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Saskatchewan Farmers Union

Members attending the United Farmers of Canada (Saskatchewan Section) annual convention in November 1949 were faced with a serious decision. Membership numbers had declined and it was agreed that an effort must be made to revitalize the farm movement. Joseph L. Phelps was elected as president, and the Saskatchewan Farmers Union (SFU) was born. A dynamic leader and inspirational orator, Phelps possessed the leadership qualities needed to draw attention to the grievances of the farm community. Grain exports and prices had become depressed after World War II; government promises to compensate farmers under the British Wheat Agreement were unfilled; rail transportation service for grain was unreliable. Phelps aggressively tackled these and other problems with governments and government agencies. Numerous farm organizational meetings were held. SFU membership and locals expanded rapidly in response to this new militancy, which had been absent since the1920s. The SFU, dedicated to preserving the family farm, quickly developed women's and youth programs. “Farm Women’s Week” was a major annual event, and farm women became members of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), an United Nations affiliate. Farm youth engaged in leadership workshops and promoted public speaking and art competitions. Annual “Prairie Queen” competitions sparked youth interest and served as successful fundraising projects.

The SFU succeeded the UFC on the Interprovincial Farm Union Council (IFUC), with Phelps becoming its chairman. Phelps acted to expand IFUC membership to include Manitoba, and shortly thereafter Ontario and British Columbia. He drew a sharp distinction between direct membership policy-making organizations and the composition of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA). While the CFA had a high profile in Ottawa, Phelps felt it was too compromising toward federal politicians, bureaucrats, and policies. The SFU had become a member of the Saskatchewan Federation of Agriculture (SFA) upon its transition from the UFC: early withdrawal from the SFA was inevitable. Membership maintenance in a voluntary organization was quickly recognized as a chronic problem. Phelps petitioned the provincial government for implementation of a one-half mill per acre Rand Formula type of dues collection on all farm land. Premier T.C. Douglas declined, but eventually offered a voluntary requisition method of dues collection through municipal offices.

Phelps was succeeded as president by Fred Woloshyn in December 1954. Following a constitutional dispute with the SFU executive, Woloshyn resigned in March 1955. This was disruptive for union membership, which was slow to recover. SFU vice-president Chris Hansen succeeded to the presidency, while Manitoba Farmers Union president Jake Schultz became IFUC chairman. Hansen spent considerable time in attempting to restore member confidence in SFU leadership, but funds were declining. Saskatchewan Federated Co-operatives and United Grain Growers provided some grants to assist the union; however, re-entry into a restructured Federation of Agriculture became a condition. Alfred P. Gleave was elected SFU president in 1957, at a convention which also narrowly voted to rejoin the Saskatchewan Federation of Agriculture. Gleave was elected IFUC chairman. Orderly marketing of farm products had been a consistent policy. Initiatives were taken to form a supply-managed producer-controlled egg marketing board. Saskatchewan producers eventually became part of a national supply-managed egg program.

Large grain surpluses and depressed prices in 1958 triggered a major campaign among prairie farm organizations for a deficiency payment program for wheat. Backed by a 1,000-person delegation, a petition of 300,000 signatures was presented to Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker and his Cabinet on March 10, 1959. On March 4, 1960, the Prime Minister announced a one-year acreage payment of $40 million. Other major issues affecting the future of farming were arising, in particular transportation. The federal government appointed a Royal Commission on Transportation, which was to review rail line configuration and the Crow Rate. In December 1960, the Canadian Wheat Board jurisdiction was removed in the sale of feed grains to feed mills. On December 16, 1960, the IFUC was renamed the National Farmers Union Council. Roy Atkinson succeeded to the SFU presidency in December 1962 and was later installed as NFU chairman.

Interest was emerging in 1963 toward the formation of a direct-membership National Farmers Union. Because most major farm policy problems were centred with the federal government, stronger representation was needed. In 1965, a drought in eastern Ontario drew attention to the need for an eastern drought relief fund to finance the purchase and shipment of prairie feed grains to needy Ontario farmers. The fund was launched and assisted to strengthen interprovincial bonds between farm union members. In 1969, feed grain prices had plummeted as surpluses increased. A rally of 6,000 farmers took place in Saskatoon on April 10, 1969. On July 14, 1969, 2,500 tractors clogged Saskatchewan highways at fifty points in a four-day demonstration. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau addressed demonstrators in Saskatoon and Regina, but did little to reassure farmers after an earlier statement in which he had asked the rhetorical question: “Why should I sell your wheat?” In the meantime, four provincial farm unions had agreed to “go national.” The groundwork was set for the founding convention of the National Farmers Union in Winnipeg on July 30–31, 1969. The Farmers Union of Alberta (FUA) refrained from joining, but many FUA members did join. Roy Atkinson was elected NFU president, and Ontario Farmers Union president Walter Miller became vice-president. SFU women’s president Evelyn Potter was elected NFU women’s president. A new chapter in the history of the farm movement was about to begin.

Stuart A. Thiesson

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Further Reading

Gleave, A.P. 1991. United We Stand: Prairie Farmers 1901–1975. Toronto: Lugus Publications.
This web site was produced with financial assistance
provided by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan.
University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
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Diversification de l'économie de l'Ouest Canada et le gouvernement de la Saskatchewan.