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Manitoba History: Review: Grant MacEwan, Illustrated History of Western Canadian Agriculture

by Lyle Dick
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Grant MacEwan is one of the most prolific writers of Western Canadian history. He writes “popular history”—history for the lay reader rather than the academic. In the 1970s writers such as Pierre Berton, James Gray and J. G. Macgregor have shown that popular history can be factually and interpretively credible without sacrificing readability. The question is whether MacEwan’s new Illustrated History of Western Canadian Agriculture even comes up to the standards of good popular history.

In this book, MacEwan provides a survey of prairie agricultural history from the fur trade era to the present. It is not his first book on prairie agriculture. His Between the Red and the Rockies, Power for Prairie Plows, and other books have dealt with aspects of the topic and much of the new book’s material is derived from these earlier works. What is new is that the current book is illustrated. Photographs could be used creatively to illustrate the processes of prairie farming, but here they are a superficial embellishment. Many photographs do not relate to the text, either chronologically or topically. A few examples: the first chapter on fur trade agriculture is accompanied by a photograph of a homesteader’s cabin of a much later period; in the second chapter on the Selkirk settlers a photograph of Fort Prince of Wales and Lord Selkirk’s renovated grave are gratuitously provided. The third chapter on the Hayfield Experimental Farm of the early 1800s includes a 1936 photograph of a bull and mule team and a 1940 view of the Modern Dominion Experimental Farm.

Trading floor, Winnipeg Grain Exchange, 1938.
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

The book reiterates the old Whig themes of triumph through adversity and the onward march of progress. The headings of the last six chapters are indicative: “The Triumphant Birth of the Wheat Pools;” “Depression, Drought and Drifting Soils;” “Triumphs Born in Adversity;” “War and Farm Recovery;” “Gloom and Disaster;” “A New Day for Agriculture.” Unfortunately the contents of these chapters often do not live up to their billing. The chapter on the “Triumphant Birth of the Wheat Pools” includes an account of the financial disasters of the early pools in the 1930s. To salvage the triumphal theme, MacEwan leaps 40 years into the future and states that in 1974 the Wheat Pools captured most of the grain trade in the three prairie provinces. He can do this since he is not bound by academic conventions that would require the establishment of a logical connection between the early pools and their modern counterparts.

The text adds nothing original to an already very large storehouse of information on prairie agriculture. It does contribute many unsubstantiated generalizations. For example, in discussing federal land policy MacEwan notes that some homesteaders abandoned their quarter-sections. He quickly adds, “Most of them, however, persevered and became the undisputed owners of the land and then progressive and independent farmers who never ceased to speak with pride of their homestead years.” This extraordinary sentence contains five generalizations. The statement that most homesteaders persevered flies in the face of Chester Martin’s tabulation of a 40 per cent rate of homestead cancellations. If farm turnover rates in the period immediately following patent are calculated, the “perseverance” ratio is even smaller. Did homesteaders become the undisputed owners of their land? If the large number of chattel mortgages registered by implement companies against homesteads in the 1890s is any indication, the answer must be an unambiguous “no.” Were prairie farmers independent? C. B. Macpherson and V. C. Fowke have surely shown that. apart from a degree of freedom in lifestyle, the farmers’ “independence” has been an unfounded myth. Were most farmers progressive? John Thompson has suggested that during the First World War, farmers overcropped their lands and contributed to soil exhaustion. MacEwan is probably right that most farmers spoke with pride of their homestead years. But what does this statement tell us about prairie agriculture?

Mr. MacEwan’s treatment of the 1930s in Western Canada is similarly facile. Instead of seriously considering the social impact of the drought and depression, he glosses over the period with a few anecdotes. We are told, “for what it is worth” about the farmer who takes a load of barley to the elevator, only to discover that deductions for dockage and handling exceed the value of the grain. Agreeing to pay the elevator agent a dressed chicken to make up the difference, the farmer returns the next day with two chickens. Why two? The farmer states that he is bringing in another load of barley MacEwan sums up the chapter with the time-worn cliché, “The troubled years of the thirties brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. The resourceful ones survived and some made history” This is conventional wisdom but dubious history.

We still await a comprehensive, illustrated synthesis of prairie agricultural history.

Page revised: 1 January 2011

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