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Manitoba History: Review: R. D. Francis and H. Ganzevoort (editors), The Dirty Thirties in Prairie Canada: 11th Western Canada Studies

by Patricia Dirk
Brock University

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

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

The Dirty Thirties in Prairie Canada: 11th Western Canada Studies. Western Canadian Studies Conference (11th: 1979: University of Calgary). Edited by R. D. Francis and H. Ganzevoort. Vancouver: Tantalus Research, 1980. 173 pp. ISBN 0-919478-46-8.

This collection of nine papers from the eleventh annual Western Canadian Studies Conference at the University of Calgary undertook to demonstrate that prairie man during the Great Depression was not, as so often portrayed, “battered and helpless, the victim of the winds of fortune.” The conference organizers invited scholars from different disciplines to examine the responses of a variety of groups and individuals “who sought solutions to the overwhelming problems” which befell them on the prairies in the 1930s. Together the papers do provide insight into how prairie people struggled to survive, continued to hope, and stubbornly sought ways of bringing about a better future despite catastrophic developments

beyond their control. Individually the papers vary in approach, and also in the contributions they make to the portrait of prairie man as a “hopeful struggler” for survival and “searcher after answers” through the depression years. While those which examine cultural, social, and intellectual aspects of prairie life contribute significantly to an understanding of the people of the prairies, others, such as those dealing with Aberhart’s political orientation and Keynes’ economic theories, do less to broaden our perspective on the prairies during the thirties.

David Elliott’s introductory article, “William Aberhart: Right or Left?” suggests that prairie man, like Aberhart, was willing to take ideas from across the political spectrum if they offered the promise of a way out of the problems of the thirties. Victor Howard’s analysis of “Citizen Support of the On-to-Ottawa Trek” brings the western experience of this event to life. “The Keynesian Revolution in Canada, 1929-1945” by David McGinnis, to the contrary, concentrates almost exclusively on explaining Keynes’ theories and why they were not implemented by Canada’s federal politicians during the 1930s when conditions were most favourable, and yet were later partially adopted in a less suitable economic climate. Michiel Horn’s examination of “The League for Social Reconstruction in Western Canada” offers some thought-provoking views on what the failure of the League in this area reveals about the nature of Western Canadian society and the place of intellectuals in it by the 1930s. The succeeding five articles discuss prairie writers, educators, artists, religious leaders, and folksingers of the decade of depression with each adding a unique and useful dimension to an under-standing of how prairie man responded and tried to overcome its impact. The collection concludes with a vivid and moving personal account by T. C. Douglas of the struggle for survival as it was lived out by ordinary men and women to whom he had offered both immediate assistance and the hope that with continued struggle a better future could be achieved.

Tommy Douglas’s reminiscences about lengthy, heated political meetings in schoolhouses across the prairies supports the editors’ contention that people on the prairies did not become victims of the depression, but rather searched for answers and debated the merits of proposed solutions. What Horn’s paper, among others, reveals is that acceptance of the alternatives offered depended in part on the persistence of a value system which pre-dated the depression. His suggestion that the weakness of the League for Social Reconstruction in the West reflected the even greater dedication in this newest part of the nation to continued growth and development reminds one that the Great Depression was not an isolated event in the history of prairie man’s experience. As was the case elsewhere in Canada, prairie people generally, and those in positions of power especially, were frightened by and thus opposed to proposals which challenged prevailing values and involved fundamental political, social, and economic change. David Jones’ examination of the fight by parents to secure education opportunities for their children in that part of Alberta longest plagued by drought and depopulation demonstrates that change, when demanded, was accepted in anticipation of the revival of the West as a land of opportunity.

The anger against authority bred by the inability of those in power to control developments and to bring about recovery evident in Jones’ paper, is brought to the fore brilliantly by Tim and Patricia Rogers’ analysis of western folksongs from the thirties which, as they claim, act as a “time-machine bringing the despair, anger, humour and sense of resolve of the depression to life.” While the songs do reflect a sense of hope and a determination to struggle on, the biting satire and barely concealed bitterness of many serve as sharp reminders that anger and frustration were very much a part of the feelings of those who lived through the 1930s on the prairies. Victor Howard’s vivid portrayal of the organizers and citizen supporters of the On-to-Ottawa Trek adds an interesting dimension by revealing that although the trekkers enjoyed some degree of public sympathy, they also heightened the fear of radicalism and got real support only from those citizens who had become alienated from society. In his study of religious trends in Canada in the thirties N. K. Clifford comes to the conclusion that even more than in Central Canada this decade of political, social, and economic chaos was one of “preservation and support of the status quo” on the prairies. As Patricia Bovey’s analysis of prairie painting in the thirties illustrates, although change did occur and progress was made, those individuals portrayed by prairie painters were presented as courageous strugglers who continued to hope that one day the system would again operate as it had in more prosperous times. Dick Harrison’s treatment of what prairie people were reading during the depression further underlines the persistence with which ordinary westerners clung to their dreams of a better future in a world returned to “normal.” His revelation that people generally read popular magazine fiction which was only slightly less optimistic than earlier work and which provided the opportunity for westerners to laugh at their predicaments adds greatly to the understanding of how prairie men and women avoided becoming victims “of the winds of fortune” during the dirty thirties in prairie Canada.

As the editors admit, this collection provides only a brief and partial view of how prairie men and women actually responded to the Great Depression. It does, nevertheless, put the responses examined into their historical perspective and dispels the image of prairie man as having “surrendered” in the face of overwhelming odds. It will serve to bring the people of the prairies during the dirty thirties to life for today’s students, some of whom might be inspired to seek answers to questions raised by this preliminary study.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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