The province of Saskatchewan experienced extreme hardship during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Grasshoppers, hail and drought destroyed millions of acres of wheat. The drought caused massive crop failures, and Saskatchewan became known as a dust bowl. The term “Dirty Thirties” described the prairies, creating pessimistic perceptions and negative stereotypes about life in Saskatchewan. In 1928, the net farming income was $363 million; by 1933, it dropped to $11 million; and by 1937, two-thirds of the farm population of Saskatchewan was destitute. Relief costs for the Saskatchewan government escalated to $62 million, which was higher than its total revenues. At least 250,000 people left the prairie provinces between 1931 and 1941. While the federal and provincial governments struggled to address the desperate conditions of poverty and unemployment in Saskatchewan, aid came from across the country. Media accounts alerted the rest of Canada to the hardships faced by farmers: photographs of massive dust storms, huge Russian thistles, and the bleached bones of Saskatchewan cows dominated Canadian newspapers.
Local Girl Guide and Boy Scout organizations helped Winnipeg citizens collect clothing to send to Saskatchewan; carloads of cheese and codfish were shipped to the province from the east coast by rail car; canned goods arrived from Niagara Falls and Aylmer, Ontario; carloads of canned milk, apples, turnips, and fish were sent from the Maritimes. The federal government ordered 100 railway cars filled with fruit from the Annapolis Valley, and 35 cars of fish from Halifax were sent to Saskatchewan communities. Newspapers carried human-interest stories about the generosity of Canadian citizens; journalists compared the arrival of the goods in rural communities to being like Christmas for the families. Almost every community received one or more railway cars of food through government relief schemes, the churches, and volunteer donations. Of great interest to the Canadian public were the photographs and descriptions of conveyances used to collect the supplies from the railway stations: “Bennett Buggies,” baby buggies, old cars, wheelbarrows, wagons - anything that could be started, rolled, or pushed delivered goods to the homes of over 1,000 Saskatchewan families.
The Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations stated that although the Great Depression caused severe repercussions for each province, the conditions were the most disastrous in Saskatchewan, which was described as the most economically vulnerable area in Canada. It indicated that the Dominion of Canada was responsible for not protecting farmers during the financial conditions that led to the Stock Market crash in 1929, as the drop in demand for Canadian grain and other products had devastated the economy of Saskatchewan. Lack of trade with the rest of the Western world greatly affected Saskatchewan's export-oriented economy. The Canadian government asked for a reciprocity arrangement with the United States, only to be met with higher trade tariffs as the American government imposed barriers to protect its own economy. While the federal government attempted to salvage national and international relationships in the aftermath of the Depression, individuals and communities in Saskatchewan demanded a stronger voice in the political issues that most concerned them.
The Great Depression altered the way westerners viewed the federal and provincial governments, and in the late 1930s the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) became a prominent “voice of the people” in Saskatchewan. It insisted on protection for the family farm, supported organized labour, and demanded insurance programs to cover illness, old age, accidents, and unemployment. The CCF believed that the whole of society should benefit from economic gain, rather than the few interests which controlled the capitalist system. In its Regina Manifesto, the CCF demanded equal opportunity for all citizens, basic level of services, and equal access to the market place. Its subsequent representation in Saskatchewan and in Ottawa gave rise to political change in Canada: at least for the time being, all provinces and municipalities without economic sustainability expected that federal and provincial governments would help them cope with economic hardships.