THEIR FIFTIETH official spring came this year to the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta as spring always comes there —full of new hopes and old anxieties; aglow with a thousand shades and forms of beauty of which only a few can he detected by a stranger; bursting with variety and surprise.
The dominant qualities, as they were even before the two provinces became provinces, are variety and surprise. To anyone whose notions of it have been acquired through movies or train windows, a close inspection of the west this spring would have brought mixed feelings of recognition and disbelief.
On March 23, two days after the equinox, the southern wheatlands were digging themselves out of ten-foot snowdrifts. As April turned the corner into May, both provinces were sloshing through blizzards, followed in Saskatchewan by floods that reached disaster size.
But at last the gleaming prairie sun came out, apparently to stay, and now in June those magnificent cliches, the meadow lark and the crocus again offer their yearly paean of melody and fragrance. Although it is true that the melody now competes with the angry clatter of drill rigs and the fragrance is sometimes engulfed in the reek of petroleum fumes, there are other things that still have at least the appearance of timelessness. When the moon is out coyotes call longingly, as they did a thousand years ago, from the silver clumps of wolf willow on the hillsides. On the golden faces of the Rockies mountain sheep and goats march primly up past timber line, as they did centuries before the first explorers. Other native creatures have seen fit, like the men and women who grew up there, to modify the interests and habitations of their ancestors. Magpies dart out of the chokecherry bushes and poplar bluffs to snoop about the Christmas trees and pumps of seven thousand producing oil wells, and great stark ravens croak in the morning sunlight above the uranium mines north of Lake Athabaska.
For humans there have been large changes too. Their standard living unit is still a four-, five- or six-room farmhouse which may or may not have paint, may or may not have plumbing and may or may not have electricity. But since the war, the other pole of domestic architecture—the California suburb —has planted itself in all the major cities. The chief characteristic of t his newest of all the west’s new phenomena is the residents’ apparent determination to be themselves and to let the neighbors be the same. The result, which reaches its climax in an Edmonton housing development called Glenora, is a wildly unfettered mixture of shapes and colors: scale-model castles-in-Spain cheek to jowl with plywood living machines; plaster against clapboard, stucco against brick, aquamarine blue against coral pink, alligator green against daffodil yellow, midget minarets beside open-deck verandas.
It is not only the dwellings that change. Straw-stacks no longer burn on the prairie summer fallow. This year it is giant torches of gas that hiss and flame and break the black silence of the night sky. On the rims of the cities, where the last lonely street lamps used to mark the beginning of the open plain, the refineries with the marching lights of their cracking towers now stand guard like fairy battleships.
The belief that the west goes on repeating itself, mile after mile and year after year and generation after generation, has never stood up under close scrutiny. Neither has the belief that it is almost wholly populated by the same kind of people doing the same kind of thing for the same kind of reason. If you exclude the Indians, who were there at least three thousand years ago, the first substantial influx of permanent settlers began in 1870. It was led across what is now the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border by métis hunters, just defeated in the first Riel Rebellion and now seeking space, buffalo and freedom from the white man’s red tape. Almost at once a great pincers movement began to envelop the half-breed hunters: missionaries pursuing them from the east to save their souls, whisky traders riding in from the south to swindle them out of their buffalo hides.
The next and largest wave of settlers—the English, the Irish and t he Scots, the Americans and eastern Canadians, the Ukrainians and Germans, the Scandinavians, the Hungarians and Romanians and Russians and Poles had even more diverse origins and equally diverse reasons for coming. Some were drawn by fear, some by faith, some by ambition, some by greed, some by gullibility. The one statement that can be applied to all of them and all of their descendants is that they’ve seen a very great amount of history in a very short time. Men who trembled or rejoiced at the hanging of Louis Riel will still be alive in Saskatchewan this summer to tremble or rejoice at the opening of the fabulously rich Gunnar uranium mine. Homesteaders whose first saleable crop was whitened buffalo bones are now living in retirement on their oil royalties. Taxpayers who a half century ago had no real voice in their own government have lived to shake the country’s whole political structure by electing the CCF in Saskatchewan and Social Credit in Alberta. Half-broke dirt farmers who once had no choice but to sell their wheat for as little as the grain dealers cared to offer and to buy their groceries and fuel for as much as the retailers cared to ask are today the owners of a huge co-operative empire of elevators, stores, factories and even oil wells and a refinery.
In Alberta last February I talked to William Hawrelak, an immigrant from the Ukraine, who remembered floating down the North Saskatchewan River on a raft fifty-seven years ago until he found the quarter section of free homestead land that suited him. The place where he boarded the raft then had a population of a few hundred. Now it’s well beyond two hundred thousand. Its name is Edmonton, and its mayor is William Hawrelak’s son, Bill Jr.
