Lost Harvests

Saskatoon farm with a cow behind barbed wire

“Andrew was one of the best farmers in the area”

—my grandmother’s words as we stood in the kitchen that summer day.

I remember wondering even then at the age of 9 what it would have been like to farm in any capacity on the reserve – let alone be one of the best in the area. It was a driving question when I set about to write The Will.

As time went on, I began to wonder what would it have been like for anyone to farm in that era? I understood that the roaring twenties on the Canadian prairies was an era of prosperity, booming with opportunity. WWI ended, a decade of promise lay ahead, change was in the air. Farmers were transitioning from horses to tractors, more efficient field equipment, threshing machines to combines. The cooperative movement was well underway as farmers wanted more control over marketing of their own products. The establishment of such groups as United Grain Growers and The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool helped to ensure that farmers were no longer subjected to unfair pricing by private grain buyers but instead received better prices and far greater access to grain elevators for delivering their harvested crops.

The following decade was a much different story, unfortunately, as evidenced by artifacts such as the notice issued from the Saskatchewan Relief Commission to Alfie requesting repayment of relief received during the depression and the letter Alfie wrote to the grain agent in an attempt to justify the dismal crop yield.

It is such a letter that the reader finds Alfie attempting to write in the chapter “27 Coulee II” in The Will.

Newspapers such as the Western Producer, purchased by the Wheat Pool to promote the practice of grain pooling among the wheat farmers, was a household name and appealed to not just the grain farmer but all members of the family. Youth advertised for and found pen pals to write to and housewives read this paper not only for household hints but used it to give voice to their own feelings and concerns.

In the meantime, some two hundred miles northwest near the town of Rosthern, Seager Wheeler was developing techniques for dry land farming and proposing the use of new machinery to accommodate these new methods. This information was made available in his book, Seager Wheeler’s Profitable Grain Farming, published in 1919 by The Grain Grower’s Guide, another widely read paper by the agricultural sector. Seager’s work with seed selection was largely responsible for the development of improved wheat strains such as the Marquis 10B, better suited for the shorter growing season, enhancing grain quality, increasing yields, and generally reducing the risk of a lost harvest. It was Seager’s publication that Alfie consulted in the novel. But what about my initial question: What did farming look like for Andrew on the Pasqua Indian Reservation?

Let’s circle back to my initial question about what farming would have looked like for Andrew. Superimpose what we know so far that was taking place in other farming communities with what was taking place on the reservations; Pasqua Indian Reservation, specifically. The buffalo were decimated and the First Nations people saw the importance of agriculture as an alternative source of sustainment more than ever. They looked to their treaties as insurance that they had access to the resources they needed to transition into this new way of life.

Farmers of the 1920s were increasingly linked to the larger economy with the need to obtain cash, make purchases and sell products. Although agriculture was far from new to First Nations people prior to this, they were then looking at the need to acquire more efficient machinery, more livestock and ample amounts of viable seed to compete in this environment and be successful. As I dug deeper, however, I learned of the system’s manifest failings as addressed in Sarah Carter’s Lost Harvests. She describes the series of impediments that the federal government imposed on farmers on the reserve such as the policies of severalty and peasant farming, the pass and permit systems, and the acquisition of “surrendered lands,” hindering the First Nations peoples’ ability to compete in the commercial market.

To the frustration of First Nations farmers, the policy of severalty and peasant farming was instituted in the late 1800’s after a number of First Nations farmers had already established successful farming operations. The federal government divided reserve land into forty-acre plots and expected the residents to farm with handmade implements without access to labour-saving equipment, thwarting First Nation efforts to advance. This was further compounded by the introduction of the pass system, where residents on the reserve had to request permission each time they chose to leave the reserve; and the permit system, where farmers on the reserve had to request a permit from the Indian Agent each time they wanted to sell their produce. Meanwhile, farmers like Alfie had the freedom to fill entire grain cars with theirs.

In the early 1900s, Indian Commissioner William Graham, using questionable means of “persuasion” set about to cajole reserve residents into “surrendering” large tracts of reserve land that First Nations people were allotted in their treaty, initially. As a result, large portions of the more agronomically productive parts of several reserves were surveyed such as the Plan of Subdivision of South Portion of Pasqua Indian Reserve No. 79. and purchased for resale to either other farmers and/ or land speculators.

Promises of government support in the form of machinery and funding were often reneged, rendering equipment obsolete and unusable. Advancement was further aggravated by restrictions on borrowing capacity. Indians were even discouraged from membership to the Wheat Pool. In many cases, this instigated failure, leaning on the will of many First Nations farmers and in many cases resulted in starvation.

The irony of it lays in the fact that many white farmers, such as Alfie, relied on the Indians on the reserve to help them with their own farming operations. The First Nations people were an invaluable resource: indispensable help as farm labourers were difficult to come by. Cancelled cheques found among Alfie’s things in the chest of drawers are testament to that. Alfie wrote cheques to reserve residents for wages for their help with stooking and threshing, miles of fencing such as what Andrew and his son, Walter, completed for the Stewart family.

At the same time, because of the federal government restrictions imposed upon them, the farmers on the reserve found themselves needing the work, forced to work away from their own farming operations as a means of securing operating cash to which they otherwise had no access for their own farms. In many cases, it was a kind of symbiotic relationship where they looked to each other for the help they needed to grow their respective operations.

Now, knowing all of this, I think of Andrew and my grandmother’s words: ‘Andrew was one of the best farmers in the area.’ The sheer force of will it would have taken.

If you enjoyed this, take a look at my last post on the Scottish isles that were another great inspiration to me.

2 thoughts on “Lost Harvests

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