The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan


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History of Saskatchewan

By: Michael Cottrell

The province of Saskatchewan, incorporated in 1905, is a relatively recent creation; but the history which underlies that political and social construct encompasses the countless stories engendered by all those who for millennia have made their homes in the vast plains, parklands and boreal Forests of the northern fringes of the North American continent. Told by a variety of cultural groups in many different languages, these stories nevertheless share a common theme: the human struggle to come to terms with an exceptionally challenging environment, characterized by great climatic extremes over enormous expanses of land, geographically remote from the continent’s larger population concentrations. At its most basic, the history of Saskatchewan is the collective story of human groups adapting to harsh weather and an expansive landscape in order to survive and prosper. It is this history which has forged a distinctive identity among those who call this place home, and the same fundamental reality will likely continue to shape the collective destiny of the province’s residents long into the future.

Aboriginal peoples insist that their ancestors have inhabited the land we now call Saskatchewan since “time immemorial”, and archaeologists point to evidence of human activity beginning with the Paleo-Indians or Big Game Hunters about 9,500 BCE. Both oral history and archaeological records attest to a process of constant human change and adjustment in response to dramatic shifts in Climate, flora and fauna over many millennia. Flexibility and ingenuity were required to develop and adapt technologies, economic systems, forms of political organization, and spiritual and cultural practices to cope with these changes and to enhance the quality of human life. The southern plains and parklands proved most hospitable to settlement, and the huge Bison herds provided food, clothing, and shelter for the early occupants. The northern boreal forests attracted fewer people, but caribou, moose and fish were able to support small scattered bands perhaps as early as 3,000 BCE.

Ancestors of the modern Aboriginal occupants began to assert their presence in the region centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. The NEHIYAWAK or Cree were by far the largest group, with the Swampy and Woodland bands occupying the shield and boreal forests from what is now northern Quebec to northern Alberta, and the Plains bands beginning to move into the parkland and plains south of the North Saskatchewan River. The Nehiyawak enjoyed close relations with the Nakota (Assiniboine) who occupied the southern region of Saskatchewan and relied almost exclusively on the buffalo for subsistence. As allies, the Nehiyawak and Nakota traded with the Mandan south to the Missouri River, and occasionally made war on the LAKOTA (Sioux), DAKOTA (Sioux) and Atsina (Gros Ventre) to the southeast and southwest. To the east of these groups were the NAHKAWEWIN (Saulteaux), who moved from their original homes in the Great Lakes area to what is now east-central Saskatchewan after the arrival of the Europeans. To the west was the Siksika, Kaini, and Peigan (Blackfoot) confederacy, which claimed the longest presence on the plains and whose territory extended from the Eagle Hills west to the Rocky Mountains. The Nehiyawak, Nahkawewin, Siksika, Peigan and Kaini all spoke languages belonging to the Algonquian linguistic group, possibly suggesting a common origin. What is now northwest Saskatchewan was originally home to the Athapaskan-speaking Denesuline (Dene, Chipewyan) bands, who occupied territory far to the north and west. Conflict between the Denesuline and the Nehiyawak was endemic and continued into the post-contact period. The successful adaptation of Aboriginal peoples to the challenges of these environments required developing an extremely close relationship with the land and an intimate understanding of the animals upon which they depended for survival. Another vital aspect of their adjustment was the development of a communal ethos, where the values of redistribution and reciprocity were strongly encouraged to ensure collective survival. Although their numbers remained small and their material cultures simple in contrast to larger Aboriginal population concentrations elsewhere, plains people lived well on their own terms; they were also nurtured by a deep spirituality and rich ceremonial life.

Aboriginal peoples’ sole occupation of the northern plains and boreal forests came to an end in the 17th century when the overseas expansion of European powers led to the establishment of British and French colonies in eastern North America. The lucrative Fur Trade was the primary motivation for this colonization; the monarchs also claimed title to the land since they denied that Aboriginal occupation constituted true ownership. Acting on this assumption, King Charles II of England issued to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 a charter which granted it ownership and exclusive trading rights to a vast area in the North American interior known as Rupert’s Land. Totalling 7,700,000 km2, the territory included most of modern day Saskatchewan. For the next century the Company adopted a relatively passive strategy of constructing posts on the shores of Hudson Bay and waiting for Aboriginal peoples to bring their furs to trade. In a rare departure from this policy, the young Henry Kelsey was send inland in 1690 to persuade more Native people to bring their furs to the Bay. Guided by Aboriginal people, he was the first recorded European to see the great plains of what is now Saskatchewan.

Centuries-old European rivalry between France and England spread to North America, and the French refused to recognize the exclusive claims of the English company. The voyageurs of the Montreal-based French trade expanded west of the Great Lakes, utilizing pre-existing Aboriginal trade routes in the late 1600s and early 1700s to find new sources of fur and new Aboriginal trading partners. Pierre de La Vérendrye reached the lower Saskatchewan River in the early 1740s, and in the next decade de Niverville and de la Corne established posts further up the Saskatchewan River within the boundaries of present-day Saskatchewan. The French withdrew from the West after the conquest of 1760, but two decades later their place was taken by the North West Company. Directed by Anglo-American merchants based in Montreal and staffed by experienced French-Canadian voyageurs, North West Company Explorers pushed west and north through the Saskatchewan and Churchill River systems to exploit new fur-rich territory. Faced with this competition, the Hudson’s Bay Company was forced to adopt a more aggressive strategy and established its first inland post at Cumberland House in 1774. Intense rivalry over the next decades led to the construction of a chain of posts across the West, and by the time the two companies amalgamated in 1821 the area that would become Saskatchewan was home to more than fifty trading centres, many of them located at traditional Aboriginal gathering places.