From the start, the story of the two provinces that were carved out of the Northwest Territories fifty years ago has been a story of the unexpected and the unknown. It must remain so for at least another fifty years. For Saskatchewan and Alberta represent a union whose fruit is unpredictable almost by definition—the union of a very old land with a very young people. Some of the land, the northern rocks of the Canadian Shield, is as old as any land in the world. The prairies are older than the Nile, older than the hills of Jerusalem, older than Galilee and the valley of the Jordan. And the people are just as spectacularly young. Among voluntary settlers and descendants of settlers, they are second in their newness to their home only to the modern Jews of Israel, and the Jews knew Israel centuries before they returned to it.
It took the old land many millions of years to hew out its rocks and mountains, to bury its twenty-ton lizards and flying dragons, to sift and grind its soil, to hide its lakes of inflammable ooze and its underground hills of coal and metal. It took the young people who came there a maximum of decades and a minimum of weeks to size up the land and guess how best to live with it. In reality they knew very little of what to expect from the climate, or what the soil would stand, or what lay secreted beneath the soil.
It was no accident that they were naïve and ill informed. As the transcontinental railway pushed through the plains in the early 1880s it pushed through empty country. The whole prairie from Winnipeg west had only sixty thousand white inhabitants when the decade began. Halfway through the Eighties the Dominion government had had fewer than twenty thousand takers for the free homesteads it had begun offering more than ten years earlier, and more than half of these had already abandoned their farms and gone back to Ontario or the U. S. The CPR had no traffic for its railway and no buyers for its twenty-five million acres of land along the right of way. By the mid-Nineties the expected wave of settlement still had shown no sign of coming. Clearly, unless something quick and drastic were done the rails would turn to rust and with them the dream of a Canadian nation stretching from coast to coast.
The needed and drastic thing was done, by a quick and drastic man named Clifford Sifton. Sifton was federal Minister of the Interior. His was the chief responsibility for trying to fill a void a third as large as Europe. During the years between 1896 and 1905 Sifton and the CPR, with some help from the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Grand Trunk Pacific and a few private colonization companies, staged the largest, noisiest and most successful medicine show in history. It covered two continents and was conducted in a dozen languages. Its message was simple and direct: whatever ails you, come to western Canada! In his role as chief barker, Sifton published millions of pamphlets extolling the free land of the Northwest Territories, and offering it gratis to anyone who would come and get it. In impressive rounded phrases worthy of a multilingual W. C. Fields, his literature cajoled the Swedes in Swedish, harangued the Germans in German, beguiled the French in French, coaxed the Hollanders in Dutch, wheedled the Norse in Norwegian.
The CPR supported him by sending out equally persuasive pamphlets in Welsh, Gaelic, Danish and Finnish, as well as the more common Western languages. At one time Sifton had twenty-one advertising agencies working for him. He and the CPR brought free-loading American editors to the prairies by the trainload. Successful western farmers from Britain and the U. S. were sent back home, as guests of the Dominion government, to carry the gospel to their old neighbors. Sifton sold huge tracts of Canadian government land at giveaway prices to private colonization companies, then paid them a bounty out of the Dominion treasury for every settler they could produce— five dollars for the head of a family, two dollars each for women and children.
For every worthy human aspiration, and for some that weren’t so worthy, the new paradise offered the virtual certainty of fulfillment. Poor? Where else could you acquire a hundred and sixty acres of land for a ten-dollar registration fee? Where else would a railroad take you halfway across a continent for six dollars? Opposed by conscience to military service? What other nation would offer conscientious objectors a guarantee against conscription? In a hurry? This from a pamphlet that bore Sifton’s name: “The shrewd and sturdy settler who plants a little capital and cultivates it can, with due diligence, in a few years, produce a competency.” Lazy? J. Obed Smith, one of Sifton’s departmental assistants, assured the prospective immigrant: “He can make his crop in less than four months.”
Sifton and his associate spellbinders answered possible hecklers in advance. Schools inadequate, sir? “Educationists,” a Sifton circular announced solemnly in 1903, “assert the school system of the Northwest Territories is equal, if not superior, to that of any other country.” Communications unsatisfactory, sir? “Excellent railway facilities, admirable postal arrangements.” Greater opportunities, my dear sir, in the United States? As a minister of the crown, Sifton doubtless felt he could not personally denigrate a friendly nation. The CPR handled the question with a deft effusion of crocodile tears: “The decadent condition of many American farms is no doubt due to the prevalence of the tenant system.”
One CPR circular, aimed directly at attracting immigrants from the U. S. A., borrowed the satisfied-user technique so popular with pill manufacturers. Typical headings above the testimonials read: “Would not Return to Indiana”; “Dakota Farmer Succeeded Without Capital”; “Prefers the Weyburn District to the States”; “Easily Earns Holiday Trips to Ohio.”
