Drought and Depression

24 April 2018

Drought & Depression
(History of the Prairie West Series, Vol. 6)
edited by Gregory P. Marchildon
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$34.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-539-8

Grandma Knox recalled that after her father ploughed up seven acres of virgin prairie, he seeded his entire 1933 crop to oats. “He just seeded it by hand,” she wrote. “Beautiful crop. Grew up about six feet high, and froze right down in August. Wasn’t even good feed.”

This one incident pretty much encapsulates the frustrations prairie farmers felt during the Great Depression. By recording and recounting his grandmother’s experiences, Clinton N. Westman brings the flavour of the past to life. His article is just one appearing in Drought and Depression, edited by Gregory P. Marchildon.

A collection of fourteen articles by fifteen authors, it’s the latest book in the History of the Prairie West Series. Each book in the series is based on a particular theme. As the title suggests, Drought and Depression focuses on the Dirty Thirties on the Canadian Prairies.

This selection of articles was originally published in the Prairie Forum journal between 1977 and 2009. The advantage of this book series format is that it gathers all this material together into one readily accessible location. Marchildon, overall editor of the series, contributed to three of the articles plus the introduction.

In addition to agricultural issues, this volume deals in part with Saskatchewan’s labour history. Lorne Brown explains how rising unemployment precipitated demonstrations and a fateful trek to Ottawa, culminating in the Regina Riot.

Stephen Endicott discusses the origins and legacy of the 1931 coal miner’s strike at Bienfait in southern Saskatchewan. Miners were required to buy their merchandise from company stores at greatly inflated prices, leaving them eternally in debt and without hope. When striking miners and their families drove into Estevan waving banners protesting starvation wages, three men were killed in a melee with police. This incident helped radicalize a young preacher named Tommy Douglas.

Cecilia Danysk discusses a joint federal-provincial plan to send unemployed urban men to assist desperate farmers who couldn’t afford to hire help. Some farmers simply abandoned their land – they just packed up and left. Some moved north for a fresh start.

Marchildon and Carl Anderson investigate the role of Robert Weir, a largely forgotten minister in Prime Minister Bennett’s cabinet. Weir originated the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Depression.

Victor Carl Friesen evaluates Prairie novels from this era. Anyone interested in learning more about novels set in this time period will find ample material here.

Among the other topics covered are public works projects in Saskatoon, schools and social disintegration in the Alberta Dry Belt, and Red Cross relief efforts in Alberta. Each article wraps up with reference notes.

In addition to maps, tables, and an indispensable index, Drought and Depression contains seventeen black and white photos, almost all from the provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, dispersed throughout its 357 pages.

Although geared primarily towards an academic audience, Drought and Depression has enough material of interest, especially the recollections of Grandma Knox, to appeal to a much wider readership.


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