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Twin Centenarians



Clockwise from top: Dutch immigrants clear away trees and brush before plowing new Alberta farmland in 1886; fireworks explode over Edmonton; a wheat field in central Saskatchewan.

“I turn 100 this year,” says Priscilla Roland. “And I just feel good being a Canadian.” I’m sitting with this charming near-centenarian under the gaze of southern Alberta pioneer images that line the wall of the front room of Calgary’s Memorial Building. Her statements could equally apply to two of Canada’s western provinces this year: on Sept. 1, 1905, the Saskatchewan Act and the Alberta Act were adopted by Ottawa, carving two spanking-new Canadian provinces out of the Northwest Territories.

Priscilla was born a couple of months before that, and like the people who forged the provinces’ personalities as we know them today, she was an immigrant. She arrived with her family, including her 80-year-old great-grandfather, by train and wagon as a pre-schooler from North Dakota to settle in a sight-unseen homestead near the Alberta town of Foremost. On the trek, “we stayed one night at this Russian’s place and they just had dirt for a floor,” she recalls.

That Prairie dirt in Alberta and Saskatchewan was attracting more than just Russians. Growing from 49,000 in 1901 to 402,000 in the year before World War I, the Prairie immigrants came from all parts of the world, attracted by wheat and land, dollars and freedom. There were Hungarians, Ukrainians, Britons, Scots, Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Belgians, Slovaks and more. Settlement followed the railways, along which small towns sprang up with loading platforms, a few elevators, a general store, a farm implement shop, a post office and of course a church.

English-speakers and those accustomed to ‘well-modeled institutions’ were preferred, but many immigrants weren’t used to harsh Prairie conditions. Clifford Sifton, Laurier’s first minister of the interior, thought, “a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for 10 generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children,” like the Slavic types, would be a better match for the life.

Fully half of immigrants arriving in Canada between 1896 and 1914 headed straight west, which forged a nascent feeling of difference and independence from Canada’s founding provinces. Where they first landed in eastern Canada, the basic structure of the Canadian federal state was already in place–an English-French partnership, the basics of the Whig-Tory party system and class distinctions. It was a culture alien to most Prairie immigrants. When they arrived at their homesteads and began tilling the soil, the alienations grew: on Ottawa’s vision of an east-west economy where the newly settled West was to be to central Canada what Canada had been to Britain–an economic hinterland feeding a distant commercial heartland. Furthermore, few spoke either English or French. And like Priscilla, many of those who were fluent in English were American agrarian populists who weren’t at ease with stiff central Canadian society either, with its British traditions their founders had abandoned with the American Revolution. So from the start, Alberta and Saskatchewan didn’t fit comfortably into the established Canadian mould, instead growing a unique Prairie culture that modified it.

But they made the land boom, spurred by world demand for grain from Canada’s breadbasket. Canadian wheat grew from four per cent of exports in 1901 to 16 per cent in 1911.

The federal Department of Immigration used various promotional materials to maintain the momentum, and Canada West magazine quickly became the immigration agents’ favourite. Designed by Rand McNally under direction of the Immigration Branch, covers were highly visual and artistic in their portrayal of the good life on family farms. Inside were sections useful to potential immigrants: idyllic pictures of Prairie life, coloured maps, scads of helpful hints, from crossing the border to what grows best and where to frequently asked questions like “What if I have less than $300?”

Not all of the land was perfect for agriculture. Priscilla’s mother soon swapped the family’s Foremost homestead for a building in nearby Warner because “the land was nothing but gophers and rattlesnakes,” she says. “You couldn’t grow a thing.” Much of Alberta’s rolling grasslands were more suited to cattle grazing so it was here some early seeds of difference between the two provinces germinated. Alberta attracted a larger influx of Americans like Priscilla’s folks, and there a cattle industry evolved with its more individualistic culture.

Transportation companies joined the promotions fray. The image of golden wheat fields bending in Prairie breezes graced many a European poster for companies like Canadian National Railways and Canadian Pacific Railway.

The promotions worked. By 1921 the best farmland was spoken for, and population density approached 10 per square mile. Census-takers that year showed that Saskatchewan’s 757,510 people made it Canada’s third-largest province with 60 per cent of its male labour force working in agriculture.