The cold prairie winters and the hot dry prairie summers were never a serious embarrassment to Sifton, who contented himself with calling them “splendid.” To have said anything less would have been, according to the relaxed idiom of the times, to have tampered with the truth. Even as late as 1910 by which time a good deal more evidence about western weather was on the record, not all of it still respect tradition, but they, too, can change along with the country’s spirit is still very much in evidence. It is still the dirt farm that gives the country its principal dynamic favorable, a Grand Trunk pamphlet trumpeted: “The time has probably passed when the impression can exist that western Canada has a forbidding climate. Such fabrications have been put forth freely in the past by designing persons, but the greatest factors in advertising the delightful features of the climate, which quite submerge the few slight, drawbacks, are the people already settled there, prosperous and happy. The summers are ideal in every respect with sufficient rainfall properly distributed, and when winter sets in with its bracing dry atmosphere and clear days, there is nothing to dread, but much to enjoy in this season of meeting friends and indulging in the sports and pastimes of the season.”
The siren song was heard halfway around the world. Those earthy mystics, the Doukhobors, heard it in Russia and in a single month seven thousand of them streamed off the gangplanks at Saint John and boarded the colonist cars for Winnipeg and the central plains of Saskatchewan. Heartsick Ukrainians, without land and without a country, heard it under the flag of Austria, under the flag of the Imperial Czar, even under the flag of Brazil. They were soon to be western Canada’s second largest racial group, second only to the Anglo-Saxons. Cockneys heard it in the crowded mews of Hackney. Members of the minor gentry heard it on the minor estates of Surrey and invited their younger sons into the study for a serious talk about the future. Ontario farm boys heard it as their time grew near for leaving home. So did ranchers from Texas, Oklahoma and Montana, cramped by fences.
Once the people started coming, Sifton did his best to retrieve his promises. At the railway terminals and along the staging routes, the Dominion government opened ninety immigration halls and staging camps, where bunks, cookstoves, surveyors’ maps, advice and interpreters were available free of charge. By 1901 Saskatchewan’s population was more than ninety thousand and Alberta’s more than seventy thousand and in the next ten years these figures were quintupled. The dream of a nation had been redeemed.
The cost of its redemption and its reaffirmation in the half century since 1905 bore no relation to the estimates on the immigration folders. The ancient land proved alternately hospitable and cranky, kind and savage, benign and spiteful. Thousands of the settlers were wholly ignorant of agriculture. Even the relatively experienced Europeans knew little about farming large acreages; to them the basic tools were the grub hoe, the scythe, the hand flail and winnow and the wooden plow. Erosion and soil drifting were as foreign to the settlers’ thoughts as nuclear energy. Drought, hail and autumn frost were unheard of at least in the sunny folklore of the Department of the Interior. Grasshoppers, rust and weeds did not begin to appear north of the border until well after the turn of the century.
Thus the pioneers were ripe for ambush. Their mistakes were frequent, and ranged from the tragic to the bizarre. So did the vindictiveness of nature and the land. Of the first four white people to die in Saskatoon, two froze to death in blizzards, one drowned in the Saskatchewan River and the other died of exhaustion after fighting a prairie fire. In Alberta in 1906-7 the Chinook failed. The owners of the big ranches had no hay for their herds, for they had come to depend on the soft winter wind to uncover the uncut grass. Cattle and horses starved or froze by the tens of thousands. The Bar-U Ranch alone lost twelve thousand head. In 1903, a year of blizzards and bright sunshine, hundreds of horses went snow-blind and lost their lives by tumbling over precipices or blundering into gullies. A physician attached to the famous Barr colony, a mass pilgrimage of English families to Saskatchewan in 1903, complained that he spent most of his time patching up self-inflicted axe wounds.
The individual settlers’ ideas of how to equip themselves for life on the frontier were often imaginative but odd. Not long ago Ray Coates, who arrived from England in 1903, recalled with amusement that he had come armed with dumbbells, boxing gloves and other muscle-building devices. At least one somewhat earlier arrival is known to have brought a case of Cold Cure, a contemporary remedy for alcoholism. Georgina Binnie-Clark, a spinster lady of quality, arrived in the Qu’Appelle Valley in 1905 with an expensive and ornate bathtub. She discovered that to fill it she would have to haul water three hundred yards, a pail at a time, from a well barely capable of supplying enough drinking water. So she sold the tub to another English lady, who discovered that she would have to haul water two miles to fill it. It ended up as a storage bin for seed. Mrs. Robert Wilson, of Bienfait, Sask., recently recalled a disaster that may have been unique: a horse once fell through the roof of her family home, a sod hut which her father had built on a hillside.
Their loyal children and their sentimental grandchildren have tried to enforce the tradition that the pioneers endured their troubles, large and small, with unfailing cheerfulness and courage. The theory is only partly supported by the written history of the period and by a cross-check with almost any of the thousands of men and women who lived through it and are still here to tell about it. Not long ago, I talked to a retired Leduc farmer named Luke Smith, born Lucan Smzt in Poland. Smith arrived in Halifax nearly sixty years ago. His pocket was picked aboard the ship and he docked without a penny. He borrowed two dollars from the fellow immigrant who was later to be his father-in-law and with that and his railway ticket he got to Edmonton. He went to work as a railway section hand at a dollar a day and after four years had saved enough money to make the down payment on a quarter section of land.
