Our Greatest Canadian Story, Almost Forgotten Until Now

By Joyce Sasse

This article is made up of the review notes by Joyce Sasse on the book, Men Against the Desert by James H. Gray, published in 1968 by Western Producer Prairie Books.

The disastrous conditions of the 1930s and the incredible work that saved the Prairies is a history-making story that has brought fame and prosperity to Canada.  But it has been almost forgotten … until now!

In this Summer of 2021, when the reality of Western Canada’s drought and excessive heat is couched alongside the angst of Covid19, James Gray’s book “Men Against the Desert” makes for a heartening read.  It shows how it is possible for desperate people to succeed against impossible odds because they dedicated themselves to work together, which is a good reminder, as I present this to the UCRMN newsletter in Feb. 2022, as we see divisions in the country as people seek for ‘freedom’.

The almost forgotten reality of this come-around success story is summarized in the “Introductory Notes” journalist James Gray wrote.

He starts by telling us about the stories he collected that resulted in “the conquest of the desert (conditions) in the Palliser Triangle … The greatest Canadian success story since the completion of the CPR” … Then he backs his notes up with an amazing collection of facts.  All of this happened in “The 1930s”.

The makings for this drifting desert occurred at the same time as the peril of the global depression (of the 30s) threatened global finances.

“Canada couldn’t have survived economically or politically” Gray wrote, if the Prairie desert wasteland (of the early 30s) had persisted.  But because of the combined and dedicated efforts of the farmers, the agriculturalists, the scientists, the university researchers working together, their problem-solving possibilities gradually showed promise.

It took leadership … and it took trust.  It took believing in the impossible … And in putting together plentiful insights from a dedicated variety of people.

The steadfast employees from the Dominion Experimental Farms gave leadership and muscle and equipment to mount the necessary rehabilitative campaign.

“The agricultural engineers and university researchers, the soil scientists, entomologists, plant breeders and animal husbandmen often worked around the clock with the farmers in the fields” … Even while 50,000 of those farmers went bankrupt and were forced to live on relief.

And the optimists who fought the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (P.F.R.A.) into existence were able to accomplish what most people thought to be impossible.

Remember also, all of this was done in an era when any thought about Federal-Provincial collaborations was barely a figment of the imagination.  Truthfully the desert-emergency was humongous! …  But it is amazing how the combination of ideas slowly came to be reality!

Over a period of 5 years it rained just enough to give the desert-fighters a chance. 

Top soil was imperative, whatever topsoil they could keep was more precious than gold.  In 1937 “barb wire fences were built around half a dozen wastelands.”  With the right selections for seeding and with careful management, out of a total of 500,000 acres they managed to restore a few thousand acres.  That marked a beginning.

At the same time it was necessary to “teach 100,000 farmers how to farm” by the new standards that were necessary.

“Only the Federal Government could finance the kind of effort that was needed.”  But it was the provinces and municipalities who could access land … and had connections with “the people (who) were at the bottom of the problem”.  A “dominion-provincial-municipal super-body was needed to master-plan the project”.

Complicated though it was, the P.F.R.A. did come into existence.  It was given life by the personnel of the Experimental Farms and the planners who started finding ways to use every drop of water they could collect.

Many heroes … many dreams … many individuals sharing leadership … Such dedication! 

“Stopping the dust storms and containing the desert was (still) not enough.  The whole face of Western Canada had to be radically altered … and in the process the agricultural industry had to be revolutionized.”

However the results, as we now know, are fabulous … Just remember that fabulous crops have never been grown by accident.

As a result, the productive miracles regularly reaped by Prairie farmers are now known all over the world.  Canadian agricultural producers show amazing leadership.

This epic saga needs to be studied and retold again and again to each generation.

Remember this.  In the beginning it was ignorance that led to such a terrible environmental catastrophe.  But with massive numbers of individuals dedicating themselves to work together, their efforts became a reality.

 Rather than being a cry of despair, “Next Year Country” became a statement of HOPE! 

Now, as our climate-changes again threaten us, we dare not forget the more complete story of “The Thirties”!

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