It was critically important to cross-cultural relations that the initial encounters between Aboriginal and European people in this particular space occurred within the context of trade. Despite European notions of superiority, the reality of the situation dictated a significant level of dependence on the original inhabitants. Traders relied on Aboriginal people to supply them with furs, and their unfamiliarity with the climate and topography forced the newcomers to seek Aboriginal assistance for survival and exploration. The trade context also dictated that the first Europeans to arrive were exclusively male, and many of these young men established liaisons with Aboriginal women. These relationships had advantages for both parties: the women provided both practical assistance and critical cultural knowledge to their Europeans partners, and in the process cemented economic and social ties between traders and Aboriginal communities. By incorporating Europeans into their kinship systems, Aboriginal people also expected to enjoy preferential trade terms and various forms of assistance, including access to post provisions in times of need. Over time the mixed-blood offspring of these marriages developed a unique syncretic identity and a distinctive sense of nationality as MÉTIS people.

Traders and aboriginal people, Fort Pitt, 1880s.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-A97

For at least the first century and a half after contact, therefore, the fur trade produced a mutually beneficial relationship. The European presence was small and posed little threat to Aboriginal culture and sovereignty. Aboriginal people demonstrated flexibility and ingenuity in adapting to European economic systems, carving out a variety of roles in the fur trade as trappers, middlemen and provisioners; they furthermore were able to benefit from new technology while controlling their own destinies. Metal goods such as axes, knives, pots, scrapers, fire-steels and muskets were readily adopted, reducing Labour especially for women and thereby enhancing quality of life and overall security in a harsh environment. The more efficient technology and increased leisure also enhanced the aesthetic expressions and ceremonial life of Aboriginal peoples.

Over time however, involvement in the fur trade brought profound changes to the regions’ original inhabitants. The introduction of horses and guns revolutionized plains cultures, greatly increasing mobility but also exacerbating inter-tribal conflicts. Fierce competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company in the early 1800s led to over-trapping and gradual depletion of fur-bearing animals. The demand for pemmican produced by the dramatic increase in the number of trading posts in this period altered the basis of buffalo hunting from a subsistence to a commercial pursuit, beginning the depletion of the herds and increasing conflict over hunting territories. DISEASES such as smallpox, influenza, whooping cough and measles caused widespread mortality, especially in the 1780s, 1830s and 1860s. Alcohol was also introduced by unscrupulous traders; as consumption increased, so also did its demoralizing effects.

The fur trade was the first staple industry to dominate the economic development of what would become Saskatchewan. Although it brought short-term wealth, the precariousness of relying on one resource became evident in the mid-19th century when changes in fashion resulted in a dramatic decline in the demand for furs. As local resources were severely depleted and Aboriginal labour was no longer critical to the creation of wealth, the collapse of the fur trade represented a significant blow to Aboriginal hegemony. The latter was further endangered by information generated by the PALLISER-HIND geological expeditions of the late 1850s: boasting the latest in scientific expertise, these surveys concluded that while portions of the southern Prairies were semi-arid desert, a rich fertile belt suitable for large-scale agricultural settlement also existed, extending from the Red River Valley west to the Rocky Mountains. This discovery transformed outsiders’ perceptions of the region from that of a frozen wasteland to a potential agricultural Eden, and had profound implications for the future of the West and its inhabitants. The news was immediately seized upon by politicians and businessmen from central Canada, who saw in the redefined West an opportunity to realize their larger ambitions. By opening up the prairies to settlement and integrating it with the metropolitan centres of Toronto and Montreal, the emerging central Canadian élite came to believe that a new transcontinental nation, with a self-sufficient national economy, could be created to rival the United States. The Confederation of the four original provinces in 1867 was the first step to fulfilling this larger dream. Federal representatives immediately opened negotiations with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and an agreement was reached in 1869 whereby Rupert’s Land was sold to the federal government. In 1870, after the creation of the province of Manitoba, all of Rupert’s Land was incorporated into the Canadian Confederation as the North-West Territories.

Canada’s approach to its new western territory was unabashedly imperialistic, with federal officials viewing the prairies as a colony or hinterland to be exploited for the national benefit. The NATIONAL POLICIES of the 1870s and 1880s included a cheap homestead system, a territorial police force, construction of a transcontinental railway, a protective tariff, and a political structure which permitted little local control. These policies encouraged some early White settlement, primarily from Ontario; like all charter groups, these settlers sought to mould the new society in their own image. Loyalty to the British Empire and Protestant Religion, confidence in British parliamentary and legal institutions, and faith in the virtues of hard work, self-reliance, thrift and sobriety were some of the guiding principles of the first White settlers. A strong attachment to their new environment also developed quickly, and critical to the emergence of this early regional identity was a belief that the burden of federal policies—especially those relating to settlement, Transportation and tariffs—fell disproportionately on the West. From the beginning of White settlement, therefore, the western Canadian regional identity was shaped by a sense of grievance against the federal government, central Canada, and ill-defined “eastern interests”—all of which were perceived to benefit unfairly from the Confederation arrangement at the expense of the residents of the West.