It took years to clear the land but he sustained himself by selling willow posts and firewood. By 1946 he had every right to call himself a success. He had raised and seen to the education of five children and he had a good farm with good crops, good cattle and good buildings. A man called in one day and offered him five dollars, plus a per-barrel oil royalty, for his mineral rights. Smith took it like a shot. (“I drilled twenty times for water and got nothing. So who’s going to find oil? I was so glad about the five dollars I took it to town and bought a bottle of whisky.”) A few months later the Leduc discovery well came in and Smith’s next-door neighbor sold his mineral rights for $200,000. If Smith had any regrets on this score, they were not serious enough to remember; his per-barrel oil royalties still run as high as $3,000 a month and Luke and his vigorous, smiling wife give all but $200 of this to their children and grandchildren.
Just before Franklin Arbuckle and I left the cottage to which Luke and Mrs. Smith have retired, I asked a fairly routine question: Were you as happy in the early days as you are now? I half expected a routine answer about the joys and satisfactions of hardship and struggle honorably endured. Luke Smith and his wife have richly earned the right to clothe their memories in sentiment. But Luke was silent for several seconds, his strong, serene face deep in thought. Then he looked up gravely toward the kitchen doorway where Mrs. Smith stood with a dishcloth and the last of the supper dishes. The look they exchanged clearly said: This question must be answered truly, but is it best that the man answer it, or the woman. At last it was Mrs. Smith who answered. “He cried lots of times,” she said with quiet dignity. “They all did.”
In one way or another nearly everyone who was farming in Saskatchewan or Alberta fifty years ago says the same thing. In the last few years the provincial archives office of Saskatchewan has been asking original settlers to put their experiences on paper in order to flesh out the sparse printed records .of the time. To the question, “How did you learn farming?”, Frank Baines, of Saltcoats, replied succinctly: “By trial and error, with large portions of the latter.” R. E. Ludlow recalled: “Nobody had nothing, and we all used it.” Mrs. May Davis, who came to Canada from England in 1883, drew a haunting picture of the finality with which so many people committed all their earthly hopes into what for many of them was a literal void. “I can most particularly remember one poor sick-looking woman who was coming to Canada to join her husband, who had left England some months before. She had seven little boys with her, the youngest a baby at her breast. At our last sight of her she was on the wharf at Halifax, seated on a box of her ‘effects,’ waiting for her husband to come and claim them all. Did he come, I wonder—oh, but surely! — and where did they go and what became of them all? Perhaps by now one of those poor shabby little fellows has his name on the roster of Canada’s famous men. Who can say? This is a land of opportunity and it is all a long, long time ago.”
The society that took shape was one of the most heterogeneous in human history. Its axis of advance was along the main line of the CPR, and later along the CPR’s branch lines and on the lines of its competitors. But the land immediately adjoining the right of way soon ran out or priced most buyers out of the market. As they fanned out from steel, by Red River cart, bull train or covered wagon and sometimes on foot, the Europeans tended to move north, where there were wood and water, no less important than soil and equally hard to come by in most of their native lands. The Americans, eastern Canadians and English, Irish and Scots concentrated on the open prairie, where the treeless ground was ready for the plow.
In the first generation they set up islands bounded by language. Sometimes some special objective or special philosophy strengthened the ties of race. Saskatoon was founded as a temperance colony by a group of Toronto Methodists and as late as 1890 a man who wanted to buy a lot there had to agree not to “manufacture, buy, store, sell, barter, exchange, receive or give away or in any way deal in or use, possess or have intoxicating liquors or stimulants.”
In the Eighties, before Sifton’s time, a group of French aristocrats settled near Whitewood, in what is now southern Saskatchewan. Their purposes were to lead a civilized life and to make expenses by engaging in forms of trade that would not have been considered appropriate to men of their class in France. From Paris they imported pâté, truffles and fine wines for their tables; servants for their kitchens and drawing rooms; hunting dogs for their kennels; fashionable hats and gowns for their ladies; white gloves and top hats for themselves. It was one of the memorable experiences of a memorable era to see the Marquis de Roffignac, M. le Comte Soras, M. le Comte Beaudrap and M. le Baron van Brabant sweeping across the still almost virgin plain in their shining imported phaetons drawn by their blooded horses, their liveried footmen sitting stiffly in attendance, their wives and daughters beside them smiling demurely beneath silk parasols. Unfortunately, the counts had not reckoned with a fact that later residents of Saskatchewan have found painfully obvious: as a home of industry, even of small industry, the thinly settled base of the Palliser Triangle just doesn’t make sense. The counts tried manufacturing brushes, sugar and Gruyère cheese. One of them attempted to raise and tin chicory, although the nearest sizeable market for chicory was back in France. One by one they lost their ruffed satin shirts and went home, disenchanted but uncomplaining. Many of the domestic servants they had brought out from France stayed behind; their descendants are still there, most of them prospering modestly on their farms.
