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Manitoba History: Book Review: Shannon Stunden Bower, Wet Prairie: People, Land and Water in Agricultural Manitoba

by Graham MacDonald
Parksville, British Columbia

Number 69, Summer 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Shannon Stunden Bower, Wet Prairie: People, Land and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011, 264 pages ISBN 978-0-7748-1853-7, $34.95 (paperback)

Seasonal flooding has been much on the minds of southern Manitobans in recent years. Indeed, since the very beginning of the European settlement period in the valleys of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, residents have lived in the reappearing shadow of the late stages of Glacial Lake Agassiz, of which Lakes Winnipeg, Manitoba, Winnipegosis and Dauphin, may be considered lasting remnants. The unwelcome and regular reappearance of this shadow is the central fact underlying the final conclusions reached by Shannon Bower in her valuable book on the role of water in Manitoba’s economic and social history.

Bower’s interpretation is developed largely with reference to events taking place after the sudden and rather unexpected achievement by Manitoba of provincial status in 1870. Her main theme is that of the effort by agricultural pioneers and their descendants to establish suitable drainage regimes appropriate to the fluctuating geographic circumstances, natural and human, of southern Manitoba. Drainage ditches may seem a rather mundane focus of attention but readers will quickly be drawn into the story and warm to its relevance. The story takes on dramatic qualities, as “lowlanders” are pitted against “highlanders.” The reference is not to some residual social conflict between factions of some of Manitoba’s well-known Scottish pioneer stocks, but rather to those, of whatever ethnic background, who found themselves farming on higher ground as opposed to lower ground.

The attempt to establish drainage systems, with the support of federal, provincial and municipal agencies, often found farmers opposing each other based on the geographic elevation of their properties. Highlanders did not want to pay for improvements which were of no immediate interest to them, while lowlanders felt that some of their problems originated in erosion or in the improvements originating on farms on higher ground, further up the watershed. The story of these contending points of view is often cast in terms of what Bower calls “divergent colloquial liberalisms” (p. 166), which is to say differing understandings of the appropriate interplay of individual land rights with government tax or environmental policies. These conflicts are first described for the period from 1870 down to the passage of the important Federal North West Irrigation Act of 1894 and Manitoba’s Drainage Act of 1895. From the standpoint of water management, we come to learn just how different the situation was for citizens of the “postage stamp province” relative to those in other territorial lands to the north and west. Aside from natural resource jurisdictional differences, complications arose from the central geographic fact of Manitoba’s location in what Bower calls the “soup bowl.” This was the vulnerable low terrain of the valley of the northward flowing Red River, sandwiched between higher Shield country on the east and the first prairie level to the west, of which Riding Mountain is such a prominent feature.

Subsequent chapters detail the various local, regional and national efforts to come up with a correct geographic model for water management. The debate was influenced by private forces, including the activities of the American based, hunter-oriented organization, Ducks Unlimited, established in 1937. Interest by Ducks Unlimited focused on the vast Big Grass Marsh, west of Lake Manitoba, which had resisted efforts at drainage. Ducks Unlimited advertised an international conservationist mandate aiming at the stabilization of good bird breeding and feeding grounds and successfully engaged influential Manitobans such as James Richardson in its cause. Ducks Unlimited had considerable success by 1942, but some farmers along with Manitoba naturalist, Albert Hochbaum, did not entirely subscribe to the narrative of waterfowl recovery promoted by Ducks Unlimited, with its pragmatic, hunter-oriented bias (pp. 127-132). Nevertheless, the late 1930s saw the start of a qualification of the view that wetlands were merely to be drained and turned towards productive crops.

The seemingly logical vision of watershed units as the ideal management unit, promoted early by that enterprising federal civil servant William Pearce (p. 64), was steadily resisted for a variety of reasons. For those who believe all politics is local, many confirmations will be found in the episodes detailed by Bower. As the 20thcentury unfolded, the search for the managerial watershed unit was stalled further by what Bower calls “institutional inertia” in government land use departments, accompanied by a related fatigue among citizens. So many experiments had been tried, that further innovation was now resisted. When a Watershed Act was finally passed in 1956, regional efforts to organize along such lines were few. One might speculate, with some nostalgia, on the mischievous nature of the Anglo-American Convention of 1818 with its eventual consequence of dividing North America along the 49th parallel. The result was, in part, to artificially divide Lord Selkirk’s fief of the entire Red River Valley, as obtained from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The division of that important watershed in terms of international jurisdiction, had early and ongoing implications for water management on the Roseau, Red and Souris Rivers, and perhaps helped to defeat any early interest in the logic of watershed units in Manitoba until more diplomatically sympathetic times and the establishment of the International Joint Commission.

Graeme Wynn, in his informative Foreword, provides some valuable suggestions with respect to some of the juicy bones that Bower has thrown out to historians concerning the politics of “colloquial liberalisms” in Manitoba politics as well as natural resource policy as it has affected federalprovincial relations since 1867. Historians of technology will be interested in the rare photos of dredging equipment and the discussion of double dyke drains. The book is otherwise well illustrated with maps, and includes excellent notes and an extensive bibliography.

Page revised: 12 January 2017

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