What would possess someone of the pioneer era to try to farm here?
This thought was much on my mind the past Easter weekend as I drove to the family farm in Saskatchewan for a holiday gathering.
In mid-April, when the winter wheat is already well on its way in Kansas and Nebraska, here the Canadian Prairies are still fighting off the grip of winter. Snow flurries continue to blanket the fields unexpectedly and a cold night can still freeze the muddy fields hard enough for a tractor to pass over them without leaving a mark.
It’s a place where, in a good year, a farmer might hope to get a third of the calendar without frost. Torrential rainstorms, hail, drought, insects, crop disease, all line up to take a healthy bite from a farm’s productive capacity. It’s a place of isolation, of hard work and too frequently, of little reward.
Were they a little crazy or driven to it from sheer desperation? Or were they simply endless fonts of misplaced optimism? Likely the answer is yes to all three in varying proportion depending on the individual. It took a very special kind of person to carve a life in this “Last Best West” as the marketing materials of the time breezily described it.
In the early decades, there was wave after wave of new arrivals. First the Ontarians, steeped in the British traditions, and the English and Scottish. Some concluded upon their arrival that this land would support agriculture in the style of the British countryside.
Perhaps the best known of these follies is Cannington Manor, near Kenosee, Saskatchewan. It was an attempt to recreate that society here complete with fox hunts, dramatic societies, poetry clubs, croquet, cricket and tennis. For a short time it was a merry life, funded in no small part by remittances from wealthy families back in the U.K., but by the turn of the 20th century, reality had caught up with this foolhardy experiment. Manorial homes were hard enough to heat in the comparatively balmy climate of the British Isles, and all but inhabitable in the depths of a Prairie winter.
Despite these early failures there was no turning back. The completion of the transcontinental railroad, the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, the formation of the famed “Mounties” of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, all set the stage for the settlement of the region.
It was Sir Clifford Sifton, Canada’s minister of the interior from 1896 to 1905 who was the animating force behind much of this settlement. With a wary eye on the encroaching Americans, he set about to fill the west with non-traditional settlers who, nonetheless, would be loyal to the British Crown.
Sifton shifted the focus of recruitment efforts to mainland Europe and particularly to central and eastern Europe where he was certain there were potential settlers who would be better suited to this harsh region. He wanted settlers with more than a romantic idea of agriculture and the rural lifestyle, people long used to coping with a harsh climate.
Sifton famously observed that the region required “… a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for 10 generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children…”
As well as seeking settlers already acclimatized to similar settings, Sifton also consciously chose to court rural people. He didn’t want urban populations settling the region, and gathering in cities, rather than developing homesteads and the rural economy.
This led to waves of immigration from groups that still make up many of the core members of the farming community in Western Canada: Ukrainians, Hungarians and Mennonites, just to name a few. While some in the Canadian establishment fretted over the influx of these ‘foreigners’ over more ‘desirable’ British immigrants, Sifton stayed the course, convinced it was the right path.
The results were quickly evident as the Prairie population exploded. In 1886, Winnipeg was a scant 20,000 people clinging to the banks of the Red River. By 1911 it was home to 150,000 and the “Gateway to the West, with fortunes to be made supplying the flood of new arrivals.
There’s little doubt the less-than-holy trinity of mild insanity, desperation and optimism played a role in bringing each to the region. Not all stayed, but those who did built a new society, one that continues to evolve and grow and welcome new arrivals.
At some point every January, I suspect most of us have paused to wonder what life might have been like had our great-grandparents decided to settle Australia. But then we zip up our parka and get on with life.
After all, this place has become home, seeping into the souls of all who live here.
As our winter finally winds down, the optimism will win out. After all, if this is next-year country, next year is here.