I intended to write this months ago, but finding the time has been a huge challenge. This is a backgrounder and introduction for Forgotten Alberta.
The warnings came early. In 1863, Captain John Palliser, who for three years had explored the far reaches of British North America at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society, described the shortgrass prairies of present-day southeastern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan as belonging to a “region, desert, or semi-desert in character, which can never be expected to become occupied by settlers”*. Henry Youle Hind, a college instructor and aspiring geologist who travelled to the Northwest in 1858, surmised in his report to the Upper Canada legislature that the “prairie country” south and west of present-day Qu’appelle, SK. was “not, in its present condition, fitted for the permanent habitation of civilized man.”* The experience of Colonel G.A. French, who led the North West Mounted Police’s great trek west in 1874, foreshadowed the earth-shattering realization that many a green pioneer must have experienced upon arriving at their southeastern Alberta homestead some 40 years later. After encountering the forks of the Belly (now the Oldman) and Bow rivers, French noted he had expected to find a “luxuriant pasture, according to most accounts, a veritable Garden of Eden”. Instead he found “for at least sixty to seventy miles in each direction … little better than a desert, not a tree to be seen anywhere, ground parched and poor.”* Although the region was commonly viewed prior to 1880 as the northernmost extension of a “Great American Desert”, this was not enough to preclude the possibility of white settlement on the treeless plains.
At the close of the 19th century, Canada’s hold on the vast track of real estate called the North West Territory was far from secure. Fears of another Metis uprising in the Northwest post-1885, and of American Manifest Destiny and annexation, loomed large in the minds of Canadian imperialists. While earlier efforts to colonize the Northwest Territory were relatively unsuccessful, the election of the pro-settlement Liberal Party of Canada in the 1896 federal election would signal a change in government strategy. Together with the Canadian Pacific Railway, the new federal government launched an unprecedented promotional campaign throughout North America and Europe to attract settlers to “The Last Best West“. Instead of focusing their efforts solely on immigrants from the United Kingdom, the new campaign was also aimed at Americans (including ex-pat Canadians) and eastern Europeans. Playing up offers of “free land”, and incorporating idyllic imagery depicting bountiful harvests under golden skies, the new campaign was a raging success. By the early 20th century, the vast majority of Canada’s southern prairie was under the plow, and by 1906, only the “semi-desert” of “Palliser’s Triangle” remained as the last of the Last Best West to be settled. Demand for land was still high, and with the CPR anxious to recoup its investment in land and infrastructure in southern Alberta, doubts about the region’s suitability for settlement were cast aside. Starting in 1907-08, lands which had been the domain of the cattle baron for decades were thrown open to human settlement.
And they came in droves. Prior to the boom, southeastern Alberta was home to around 9,000 residents, the majority of whom lived in and around the city of Medicine Hat. Within ten years, the cattleman had been froze and fenced out completely, while the region’s settler population increased eight fold.* By 1917, southeastern Alberta boasted 16 villages, seven towns and one city – Medicine Hat – which was the only centre to be incorporated prior to 1907.* At its peak in the early ‘20s, the southeast boasted several hundred one-room schools, more than 200 post offices, well over 100 grain elevators, and a population of approximately 82,000. All manner of expert and authority proclaimed that the naysayers had been debunked, as the next great civilization was on the grow! Underneath the hype of these heady days, however, warning signs were starting to appear. The unassuming plains were preparing to evict the unsuspecting homesteader.
In the years after World War I, disillusionment amongst the settlers began to take root. Disappointment, save for the false hope provided by the bumper crop of 1915, soon turned to despair as promising crops were continually wiped out by a host of afflictions including drought, frost, locusts, sawflies, hail and rust. Rain failed to follow the plow, and unsuitable farming techniques left settlers at the mercy of the south’s relentless winds, which sucked the life out of the ground and the settler, smothering both in a blanket of dust. Over time, debt and deprivation took their toll, and relief lines multiplied around the southeast. Farmers began to walk way from their homesteads, selling what they could, and abandoning the rest. What had been a trickle of refugees quickly grew to a torrent, and by 1920 a full-fledged exodus out of the southeast was underway. Within six years, roughly half of the rural townships in the southeast had lost 25 per cent of their population or more. Ten years onward, farm abandonments in the southeast numbered in the several thousand, while the total population of the region dropped to well under 70,000.
As tax rolls dwindled to nothing and arrears piled up, once prospering villages like Alderson, Bow City, Richdale, Suffield and Walsh faded away and were dissolved by the province. Rural schools by the hundreds were shut down, moved or consolidated. Post offices were closed for want of anyone left to run them. One by one grain elevators were sold or dismantled, and often times burned to the ground in the timber dry drought conditions. By the mid ’30s the provincial government had moved in to administer vast regions of the dry belt that no longer had the money, or the taxpayers, to sustain themselves. Many who wished to leave were assisted by the province in finding greener pastures; others who wished to stay had their lands expropriated in the name of King and Country.* Efforts to rehabilitate the land and the settler eventually bankrupted the province, contributing to the downfall of Alberta’s first political dynasty. At the close of the ’30s, the southeast for a number of Albertans had become nothing more than a burden: to be written off and forgotten.
For a great many this was the end. But for the brave who stuck out the dry years, it truly was the beginning. Slowly, the tide turned in the battle against the desert, and those who persevered learned to conquer both the land and Mother Nature. The combination of improved farming techniques; and government intervention in the form of debt legislation, massive irrigation projects and farmland rehabilitation enabled those who remained to coax prosperity from the reluctant soil, albeit on a more modest scale than originally envisioned. After years of drought and depression and six years of global conflict, Alberta emerged into the Oil Age and economic prosperity. A veritable Garden of Eden did eventually emerge from the irrigated lands of the Eastern, St. Mary’s and Bow River Irrigation Districts. The original homesteaders and those who came afterward could finally reap what they had sewn.
In 2009, Albertans have become accustomed to a lifestyle of affluence and entitlement. At the same time, most remain oblivious to the sacrifices during those first three decades which set the stage for our prosperity today. As apathy and indifference rule the day, the stories of their forefathers and of the fathers of this great province are being forgotten. The purpose of Forgotten Alberta is twofold: With the big cities, Rockies and oilsands grabbing all the headlines, I intend to shine the light on a part of Alberta that we sometimes forget exists, looking at events from a historical perspective. Secondly, and most importantly, it’s an attempt to keep alive the memories of an exceptional generation of individuals, who endured unimaginable hardship to build southeastern Alberta into what is today.
Their sacrifices for the benefit of all of us should never be forgotten.