The Economy: Taking Care of Business

The Economy: Taking Care of Business

Diversity sustains us

Things you might not know about our economy

Vancouver’s Fraser Institute, a thinktank appealing to investors, thinks we’re hot – at least in mining potential. In 2018 their mining study ranked Saskatchewan numero uno in “investment attractiveness” in Canada, and third in the world.

Saskatchewan has become the Number Two oil-producing province in the country, producing 15 percent of Canada’s crude. Mining and energy production make up about 21 percent of Saskatchewan’s GDP.

Our province produces about 33 percent of the world’s potash and about 22 percent of its high-grade uranium.

Saskatchewan produces more than a third of Canada’s energy.

We have 11.7 million hectares in our “commercial forest zone,” of which 5.3 million hectares can be commercially harvested for timber.

Agriculture and forestry make up about 7 percent of Saskatchewan’s GDP.

Manufacturing accounts for about 7 percent of our GDP.

Some of our most surprising products are used in the aerospace and defence sectors, including satellite communications technology.

The service sector yields most of our province’s GDP and jobs: retail sales, health care, transport, communications, education and research.

About one third of Saskatchewan’s export income comes from food products.

Saskatchewan sends 55 percent of its products to the U.S.A., and 85 percent of our imports originate there.

Saskatchewan is the country’s biggest producer of oats, which is not only used to make porridge, but also cookies, apple crisp and a trendy new milk-like product.

[; StarPhoenix 3 October 2018. Oats: CBC Radio, 7 November 2019]

Where have all the farmers gone?

a prairie scene
Graphic from

(How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?) Many did leave, others migrated to towns and cities, but many stayed. The farms are still there, fewer in number, but vast in size.

Early on, homesteaders were grabbing up “free” land offered by the government, but they usually started with only 160 acres, a quarter section. Over time, up-and-coming farmers took out pre-emptions and bought more land. Gradually farms expanded in size but shrank in number: In 1901 there were only 13,711 farms (or perhaps fewer) averaging 291 acres each. The number of farms peaked in 1941 at 138,173 with an average 550 acres each.

With slick new seeding and harvesting equipment, powerful fertilizers and insecticides, and improved farm practices, farmers could harvest way bigger crops. Successful ones began to expand their holdings and built super-farms, and set up family corporations to run them. By 2001, there were 50,598 at an average acreage of 1283. Now farmhouses have the same conveniences as city houses.

But often farm kids, when they grew up, answered the siren call of cities and left the farms; many went to college and became professionals. Many left the province too. A few intrepid would-be farmers took up small landholdings and began to grow market gardens or odd animals like yaks.  

Hamlets that used to dot the countryside had grown up around the ubiquitous grain elevators. When country elevators fizzled (for reasons to do with grain marketing) hamlet-ites deserted and moved to large towns and cities. Ghost hamlets are depressing, but in other cases farmers bought the land, knocked down decrepit buildings, and farmed the land underneath them.

In 1901, only 16 percent of our people were city folk, and 84 percent rural dwellers. By 1951, 30 percent were city slickers, and by 2001, 64 percent.

Sometimes clusters of people who loved the land but didn’t really want to farm, bought vacant buildings and set up their own little colonies of like-minded people. You can meet fascinating people in these places, especially artists and writers.  

On farms and in towns, shopping habits were reshaped. As smoother roads replaced gumbo, and trusty new cars replaced balky old Tin Lizzies, people drove to the cities to buy what they needed, or they ordered it from the internet. Try to buy a book other than a tourist guide in a small town, and you’re out of luck.

Yellow field, abandoned buildings on horizon.
An apparently-abandoned farmstead
in southwest Saskatchewan.
Photo by Alastair Mirrlees.

This metamorphosis had the unfortunate effect of making the countryside look abandoned and forlorn. But there’s life in them thar hills and plains. Many “snowbirds” fly to warmer climes in winter, but those that remain behind live dynamic lives. A former member of the Biggar community, for example, says our towns have active arts and education communities. “There was dance, theatre, crafts, music, a community college, art gallery, museum, library, community service clubs and a hockey rink and a curling rink.”

[Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan: Agriculture article by Prof. Gary Storey; Statistics Canada and Saskatchewan government stats; personal recollections]

Big fish in the pond

Some large Saskatchewan-based companies

Nutrien (head office Saskatoon) is by far the largest multinational company in the province.  It was formed in 2017 with the merger of PotashCorp, the world’s largest potash producer, and Agrium, a major supplier of farm products.