Another eddy of elegance flourished for a while at Cannington Manor in southeast Saskatchewan no more than a hundred miles from the community farms where, a few years later, Doukhobors from Russia were to harness their wives and daughters to their wooden plows. The founder of the Cannington colony was a retired British Army officer named Edward M. Pierce. In the early Eighties, Pierce lost most of his capital in a bank failure and decided that if he was to live out his remaining years as a landed English gentleman, he would have to do it in Canada, where land was free. Pierce bought a team of oxen and drove his wife, their eight children and their furniture forty miles south of steel from Moosomin. He opened a private school and sent back advertisements to the English papers offering to teach farming, as well as the standard subjects, for a hundred pounds a year, including board and lodging.
Two Valets and Two Jockeys
His prize pupils were the three Beckton boys, Billie, Ernest and Bertie, grandsons of a Manchester cotton baron. The Beckton brothers, who grew up as lean, languid bloods with drooping Mark Twain mustaches, remained to build their own estate. The main residence was of stone and had twenty-two rooms, including a billiard room. There were separate quarters for the servants, who included two valets. There was a gate house and a games house, a large stable with hardwood and brass fittings, a private race track and tennis courts. The Becktons imported thoroughbred horses and brought over two steeplechase jockeys from England. They tried to raise fighting roosters, but their first imported game birds froze to death. They held fox hunts and the house parties they threw at Christmas sometimes lasted three weeks.
With the Pierce and Beckton families as its lodestar, the hamlet gradually attracted other permanent settlers from England. There were enough young men to make up a cricket eleven and a rugger team good enough to play, and beat, the best in Winnipeg. There were enough handsome women in flowered frocks and big white hats to make the garden parties almost as much an event as the Beckton boys’ race meetings. There were dances, chorales and amateur theatricals and of course a pretty little white Anglican church.
This Jane Austen world could not survive indefinitely in so improbable a setting. Captain Pierce died in 1888. The colony slowly scattered, leaving weeds to grow unchecked on the race track and the grounds of the ageing mansions. Already, perhaps, the Captain had seen intimations of the failure of his dream. For one day, not long before his end, he looked out the window of his home to see seated in the front yard an Indian brave whom he recognized as Sha-wa-kal-coosh, son of Chief White Bear, whose reserve was nearby. Sha-wa-kal-coosh was dressed in the full splendor of his beads, feathers and ornamental moccasins and around his shoulders he wore a scarlet blanket. In the cradle of his arms he held a musket. It was not through any uneasiness, but simply because of a gentleman’s natural reserve, that Captain Pierce did not immediately go out to ask Sha-wakal-coosh what he wanted. But as the day wore on and the Indian still squatted there immobile and expressionless, the Captain felt some relaxation of his social code might be permitted. So he sent one of his sons out to accost the brave. The son returned to say that Sha-wa-kal-coosh wished to trade his musket for Captain Pierce’s eldest daughter, Lucy. Pierce had him shown off the grounds.
The outlines of the first conglomerate pattern of settlement are still clearly visible. There is scarcely a man or woman living anywhere in Europe or North America who could not, somewhere in Saskatchewan or Alberta, find a sizeable community that speaks his language, sings his songs, and worships his gods. But he would still be first of all among Canadians. The fusion and assimilation of the west’s unwieldy mixture of racial, religious, social and economic groups has been almost unbelievably rapid. With one notable exception it was accomplished without serious shock. Some eighteen hundred members of the Yorkton Doukhobor colony threw the whole country into confusion and dismay when, in 1902, they abandoned their community farms, turned their cattle loose and began marching the three hundred miles to Winnipeg, chanting prayers and hymns. Their exact reason was never fully established, for few of their leaders spoke English and those who did spoke in the mysterious symbols of the obsessed. Probably they had at least three main reasons: an intuitive belief that their messiah, Peter Verigin, who was then in Russia, would meet them somewhere on the way; a recent letter from Verigin condemning the cultivation of land and the ownership of cows and horses; a determination to seek out a climate warm enough to allow them to respect Verigin’s injunction against the use of clothing.
The Mounted Police turned back the women and children at once. The men and boys, many of them barefoot, reached Minnedosa, a hundred and fifty miles from their starting point, before they too were rounded up by the police and returned to their homes by special train. For many more years the Doukhobors, with their constant revolts against sending their children to school, taking the oath of allegiance, or registering births, marriages and deaths, showed few signs of reaching a bare working agreement, much less a state of understanding, with their neighbors. Oddly enough they became easier to get along with after Verigin himself appeared on the scene. He ordered a relaxation of the more uncompromising articles of faith. This alienated the most fanatical of his followers, the barn burning, disrobing Sons of Freedom, who left and thus transferred the ‘‘Doukhobor problem” from the prairies to British Columbia.
Other problems arose among and between the dozen other major ethnic groups. But before long they found a much more interesting and vital subject for reflection and debate than either race or religion. That was politics.
