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Manitoba History: Agriculture in Manitoba History: Introduction

by Lyle Dick
Guest Co-Editor, Manitoba History

Manitoba History, Number 18, Autumn 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Until quite recently agricultural history was an under-valued branch of Western Canadian history. When university teachers and students flocked to the emerging areas of urban and labour history in the 1960s and 1970s rural topics were neglected. No doubt an underlying demographic reason for this development was the rapid shift of population to the cities after World War II. But it probably also had much to do with contemporary attitudes toward farm life. A rural past was something to be down-played, certainly not celebrated. Prevalent urban stereotypes of farming as a traditionalist or even backward occupation carried over into similar judgments toward the viability or value of agricultural history as a field of study.

These attitudes overlooked a strong interdisciplinary tradition that had earlier prevailed in the field, established in the best works of two series: the Canadian Frontiers of Settlement series of the 1930s, and the Social Credit in Canada series of the 1950s. Broadly intended to aid in the reconstruction of rural society ravaged by drought and depression, the Frontiers of Settlement books addressed a range of issues in agricultural economics, sociology, and history and featured the work of some of Canada’s leading academics of the era. Implicitly, the series stood as a critique of the naive “nation-building” approach of the earlier Makers of Canada and Canada and its Provinces series. At the same time the Frontiers of Settlement volumes were marked by an underlying spirit of accommodation to the nation’s political-economic structures. Its authors seem to have been mainly concerned with facilitating adaptations to the dominant ideology and practice of rural modernization.

The anomalous structures of the National Policy received a harsher, and perhaps more penetrating analysis in the books of the Social Credit series. Works in sociology (by Jean Burnet), social psychology (John A. Irving), political economy (C. B. Macpherson), and economic history (V. C. Fowke), among others, explored the often destructive impacts of the existing political economic system on the prairies’ rural populations. In focussing on general or national issues the Social Credit books sometimes presented a monolithic picture of the region’s rural population that suppressed local differences in its composition. For example, types of farming other than wheat monoculture were largely ignored, as were class and ethnic differences. And while such differences were brought out in Burnet’s Next Year Country, her judgement of Hanna, Alberta in the 1940s as a failed experiment in settlement reinforced a Central Canadian clichéd view of prairie farmers as failures.

The series did represent a significant advance in both scholarship and the conceptualization of prairie agricultural history as a field of study. Yet the interdisciplinary insights of both the Frontiers of Settlement and Social Credit in Canada series had little impact on the post-World War II historiography of the rural prairies. For a number of reasons, perhaps including complacency occasioned by 30 years of relative farming prosperity after 1945, agricultural history reverted to organicist, often romanticized presentations of rural life. In both amateur and professional writing, rural history was usually presented from the victorious perspective of the dominant Anglo-Canadian settlement group.

Elsewhere, the field of agricultural history was taking a different turn. In the 1960s and 1970s the American agricultural historians Allan G. Bogue and Robert Swierenga were calling for a “new rural history.” Bogue advocated a wide-sweeping application of models in such fields as sociology and social psychology to the historical study of rural areas. Swierenga, who looked to the French Annales scholar Marc Bloch and the American historical geographer James C. Malin for his models, promoted a shift to detailed interdisciplinary studies to establish a comprehensive basis for challenging and revising long-standing generalizations.

Partly in response to these pleas, a number of prairie versions of the “new rural history” appeared in the late 1970s and 1980s. Among other things these studies employed modern research methods (i.e. quantification, testing of hypotheses) and focussed on detailed treatments of such topics as co-operative movements, the impact of land policies and World War I on prairie agriculture, economics, stratification and class in local areas. And, as Gerald Friesen, John Thompson and Ian Macpherson have shown these works have begun to revise earlier interpretations that held sway in the field.

The “new rural history” represented an important step forward in bringing modern approaches to the field. At the same time its archivally-based studies were some-times inaccessible to the very communities they investigated. Despite a great amount of research amassed by each study, diverging interpretations and a radically different shaping of the evidence pointed to the continuing issue of subjectivity in interpreting agricultural history. Here, I think Jeff Taylor’s essay in this issue on the boundaries drawn around agricultural writing by professionals between the wars may be suggestive of how today’s historians select and frame their topics.

Today we are living in a highly skeptical period and for researchers such skepticism implies a questioning not only of their subject matter, but a rigorous self-examination. Agricultural historians will be obliged to challenge the assumptions they bring to their work, their choice of particular topics, the forms in which they cast their studies, and especially the language with which these studies are constructed. Historians must be pre-pared to respond to a new set of questions: Do their studies reinforce or challenge existing assumptions about their subjects? Do these studies bring together a selection of voices that truly represent the many groups and individuals they discuss? Or do the authors’ voices unconsciously drown out all others?

Just as historians must question their own assumptions relating to their materials, they will also need to question the materials themselves. Surviving documents, as Wendy Owen suggests in her essay appearing in this issue, may reflect a very biased selection of the overall experience of rural people. And as Elizabeth Blight shows, photographs can tell lies as well as textual documents.

For the foreseeable future, I anticipate a continuation of the current emphasis on local topics in our province’s rural history, but with this difference. Influenced by the emerging discourse of “The Other” in feminism, native studies, and discourse theory, agricultural historians will turn increasingly to the history of excluded or marginalized peoples — native people, women, non-Anglo-Canadians, and farm labourers. Sarah Carter’s essay on Ojibwa farming at St. Peter’s points in this direction. The investigation of such topics will be important not simply to the understanding of neglected historical groups, but of the mainstream as well. Exploring “The Other” in external subject matter could also be a useful lead-in to identifying the internal processes by which we suppress alternative voices in the construction of our historical narratives.

Agricultural history is important for many reasons, but particularly because it speaks to the personal experience or background of so many. Most of us are no more than a few generations removed from the farm. The forces that shaped the prairie rural landscape are forces that are still present in our psychology, beliefs, and values. In our largely urban contexts today we need to get more in touch with our individual and collective rural pasts. The many-faceted dimensions of rural history are not simply the stories of distant ancestors but go to the root of who we are.

In the spirit of renewed inquiry, the essays in this collection are offered as contributions to the understanding of our many agricultural histories, in all their diversity, complexity, and difference.

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