Canpotex Ltd. (head office Saskatoon) co-ordinates the sales of potash produced by the Nutrien and Mosaic companies to dozens of offshore markets.

Federated Co-operatives (head office Saskatoon) purchases and distributes goods and services for over 300 member co-ops across western Canada.

Brandt Group of Companies (head office Regina) began when Peter Brandt, electrician, began manufacturing in the 1930s. Since expanded by the Semple family, it is now an international farm, construction and forestry equipment dealer, with outlets across North America and export sales to Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Hill Group of Companies (head office Regina): In 1903, W.A. Hill and E.A. McCallum formed McCallum Hill, a Regina insurance and real estate firm. It now entails resource manufacturing, broadcasting and management, as well as real estate, throughout western Canada and the U.S.

Concorde Group of Companies (head office Saskatoon) was founded in 1972 by Les Dube, a Saskatoon grocer, and his wife Irene. The Dube family now oversees development, real estate and management companies across Canada.

Morris Industries Ltd. (head office Saskatoon) began with the rod weeders George Morris, a mechanic in Bangor, began manufacturing in 1932.  From its first plant in Yorkton, the company expanded the range of innovative farm implements made in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and North Dakota.

AGT Food and Ingredients (head office Regina): is a lentil-processing firm founded in 2002 by Davidson-born Murad AlKatib. It now employs over 2,000 workers and has forty plants in five countries, and markets its products to 120 countries.

Corporate impresarios

Some Saskie founders of corporations based elsewhere

Calvin Ayre, a Lloydminster-born entrepreneur, struck it rich in 2000 with Bodog, an online sports gambling company based in Costa Rica. Enforcement of American Unlawful Internet Gambling legislation caused him to shut down Bodog in 2011 and he has since focused on other Ayre Group entertainment enterprises.

Samuel Bronfman, a former Wapella area homesteader, set up a booming liquor-export firm in Yorkton at the end of the Great War. In 1924 he merged it with Seagram’s Distilleries in Montreal. Under his successors, the company became one of the largest liquor companies in the world, with major interests in the American film and television industry.

Murray Edwards, born in Regina and a graduate of the U of S, launched Calgary-based  Canadian Natural Resources , which has financed oil production in Africa and the North Sea, plus the oil sands in northern Alberta.He is also co-owner of the Calgary Flames. The Murray Edwards School of Business was named for him, in recognition of a hefty donation to the U of S.

Ernie Poole, a carpenter who began contracting in Stoughton in 1913, restructured his growing company as Poole Construction when he moved it to Edmonton in the 1930s. Sold to former employees in 1978, PCL Construction now has 4,000 workers, and now has offices in Australia and throughout North America.

Jimmy Pattison, born in Saskatoon, has gone from selling cars to running the Vancouver-based Jim Pattison Group which includes auto dealerships, TV and radio, real estate and chain stores in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.  Saskatoon’s new children’s hospital was named for him, after he donated $500 million toward its construction.

Rahul Sharma, a U of S grad, cofounded Micromax, the second-largest smartphone maker in India.

Brett Wilson, born in North Battleford and a U of S graduate, was a co-founder in 1993 of the Calgary-based First Energy Corporation, an investment banking firm that financed energy companies around the world. He made a million-dollar donation to the U of S to establish the Brett Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence.


Saskatchewan labour leaders

Honorέ Jaxon (William Jackson) was the former secretary of Louis Riel’s council in 1888. In 1909 he acted as spokesman for striking sewer diggers in Saskatoon. A city rep called him “obnoxious” for being an effective negotiator in conciliation talks.

Tom McEwen - illustration by Ruth Millar
Tom McEwen – illustration by Ruth Millar

Tom McEwen (or Ewen) worked as a blacksmith in Swift Current, then as a “smithy” for Richardson Road Machinery in Saskatoon in the 1920s.  After being embroiled in a strike at RRM in 1927, he helped form the Workers’ Unity League (the trade union arm of the Communist Party of Canada. As an organizer of the On-to-Ottawa trek in 1935, he was imprisoned following the Regina riot that July 1st.

Sam Scarlett came as a harvester to Saskatoon in the 1920s, where later he was an organizer for the International Workers of the World (IWW), then the Workers’ Unity League. In 1931 he helped Bienfait coal miners form a local of the Mine Workers of Canada. He got a year in the clinker for his part in a miners’ protest in Estevan that September, that led to a violent clash with police.