The link between politics and the way people live has always been more direct and visible and insistent on the prairie than elsewhere in Canada. In the early days of settlement, most farmers dealt directly with the government for their land. The government helped to decide where the railways would go and on such decisions the farmer could prosper within reach of his markets or break his heart and go bankrupt trying to make a living two or three days beyond steel. Governments of one kind or other—first Dominion and Territorial and then provincial and municipal — decreed where the roads and schools would be. In some years governments fixed the price of grain and even told the farmer how much of it he could grow. In the years of drought it was government that decreed what fraction of a pair of shoes per year each of the farmer’s children should have, how many pounds of turnip and how many loaves of bread. In the years of plenty it is government’s job to move the wheat and sell it. In the early stages of settlement governments began reserving mineral rights and it is almost always government that takes the lease money and royalties when oil is found on a man’s farm.
A salaried worker in an eastern city may be conscious of government only on the days when his family-allowance cheques come in or his income-tax deductions go out. The rural westerner is conscious of it all the time, and his other convictions are likely to be less violent than his political convictions. When my family moved to a small Saskatchewan town in 1922, I was informed within two days that Sam Erumovitz, the local harness maker, was a Grit. It wasn’t until several weeks later that someone mentioned he was also a Jew. When the Ku Klux Klan invaded Moose Jaw in the late 1920s trumpeting the doctrine of white supremacy it had no trouble getting people out to watch the burning of the fiery cross. It even managed to stir a submerged and almost forgotten current of race feeling and is often given credit for influencing the provincial election of 1929. But when the Klan sought to specify how it proposed to save the whites, it couldn’t find anyone to save them from except a handful of Chinese restaurant owners. Some of these were employing non-Chinese waitresses. The Klan succeeded in bullying the Moose Jaw City Council into forbidding the practice. Shortly afterward it began to disband.
As the young people of the west have grown in understanding of each other, they have continued to grow in understanding of the old land. Because of this, many of the people will be trying to predict, in this jubilee year, where they and the land are going and how and when they’ll get there. Some of them will be knowing or lucky in their guesses. If past performance and the law of averages mean anything the vast majority will be just plain wrong.
For from the first day of the first white man to this June of 1955, the land has turned a different face to everyone. Three pioneer wheat growers recently recalled what they remembered best about the first trek into their homesteads. Fred Martin wrote about walking into the Qu’Appelle Valley when the rosebushes and morning glory vines were higher than his head. Cecil Angell told me of his memories of driving an ox team to his homestead near Saskatoon; the land had just been burnt over and was “rough, hummocky and black as ink.” Oscar Anderson, who packed into La Glace in the Peace River Country, told me of seeing dead horses standing upright in the muskeg of the Edson Trail.
The Rust Fought Back
The land, nature, the machine age and the law of supply and demand have among them confounded prophets from the beginning. Sixty years ago it would have seemed impossible that the patient, essential ox could become obsolete, or forty years ago that the day would come when farmers would be selling good horses for meat. Thirty years ago the disappearance of the threshing gang would have seemed not much more likely than the disappearance of wheat. Twenty years ago, when the drought was into the seventh of its nine years, it would have been a feeble and tasteless joke to suggest that the farmers of Saskatchewan alone Would lose nearly four hundred million dollars worth of grain because of too much rain in 1954 and that floods would threaten damage on an equal scale in 1955. Ten years ago, when rust was all but licked by new crossbreeds of wheat, only a writer of science fiction would have imagined that the rust fungus might counterattack by inventing its own crossbreed and thus make 1954 the worst rust year in history.
Yet all these things happened.
And for all the Texas talk, oil still hasn’t begun to make the west independent of agriculture. Four fifths of Saskatchewan’s income still comes from the farm. Alberta’s yearly farm production is still worth almost twice as much as its oil production.
Oil companies are spending a million dollars a day in the two provinces and still aren’t taking nearly that amount out. This has provided tens of thousands of jobs, given business a general lift and, in Alberta, made provincial financing a simple problem in arithmetic. But the big fluctuations in income and well-being still follow wheat. Last year, as the exciting job went forward of proving up the new Pembina petroleum field southwest of Edmonton, it became apparent that this single new discovery contained close to three billion dollars worth of crude—more than Leduc and Redwater put together. Yet when they closed the books on that exceptionally good year for oil and exceptionally bad year for agriculture, retail sales for the province were down nearly ten percent. In Saskatchewan the drop was twenty percent. More than half the province’s 112,000 farmers declared whole or partial crop failures and received relief under the Prairie Farm Assistance Act. No one is talking anything like ruin or looking over his shoulder for the unforgettable shadow of the Thirties. But a great number of families have drifted back since last harvest to the farmhouses they deserted in the prosperous early Fifties for the comforts of wintering in town. They have been putting cattle back in the barns they emptied to escape the monotony of twice-a-day chores, and some have been wondering audibly whether one-crop farming is good farming after all.