The railway comes to Rosetown.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-B6936

The difficulties faced by early White settlers paled in comparison with the challenges faced by western Aboriginal peoples, who sought to control their own destinies in the face of the profound changes confronting them in this period. The purchase of Rupert’s Land by Canada greatly alarmed the indigenous population, especially since they were not consulted about the disposition of what they considered their traditional territories. Métis protests against the Canadian takeover led to the creation of the province of Manitoba in 1870; but irregularities with the distribution of Scrip as well as tension with the incoming settlers forced many Métis to flee west to the Saskatchewan River valleys, where they sought to continue their traditional mixed Farming and buffalo-hunting economy. The federal government assumed jurisdiction over Aboriginal peoples in the British North America Act and continued the pre-Confederation practice of treaty negotiation. Seven numbered treaties were negotiated with Plains First Nations between 1871 and 1877; two of these, Treaties 4 and 6, covered the southern half of what would become the province of Saskatchewan. Faced with the collapse of their traditional economy because of the disappearance of the buffalo and the influx of White settlers, Aboriginal leaders saw these agreements as a means of establishing with the Crown a relationship which would guarantee the assistance they required to make the transition to a new settled and agricultural lifestyle, in return for the peaceful settlement of their lands. In particular, the chiefs identified collective access to Education, Health Care, emergency assistance, practical farming aid, and guaranteed hunting rights as critical to the survival of their communities. Despite the rhetoric of the treaty negotiations, the federal government had a more limited view of the treaties, seeing them primarily as a mechanism for extinguishing Aboriginal sovereignty and land title, and as a means of segregating Aboriginal people on reserves in order to facilitate White settlement of the region. These conflicting interpretations of the treaty agreements became evident almost immediately, and ensured that the cross-cultural harmony which had generally characterized the fur trade era would not long extend into the new settlement period.

The immediate post-treaty years were thus extremely traumatic ones for Aboriginal peoples in the West: the complete disappearance of the buffalo in 1879 resulted in widespread starvation, and government parsimony in providing the assistance promised in the treaties made the transition to agriculture very difficult. The challenges of adjusting to life on reserves were compounded by the often high-handed behaviour of the Indian agents, who exercised extensive supervisory powers under the INDIAN ACT of 1876. In an attempt to retain their sovereignty, chiefs such as BIG BEAR, Poundmaker and Piapot sought to unite all Plains groups behind the demand for contiguous reserves and renegotiation of the treaties on more generous terms. This disaffection of the First Nations coincided with a growing sense of grievance among the Métis, who also suffered from the disappearance of the buffalo and whose efforts to embrace commercial agriculture were frustrated by their inability to secure title to the lands on which they settled. After repeated failure to secure redress of their grievances and to forge a common front with First Nations and disgruntled White settlers, the Métis took up arms under their charismatic leader Louis Riel. Despite some initial success and remarkable gallantry, the Métis were overwhelmed by Canadian forces after a three-day pitched battle at Batoche in May 1885.

Louis Riel.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-8573

The 1885 Resistance (or Rebellion) was a dramatic turning point in the history of what would become the province of Saskatchewan. Métis efforts to carve out a niche on their own terms in the new society emerging on the prairies symbolically ended with the execution of Louis Riel in November 1885. For much of the next century the Métis would occupy the marginalized position of Road Allowance People, in a legal and cultural limbo between First Nations and White societies. The Resistance also had serious implications for the First Nations, as the federal government became increasingly coercive in its colonization policies and the gulf between Aboriginal groups and settlers became more pronounced. Chiefs such as Big Bear and Poundmaker were imprisoned, and other bands suspected of disloyalty were stripped of their chiefs. Aboriginal mobility continued to be curtailed by the PASS system, and additional restrictions were imposed by a Permit system which regulated financial transactions as part of an attempt to impose small-scale peasant farming on reserves. Federal agents, often in collaboration with Christian missionaries, launched an assault on traditional Aboriginal spirituality through a ban on the Sun Dance and other ceremonial practices. Education also became a critical tool in controlling and transforming Aboriginal people, as the federal government, in co-operation with various Christian churches, created a system of Residential Schools across the country. Designed to fulfill the government’s treaty obligation to provide education and practical training, these institutions had the additional objective of segregating Aboriginal children from their families in order to eradicate their culture, language and spirituality as a prelude to their assimilation into Euro-Canadian society. Although these institutions were not without some benefits, there has been growing evidence of widespread abuse, and many Aboriginal people today describe them as vehicles of cultural genocide. As part of a wider campaign to remake Aboriginal people in the image of White society, residential schools caused significant intergenerational trauma. One manifestation of this was a dramatic decrease in population; for a time, it seemed as if the predictions of Aboriginal people becoming a vanishing race would be confirmed.

The shift from Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal hegemony in the West envisioned in the National Policies was finally confirmed in the 1890s with a massive influx of White settlers. A variety of global factors, including the closing of the American frontier as well as industrial upheaval and ethnic tension in parts of Europe, all contributed to this enormous mass movement of people. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, advances in farming techniques and technology, and an increase in the price of wheat also enhanced western Canada’s attractiveness as a destination for those seeking agricultural opportunities. More than any other factor, however, it was the vigorous advertising and recruitment campaign undertaken by Clifford Sifton, the energetic Minister of the Interior appointed by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in 1896, which made the Canadian prairies the “Last Best West.” Determining that the settlement of the West with farmers was the main priority of his department, Sifton dispatched dozens of agents and circulated a huge volume of pamphlets in traditional sources such as Great Britain and the United States; but central and eastern European countries were also targeted for the first time, on the assumption that these “sheepskin people” would make ideal candidates for homesteading in the West.

