A Great Human Tragedy

Putting settlers onto a virtual desert could only lead to catastrophe

Saskatchewan in the 1930s was the setting for human tragedy on a vast scale. People did not have enough to eat. There were 14 deaths from starvation, 78 perished from rickets, 6 died of scurvy, 2 of pellagra and 1 of beriberi, and these were just the deaths reported in the official statistics. Others, no doubt, went unrecorded. Gopher meat appeared on the dinner table—“stewed gopher, canned gopher, gopher pie, smoked gopher, and pickled gopher,” not to mention the “bachelor-friendly fried gopher.” Large swathes of the province were engulfed in dust storms, black blizzards as they were known. Families cowered in their homes for days at a time, doors and windows sealed, lamps kept burning, wet cloths placed over children’s faces so that they could breathe, until finally the storm passed. The affront to human dignity was incalculable. As author Curtis McManus points out in Happyland: A History of the “Dirty Thirties” in Saskatchewan, 1914–1937, it is difficult for a man to hold his head up high when he has to ask the village council to provide him with underwear.

McManus offers a new take on the Dirty Thirties, which he wishes to differentiate sharply from the Great Depression. The Depression, he says, was a global economic crisis, while the Dirty Thirties was “an agricultural-environmental crisis that struck at a defined and particular region.” The region was the west and south plains of Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, no map is provided, but the area is described as stretching north from the American border to an east-west line drawn through North Battleford, and from the Alberta border east to Moose Jaw. In retrospect, it is obvious that much of this area is unsuited to wheat farming. There is simply not enough moisture. Indeed, until 1908 it was kept as a cattle-ranching preserve, but in that year it was thrown open to homesteading, a decision that proved a costly error.

McManus blames Frank Oliver, the minister of the interior, whom he refers to as “the meanest man in Canada”  (a little harsh, I think). In fact, the blame can be spread more widely. Saskatchewan in these years was held captive by a myth, according to which all economic development was thought to be based on wheat. It was the tried-and-true formula that had worked wonders in the past and from which no deviation was possible. Settlers had arrived in the tens of thousands, rail lines had been built, towns and villages sprang up, wheat had been exported and industrial goods brought in from central Canada. Saskatchewan boomed as did the rest of Canada, since western settlement was the engine that drove national economic growth. It retrospect, we can deplore the greediness of the project, the hubristic lack of concern for the environment, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing in the world to put people on the land, even if the land was practically a desert.

McManus controversially contends that the Dirty Thirties was not confined to the 1930s, but actually lasted from 1914 to 1937. The argument does not really hold up. At best, he overeggs the pudding. First, his thesis applies only to the south and west part of the province, as previously described. In the rest of the province, the grim years did not set in until the 1930s, or, as McManus puts it, “in 1929, the drought spilled its banks as it were and flooded onto the Regina Plains and into the extreme south-east corner.” Furthermore, even if we look only at the southwest, the years 1914 to 1929 were not a period of unrelieved drought. Both 1915 and 1916 saw abundant harvests, the late 1920s were not too bad, and the 1928 crop was the largest in Saskatchewan history.

That being said, McManus does have a point. Certainly, the drought problem in the southwest did not begin in 1929. Between 1917 and 1924, 30,000 men, women and children left the area (he does not tell us how many stayed). The human cost was enormous. For example, by 1922 Anton Heulskamp, his wife Nettie and their two daughters had endured six consecutive years of crop failure. One day a John Deere collection agent appeared at the farm. They invited him to dinner and served their regular fare, porcupine stew. The poor man gagged, and after that he was not too insistent on debt repayment. The Heulskamps packed their belongings in a horse-drawn cart and abandoned their farm, leaving behind house, buildings and machinery. Anton wrote a letter to the Saskatchewan premier asking for financial assistance for the evacuation, but he was turned down. He had just missed the deadline for the aid plan the government had belatedly put in place, and the authorities were afraid that if they gave him assistance the door would be open to many other similar claims.

The exodus continued at a more rapid pace in the 1930s. The worst year of all was 1937, when the southern plains produced virtually no crop. The cry in western Canada, wrote one reporter, was “for one thing and one thing alone: water.”  Two out of three people in rural Saskatchewan were destitute, and the province was reduced to beggary. It was seen as a “rat hole down which millions of dollars taken from eastern taxpayers were dumped.”

In 1935 the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration was officially formed, offering a glimmer of hope. Dugouts were built to conserve spring runoff water for livestock, garden and household use. Summer fallowing, which is unsuited to low-moisture areas, was abandoned in favour of “trash farming,” that is, light surface tilling that left weeds and stubble to hold the soil together and prevent drift. More than one million acres were taken out of crop production, re‑grassed and converted to pasture. In 1938 the rains came back, and 1939 saw one of the largest crops ever. But it is folly to say that the problem was solved. That would be hubris worthy of Frank Oliver.

Happyland is written with verve and confidence. McManus is deeply engaged with the subject and his enthusiasm is contagious. There is much here to inform and reward the reader. However, the writing style can only be described as appalling. It is by turns cliché-ridden (“the one-two punch of hoppers and drought,” “urban and rural areas in the early years were joined at the hip”), pretentious (“an unnamed municipal official, with an understated minimalism that would have made Ernest Hemingway proud”), marred by hopeless metaphor (“Oliver entered the Dominion Lands office in 1905 soaked through with this intellectual baggage”) and cringe-making (“on a desolate March evening when there was neither charming snow on the ground nor life-affirming leaves on the trees”). Irrelevancies are introduced for their presumed entertainment value (“[Frank] Crean, a terrible alcoholic, was sent to scout for additional agricultural land north of the North Saskatchewan River”—what does his being an alcoholic have to do with anything?). Mention of oats brings up the observation: “and here one is reminded of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous quip that in England oats are fed to horses, but in Scotland oats are fed to people”). Such throwaway lines might work in a lecture hall, where the goal is to keep undergraduates from falling asleep, but they are unwelcome distractions here.

McManus concludes with a lament for the sad state of Saskatchewan history. “Saskatchewan has no history,” he says. The victims of the great human and ecological disaster of the Dirty Thirties are largely forgotten. They have no monument or memorial, except perhaps here and there a forlorn rock pile, indicating where once a settler cleared the land for a crop that could never be grown. Happyland tells a story that needs to be told, a great human tragedy that we have not yet fully
fathomed.