Anne Buller, a fiery speaker and Workers’ Unity League organizer of the needle trades in western Canada, harangued the Bienfait area miners about their poor wages and housing. She was found guilty of inciting a riot that followedin Estevan, and was sentenced to a year at hard labour in the Battleford jail.

Hub Elkin was swept up in the labour movement in the 1930s while working for eighteen cents an hour for Swift’s Meat Packers in Moose Jaw. He was founder and first president (1944-49) of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL). Later he served as CUPE rep in negotiating contracts between workers and employers.

Barb Byers, a former social worker, waded into labour issues during a strike by government workers in 1979. Women’s rights, poverty and youth unemployment remained her priorities as president of SGEU, and then the SFL.

Labour activist, academic and writer Glen Makahonuk. Photo from University of Saskatchewan Archives
& Special Collections.

Glen Makahonuk, a historian and U of S librarian, served as president of CUPE Local 175 for eleven years, then as president of CUPE Saskatchewan from 1993 until his death in 1997. As a union executive he worked to improve the lives of its members. As an academic he grabbed every chance to educate others about labour issues.

Larry Hubnick was a principal in the Grain Services Union (GSU) from 1973 to 1982 while working at the Wheat Pool’s IT division and serving as a GSU staff rep for twenty years. He battled the provincial government over workers’ right to strike, a position upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015, which struck down the Essential Services Act.

Sizzling strikes  

Labour unrest in Saskatchewan

A few walkouts that made history

In 1884 railway workers went on strike at Broadview and Regina to protest living conditions while building the CPR main line. The NWMP kept the peace until agreements were reached between the men and railway officials on these sites.

In 1906 sewer diggers in Saskatoon struck, demanding a wage increase from $2 to $2.50 a day. City officials provided better shovels and safety measures, but not a wage hike.

In May and June 1919 during the Winnipeg General Strike, over a thousand Saskatoon workers including postmen, machinists, plumbers, teamsters and other workers went on strike in sympathy with the Winnipeg workers. The Saskatoon strikers remained out for about a month until the Winnipeg conflict was resolved.

A famous strike in 1927 involved thirty-seven “smithy workers” at Richardson Road Machinery demanding union recognition, a wage hike and better working conditions.  Lasting eleven months, it was the longest strike in the 1920s.

Estevan coal miners’ strike: In 1931, Bienfait miners joined the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada, part of the militant Workers’ Unity League. First they struck for union recognition, so they could push to have their wages, cut by the bosses, restored. The mine bosses refused, so the men protested, to enlist public support. The mayor ordered the Mounties and local gendarmes to halt the demonstration, but three miners died and many were injured in the September 29 ruckus.

Saskatoon’s first sit-down “strike” shocked Depression-ridden Saskatoon in November 1932, when fifty families refused to sign a draconian agreement for relief, and were cut off. The women staged a two-day sit-in at City Hall with their children. Finally the relief agreement was softened, and then ignored.  The press considered it almost blackmail.

For forty-one days in 1974, 1733 employees of the universities at Saskatoon and Regina went on strike, their first, to demand better wages and benefits. That year it was the biggest walkout in the Canadian education sector. It was settled by conciliation in the end.

In the fall of 1994 Saskatoon municipal workers across the board (except for essential services such as firefighters) staged a city-wide, knock-down, drag-out work stoppage that started in mid August and lasted for ten weeks. It was the first time Saskatoon Public Library workers had ever walked out, having only formed a union in 1982.           .

Our economic engines

The times they’ve been a-changing

Before homesteaders started arriving, our economy was all about fur-bearing animals, buffalo meat and hides, and perhaps fishing. Horses steamboats and oxcarts ruled the plains as transport.

Then agriculture became our economic mainstay – as farmers grew grain mainly on the plains, and ranchers raised livestock on the curly grass of the rolling southern hills. Wheat was king, but other crops were grown too, particularly where dry soil thwarted farmers’ efforts.

By the 1920s, commercial fishing brought in about half a million dollars a year. Nowadays, sport fishing and commercial fishing compete with avid tourists for the tasty silvery creatures.

One of the plaques at the Gardiner Dam site.
Photo by Alastair Mirrlees.

After titanic hydro-electric projects watered dry areas near the South Saskatchewan River, vast irrigation equipment now advances across fields like a triumphant army, spraying life-giving water for irrigation.