The results were remarkable: the population of Saskatchewan grew from less than 20,000 in 1880 to almost 258,000 by 1906 and over 492,000 by 1911. About half of these were born in Canada, but the remainder was characterized by tremendous cultural diversity. This heterogeneity was reinforced by the tendency of many groups to form bloc settlements when they arrived in Saskatchewan. Each of the British national groups was present with the English settling at Lloydminster, Qu’Appelle, and Churchbridge; the Irish at Young and Sinnett; the Welsh at Bangor, and the Scots in Moosomin. Americans were the largest source of foreign-born immigrants after the British, and although they were dispersed across the province many settled at Craik and Davidson as well as in the dry southwestern corner around Maple Creek. Hungarians congregated near Bekevar, Wakaw and Lestock; Rumanians at Balgonie; Belgians at Forget; Austrians at Ebenezer; and German pockets emerged around Humboldt, Tramping Lake, Melville, Grenfell and St. Walburg. Scandinavians were concentrated in the east-central parkland, from Naicam to the Manitoba border, and the Ukrainians also showed a preference for land with tree cover: a series of Ukrainian Settlements developed across the parkland from Yorkton north-west to Edmonton. Most distinctive of all were the religious sects granted exemptions from the HOMESTEAD ACT to farm their land communally. Mennonites settled north of Saskatoon in Dalmeny, Hague and Osler, south of Swift Current, and in the Carrot River area. Doukhobors formed cells north of Yorkton and around Blaine Lake, while Hutterites congregated in colonies at Gull Lake, Rosetown and Riverbend.

Bloc settlements by these and the many other ethnic groups which migrated to Saskatchewan were seen initially as a mechanism for easing settlers’ adjustment to the harsh prairie environment. An unintended consequence was their tendency to allow different groups to maintain their ancestral languages and cultures in their new home. The province, consequently, was characterized by a high degree of cultural diversity from the settlement period; this caused tremendous uneasiness among those, especially the early settlers from eastern Canada, who expected all newcomers to conform to Anglo-Canadian norms. This tension between proponents of cultural homogeneity or heterogeneity, reflecting a deep-seated conflict about the kind of culture and society to be created on the prairies, would form one of the major cleavages in Saskatchewan politics over the next decades.

Virtually all who settled, however, were in agreement on the desirability of owning land, and the fulfillment of these dreams was reflected in the dramatic increase in homestead entries and cultivated land: from less than 1,500 farms and 70,000 cultivated acres in 1886, Saskatchewan could boast of 56,000 farms and 3.3 million cultivated acres by 1906. This extraordinary accomplishment was the work of those collectively referred to as Pioneers; their experiences, distilled into a series of myths, have had a profound influence on the creation of a Saskatchewan identity. Pioneer stories of back-breaking work, isolation, loneliness, racism, devastation and failure are juxtaposed with stories of self-reliance, perseverance, neighbourliness, community-building and success. From these stories emerged an archetypical pioneer figure, usually characterized as rugged, honest, hard-working, entrepreneurial and resourceful. One of the most common themes to emerge from pioneer stories was the limit of individual capacity and the necessity to engage in collective and co-operative action in order to survive and prosper in the strange environment and unforgiving elements which the newcomers faced. Despite this, however, and the popular myth that the pioneer story was largely a common experience, the reality is that the settlement frontier in Saskatchewan was far from an egalitarian one: the experiences of groups and individuals varied greatly depending on the timing of their arrival, the location in which they settled, the resources they brought with them, and their ethnicity and gender. Overall, there were almost as many losers as winners in the homesteading gamble. Despite their subordinate legal and political status, it is evident that the presence of women was one of the most important determinants of success in the settlement of the province. It is clear also that First Nations and Métis people were systematically excluded from full participation in that settlement process and from the mythology which it engendered.

A typical pioneer home, southern Saskatchewan, 1906.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-B125

Rapid population growth resulting from the influx of pioneers transformed virtually all aspects of Saskatchewan society and intensified the demand for political control over local matters. Although too slow to satisfy local ambitions, political change actually came relatively quickly. Governed directly from Ottawa with an appointed council under the 1875 North-West Territories Act, the West was granted a Territorial Assembly in 1888, and this body secured responsible government in 1897. Westerners, however, were determined that their region should assume its rightful provincial status within Confederation, and in the early 1900s intense negotiations developed around what shape that would assume. The final decision to create two new provinces under the AUTONOMY BILLS of 1905 was dictated by Ottawa; it reflected the fears of federal politicians that a single western province would upset the equilibrium of Confederation by conferring too much power on the West.

The new province of Saskatchewan came into existence on September 1, 1905, amid great fanfare and some controversy. Huge resentment was generated by the federal government’s retention of control over lands and resources—an issue that would bedevil relations between Saskatchewan and Ottawa for a generation. The Anglo-Protestant segment of the population was also infuriated by the provision in the Autonomy Bill for publicly funded separate schools where French and other non-English languages might be used in instruction. These interrelated issues of education, religion and language aroused deep passions and dominated provincial political discourse for more than thirty years.

Unbridled optimism, however, was the dominant emotion at the creation of the new province, supported as it was by the spectacular growth occurring on all sides. With a population approaching half a million in 1911, Saskatchewan was close to becoming the third most populous province in Canada; it was also home to some of the fastest growing cities in North America. As the provincial capital, Regina benefited from the presence of the machinery of government and took great pride in its Saskatchewan Legislative Building, officially opened by the Governor General in 1909. The other major urban centres also prospered through the acquisition of public institutions. Saskatoon won the right to construct the University of Saskatchewan in 1909; Prince Albert received the federal penitentiary; and North Battleford became home to the provincial asylum. In addition to these major centres, over 500 small towns appeared in the southern part of the province in this period, directly related to the spread of railways. At the time of World War I, Saskatchewan was serviced by three major national railways and over 1,000 miles of branch lines. In the same period the entire administrative, educational and communications infrastructure of the province, including a system of rural municipalities, roads, schools, courts and Hospitals, was built virtually from scratch.

