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Manitoba History: Review: James P. Giffen, Rural Life: Portraits of the Prairie Town, 1946

by Rev. S. C. Sharman
St. Andrew’s, Manitoba

Number 49, June 2005

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

James P. Giffen, Rural Life: Portraits of the Prairie Town, 1946 Edited with an afterword by Gerald Friesen Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2004

This book began its life as a report to a Royal Commission. It was originally called “Adult Education in Relation to Rural Social Structures: A Comparative Study of Three Manitoba Communities” and was presented to the Royal Commission on Adult Education in 1947. It now lives on a shelf in the Legislative Library in Winnipeg. Gerald Friesen has edited the report and made it into a very readable book published by the University of Manitoba Press. The result is a remarkable picture of rural Manitoba in the first years of peace following the Second World War.

Gerald Friesen’s afterword is a good introduction to the report/book, the Royal Commission on Adult Education and the political and economic world that gave it birth. The key player is the Premier of Manitoba of the time, the Honourable Stuart Sinclair Garson. He had served in John Bracken’s Cabinet and became premier when Mr. Bracken became leader of the Dominion Progressive-Conservative Party. He was Premier of Manitoba from 1943 to 1948, when he left provincial politics to become the Dominion Minister of Justice and Attorney-General in Louis St. Laurent’s Cabinet. It was a time of coalition politics in Manitoba. Mr. Garson could remember the aftermath of the First World War, the short-lived prosperity of the 1920s and the long depression of the 1930s. As the Second World War drew to its close, he was apprehensive about the future. He foresaw a period of reconstruction as the war economy returned to peaceful pursuits. Much would need to be done in order to ease the transition and to avoid the depression that followed the First World War. While much of the responsibility rested in the hands of the Dominion Government, some responsibility belonged to the Provincial Government. One responsibility was education, particularly adult education. What was to be done about adult education?

There were a number of factors for the government to consider. First of all, they wanted to avoid establishing a programme of adult education that would look like government propaganda. Then, they needed to consider the existing programmes such as the 4-H movement and the Department of Agriculture’s extension programmes. Thirdly, there was the growing gap between the city of Winnipeg and the rest of the province, especially the rural areas in the rest of the province that needed to be bridged. (That gap, by the way, still exists and, despite valiant efforts, is still growing.) What, then, was the government to do?

The answer was a Royal Commission which was appointed in the summer of 1945. It was given the task of enquiring into the state of adult education in Manitoba and making recommendations. It was instructed to consider “the co-ordination of … [adult education] work in the province in order to eliminate all overlapping, duplication and conflict, to advise as to whether the whole field is now being adequately covered and if not as to what steps should be taken …” (cited p. 220) The government appointed a particularly well qualified commission. The members were Albert W. Trueman, President of the University of Manitoba as Chairman, Dr. John Deutsch, a Saskatchewan-born economist, Frances McKay, Director of Women’s Work in the government’s Agricultural Extension Service, John Grierson, head of both the National Film Board and the wartime Information Board and Harold Adam Innis, economic historian of the University of Toronto. Jack Seward was appointed as secretary and John K. Friesen, Executive Secretary of the Manitoba Federation of Agriculture and Co-operation served briefly as advisor. Here is a wealth of experience in adult education and the conditions of rural life.

The Commission decided to hire P. James Giffen to do some field work for them. He was a graduate of Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, had a BA (1942) from Victoria College of the University of Toronto, had served for two years in the RCAF and then was working towards his MA in Sociology in the University of Toronto. (pp. 202-210). He had no previous experience of life in rural Manitoba but was otherwise well qualified for the task. His supervisor at the University of Toronto spoke highly of his abilities: “you will like Giffen and you will quickly discover that he is a man you can have the fullest confidence in. I think he will do a very good job; I know he will make a valiant try.” (cited p. 203) Ultimately his research for the Royal Commission appeared in his MA thesis which he described as “a field study of cultural literacy and leadership in rural communities.”(cited p. 203)

The Commission selected three communities for their field work, Elgin, Rossburn and Carman, three smaller agricultural communities. Other communities were considered but not included in the field work and in the report. The field work was thorough. Mr. Giffen and his wife who accompanied him and assisted him with the interviews and visits that composed his field work studied all the organizations of these rural communities. They looked at the memberships of the school boards and the municipal councils. They talked to the members of the various women’s groups, such as Women’s Institutes, their charitable organisations and the church related women’s groups. They examined the churches and congregations and their organisations and especially the roles of their clergy. They considered other organizations such as Boards of Trade, agricultural organizations, fair boards and even the branches of the Royal Canadian Legion. They were always searching for the leadership in the communities with the intention of discovering how the leaders were selected and trained and how their leadership skills were developed. Their questions were: who were the leaders in the communities, how did they come to be leaders and what forms of adult education were needed to support the development of community leaders?

Their study necessarily involved the economies of the communities. All were agricultural communities within which the villages and towns of Elgin, Rossburn and Carman served as service centres. They depended upon the health of the farming community for their own economic well-being. So features such as all weather roads and railway service were important as was the distance of each community to a larger centre.

Giffen identified the presence of ethnic minorities in two of the communities, Rossburn and Carman. In one, Rossburn, there was a growing Ukrainian community, originally farmers but now including merchants as well. In the other, Carman, there was a French speaking Roman Catholic Métis community and a Mennonite community in the country districts round about. He traces the tensions in the inter-actions between members of the minorities with members of the dominant English-speaking and protestant community. This reviewer is reminded of a story that he heard about another English speaking community. When the first Ukrainians moved into that community, one member said, “We felt as if we were being invaded.”

One should ask, “What is missing from this study of rural Manitoba?” First of all there is no Francophone community. It is true that a study was attempted in one Francophone community, St. Pierre Jolys, but it was abandoned due to the opposition of the Roman Catholic parish priest. This is a pity. Moreover there are no aboriginal communities other than the small Métis community in Carman. Nor are there any northern communities in the study. And finally there are no non-farming com-munities such as fishing villages. The end result of this limited selection of communities for the field work is a picture of only part of rural Manitoba, southern, agricultural and largely English speaking with the organisations and leadership that goes with those communities. Would the results have been different if the selection of communities to be studied had been wider and more varied? Yes!

This study is valuable for what it does include. It gives us a picture of a lost world. Much of what he describes was still true 10 to 15 years later when I was a small child living on a farm near Oak Lake. Little of it is still true. The small towns are smaller. Much of the rural infrastructure, schools, churches, grain elevators, stores, railway stations, has vanished. School consolidations, all weather roads, larger farms, branch line abandonment have all taken their toll. Rural Manitoba is a very different world than it was in the first years of peace after the Second World War. Some things have remained constant. There is still the need for leadership and still the need for means of selecting and training leadership for the rural communities. And the gap between Winnipeg and the rest of the province is still there and still growing.

Dr. Gerald Friesen and the University of Manitoba Press are to be congratulated for finding, editing and publishing Dr. Giffen’s study and for this valuable addition to our understanding of the history of rural Manitoba.

Page revised: 12 January 2011

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