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Review:
John H. Archer, Saskatchewan: A History

by Sarah Carter
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Dr. John Archer has shown that although Saskatchewan was initially little more than an administrative unit, its boundaries determined by politicians and surveyors, the province has evolved as a distinctive community, readily distinguishable from its neighbours. The collective memory of a common pioneering experience has helped form the Saskatchewan identity. To adapt to a harsh environment co-operation was a necessity that later became a principle formalized in ventures such as the Wheat Pool. Archer clearly feels that politics also played a most dynamic, innovative role in the development of Saskatchewan society. Particularly after the depression, the people of Saskatchewan looked to their provincial government to solve their social and economic problems, and they were willing to experiment politically. The rural roots and multicultural background of its citizens help distinguish the province from others in Canada.

In an introductory chapter, the author describes the natural setting of the province which to a great extent determined its history. Rich deposits of soil, potash, coal, crude oil and uranium influenced the pattern of settlement and the economy. An old order existed for many years before immigrants arrived, attracted by the province’s soil and mineral wealth—Archer devotes several chapters to this. The life of the Chipewyan and Cree Indians before European contact is described, followed by the familiar story of fur-trade rivalries, amalgamation, and the decline in dominance of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Unlike the fur trade’s impact on Manitoba, however, Archer feels that it left no enduring impression on Saskatchewan. After 1870, the hunting economy became less prominent as the nation’s plans for the West imposed a new order through the square survey, the North West Mounted Police, the railway and the treaties. The old order did not recoil in disarray, however, until the resistance of 1885, which Archer interprets as a conflict between a hunting culture and an agricultural, technologically more advanced culture, a conflict that was allowed to erupt through the neglect of a distant government. Only positive results emerged from the resistance. It hastened the completion of the railway and reassured prospective immigrants that the West was firmly under control.

Land seekers in the Last Mountain region, 1912
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The true pioneering period lasted from 1885 until the formation of the province in 1905. During these years homesteaders came to some understanding of both the potential and the limitations of the environment. Saskatchewan’s multicultural society was also formed during this period, but differences were muted, Archer argues, because of the need for neighbourliness and co-operation. It was the “old settlers” of British and Ontarian stock who, with experience in public life and democratic government, took the lead in pressing for responsible government and provincial status. Saskatchewan’s “boom” years began when the province was formed and lasted until World War I. The provincial Liberals succeeded in identifying themselves with the advances of this period and remained in power until 1929.

Saskatchewan’s economy prospered during the first world war, but became more vulnerable as farmers turned from mixed farming to concentrate solely on growing grain. Intolerance of the “foreigner” simmered beneath the surface during the war years and became vocal in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan attracted a wide following. The Great Depression buried old world prejudice and bigotry in Saskatchewan for good, according to Archer. The privations shared in common reawakened the pioneer spirit of co-operation. The author feels that their depression experience, more than any other factor, sets Saskatchewan people off from others in Canada; the effects of the “ten lost years” were more drastic and enduring than they were elsewhere, leaving physical and psychological scars. The 1930s changed the political temper of the people who became determined to install safeguards against the possibility of such a calamity recurring—a determination reflected in the rapid growth of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in these years. Lengthy sections of the book are devoted to CCF legislation which, Archer argues, until well into the 1950s reflected the experience of the 1930s: “evident in a compulsion to build a protection against ill-health, against foreclosure on farmland, and to provide price support and protection against the elements and the machinations of men.” Under the CCF, Saskatchewan became prosperous and urbanized but after weathering the medicare crisis the party became complacent, thus allowing the election of Ross Thatcher. A chapter on the Thatcher era and an epilogue describing some recent legislation and concerns of the Blakeney government concludes this study. Noting that Saskatchewan has become a wealthy province in the 1970s, Archer warns of the “temptation of luxury, the pitfalls of egotism and selfishness” that these riches carry and expresses the hope that the old rural virtues of neighbourliness and co-operation will not be eroded.

In a work of this scope in which the narrative must move quickly, it is to be expected that readers will take issue with some matters of interpretation and emphasis. In seeking to identify a province’s consciousness or sense of identity, the temptation to emphasize only the more noble virtues must be avoided. A glance at several issues of the territorial press would have been enough to cast doubt on the idea that intolerance and hostility toward the “foreigner” emerged only during the first world war. Nor is it true to say that no single ethnic strain dominates in Saskatchewan today. While it may be that Saskatchewan is more rural than any other province, its agrarian character must not be unduly emphasized. A significant percentage of the population has always been urban and more than half the people live today in urban centres, yet the urban history of the province is virtually ignored. The account of Saskatchewan’s cultural history is unsatisfying, amounting to little more than a roll call of the province’s painters and novelists, while the chronological approach employed here does a disservice to the subject.

Dr. Archer’s study breaks little new ground and its treatment of certain themes is disappointing, but it does gather together material not readily available elsewhere, and it provides a fairly comprehensive portrait of a province.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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