During these formative years the province was dominated by agriculture, and the cultivation of Wheat was clearly the most important agriculture pursuit: in 1911 over 80% of the population lived in rural areas, and more than 75% of the work force identified farming as their primary occupation. The Liberal Party, which governed the province without interruption until 1929, owed its dominance primarily to its close relations with farmers and its sensitivity to agricultural interests. Agriculture dictated the pace and direction of railway construction because the railways were built primarily to transport agricultural commodities. Towns grew up around Grain Elevators and these edifices, which were often the only vertical structures in the vast flat land, became vital landmarks and symbols of the pioneer presence. Agriculture also dictated the further growth of urban centres from villages to towns to cities, because these too emerged to service the needs of the surrounding farming communities. Progress in the province was measured primarily by wheat yields (over 50 million bushels in 1906), and Saskatchewanians revelled in their newly acquired reputation for creating the “bread-basket of the world.” However, this single-minded commitment to the cultivation of wheat also prompted some questionable developments. One of these was the decision in 1908 to open up for homesteading the dry land in the southwest which had previously been reserved for ranchers; the folly of attempting cereal cultivation in this area became all too obvious in the 1930s. Motivated by the same desire to make more land available for White settlers, the Department of the Interior in the first two decades of the 20th century arranged for the sale of thousands of acres of Indian reserve land, often by fraudulent means. Along with the restrictions under which they already laboured, the loss of so much prime agricultural land was a crippling blow to the efforts of many bands to establish themselves in the wheat economy.

In retrospect, the settlement of Saskatchewan represented a collision between natural and human forces on a grand scale. The conversion of the environment from native prairie and parkland to a surveyed, fenced and intensively cultivated landscape constituted an enormous ecological transformation. Biodiversity was compromised by the reduction or elimination of natural predators to make way for cattle and horse Ranching, and the tendency to over-graze on fenced-in ranches in turn altered the vegetational composition. Told from the settlers’ perspective, this was a story of progress and dominance, represented by clearing, breaking and opening the land. Sooner or later, however, the settlers learned that there were natural limits to progress and ecological consequences for their dominance.

The first great boom in Saskatchewan lasted until 1912, but the recession which followed tempered the confidence of the boosters in the limitless potential of the new province. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 soon brought a return to prosperity, however, and also left other marks on the province. The war was initially greeted with a great outpouring of patriotic fervour as young men from across the province rushed to enlist; over 42,000 Saskatchewan residents served in the conflict, and 4,400 gave their lives for the Allied cause. Enlistment rates were highest among those of British origin, but many of the recent immigrants from eastern Europe seized on the opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism. Aboriginal people also volunteered in impressive numbers. While the war initially served as a unifying force, it also intensified prejudice against Slavic groups, especially Ukrainians, many of whom were now designated as Enemy Alians because they had originated in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Approximately half of the 8,000 who were interned came from Saskatchewan. Germans, previously seen as ideal settlers, also became targets of persecution; Anglo conformists also used the emotionalism of the war to restrict French and other minority groups’ linguistic rights in the province.

The assault on minority cultures represented the dark side of the Social Gospel movement which flourished in Canada during the war. Seeking to purify national society through the application of Christian principles, Social Gospellers called for a wide variety of reforms, including the prohibition of alcohol and the extension of voting rights to women. It is perhaps not surprising, given the crucial contribution of women to pioneer society and the strength of women’s organizations, that Saskatchewan in 1916 became the second province to grant women the vote and the third to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Saskatchewan benefited little from the enormous expansion of Canadian manufacturing prompted by wartime demand for munitions. But it was a very different story with agriculture: ranchers responded to increased demand and prices by tripling beef production between 1914 and 1918, and wheat farmers were similarly motivated by patriotism and the desire for profit. With the encouragement of the federal government, especially after the establishment of the Board of Grain Supervisors in 1917 set a fixed price for grain, the number of acres devoted to wheat increased from just over 6 million in 1914 to 10.5 million by 1918. The total volume of wheat harvested increased by 15%, despite a series of poor crops. This emphasis on wheat production by the federal government during the war years undermined the efforts of provincial officials to diversify agriculture and reinforced the Saskatchewan trend towards cereal monoculture. This accentuation of the province’s extremely narrow economic base would prove to be a costly legacy of World War I.

The winds of change which blew across the country in the post-war period affected the wheat province also. In fact, some of these changes originated in Saskatchewan. Drawing on the co-operative traditions forged during the pioneer phase and motivated by a growing sense of regional grievance, Saskatchewan farmers helped to create the agrarian-based Progressive Party, which formed the official opposition in the 1921 federal election. Although short-lived, the initial success of this major third party to emerge in Canada attested to the willingness of Saskatchewan voters to embrace independent and experimental political action. It also reflected a growing sense of Western Alienation, stemming from the perception that the interests of the region were being ignored by the federal government. This spirit of independence and experimentation also manifested itself in the economic sphere. Building on earlier co-operative initiatives in elevator ownership, farmers created the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in 1924 to assert greater producer control over the marketing of their commodity. Organized labour, never very strong in Saskatchewan because of the province’s small industrial base, also began to flex its muscles in support of the Winnipeg General Strike. An important short-term gain was the passing of minimum wage legislation in 1919. Aboriginal people too began to engage in collective action for the first time since the 1880s, and two new organizations were formed in the 1920s. Métis people later followed this lead, forming the Half-Breeds of Saskatchewan in 1935.