What the census didn’t show was the role of women in agriculture. Census-takers didn’t consider women part of the workforce. How wrong they were. As well as helping out in the fields with jobs like stooking, feeding a harvesting crew four meals a day meant that women’s days started earlier and ended later than their men’s. Yet their status languished.

Well-known suffragist Nellie McClung, who was born in Ontario and raised in Manitoba before moving to Alberta in 1914, changed all that with the help of Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby. The five went on to become the Famous Five plaintiffs of the landmark Persons Case. On these women’s legal challenge to the British North America Act as to whether women were considered persons and eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate, the Lords of the Privy Council in London ruled in 1929 that all women were in fact persons.

The 1920s were heady and happy times. Grain was two dollars a bushel and fields were averaging 17 bushels to the acre. “I danced the Charleston the whole time,” says Priscilla.

But like the Charleston craze, the boom was soon to end. A serious drought hit in 1929 and the same year stock markets cratered. Winds stripped parched topsoil. In many areas grasshoppers and rust destroyed what few crops there were. Grain production fell to 9.5 bushels an acre, dropping as low as 2.7 in Saskatchewan in 1937. Twisting the knife in the farmers’ backs, a bushel fetched just over 39 cents in 1932.

The tough times on these two Prairie provinces spawned a populist legacy that has become a defining piece of Canada–grassroots politics, from which emerged two of today’s major federal parties: the NDP and the Conservatives.

As farmers slid deeper into debt, more and more of them lambasted the capitalist system–it wasn’t working for them. So in 1932, farmers and labour representatives met in Saskatoon and formed the Saskatchewan Farmer-Labour party. In Calgary one month later it joined the United Farmers of Alberta to create the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF’s founding convention was convened in Regina the following year with massive support from farmers and labour–their founding document was called the Regina Manifesto.

True to its Marxist-sounding name, it called for the eradication of capitalism, a national labour code, unemployment insurance, producer and consumer co-operatives and publicly organized health care. Also in the cards was nationalization of transportation, communication and natural resources.

The other political legacy born in the depression also espoused creation of social capital such as educational reform, agricultural co-operatives, state-supported health care and occupational health and safety legislation, as well as women’s rights. But the Social Credit party differed from the CCF in one area: finance. Social Credit didn’t abandon the capitalist free-enterprise system, instead promising to give every Albertan $25. Its new preacher, a radio evangelist named William Aberhart explained it has, “all the advantages of socialism, but eliminates its drawbacks.” He was elected by a landslide on Aug. 22, 1935.

In September 1939 war in Europe offered a way out for tens of thousands of unemployed Prairie men and women: the prospect of steady jobs. Prairie regiments filled their waiting lists and the country’s war mobilization stimulated the economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan towns. The glamorous Royal Canadian Air Force attracted a large share of Prairie volunteers. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, although Canada-wide, opened schools across the Prairies that offered almost limitless sky, sunshine and flat prairie–ideal training conditions for pilots, navigators, engineers, bombardiers and air gunners. The Royal Canadian Navy also drew a large share of volunteers from the Prairies, many of whom were anxious to experience something other than the land, although some found similarities between the rolling prairies and the sea.

As the war began, farming wasn’t forgotten. Prairie grain fields were sprouting again and prices began to climb. However, 74 cents a bushel still wasn’t near the two dollars of the WW I period, and moreover the Nazi war machine had devastated most of Canada’s European wheat customers. So many Alberta and Saskatchewan farmers diversified into dairy farming or raising pigs and cattle, along with barley, oats and rye.

Meanwhile, the CCF had been campaigning both nationally and provincially, and in 1944 Tommy Douglas of Weyburn, Sask., led the party to the first socialist government in North America. In 1945, he introduced a province-wide hospital insurance program, which has grown into one of Canada’s defining characteristics: universal health care, cemented in 1966 with the federal Medical Care Act. Douglas took the party national as the left-of-centre New Democratic Party in 1961. His popularity with Canadians has endured: polls last year voted him the Greatest Canadian.

