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Populism is associated with the political revolt of western prairie farmers in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century. Following the US Homestead Act of 1862, large tracts of land in the west were opened to European settlers. The first great world economic depression began in 1873 and lasted until 1896: prices for farm products fell, and farmers could not make the payments on their mortgages or their bank operating loans. A political movement arose, the Farmers' Alliances, which attacked the Republican and Democratic parties as representatives of finance capital and big business; with support from some labour organizations they met at Lincoln, Nebraska in 1890 and formed the People's Party, also known as the Populist Party. Populism has always been identified with independent family farmers operating within the capitalist system. It emerged first in France, and then became a major political force in Russia. Common to all the populist movements was support for private ownership of farmland; patriarchal values were dominant, as the father was head of the family and held title to the land, which was passed from father to son. There was strong opposition to the old feudal system of peasant farming, where a rent was paid to a landlord, as well as to the emerging socialist movement, which proposed public ownership of all natural resources including land.

In Europe, the United States and Canada supporters of populism saw a fundamental conflict between “the people,” identified as farmers, workers and small business owners, and “the plutocracy,” the rich who lived off their labour. Populism in Canada is identified with the prairie farmers' movements in the early part of the 20th century, such as the Grain Growers Associations, and with the formation of the Progressive Party in the early 1920s. While the Progressive Party collapsed in 1926, the populist tradition was revived with the formation in the 1930s of the Social Credit Party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Like the earlier movements, the new parties were opposed to “monopoly capitalism” while defending the property rights of farmers and small businessmen. They had the support of the reformist trade union movement, which rejected Marxism and socialism. Populism on the Canadian prairies took several forms, reflecting the different histories and political cultures of the three provinces.

John W. Warnock

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Further Reading

Laycock, D. 1990. Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies 1910-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
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