The development of edible oil from canola (which formerly bore the unfortunate name of rape), heralded a new era in farming, around 1951. Now brilliant yellow fields colour the prairie patchwork in spring. By 1971 farmers diversified into pulse crops (lentils, dry peas and chickpeas), and specialty crops (triticale, mustard, canary seed, sunflowers).

Holy El Dorado!

Minerals and other subterranean moneybuckets

With serious probing by geologists, miners and prospectors, the earth between the surface has disgorged riches. For starters, we have become an energy powerhouse. with the most diverse primary energy resource base in Canada, says a government website,

Black gold – petroleum — is a “honey streak” we’ve long sought.  As early as 1874, oil drilling took place at Fort Pelly, and in 1944 crude oil was found in the Lloydminster area. But the most exciting find, after a stunning discovery in Alberta in 1957, was at the Bakkan oilfield in southeastern Saskatchewan, said to hold three billion barrels. Other primary oil-rich areas are Kindersley-Kerrobert, and Weyburn-Estevan. The first large oil refinery established in Saskatchewan was Imperial Oil in Regina. as of 2005 we have had the refinery in Regina (Federated Co-operatives), an asphalt refinery at Moose Jaw and a Husky Energy upgrading facility at Lloydminster. Since then Saskatchewan has become the Number Two oil-producing province, producing 15 percent of Canada’s crude. [See SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY section.]

Tommy Douglas opening Sask Power gas service
Tommy Douglas officially opening the Saskatchewan Power Corporation natural gas system, October 1, 1953. Photo B-14767 by Leonard Hillyard, from Local History Room,
Saskatoon Public Library.

Saskatchewan is Canada’s third biggest natural gas producer. It revolutionized the heating of buildings, and to a large extent weaned us off coal and wood in 1953. We produced 184 billion cubic feet in 2018, and almost two trillion cubic feet are thought to lurk below.

We supply about one third of the world’s uranium, exporting about 90 percent of what we unearth. It was first found in 1945 in the Beaverlodge area, and high-grade uranium in the Athabasca Basin in 1968. Uses of certain isotopes of uranium include energy production, radiotherapy and other medical applications, in smoke detectors, and as ballast in planes and boats. Our uranium is said to power about one in twenty homes in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of us are freaked out by its potential for blowing up the world.

Potash mine
Potash mine not far from Saskatoon in November 2019. Photo by Gerry Ackerman.

The discovery of potash came like a thunderclap. It was first found near Radville in 1943. The first underground mine was at Patience Lake east of Saskatoon in 1958, but Esterhazy has eclipsed it as our potash hotspot. It is used for fertilizer production, and we’ve become Canada’s biggest exporter of it, supplying about one-third of the world’s potash needs.

Salt flats
A salt mining area near Alsask.
Photo by Gerry Ackerman.

Salt is a by-product of potash mining, and can often be seen heaped in mounds beside potash mines. There is at least one company that produces salt commercially. Salt was first produced in 1920, at Senlac.   

Rare earth elements or REES are sometimes found near uranium deposits.  REES contain minerals used to make magnets for motors of electric and hybrid cars, in rechargeable batteries, fluorescent lights, plasma screens, space satellites – the list goes on. Unfortunately, REES are expensive to extract because of their rarity, and often get dumped in tailings ponds. Too bad.

The search for the golden money-pot is one of mankind’s most lasting quests. Retreating glaciers left deposits of gold, and between 1859 and 1918 the yellow stuff was extracted from the North Saskatchewan River using dredgers and sluice boxes. After prospectors again hit paydirt on the north shore of Lake Athabasca, the Goldfields mines were established in 1934. Star Lake near La Ronge has hosted a new gold mine since 1987. The Seabee Gold Operation, opened in 1991, is about 125 kms. northeast of La Ronge and in 2018 disgorged about 1.5 million ounces of gold. There’s also an eager search for gold at the so-called Glennie “greenstone belt.”  

We’ve got diamonds too. The first documented discovery of kimberlite, the magic rock that contains the dazzling crystals, happened at Sturgeon Lake in 1958. Bigger deposits of kimberlite have since been found at places like the one near Fort a la Corne, east of Prince Albert. And the search goes on.

Coal is becoming a dirty word, and — like smoking — we’re trying to quit, says the government. But our coal is the “clean” kind, if that’s any comfort. It was first unearthed in the Estevan area in 1857. SaskPower advises us that “coal is Saskatchewan’s largest supplier of power. We have three power plant facilities in Saskatchewan: Boundary Dam and Shand Power Stations … near Estevan, and Poplar River Power Station … near Coronach.”

