In a spoof of a favourite song, comedian Groucho Marx once mockingly asked, “How’re you gonna keep ’em down on the farm … after they’ve seen the farm?”
Keeping them on the farm certainly applied to Saskatchewan in the mid-20th century. People began leaving the countryside in the late 1930s, a trend that picked up momentum after the Second World War.
Ninety-three of 422 Saskatchewan farm families, who had participated in a federal survey in 1942, were no longer farming when the team returned to do a follow-up interview five years later. To put this population decline into perspective, during the 10-year period from 1941 to 1951, when the total provincial population sagged 7.2 percent (minus 64,000), the rural farm population fell an astonishing 22.4 percent (minus 115,000).
What often gets overlooked in the statistics, though, is that the province remained essentially a rural place. Seven of every ten Saskatchewan citizens still lived in a rural setting in 1951.
CCF Premier Tommy Douglas wanted to do something about the rural exodus — secure the future of rural Saskatchewan and slow down the pace of rural depopulation. But how should the province be taken down the road to modernization? Or, in today’s terminology, how should the government bring about “transformational change”?
As Al Johnson, the former deputy finance minister, commented years later, the premier regarded all the past studies of rural issues as “parts of a single puzzle, and he wished to see them put together.”
To secure this broad perspective, the CCF government established a Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life in October 1952. For the next year, the commission sponsored 80 community forums and nearly 60 public hearings, as well as surveyed hundreds of rural residents.
The commission issued a series of 14 reports between March 1955 and April 1957. Many of its findings dealt with the twin issues of distance and isolation and possible solutions. What made the commission so historically important, though, was that it provided a comprehensive snapshot of a society undergoing fundamental change and the many problems and challenges associated with that change.
The royal commission’s recommendations were supposed to provide a blueprint for action. But Douglas could not wait and the CCF government went ahead with its own plans to improve rural services and provide a degree of stability.
The government constructed a province-wide system of all-weather grid roads — more than 13,000 miles by 1964. It also laid the groundwork for natural gas use throughout the province when it assigned responsibility for distribution to the Saskatchewan Power Corporation.
The government’s most ambitious revitalization activity was to bring electricity to 50,000 farms and all towns and villages by 1958, two years earlier than scheduled.
Saskatchewan Government Telephones, in the meantime, expanded and upgraded the provincial system through the 1950s, as well as started work on a microwave system to be tied into the national network.
The 1960 Family Farm Improvement Program also provided financial assistance to farm families and towns and villages to install sewage and water systems. At the start of the 1950s, only one in five farm homes had running water, let alone a bathroom.
Rural leaders pushed back, however, when it came to the reorganization of Rural Municipalities (RMs) into larger units. The government tried to defuse the issue by appointing a special committee to find some acceptable compromise, but despite years of study, it was forced to shelve the idea in 1962 in the face of continuing local opposition.
The CCF’s inability to replace the RM system might not appear to have been much of a failure when measured against all that the Douglas government had done to improve the quality of life in rural Saskatchewan. But better services, even at levels enjoyed by urban residents, could not halt rural decline.
The rate of rural population loss in the 1950s might not have been as great as during the 1940s, but people were still leaving the farm, especially adolescents. High school, radio, movies, even all-weather roads, introduced young people to another world beyond the farm and what they were missing.
And parents knew that their children, especially girls, would leave the farm. Ask a Saskatchewan woman what she got for high school graduation, and the answer is usually … luggage.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:The Douglas government wanted to modernize rural Saskatchewan and slow the pace of rural decline.
Photo Credit: Howdy McPhail
Bill Waiser’s latest book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, is now available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. The book is shortlisted for the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Awards in the non-fiction category.