There are other riddles in the economic future of the two provinces, some of good omen, a few of bad omen, most of them just riddles. They involve such projects, underway or on the drawing boards, as a gas pipeline from Alberta to the east (still short of financial backing); a long-debated irrigation and power dam over the South Saskatchewan River (still not approved); recent discoveries of iron in the Peace River and potash near Saskatoon; and a projected pulp mill near Candle Lake, Sask. They involve such imponderables as the world price and the world demand for wheat and oil, both of which prairie producers are selling with some difficulty in a buyers’ market.
The most maddening and intriguing riddle of all is the Athabaska Tar Sands, one of the greatest treasure stores ever beheld by man, worth far more than all of South Africa’s diamonds and India’s rubies and Canada’s gold put together—and less than worthless until someone finds a way to mine them.
The tar sands lie deep in northeastern Alberta. They are a 30,000-square-mile deposit of individual drops of oil wrapped around individual grains of sand. In some places they are hidden by a thin overburden of rock, soil and scrub. In others they lie uncovered on the ground like vast black slabs of molasses candy. Some of Canada’s and the world’s best geologists have studied their potential. The most conservative estimate is that they contain a hundred billion barrels of crude— thirty-five times Canada’s known reserves from other sources. Other estimates go as high ¿is three hundred billion barrels, twice as much as the whole world’s liquid reserves.
The private companies and government experts were experimenting with the Athabaska field fifty years before Leduc and Redwater came in. They proved long ago that the oil and sand can be separated, but no one has ever proved the job can be done at a practical cost. Bulldozers and steam shovels bog down in the rich goo like beetles caught in melting toffee. It is too soft to dynamite and not soft enough to move to a separating plant by tank truck or pipeline. Various engineers have tried to drill it, to beat it into a froth, to pump it, to blow it out by steam and to sink electrodes into it, crack the vapors underground and then condense them when they rise. Three years ago. a Calgary contractor named G. R. Coulson whirled a preserve jar full of the black mixture inside a washing machine. The oil broke away from the sand. A young mining man named S. R. Paulson got interested, formed a new company and gave Coulson enough backing to go on with his experiments in centrifugal separation. Recently Paulson’s firm leased a small Alberta government separation plant forty miles downstream from Fort McMurray. Paulson says that with bigger and better scrapers and bulldozers he can lick the problem of collection, and that Coulson has already licked the problem of processing. The older oil companies, some of which are still drilling in the area “to protect their flanks,” as one executive put it, are all sceptical. They agree that the oil is there in fabulous quantities. But the ones I talked to all said that until the price of crude goes much higher--perhaps twice as high as it is today — the tar sands will remain the tantalizing challenge they have been since the fur traders saw them more than a century ago.
The Beauty of Eldorado
The enigma of the tar sands is in the soundest, most enigmatic western tradition. In the eight thousand miles I have traveled this year in Saskatchewan and Alberta, nearly everything I have seen has confirmed my boyhood belief, tested by countless excursions after gophers, learning, money, girls and salvation, that anyone who thinks he knows what to expect next from that part of the world is an optimist. Not an optimist about the west itself—for there is a great deal of ground for optimism there—but an optimist about his own powers of divination.
One of the side trips Franklin Arbuckle and I made took us as far from the west of 1905 as the west of 1905 is from the age of the dinosaur. We were in the mill at Eldorado, near Uranium City, where pitchblende ore is converted into a high-grade uranium salt by grinding it to powder, dissolving it in washing soda and then precipitating and filtering it. We had come into the massive square building out of a beautiful winter morning. Fresh snow clung to the evergreens on the hillside above Beaverlodge Lake and it was not hard to understand why Richard Barrett, who was just about to finish his tour of duty as mine manager, called the site “the prettiest mining camp God ever made.”
Inside, at first, the mill looked as mills and factories often look to a layman: overpoweringly large and rather dull. But halfway around the passageway of ramps and platforms that runs beside the gigantic assembly line, we both began to notice the same thing. There were no people around. In the whole vast and suddenly eerie place I do not think we saw six men. The slowly turning wormscrews, the slowly turning drums, the whispering sluices, the immense red vats towering silently to the far-off roof, the whole mysterious forest of machines had achieved an almost terrifying self-sufficiency. It panted and whispered over its secret business in its own secret way, the stuff of Armageddon and the stuff of Utopia running side by side in its quiet blood stream. Once we saw two men dump a barrel of caustic soda into a vat and then go away. They were the only humans, except those looking after the power plant outside the main cavern and those carrying away the yellow uranium salt in small black barrels, who seemed in the least important to the enterprises of the machines. “The plant runs twenty-four hours a day,” the mill manager told us. “Stopping it’s a complicated business.”
Kitty-corner from Uranium City, both geographically and historically, is the quiet and, I insist in defiance of all city slickers, pretty little town where I grew up. Its name is Oxbow.