Ironically, these various recourses to collective action occurred against a backdrop of deepening cultural tension within the larger Saskatchewan society. The extraordinary, albeit short-lived, popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in the province in the late 1920s was a testament to the bitterness of these cleavages, as the American White-supremacist organization was able to exploit Anglo-Protestant fear that they were losing control of the province’s institutions to French Canadians, Slavs, and Roman Catholics. The Conservative Party also benefited from these concerns and was able to combine with the Progressives to finally defeat the Liberals in 1929. The new Premier, J.T.M. Anderson, moved quickly to reduce minority linguistic and educational rights and to restrict immigration from non-British sources. Anderson also secured provincial control of natural resources in the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement of 1930.

In the midst of these cultural convulsions, Saskatchewan’s economy continued to expand. Over 150,000 new immigrants arrived in the 1920s, pushing the settlement frontier further north. For the first time since the signing of Treaty 10 with northern bands in 1905, the economic potential of the natural resources of the province’s vast boreal forests and freshwater lakes began to attract the attention of southern entrepreneurs. A significant increase in Mining, logging and commercial fishing occurred in the 1920s, but the interests of the Aboriginal population were of very little concern in these developments. Despite these developments the province’s economy still rested almost exclusively on wheat, and peoples’ confidence and faith in the land seemed to be rewarded again in 1928 when Saskatchewan farmers produced the largest harvest on record: 321 million bushels, almost 40% of the entire world’s wheat supply. The province was a prosperous place, with Automobiles, radios and other consumer luxuries becoming commonplace, farmers investing in new machinery to replace horse and steam power, and many farmers expanding their operations beyond the initial quarter section. All of this changed dramatically in the following decade.

Making a new start in the Dirty Thirties, Meadow Lake, 1935.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-B257

Since the settlement boom of the 1890s Saskatchewan farmers had gambled their future on wheat, based on the premise that the land would continue to sustain them profitably. The folly of this gamble became evident in the 1930s. The Great Depression which gripped Canada and most of the industrial world after 1929 was compounded in Saskatchewan by nine successive years of drought and crop failure. Even when a crop could be harvested, the collapse in international demand for wheat drove prices to their lowest levels in memory. The result was financial disaster for thousands of Saskatchewan farmers; with agriculture accounting for more than three-quarters of the provincial economy, all other sectors of society were similarly impacted. Between 1928 and 1933, per capita income in Saskatchewan declined by more than 70%—the greatest loss of any region of the country—and by 1933 an estimated one out of every three people in the province was depending on government relief for survival. The great Saskatchewan dream of limitless profit from mining the land was shattered, driving thousands out of the province; many who remained were compelled to embrace even more radical political experimentation in order to survive and prosper.

Like most other administrations, Saskatchewan’s Anderson government was overwhelmed by the scope of the catastrophe which confronted it. Widespread destitution forced the government to establish a Relief Commission in 1931: nearly $35 million was distributed in direct or indirect assistance over the next four years. Worst hit was the Palliser Triangle in the southwest, where nature and the elements seemed to conspire through Drought, Dust Storms and grasshopper plagues to test human endurance. There the Depression was experienced as the “Dirty Thirties,” leaving close to 20 million acres of land denuded of topsoil. By 1934 homesteads in the region were being abandoned en masse, some families moving north to the forest fringe to start over, others departing the province for good. The collapse of the farm economy soon spilled over into the manufacturing, retail, processing, construction, and transportation sectors, causing massive province-wide urban unemployment. Married male heads of families were given priority in the allocation of relief; women were generally considered to be the responsibility of their families, and single unemployed men, many of them transient, were warehoused in relief camps. On numerous occasions during the 1930s, Saskatchewan’s urban centres saw violent eruptions stemming from the anger and frustration produced by this unprecedented unemployment and dislocation.

The Depression was a watershed in the province’s development. The inherent vulnerability of the wheat economy was graphically revealed, as were the disastrous environmental consequences of many traditional farming techniques. The limits of individual agency when confronted by forces outside of human control were also placed in sharp relief and produced a general recognition of the desirability of government intervention to solve economic and social problems. Initially steadfast in his defence of limited government, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett ultimately acknowledged the need for unconventional approaches, and two aspects of the “Bennett New Deal” of 1935 were particularly significant for Saskatchewan: the Canadian Wheat Board, a federally operated, centralized marketing agency, set a floor price for wheat and restored some measure of control and security for producers; and the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, established initially to deal with soil erosion, soon moved beyond this limited mandate. The latter encouraged collaboration between farmers, federal officials and experts from universities and experimental farms, and had an enormous influence on the development and dissemination of a more rational and scientific approach to all aspects of prairie agriculture in subsequent decades.