Saskatchewan grew apace alongside its sister province until the late 1940s. Then, as Priscilla puts it, “don’t forget the oil, that’s what made us rich.” Indeed, Imperial Oil had been hunting for oil in the complex geology of the Canadian west since the early 1920s and after 133 dry wells was about to look elsewhere. But the gusher at Leduc, Alta., in February 1947 ushered in a new future. A decade later, 7,390 working wells were pumping 144 million barrels of crude every year. Alberta was changed forever, quickly pulling ahead of its neighbour. By 1961 its population of 1.3 million was way ahead of Saskatchewan’s 925,000.

The real booster came in the mid-1970s when OPEC drove up the international price of oil. Suddenly Canadian reserves were competitive and by 1981, the census counted 2.2 million Alberta citizens. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan’s vast agricultural wealth was unable to sustain its population base as postwar mechanization turned farms into fields of efficient machines.

But Saskatchewan could boast other riches beneath its grasslands. The Cold War brought a need for nuclear weapons: Saskatchewan’s uranium ores were among the world’s best and were exploited profitably. As well, the province had discovered it sat on 60 per cent of the world’s reserves of potash, an important component of fertilizers.

Ernest C. Manning, who had succeeded Aberhart in 1943, governed Alberta until 1968. Adopting the same Social Credit political doctrine, his son Preston later wooed disgruntled Progressive Conservatives to create the Reform Party in 1987, which went national in 1991. By the following year the party was thought by 39 per cent of Canadians to be a serious federal contender. It was later dubbed the Alliance Party and last year merged with what was left of the Progressive Conservatives to become the federal right-of-centre Conservative party.

Thus Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s homemade political parties have grown into influential forces on the federal scene; evolving into two opposing sides of centre. The provinces’ respective economic growths have evolved differently too. The second half of the century has seen Alberta pull far ahead, which has generated some Saskatchewan resentment, especially as Albertans and their governments often have an imperial attitude, speaking “on behalf of the West,” says Dr. Roger Gibbins, President and CEO of Canada West Foundation. He notes it is done “with a presumption that what happens in Alberta is true for the West at large.” Secondly, observes Gibbins, Saskatchewan has trained and educated a good chunk of the Alberta labour force. “They have been important to the Alberta economy but it’s been the Saskatchewan taxpayers who have had to bear the cost.”

Still, both provinces’ outlooks remain positive, as long as they diversify around their core economies. However, Gibbins thinks their trajectories will be different. “My sense is that Saskatchewan will be successful in maintaining a high quality of life and economic prosperity but it will do so through very small population growths,” he says. “Their prospects for growth are limited, which is not necessarily a bad thing.” On the other hand, if Alberta isn’t properly managed, Gibbins feels the province’s growth prospects, which are massive, could be a bad thing. “Alberta has the prospect of incredible economic growth and wealth but the significant challenge is making sure it occurs without impacting the quality of life and the environment of the province,” he says.

The latest census puts Alberta’s population at 2.9 million–80 per cent urban and 20 per cent rural. Saskatchewan’s population is pegged at nearly one million with 64 per cent urban and 36 per cent rural. The four major cities in the two provinces continue to be Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon, but other centres are growing. Other quick facts show that Alberta has more than 50 million acres used for crop and livestock production. In 2001, total farm cash receipts in the province reached $8.3 billion, which represented 23 per cent of the value of Canada’s total agriculture production. Saskatchewan produces 54 per cent of the wheat grown in Canada, generating nearly $2 billion annually.

And while agriculture remains important to both economies, other industries have had a huge impact. Alberta’s manufacturing shipments from wood-based products is a prime example. In 1984, shipments amounted to less than $1 billion. By 1999 they had risen to $4.1 billion. The Alberta Government also notes that the province has 60 telecommunications companies employing 17,000 people and generating more than $5.8 billion in annual revenues. Alberta’s information technology sector is also hot, and expectations are it will employ more than 140,000 by 2010.

In Saskatchewan, service-based sectors, namely finance, insurance and real estate, are generating $3.3 billion annually.

And so in the same year Alberta and Saskatchewan turn 100, Priscilla Roland is quietly celebrating her 100th birthday at the Alberta Pioneers Memorial Building, a good place to reflect on her century and the two provinces that have earned their places in shaping the Canadian nation.


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