Clay was being produced by 1886, not surprising since so much of Saskatchewan land is clay. The Claybank Brick Plant was famous, and fortunes were made in brickmaking.

Sodium sulphate is found in alkaline lakes. First mined at Muskiki Lake in 1918, it is used to make powdered laundry detergent, carpet deodorizers, starch and textiles, and in livestock feed, and pulp and paper. The five plants in our province make us the world’s fifth biggest producer of this useful product.

There’s more: North of Amisk (Beaver) Lake, copper, gold, silver and gold were mined in the 1920s by Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting. Copper and zinc were discovered in 1915 near the Manitoba border, and nickel, platinum and palladium, first found at Rottenstone Lake in 1928.

[Agriculture: Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan; Statistics Canada and Government of Saskatchewan Agricultural Statistics. Coal: SaskPower. Mining and fishing: Archer, Saskatchewan: The Story of a province, 201. Mineral sectors, “Philip Reeves, Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, 618-19; Saskatchewan Mining Facts, 19 February 2013; multiple internet sources. Rare earth: earth-elements. Gold at Seabee:]

Harvesting trees and wild creatures

Maps showing blocks of forested areas suggest that forests make up more than half the province. (Commercially viable, not quite so much.) Those woods are a bonanza in terms of lumber products, making forestry northern Saskatchewan’s second biggest industry, which yields more than a billion dollars a year! Small wonder given the demands for materials from the construction industry. We have eight large companies and more than 210 small ones that churn out lumber and paper products.

Yes, Virginia, there is still a fur trade in Saskatchewan, though it’s highly regulated and you need licences for just about everything. The annual value for all pelts marketed, all species, was $5,517,133 in 2017-18. Oddly enough, coyote pelts brought in the biggest flood of dollars, $4,605,365, but those creatures coyotes were probably the most likely to be captured – 39,416 of ‘em at an average pelt price of $116. Bobcat pelts seem to be most coveted, at $232 each (but it seems they don’t live here very much anymore.) A skunk pelt only fetches $8.31, but a bear pelt might net you about $195. Just who buys these furs any more is a bit of a mystery.

Fur-coated animals in this province include badgers, black bears, beaver, cougar, arctic/red/silver/or cross foxes, lynx, marten, mink, otter and short-tailed weasels (more elegantly known as ermine.) There are all kinds of rules, although skunks, raccoons, coyotes and beaver can be hunted year-round if you have a license. But leave the swift foxes alone – they are a protected species.  

Trappers must be licenced and follow international rules for humane trapping, and  seasons for hunting and trapping are set by the government. You need a license to export pelts too. Just google it.

[Forestry: Wild fur products: Saskatchewan wild fur harvest and cash values]

Something fishy goin’ on (in a good way)

Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime, so the saying goes.

Gerry Ackerman with big fish
Gerry Ackerman of Saskatoon with a prize catch,

About one quarter of Saskatchewan people engage in fishing, and the recreational fishing industry spawns more than $350 million a year for the province.

Like trappers, fishermen need a licence. The government has a Fish Facts publication online, detailing species, size and population status, lake by lake – its even tells how to get to those sweet spots.

You need a permit to fish, and there are lots of rules. First Nations people may fish without a licence using a spear, bow and arrow, or by angling, if the fish are intended for their families’ food. But even with a licence, you’re not supposed to buy, sell or barter the fish you catch without permission.

The government keeps track of fish populations to assess changes from fishing practices, environmental conditions and “stocking.” From these data, they determine useful things about ages of fish caught, minimum sizes you may catch, and whether they are spawning, growing and surviving in a sustainable way.

The Fort Qu’Appelle Fish Culture station is a hundred-year-old fish hatchery that gives recreational fishing a boost by spawning millions of fish, native species and trout. After heavy fishing and winter’s hardships have taken their toll, this hatchery restocks Saskatchewan lakes, (We don’t want another vanishing cod situation.) The Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation took over this fish farming operation from government oversight in 2015.

There are special regs for commercial fisheries too. Just google fisheries.

[….; Fort Qu’Appelle station: Regina Leader-Post 15 June 2015]

The manufacturing industry

High-tech tools for mining, farming and aerospace  

Too many products to mention, but some of the things we do include meat processing, oil refining, pulp and paper, steel production, flour milling, cement making, food and beverages, oilseed processing, brickmaking, lumber products and many others.