How much Oxbow has changed in the twenty-five years since I last lived there depends entirely on the point of view. The population has increased a fifth to eight hundred. The Chinese restaurant has moved from the west side of the street to the east side and has installed neon lights. The poolroom still has two full-sized snooker tables and one Boston table. The second Boston table has been replaced by a three-quarter-size snooker table, an apparatus once considered fit only for the most miserable of hamlets. There are five churches instead of four. The old seven-room stone schoolhouse still serves as a high school and right beside it they’ve built a shining new hundred-thousand - dollar public school and behind that there are dormitories where children from the country can get board and room for forty dollars a month. The tin-roofed skating and curling rink is still in use, and they’ve put new waiting rooms and a Legion hall on the end of it. Nobody meets the twice-a-day passenger trains any more except on business. The lobby of the Alexandra Hotel is no longer filled on Saturday afternoons by elderly philosophers and bridge players, but by small boys and girls waiting for TV to come on from Minot, North Dakota. The rooms upstairs are occupied, not by drummers from Regina and Winnipeg but by seismic crews in search of oil. The grain elevators are not so high as they were when I lived there, and the sides of the Souris River Valley are not so steep; the young women are not quite so pretty and the young men are not quite so tall, but the deterioration may be in the observer rather than in the observed.
Although their parents are still there in healthy and happy profusion, there is almost no one of my generation there now. I was lucky enough, nevertheless, to meet one of my first friends.
Bob Pegg came back to Oxbow two years ago not to visit but to stay. As it was with everyone who was finishing school when the Depression began, it had once been his greatest ambition to get away from Oxbow and to stay away forever. The unending years of dust, grasshoppers and rust and, above all, of the utter hopelessness of finding anything useful to do left very little choice. In these years the population of Saskatchewan dropped a hundred thousand and it still hasn’t been restored; nearly everyone, at least those who were young, believed that Saskatchewan had no future. Bob Pegg escaped in 1934. He tried commercial fishing in the Northwest Territories and mining in Quebec. He joined the RCAF, was shot down and spent two years as a prisoner of war.
A Place To Call Home
After the war he started a sporting goods business in the Maritimes in partnership with a friend, but the manufacturers couldn’t supply them with enough stock to keep two men working so Bob pulled out.
“I wasn’t ready to panic,” he reflected. “There were lots of things I could have done and lots of places I could have gone. It was just that after wandering around for nearly twenty years I still didn’t have a place I could call home. That reminded me that I could call Oxbow home if I wanted to.”
Bob Pegg bought a half section of land on his DVA credits and rented three more half sections. He read up on farming and asked advice about it. He decided not to become dependent on wheat. Last year his main crop was barley and he has a herd of seventy Hereford cattle. He had a good year. Over the long haul he thinks he has an outside chance of going broke, no chance at all of getting rich, and about a ninety-five-percent chance of living reasonably well as long as he does a reasonable amount of work.
We talked of these things as we drove down the long slope that tumbles oft the edge of the town and falls past a dozen cuts and hidden ravines to the | river. Over to the left there were fresh toboggan tracks on Blood Hill and on the right the sun was beginning to go down. This night the fading light was a faint purple; another night it might have been brick red or orange or a luminous, billowing black. “Maybe I shouldn’t have left here in the first place,” Bob said.
All over the two provinces, many of Bob Pegg’s two million neighbors will be thinking their own long thoughts and trying to weigh the things they have to celebrate in this anniversary year. There will be great variety in their answers—as much variety as in their beginnings and in their individual conditions and ways of life.
And when they try to forecast what the old land of the west holds for their children, they will again have to depend as much on individual intuition and individual experience as on the collected weight of history. A shepherd in the Cotswolds makes a reasonable deduction when he decides his son will probably be a shepherd in the Cotswolds too. That is what his great-grandfather was and his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather before that. And so it is with a rice farmer in Japan or a weaver in India or to a somewhat lesser extent with a dairy farmer in Ontario or Quebec or a rancher in Texas. They and their ancestors have had time to learn about the land they live on, what it demands, what it will tolerate, what it conceals, what it will support. Barely a tenth of the mineral rich land of Saskatchewan and Alberta has been drilled, even on a modest scale, for minerals. Working with the law of averages and the still meagre figures on the rates of return, geologists of large experience and only moderate optimism can almost prove the two provinces will ultimately produce more oil than Oklahoma and California and as much uranium as the rest of the world put together. Conversely, hardly anyone is brave enough to try proving a thing about the future of wheat, except that, as always, it is reasonably hopeful and unreasonably unsure.
Perhaps Bob Pegg, who once quit the prairie in despair and returned to it with confidence, is as good a witness on these matters as anyone. We turned left at the river to pick up his and Betty Pegg’s three children, who had been visiting their grandparents. The river was still and white under a foot of snow. I said I hoped that in the summers Bob’s children would have as much fun beside the river as he and I and our brothers and sisters once used to have there.
“Oh, they’ll like this country,” Bob said. “They like it already.” After a moment he added: “I wonder if they’ll ever really get to know it.” ★