First CCF picnic at Crystal Lake (no date).
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-B12325

These initiatives were symptomatic of a new consensus on the desirability of government exercising its power in non-traditional areas. The same impulses contributed to the birth of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1932. Drawing heavily on the co-operative and reformist traditions of earlier pioneer society, the party was also influenced by a deeply engrained hostility to large financial interests, sharpened by the more radical class analysis that gained currency during the Depression. In these circumstances it made increasing sense to beleaguered farmers to make common cause with other exploited classes, especially wage labourers, in order to create a political movement to build a better society. From the perspective of those experiencing the widespread devastation of the early 1930s, that utopia was characterized by a regulated economy operating on the principles of co-operation and public ownership, and by a society where human dignity was guaranteed by an extensive array of social welfare measures provided by the state. Combining the Utopian impulses of the pioneers and the deep-seated craving for security and control engendered by the Depression, CCF ideology may be seen as a distinctively Saskatchewan creation. More than any other single factor, the ideology and policies of this party—and of its successor the New Democratic Party (NDP)—would shape the province for the remainder of the 20th century.

Tommy Douglas
Saskatchewan Archives Board R-A5729-4

The CCF strengthened its local organization during the 1930s and came to power in Saskatchewan in 1944, at a time when wartime demand had restored some prosperity. Determined to use the power of government to modernize the province, the charismatic new Premier, T.C. Douglas, embarked on an ambitious legislative program which set Saskatchewan on a very different course from its prairie neighbours. Over the next twenty years the CCF government sponsored measures to protect family farms and workers’ rights; it created an array of publicly owned utilities which facilitated, among other developments, extensive Rural Electrification; it consolidated rural schools and improved roads and other rural infrastructure; it increased funding for Public Libraries, Archives and arts activities; and it greatly expanded social welfare measures. The CCF’s most notable accomplishment was perhaps the introduction of Medicare, the first system of socialized medicine in North America, in 1962. It also sought to expand and diversify the province’s economic base, and initially looked to the exploitation of natural resources to generate wealth. OIL, GAS, potash, Uranium, Forestry, diamond mining and TOURISM all saw remarkable growth in the half century after World War II, as the province slowly shifted from its exclusive reliance on agriculture to a more broad-based and resilient economy.

John and Olive Diefenbaker, October 1958.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-B4828

In power for forty of the fifty years after World War II, the CCF-NDP could boast of many accomplishments which dramatically improved the lives of ordinary people in Saskatchewan and also provided inspiration for the establishment of numerous national social programs. But despite a commitment to scientific planning, it is clear also that many of these policies had entirely unanticipated and undesirable consequences. In retrospect it is evident that consolidation of rural schools and improvements in rural roads and other services, all of which were designed to enhance the quality of life of rural residents and protect family farms, actually had the opposite effect. The One-room Schools were the heart of rural society: once these were closed, it was only a matter of time before other service and supply functions, and ultimately railway lines and grain elevators, were also shifted to larger urban centres. The CCF-NDP was powerless to reverse the consolidation and mechanization of agriculture, which saw fewer people operating a shrinking number of larger and more intensive farms. As a result, the RURAL DEPOPULATION which began during the Depression continued and even accelerated after the war. Even periods of agricultural prosperity, such as those stemming from the farm support programs and massive foreign wheat sales which Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker produced for his home province in the late 1950s and early 1960s, saw little change in out-migration. Material wealth was itself a factor in rural decline, as the introduction of electricity and access to television, automobiles, airplanes and university education exposed prairie people to a larger global consensus. The profound changes in the family that accompanied widespread use of birth control, increased divorce rates, and higher employment rates for women also manifested themselves in Saskatchewan in the post-war years. The result was a growing determination on the part of many rural people, especially the young, to head to the cities or leave the province entirely in search of greater economic opportunities and a different quality of life.

Initiatives in northern Saskatchewan also produced a range of unintended consequences. The CCF was one of the first provincial administrations to include the north in its provincial vision, since its planners saw northern resources and tourism as central to the diversification of the economy and to the provision of expanded social welfare programs. They were also determined to modernize the north through the secularization of community leadership, the creation of a model socialist economy, and the assimilation of Aboriginal peoples to provincial norms. In many cases, however, even more serious problems resulted from these initiatives. Better health care facilities, for example, contributed to a dramatic population increase, worsening unemployment and poverty. New roads built to facilitate economic development brought additional social problems related to alcohol. Government intervention discouraged some existing local businesses, while the introduction of Social Assistance undermined self-sufficiency and encouraged dependency. Enormous wealth was thus extracted over time from the north; but in many respects living conditions among the First Nations and Métis people of the region deteriorated as they moved from trap lines into new settlements.

Aboriginal people in the south also experienced profound changes in this period, as rapid population growth was accompanied by increased political assertiveness and heightened concern for cultural revitalization. By the end of the century, Aboriginal people constituted approximately 15% of the provincial population; under the auspices of organizations such as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, they were pushing the resolutions of LAND CLAIMS and asserting the right to self-government both on and off reserve. Métis people also shared in this Aboriginal renaissance, and although not as cohesive or influential as the FSIN, the MÉTIS NATION–SASKATCHEWAN established itself as the main advocate for Métis people and succeeded in securing funds for various programs.

Ross Thatcher.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-B5014

Nevertheless, by tempering an early radicalism in favour of social democratic pragmatism, the CCF and its successor the NDP established themselves as the province’s natural governing parties. In the process they aroused tremendous hostility, especially among members of the province’s business community who believed that government wielded undue influence at the expense of the private sector. A two-party system marked by deep ideological polarization came to characterize Saskatchewan politics in the second half of the 20th century, and when voters rejected the NDP in the 1960s and 1980s they were rewarded with dramatic alternatives. The Liberals under Ross Thatcher from 1964 to 1971 and the Progressive Conservatives under Grant Devine from 1982 to 1991 were unabashedly free-enterprise in their orientation, and sought to reduce significantly the influence of government as a force in provincial society. Both had some success in attracting new investment, especially in the energy and manufacturing sectors, with business-friendly policies; but the Progressive Conservatives especially were confronted with a serious recession, and unsustainable borrowing left the province’s public finances in a critical state.

