Manitoba History: Review: Paul Frederick Sharp, The Agrarian Revolt in Western Canada
by Paul D. Earl
It is interesting to return to a classic text—a work that is required reading for the student of the farm movement which so shaped the western grain industry—and to review it after having attained an appreciation of the same field from one’s own research. Sharp’s book is just such a classic, and reviewing this attractive re-issue of it was just such an interesting experience for me.
First released in 1948, the book was the published form of Sharp’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota. He traveled the Canadian prairies to research his work, and it is sobering to realize that he was closer to the events he wrote about than we are to him. Several times in the book he makes reference to personal interviews and correspondence with people who had lived through the “agrarian revolt”—that intriguing series of events which took place over the space of a generation and a half between the first decade of this century and the middle of the 1930s Depression.
It was through this period that farmers mounted a critique of the status quo in grain marketing, handling and transportation, and eventually forged both a new and almost unique Western Canadian cooperative philosophy and new institutions to give expression to that philosophy. The movement began in earnest with the formation of the Territorial Grain Growers Association (TGGA) in 1902, and culminated in the formation of the Canadian Wheat Board in 1935. The provincial Grain Growers Associations to which the TGGA gave birth were, at their inception, peopled by classic liberals. Sharp correctly identifies their goals, shared by their American counterparts, as being “to strengthen capitalism by saving small enterprise from destruction [and] to wrest possession of the government from plutocracy, and to use it for democratic ... ends.” (p. 42)
Later, however, these same groups began to see the open grain market as being manipulated by speculators and exploitive of farmers. Deeply influenced by the market control exercised by the federal government during the First World War, farmers began to develop a cooperative philosophy that was largely hostile to market economics and highly interventionist in approach. (p. 81) Increasingly, they saw a “single desk” seller of western grains as a means to circumvent the market and establish a stable price reflecting the “true” value of their product. Sharp’s book was one of the first scholarly works to explore these developments, and his prime interest—conveyed by the subtitle, A Survey Showing American Parallels—was to identify American influences on the Canadian movement. The major such influences he documents are the influx of American immigrants during the major pre-War immigration period, and the penetration of the Non-Partisan League into the Canadian prairies In addition, Sharp provides an excellent summation of the parallels in experience and thinking between the two sides of the border. Both the American and Canadian West were frontier societies, both struggled against domination by older and more settled parts of the two nations, both were debtor regions, and both felt subject to the commercial power of railways and grain marketing institutions. The 49th parallel was a porous border, and it is not surprising therefore to find Canadian farmers turning to the U.S. experience and to fellow farmers across the line, for inspiration and ideas.
This re-issue of Sharp’s book is accompanied by two perceptive and helpful introductory essays, one by William Pratt of the University of Nebraska (Omaha) and a second by Lorne Brown of the University of Regina, providing respectively an American and Canadian perspective. It is Pratt who points out, citing an early review of the book, that “Sharp’s American-Canadian parallels seem to run out after the NPL era.” (p. xvi) While this is true, I do not find this a weakness in the work. In fact, the American parallels that Sharp set out to document are not as strong as the differences between the two countries. Pratt identifies two of these: the lack of influence on the Social Gospel on the American farm movement, and the committed political involvement of the Albertan and Manitoban farm organizations which had no parallel in the U.S. I think, rather, that Sharp’s work has three other shortcomings that are worth mentioning. First, there was a very significant American influence and parallel that he does not develop sufficiently, and that is the development of voluntary price pooling organizations—i.e., marketing efforts organized around the concept of shielding farmers from day to day price fluctuations by selling grain through a “single desk” marketing agency and pooling the returns from sales for equal distribution to all farmer members in proportion to their sales. This idea originated with fruit growers in California, was studied by Western Canadian farm organizations, emotionally promoted by Aaron Sapiro, the Californian lawyer and activist, and became the model for the Canadian Wheat Board’s operation which continues to this day. Pooling movements sprang up throughout the United States, but few survived, and none at all survived in wheat and coarse grains. Sharp does not deal with the U.S. pooling movements, and barely acknowledges the importation of the idea from its American sources. Second, Sharp does not acknowledge the American roots of the Social Gospel movement. While he notes the influence of the Social Gospel, he does not address the fact that it was predominantly American in origin, and that the Canadian clergy who adopted Social Gospel precepts drew heavily on the writings of American theologians. Perhaps this lack of attention can be attributed to the fact that Sharp was after parallels, not influences, and, as Pratt points out, Social Gospel thinking did not impact the American farm movement the way it did the Canadian.
My most serious problem with Sharp, however, is that he saw the Canadian “agrarian revolt” primarily in terms of its political manifestation. While he identifies the “dual” goals (economic as well as political) of the agrarian movement in Canada, and acknowledges that “the primary emphasis ... was on economic reform,” it is the electoral successes of the United Farmers of Alberta and the United Farmers of Manitoba , and the election of Progressives to the federal parliament in the 1920s on which he subsequently concentrates. While these political activities of the farm organizations were important, they were not their lasting legacy. Far more important were the creation of the three provincial Wheat Pools, and subsequent formation of the Canadian Wheat Board. Brown notes this shortcoming (p. xxi) as well as remarking that Sharp also “missed” the important role which the Farmers’ Union in Saskatchewan played in the ultimate success of the pooling movement.
These weaknesses, however, are by no means fatal to the value of this book. Sharp researched and wrote before the more definitive body of historical work on the Prairie provincial political developments and the Canadian farm movement had been done by W. L. Morton, Seymour Lipset, C. B. Macpherson and, most notably, V. C. Fowke. He was breaking new ground, and if he failed to address some issues, he very ably dealt with others. As Brown says, “Sharp’s analysis of the ... Progressives is perceptive and has not been improved upon much by later scholars.” (pp. xxiii, xxiv) Sharp also accurately identifies the other “dynamic traditions of radicalism” (British cooperativism, trade unions and socialism) which were important in nourishing the Canadian movement. (p. 43) Moreover, he makes some perceptive observations on the inconsistency in the farm organizations in ultimately demanding for themselves the kind of market intervention and market power that they had condemned when sought by the Canadian Manufacturers Association for its members, and when they felt themselves to be the victim of “the Interests.”
All in all, this classic work is a welcome addition to the library of anyone interested in the farm movement in Western Canada, and the forces which led Western Canadian farmers to develop the complex web of regulations and interventions into the market which characterize the western grain industry.
Page revised: 13 October 2012