When naming new communities along its tracks, the Grand Trunk Railway kept things simple. As it moved west from Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, the settlements would follow in alphabetical order: Arona, Bloom, Caye, Deer, Exira, Firdale, and so forth, all the way to Victor. In Saskatchewan, the Grand Trunk named its next three stations Welby, Yarbo, and Zeneta, before starting over again with Atwater, Bangor, and Cana. Track continued beyond Xena, Young, and Zelma, hence Allan, Bradwell, and Clavet.
These communities were laid out roughly ten to twelve kilometres apart, though at the turn of the twentieth century such things were still measured in miles. The spacing meant that most farmers could take a horse and wagon to their local grain elevator and back in a single day, sending their harvest to markets further afield and making it home in time for supper. In 1900, there were 421 elevators dotting the prairies. Twenty years later, there were 3,785. But as anyone who has taken the Canadian between Vancouver and Toronto knows, elevators have largely gone the way of those horse-drawn wagons. There are now fewer than 200 in Saskatchewan, and many former settlements are little more than old signs along the CN right-of-way.
The rise and fall of so many elevators — and the towns and villages that once supported them — coincided with the policy decisions of a maturing nation-state, mostly made far away in Ottawa, as well as with profound changes in the global economic order. All the while, generations of farmers plowed their fields, sowed their seeds, and hoped for the best. Although few would want to admit it, they often had relatively little agency in determining their successes or failures.
Murray Knuttila’s father was one of those farmers. In 1977, while he was feeding his cattle in eastern Saskatchewan, he had a heart attack. “My father survived,” Knuttila writes in Eroding a Way of Life: Neoliberalism and the Family Farm, “but he and my mother were forced to quit farming.” Thousands of others had to sell their operations around the same time, because of shifting political and economic conditions that could be difficult for them to understand. Knuttila, a retired sociology professor, explains that his dad didn’t lack “intelligence, ambition, energy, drive, or determination, but rather the ability to systematically link what was happening to him and my mother, Allie, with the larger context of the global food system and the patterns and structures of wealth production and accumulation that were unfolding in the global marketplace.” With his well-researched and thoughtfully presented book, Knuttila attempts to make sense of that context.
The Grand Trunk named all those stations amid a boom in railroad construction. In 1906, some 6,000 miles of track had been laid across the prairies, including the original line built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late nineteenth century. By 1915, more than 15,000 miles of track linked grain elevators with cities to the east, west, and south.
Connecting the lands that would become Saskatchewan and Alberta with rail was part of a much larger scheme commonly called the National Policy, which was endorsed by both Conservative and Liberal governments, from the time of Sir John A. Macdonald to that of R. B. Bennett. “The National Policy,” Knuttila writes, “was a clear example of a state taking actions to facilitate the development of a capitalist industrial economy.” By encouraging settlement of the prairies, specifically by farmers from northern Europe, the federal government helped to foster new domestic markets for Canadian industry in Ontario and Quebec, while keeping protectionist tariffs in place. As the sociologist James N. McCrorie once put it, prairie agriculture was “functional yet subordinate” and meant “to serve an emerging industrial complex.”
Knuttila describes the sixty-plus years between Confederation and 1930 as “the era of corporate capitalism,” during which a series of “activist” governments in Ottawa worked to “provide the necessary conditions for economic development.” Initially, this transformation entailed the removal of the First Nations then living on territory acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company, the surveying and division of land for settlers and townships, the construction of railroads, and the recruitment of immigrants to homestead on quarter sections of 160 acres each. “If one should examine twenty people who turn up at Hamburg to emigrate,” Sir Clifford Sifton explained, well after he served as Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s minister of the interior, “he would find one escaped murderer, three or four wasters and ne’er do wells, some very poor shopkeepers, artisans or labourers and there might be one or two stout hardy peasants in sheep-skin coats. Obviously, the peasants are the men we wanted here.”
As newcomers built up their farmsteads, successive federal governments used statutes and orders-in-council to “encourage the expansion of agriculture, particularly cereal grain production and mixed farming.” Ottawa established experimental farms and research stations in Saskatchewan communities like Indian Head and Swift Current; cut sometimes contentious deals with the railroads to keep transportation costs low; and passed a variety of other “legislation and regulations to ensure a smooth-functioning grain trade that placed an adequate cash flow into the hands of farmers to purchase industrial inputs.” Prairie agriculture produced food, yes, but more importantly it produced consumers of manufactured goods, including modern implements built in the East. (Saskatchewan farmers bought 1,655 tractors in 1921, for example, and 8,703 of them in 1928.)
