Buffalo, not farmers, belong on the Prairies

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
September 11, 2001


One hundred years ago and more, lured by free lands and wild-eyed visions of prosperity, pioneers were duped into settling the Prairies. Many quit as soon as they realized their mistake, never to return. The rest, through their offspring, got their revenge.

For decades, Prairie farmers have been extracting payments from a gullible public that believed that the plight of the Prairie farmer was temporary. It isn’t. The Prairies cannot support a large farming population, and never could. Canadians who believe otherwise are being duped, as surely as those early Prairie pioneers were duped.

Before Saskatchewan became a province, before Canada became a country, the area we know as the Prairies went by another name: The Great American Desert. This semi-arid area extended from the Rio Grande in the south to the delta of the Mackenzie River in the north. Since recorded time, this area has received too little rainfall – about half that necessary – to consistently support agriculture.

Early pioneers turned back when they reached the Great American Desert. The summers were too hot, the winters too cold, the rainfall too unpredictable, to provide a decent living. Then governments decided to open up the West. Because railroad companies refused to build uneconomic lines across the desert, governments plied them with financing and vast landholdings to sell to settlers. The railway companies built the lines, and set about marketing their lands.

The Great American Desert was re-branded; its name would soon be forgotten. In both the United States and Canada, railways obtained large land grants and government encouragement to market them aggressively. They did so for decades, making wild claims about the climate and the agricultural potential of the Prairies well into the 20th century. Luckily for the railroads, few harsh droughts struck during their marketing efforts.

Told that the land was fertile and the water plentiful, Europeans crossed the oceans in droves and Americans flocked north. Stephen Leacock, the economist-historian from McGill University, described the times in his history, Canada: The Foundations of its Future:

“‘The new century,’ said Sir Wilfrid [Laurier], ‘is Canada’s.’ It was, till the Devil took it away. Bountiful harvests and good prices drew a flood of immigrants toward the West, utterly different from any movement seen before. The new Minister of the Interior, Mr. Clifford Sifton, inaugurated a vigorous advertising campaign for immigration. Lecturers spoke at the fall fairs of the United States and visited the British Isles. Leaflets and maps were sent all over Europe; agencies opened at the ports. Imperial Germany became alarmed. ‘The attempt to lure our fellow countrymen to this desolate sub-arctic region,’ so complained Wilhelm’s Street, Berlin, to Downing Street, London, ‘is to be denounced as criminal.’ But Main Street, Winnipeg, won out. Immigrants began to move in a flood. As many as 75,000 came to the Western Provinces in 1905, 90,000 in 1906 and in the last four years before the Great War, an average of 120,000 a year.”

Canada’s publicity machine pulled out all stops. At the 1897 Diamond Jubilee, the London Canadian Arch proclaimed Free Homes for Millions, a theme repeated in posters plastered everywhere. Through its Homestead Act, the government gave all comers 160 acres, and through railroad subsidies it gave them ready transportation. The marketing campaign drew everyone from Oxford graduates to remittance men, starry-eyed all: “He saw himself already lord of a bonanza farm, reaching beyond the horizon, bending with golden grain that fell with a sigh beneath the knife of the blinder,” Leacock wrote. “He saw himself in winter affluence on the portico of a California hotel. It was a picture that called forth while it lasted all the best impulse of individual effort. It is all gone now … The boom broke. The fortunes vanished.”

The fortunes vanished, as vanish they must. The Prairies regularly succumb to drought. Prairie farmers learned that lesson well, and have since been harvesting subsidies. The rest of us have yet to understand that we’ve been attempting the impossible in expecting sustainable agriculture on the semi-arid Prairies. Not that crops can’t be grown there with enough expense – by pouring subsidies into farming the desert, even Saudi Arabia became a major exporter of wheat. But neither Saudi Arabia nor Saskatchewan has an economic rationale in growing wheat.

Last week, to help with the drought, Saskatchewan’s agriculture minister formally requested that Ottawa top up existing subsidies with up to $200-million in new money. The farm lobbies voiced instant approval. “I think he’s on the right track,” said one. Said another: “At some point the federal government needs to say the program, the normal system, won’t handle this stress.”

Yes, at some point the federal government does need to say that the normal system won’t handle growing grain in the desert. It then needs to stop perpetuating the mistake made a century ago, when government policies mistakenly overpopulated the Prairies with farmers. The federal government should recognize that it has been defying nature and stop subsidizing Prairie farmers, it should buy out Prairie farmers prepared to leave the land, and it should return the land to buffalo, Prairie grasses and wilderness.

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