Bio-tech research at Innovation Place, and research at the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan will probably yield incalculable economic dividends, not to mention health benefits.

We manufacture agricultural machinery such as improved seeding equipment, plus transportation and industrial equipment, wood, steel, chemicals, and plastic products.

We do robotic equipment too, producing components for some amazingly high-tech equipment and instruments used in agriculture, mining and remote-controlled aerial vehicles.

Saskatchewan industry has made aerospace components for the Canadian Space Agency’s space shuttle, the “Canadarm.” We produce components for circuit boards, wireless telecom systems, toxic gas monitoring systems, and instruments for Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and balloon flight.  

The government says Saskatchewan is a “world leader in biotechnology and life sciences.” Research in agriculture, food science, pharmacy, medicine, botany and animal science at such scientific cauldrons as Innovation Place, USask’s Canadian Light Source synchrotron, and countless other labs at our universities will yield incalculable economic dividends, not to mention health benefits.

There was even a car manufacturing company in Regina before World War II, a General Motors plant. During the war it was repurposed as a munitions plant called Regina Industries Ltd., and did not revive as an auto plant in peacetime.

Manufactured products, along with the usual other economic sectors such as services, wholesale and retail sales, finance and so on, all contribute to our economy, which like everywhere else, fluctuates wildly.

In short, over time Saskatchewan’s resource and service-based industries have eclipsed agriculture as our economic drivers.

[; Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, 618-19; other internet sources]
[Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan: Agriculture article by Prof. Gary Storey; Statistics Canada and Saskatchewan government stats; personal recollections]

“It was so bad during the Dust Bowl that …”:

Tales of the thirties

After the 1929 stock market crash, the world plunged into economic depression. Saskatchewan was hit especially hard, as crops failed and jobs evaporated.

One family’s story became etched in history when photographed in Edmonton. Abram and Elizabeth Fehr and their barefoot children had fled to the Peace River district to escape the destitution in Saskatchewan, but frost and flooding forced their return.

Ken and Rose Bates of Glidden had only one child, whom they adored. In vain they tried get relief in Saskatoon and then Vancouver. In desperation, they tried to poison themselves in their car with CO2. Ironically the parents survived but the child did not. Sympathetic Glidden townsfolk hired a crack lawyer in Saskatoon who won them a not-guilty verdict. But their lives were ruined.

Moose Jaw mayor James Pascoe died of a heart attack in 1931, while trying to shovel his car out of a wind-blown dustbank on an outlying part of the city.  He had gone there to check on houses reported to be without water.  [Broadfoot, 97]

The drought was so bad in the Regina area by 1933 that relief officials had bales of straw sent for farmers to feed cattle. Farmers who couldn’t sell their herds watched them slowly die anyway due to the poor feed quality.

It was claimed the grasshoppers were so bad if that you laid a leather coat on the ground when you starteda task like stooking, nothing remained when you went to retrieve it except the buttons.

Oldtimers remember that a load of codfish was sent from the east coast by concerned fishermen. It was supposed to be boiled and eaten as finnan haddie, but often after days of soaking even the pigs wouldn’t eat it, a farmer claimed.

John Diefenbaker once quipped: “It was so dry in Saskatchewan during the Depression that the trees were chasing dogs.” [Colombo]

A Leipzig area farmer told of shipping a pig to market in Saskatoon, but when shipping costs were subtracted, due to depressed prices he found he ended up with only eight cents.

[Waiser and Diderick, Looking Back?; Broadfoot, Ten Lost Years p. 97; collective memory]


What Saskies did to survive

Women cut worn-out trousers into squares and sewed them into patchwork blankets, ugly but warm.

People stuffed newspapers into cracks around windows and doors to stop dust seeping in.

Farmers loaned horses to each other to get the crops in.

They grew as much of their own food as possible, raising vegetable gardens, chickens and a cow.

Water used for hand-washing was dumped in a barrel where dirt sunk to the bottom. They then used it to wash clothes, then threw it on their gardens.

They kept water barrels to collect rain – a good conservation practice still being done.

Farmers used buffalo chips or cow patties as fuel.

Householders made soup out of cooking water (some of us still do), or fed it to the hogs.

Sometimes generations all lived in one household to cut fuel costs. In cities, an entire families sometimes lived crammed into one rented room.

