Forest Fringe Settlement

The southern dust-bowl of the 1930s forced farmers to seek land in the drought-free forest fringes of northern Saskatchewan. Urban relief recipients also participated in this “back-to-the-land” scheme, all hoping for a better life. An estimated 45,000 people migrated north between 1930 and 1936. Government policy and control of this migration varied. Federal and provincial settlement schemes tried to place migrants onto abandoned homesteads or otherwise improved land; loans averaging $300 were available. The Saskatchewan Relief Commission would pay to move settlers' effects on boxcars, but local history books suggest politics decided who did and did not qualify for these schemes: as a result, many settlers moved north without government help, purchasing land or squatting wherever possible. The intense migration pressure meant that families took homesteads on any available land, suitable for agriculture or not. Conditions in the north were harsh: subsistence crops and gardens grown on land hacked from the bush faced fire, frost, and rust; prairie animals died of swamp fever. Cash made from cutting cordwood and railway ties, fishing, hunting, and trapping helped, but most settlers still needed direct relief. This desperate situation forced the creation of the Northern Settlers Re-establishment Branch (Department of Municipal Affairs) in 1935 to provide relief and bring self-sufficiency to the forest fringe. Its program relocated farmers, converted unsuitable farmland back to public land, broke and drained arable land, and constructed roads. These measures, combined with the abandonment of unworkable homesteads during and following World War II, improved conditions in the north for White settlers. For Aboriginal peoples, the arrival of these migrants led to competition for already scarce resources and to further marginalization.

Merle Massie

Further Reading

Powell, T.J.D. 1977. “Northern Settlement, 1929-1935,” Saskatchewan History 30 (3): 81-98; McDonald, J. 1981. “Soldier Settlement and Depression Settlement in the Forest Fringe of Saskatchewan,” Prairie Forum 6 (1): 35-55.