With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the age of corporate capitalism and “the frantic expansion of the Prairies came to a crashing halt.” Black Tuesday helped usher in what Knuttila describes as a more Keynesian state, particularly under William Lyon Mackenzie King.* If the demand for goods and services declined, the British economist John Maynard Keynes reasoned, governments should inject money into the system to keep the economy afloat. “The Conservative prime minister R. B. Bennett was forced to make some modest increases in government spending during the crisis,” Knuttila writes. “The Mackenzie King Liberals, by contrast, were more deliberately Keynesian.”
This new approach to “steering the Canadian economy,” combined with the impacts of the Second World War and the growing influence of multinational corporations based in the United States, de-emphasized the prairie farmer as both consumer and political constituency. “The central role that the Prairies enjoyed in the era of the National Policy began to wane as continental economic integration and north–south trade flourished,” Knuttila explains. “The number of Prairie farms began to decline after 1945 with the trend toward larger and larger but fewer and fewer farms.” Increasingly, precarity and discontent grew alongside wheat and barley on the small and medium-sized farms that remained.
In the 1970s, Ottawa set up the Task Force on Agriculture, which recommended “a significant restructuring of family farming, including a reduction in the number of farms.” This shift in policy coincided with a general transition to a more neo-liberal Canada, which “redirected spending away from social programs to corporate support, while promoting privatization, deregulation, and the emergence of a fully-fledged globalized economic order.” Over the next several decades, policies and institutions that had long nurtured prairie agriculture — including the historic Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement on shipping rates and the Canadian Wheat Board — were undermined or eliminated. In Saskatchewan, the decline in farms that began in the 1940s, when there were roughly 140,000, accelerated: “Western farmers had long since lost their central role in the national economy and had become a relatively small cog in a growing continental and global machine.” Today, the breadbasket of Canada has fewer than 35,000 active farms.
Since 2008, those family farmers left have existed in what Knuttila calls an “age of uncertainty.” Corporate operations have amassed huge swaths of land, comprising hundreds of thousands of acres, which demand equally huge machinery, workforces, and sums of cash. In many cases, second- or third-generation farmers find that tractors, combines, fertilizers, insecticides, and even seeds are prohibitively expensive — and there’s still no guarantee of financial return. “You have no choice but to confront some of the largest corporations in the world,” Knuttila says of the little guy. “The class of Western agrarian independent commodity producers (family farmers) created by the National Policy and maintained until the 1970s is now coming undone, restructured and transformed by internal and external forces and pressures.”
Centred on Saskatchewan but broadly relevant, Knuttila’s sweeping macrohistory does not fully address issues of race, gender, provincial policy, or reconciliation — all areas the author flags for continued research and discussion. Beyond using his father as a framing device, Knuttila focuses on political and economic trends rather than on individuals making a go of it. The political scientist Andrea Olive, however, devotes many pages to a single man who farms 300 hectares outside of Indian Head.
“Most Canadians, even those living in Saskatchewan,” Olive writes in her introduction to Protecting the Prairies: Lorne Scott and the Politics of Conservation, “probably have never heard of Lorne Scott.” But as she goes on to show, the seventy-six-year-old “tubby farmer” has made tremendous contributions to wildlife and land conservation in his home province and beyond, both as an elected official and as an unelected community organizer. Olive describes him as Saskatchewan’s “most important naturalist” and “a hero whom we didn’t anticipate”: an unassuming man who had made “decisions about conservation in real time based upon the values that he developed growing up as part of the grassland ecosystem.”
At fifteen, Scott fell in love with bluebirds and began installing nest boxes for them along what would become “one of the longest bluebird trails in Canada.” After he graduated from high school, he found work at the natural history museum in Regina, and eight years later, in 1975, he started his own farm. Before joining the Legislative Assembly in 1991 (he ran as an NDP candidate, though he’s always been more pragmatic than partisan), he had been recognized for his various conservation efforts, including his campaign against the Rafferty-Alameda dam project in the late 1980s. “Although ultimately unsuccessful,” Olive writes of that fight, “the resulting court cases led the federal government to pass the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.”
Whether as provincial minister of environment and resource management, president of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, or a regional board member of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Scott has found ways to protect birds, marshes, and grasslands, among “the richest in biological diversity of all the Earth’s ecosystems.” His legacy is an inspiring one, especially at a time of “unfettered resource development” in Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, Olive’s book — tonally uneven and frequently dogmatic — is not as well written or as well edited as Knuttila’s. It’s unclear whether the author is addressing activists, scholars, or general readers (and unclear how she defines “neo‑liberal” and other terms she seems to use derisively). Olive may intend Protecting the Prairies as a “political biography and not a personal biography,” but she inserts herself too often and omits too many relevant details about her subject.
Nonetheless, these titles, published by the same press on the same day, are complementary. Together, they show what an agricultural society has given and taken, found and lost — and hint at what the future may hold.
*The print version of this review referred to “Black Friday” in relation to the Great Crash of 1929. The magazine regrets the error.