Grant Devine.
Saskatchewan Archives Board S-SP-A18265

Significantly, both of these administrations disappointed their bedrock rural supporters by failing to reverse the decline of rural Saskatchewan. The trend towards capital intensification in agriculture accelerated from the 1970s onwards; but despite increasing diversification into cattle and hog production and the development of a wide variety of new crops to supplement wheat, farmers increasingly found themselves caught in a cost-price squeeze. The removal of the CROW RATE and the appearance of heavily subsidized competition from Europe and the United States further eroded the profit margins of Saskatchewan farmers in the 1980s. The result of these trends by the end of the 20th century was the virtual disappearance of the family farm, the cornerstone of the rural society created by the pioneers. It had been replaced by agri-business: vast, multi-section holdings relying on extensive mechanization and heavy utilization of chemicals to produce maximum yields from seed that increasingly was subjected to genetic modification. With less than 10% of Saskatchewan’s population directly involved in agriculture by 2001, and with agricultural commodities accounting for less than 20% of provincial GDP, it was clear that Saskatchewan’s economy was now tied to the harvest more by sentiment than by reality.

As rural Saskatchewan haemorrhaged people, the major beneficiaries were the province’s larger towns and cities. North Battleford, Prince Albert, Lloydminster, Moose Jaw, Yorkton, Swift Current, Humboldt, Melfort and La Ronge all saw significant growth after 1950; in the same period both Saskatoon and Regina evolved into major regional metropolitan centres: Saskatoon’s population almost tripled between 1951 and 2001, surpassing its rival in the process. With this growth came a corresponding expansion in facilities for retail, entertainment, artistic, health care and post-secondary education services. These centres also took on a more multi-ethnic flavour with the arrival of small numbers of immigrants from Asia, Africa, South America, eastern Europe and the Caribbean. More significant, however, was the huge Aboriginal influx as Native people too shared in the growing preference for urban residence: by 2001 almost 50% of the province’s Aboriginal population lived in urban centres, where they constituted the single largest visible minority. Many of these migrants simply traded rural for urban poverty and racism; but the creation of Urban Reserves, the expansion of Aboriginal educational institutions, and the proliferation of Aboriginal businesses provided growing evidence that Native people were both adjusting to and transforming the Saskatchewan urban milieu.

Although smaller than rivals such as Winnipeg, Calgary or Edmonton, by the end of the century both Saskatoon and Regina were offering their residents all of the amenities typical of other like-sized North American cities. Moreover, Saskatchewan’s cities were no longer merely appendages to the province’s agricultural sector. A huge expansion in resource extraction, modest growth in manufacturing, and the development of intensive commercial research activities associated with the universities meant that the urban economies now operated largely independent of the farm sector. As a consequence, increasing numbers of urban dwellers had no direct ties to agriculture or to rural areas. This widening chasm between urban and rural Saskatchewan was clearly reflected in hardening political polarization, as the NDP came to be increasingly identified with urban Saskatchewan and the opposition Saskatchewan Party found most of its support in rural areas. A testament to the newly found dominance of urban Saskatchewan is the fact that the NDP was able to maintain power in the early 21st century with virtually no rural representation.

As Saskatchewan prepared to celebrate its centennial in 2005, its people were still confronted with geographic isolation, a sparse population, and tremendous climatic extremes. These were the chief determinants of the province’s history, as each human group which entered the area was forced to come to terms with the environment in order to survive and prosper. From the vantage of the early 21st century it seems evident that the people who call this place home have met that challenge. In the process of adjusting to the land, they created a distinctive North American community whose enigmatic political culture came to exercise a significant influence beyond its own borders. Their efforts also produced great material wealth, dynamic cities and towns, and noteworthy intellectual, cultural, artistic and athletic accomplishments. Challenges remain—in particular the need to bridge the gulf between urban and rural areas, between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, and between northern and southern residents. Protecting and enhancing the status of the province within the Canadian federation and as part of a larger North American and global community will also require careful stewardship. In meeting these and other demands, the people of Saskatchewan can look to their historical legacy of struggle, sacrifice and success for both guidance and inspiration.

Further reading:

Archer, J. Saskatchewan: A History (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980).

Brennan, J.W. Regina: An Illustrated History (Toronto: Lorimer, 1989).

DeBrou, D., and A. Moffat (eds.). Other Voices: Historical Essays on Saskatchewan Women (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1995).

Epp, R., and D. Whitson (eds.). Writing Off the Rural West: Globalization, Governments and the Transformation of Rural Communities (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2001).

Fairbairn, B. Building a Dream: The Co-operative Retailing System in Western Canada (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1989).

Kerr, D. and S. Hanson. Saskatoon: The First Half Century (Edmonton: NeWest Publishers, 1982).

Leeson, H. (ed.). Saskatchewan Politics into the Twenty-First Century (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2001).

Morrow, D. (ed.). A Concise History of Sport in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Quiring, D. CCF Colonialism in Northern Saskatchewan: Battling Parish Priests, Bootleggers, and Fur Sharks (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004).

Ray, A.J., et al. Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2000).

Waiser, W. Saskatchewan: A New History (Calgary: Fifth House Publishers, 2005).

Wheaton, E.E. But It’s a Dry Cold: Weathering the Canadian Prairies (Calgary: Fifth House Publishers, 1998).

Michael Cottrell

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