain why crop acreage never declined during the 1930s.
After all, Saskatchewan was “next year country.”
The 1932 crop, for example, was the largest since 1928.
But the problem was the severe drought that seemed to place a stranglehold on the province and not let go for the better part of the decade.
Total wheat production dropped by a third during the 1930s, even though the area devoted to wheat actually increased by a million acres over the same period. In other words, more cropped land was producing less wheat.
1931, 1933, and 1934 were particularly bad crop years with average yields of just under nine bushels per acre.
The 1937 harvest was even worse. Wheat production dropped to a stunning 35 million bushels, a paltry 2.5 bushels per acre.
The other surprising statistic is that Saskatchewan’s total and rural populations (931,547 and 753,004 in 1936, respectively) reached their highest levels several years into the Depression.
Regina’s and Prince Albert’s populations continued to grow through the 1930s as people from rural areas either migrated to the provincial capital in search of work, if not help, or tried to escape to a region that had not been as hard hit by the punishing drought.
In fact, Prince Albert was the fastest growing city in western Canada in 1936 and would continue to attract new residents during the latter half of the decade (from 9,905 in 1931 to 12,290 a decade later).
Thousands of other people abandoned their farms in the worst areas of the Saskatchewan dust bowl for a new beginning north of North Saskatchewan River.
This trickle became a flood after one year without much rainfall turned into three to four. It was one of the greatest internal migrations in Canadian history.
Some of the Depression refugees included families from the province’s major cities. Under the Relief Settlement Plan, a federal-provincial agreement, the urban unemployed were given a chance to get back to work on the land.
About 45,000 refugees — roughly the equivalent of the Saskatoon population at that time — moved into the forest fringe of central Saskatchewan between 1930 and 1936. Two-thirds arrived in 1933 and 1934, some even coming from southeastern Alberta.
Many of the new settlers, in places like Little Saskatoon and Tamarack in the Loon Lake area, traded one harsh existence for another.
The story was much the same for pioneer farmers who struggled to clear the land, only to see their crops lost to frost.
Beginning in 1937, one of the worst growing seasons on record, hundreds began to flee the region, returning to their former communities or trying their luck in another province.
That’s when the provincial exodus began — not in 1929 and the start of the Depression, but 1937.
Saskatchewan’s population would not return to its 1936 peak for almost another half century.
Photo: The 1930s drought, portrayed here as a wolf at the door, forced many farmers to start over in Saskatchewan’s forest fringe. (Montreal Star, Sept. 17, 1934)
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.
It could have been a scene from a movie about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
After botanist John Macoun extolled the southern Canadian prairies as an agricultural eden awaiting the ploughing, James J. Hill, a member of the CPR Syndicate, pounded the map-covered table with his fist and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, we will cross the prairies and go by the Bow Pass.”
This decisive moment, captured by Macoun in his autobiography, profoundly altered Saskatchewan’s development in the late 19th century.
But it is doubtful whether the spring 1881 meeting in Hill’s office in St. Paul, Minnesota ever happened. Or that Macoun was responsible for the re-routing of the proposed transcontinental rail line.
Throughout the 1870s, it had been assumed that the CPR mainline would travel through the North Saskatchewan country, the so-called “fertile belt,” to the Yellowhead Pass.
But in the spring of 1881, the Syndicate boldly decided to build directly west across the southern prairies through present-day Regina, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, and Maple Creek.
The route change, one scholar noted, “shifted the whole axis of development in the North-West.”
Many reasons have been advanced for the abandonment of the Yellowhead route — and the over $4 million in survey work in preparation for construction.
But the most common explanation was John Macoun’s championing of the agricultural potential of the plains.
In Men Against the Desert, for example, James Gray argues that, “It was Macoun’s report (to the Syndicate) which helped guide the CPR through the southern Prairies.”
Pierre Berton also highlights the St. Paul meeting in The Last Spike, entitling a chapter subsection “How John Macoun Altered the Map.”
But did the meeting take place?
A faithful recorder of his activities in the field, Macoun makes no mention of it in his 1881 field notebook, 1881 diary, or correspondence for that year. Nor does he mention it in his massive Manitoba and the Great North-West (1882), a compendium of his activities in western Canada over the previous 10 years.
The James J. Hill papers, moreover, do not contain any reference to a meeting or to Macoun in 1881. In fact, the only account of Macoun’s meeting with CPR Syndicate members appears in his autobiography, dictated from memory some 40 years later, when the botanist was nearly 90.
There’s no doubt that the railway builders were aware of Macoun’s highly favourable assessment of the southern prairies. But the location of the railway had more to do with strategic business decisions than the quality of the land.
Ottawa’s insistence that the CPR follow an-all Canadian route made for engineering and construction challenges.
It also did not make business sense.
Building across the shield country north of Lake Superior and through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast would be expensive and time-consuming. Nor would these sections of the line generate much traffic for the railway. The losses from these non-revenue producing sections would have to be made up by the railway on the western prairies.
But that, too, was a problem from the outset.
The rail line was being built in advance of significant western settlement.
George Stephen, who headed the CPR Syndicate, was concerned about these operational disadvantages. During the CPR contract negotiations, Stephen told Prime Minister John A. Macdonald that the Syndicate could probably “construct the road without much trouble, but we are not so sure by any means about its profitable operation.”
He was particularly worried about a rival U.S. line siphoning off prairie traffic and undercutting the costly Superior section.
“Now what do you think would be the position of the CPR … if it were tapped at Winnipeg, or any other point west of that,” Stephen asked the prime minister. “No sane man would give a dollar for the whole line east of Winnipeg.”
The main line consequently was constructed as close to the international border as Ottawa would allow —even if it was not the best quality farmland — in order to keep out American competition.
Branch lines would be built north to the Saskatchewan country (Regina to Prince Albert and Calgary to Edmonton).
A more southerly route, through the Kicking Horse Pass, was also necessary if the railway was going to capture all the traffic of the North-West and offset the costs of operating the expensive Superior and Rocky Mountain sections.
As for John Macoun, he provided the agricultural justification for a route chosen for business reasons. Meeting or no meeting, Macoun was not responsible for one of the most controversial decisions in Saskatchewan history.
PHOTO: The Saskatoon train station (Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan R-B1754).
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.