[Gray, The Winter Years; parental recollections & other sources]

Help for the destitute

Make-work projects in the thirties

Regina: Winnipeg subway underpass, Albert Street Bridge and reservoir, dredging Wascana Lake

Saskatoon: Broadway Bridge, weir on the river (PFRA), the 19th Street subway

Prince Albert: rock dam near the airport, retaining wall for the CNR Bridge, landscaping the Sanitorium site, waterworks improvements

Prince Albert National Park: Waskesiu campsite and roads, Lobstick golf course

Borden area: cement bridge

Hafford area: CNR project

[Eric Strikwerda, cited in Marchildon (ed), Drought and Depression, 237]


What governments did

Many government programs to deal with the emergency were carried out under the umbrella of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act of 1935.

A program of relief payments was implemented to keep families alive during the emergency.

The Saskatchewan Relief Commission sent food to stricken citizens, and food for their animals.

Experimental farms conducted ongoing research into dryland farming.

Some 50,000 dugouts were dug on farms to catch and store water.

Reforestation was undertaken; shelter belts were planted to prevent soil drifting in future.

Spreading organic materials on land helped reclaim farmland lost to agriculture from erosion.

Irrigation projects were undertaken.

Community pastures were set up to share available pastureland.

Farmers on relief were allowed to keep three large animals; the rest were sent north where more pasture land was available.

Not coping

Tax rant

From irate citizen to a mayor during the depression

In reply to your recent and more frequent requests to send you a cheque, I wish to inform you that the present shattered conditions of my bank account make it impossible for me to take your requests seriously.

My present financial condition is due to the effect of Dominion Laws, Provincial Laws, Municipal Laws, County Laws, Corporation Laws, Traffic Laws, Liquor Laws, Brother-in laws, By-laws, Sisters-in-law, Mother-in-law, and Outlaws, all which have been foisted upon an unsuspecting public.

Through these laws I am compelled to pay a Business Tax, Sales Tax, Amusement Tax, Gasoline Tax, School Tax, Water Tax, Excess Tax, Auto Tax, Hydro Tax and Syntax. ….

For my own safety I am required to carry Life Insurance, Liability Insurance, Burglary Insurance, Property Damage Insurance, Rent Insurance, Compensation Insurance, Accident Insurance, Collision Insurance, Rain Insurance, Hail Insurance, and Business Insurance.

The Government has now so governed my business that it is no easy matter for me to find out who owns it.  I am inspected, expected, introspected, suspected, disrespected, examined, re-examined, informed, required, summoned, fined, commanded and compelled, until all I know is that I am supposed to provide an inexhaustible supply of money for every known need, desire or hope of the human race, and simply because I refuse to donate to each and all and to beg, borrow or steal money to give away.  I’ve been discussed, boycotted, talked to, talked about, lied to, lied about, held up, held down, and robbed until I am nearly ruined.

I can tell you honestly, that failing a miracle, you will not be paid just now and the only reason I am holding on to life is simply to see just what is coming next.


[City of Saskatoon Archives]

The iceman cometh

Obsolete jobs and businesses you don’t see much any more

Buffalo bone collectors who gathered enormous piles of bones to ship to factories in the east to make into fertilizer. That’s how Regina got its original name, Wascana.

Stooking and threshing crews that came west with the harvest excursions every fall.

Daguerrotypists and linotype operators in newspaper composing rooms.

The Arctic Ice Company in Saskatoon harvesting blocks of ice from the river for home ice boxes and refrigeration businesses. Photo from Local History Room, Saskatoon Public Library.

Before electric refrigerators, we had ice-boxes. Ice-cutting companies like Arctic Ice Company in Saskatoon cut ice blocks out of the river for freezer lockers. And icemen brought ice to your door, for use in iceboxes.

Milkmen with horses and vans, who delivered milk door-to-door, even on the coldest days. Houses had two-way cupboards for milk bottles at the back door.

Even bread was delivered to households, in horse-drawn vans.

Blacksmiths were indispensable in every community, and some large farms, in the horse-and-buggy days.

Liverymen who tended horses in livery stables.

Travelling door-to-door salesmen like the Fuller Brush man or the Watkin’s man. In the 1920s they roamed around in buggies. Later they used small trucks loaded with products.

Telephone operators at switchboard
Telephone operators at switchboard, September 1959, including Myrna Moen and Marjorie Falk. Photo B 6597 by Leonard Hillyard. Local History Room, Saskatoon Public Library

Switchboard operators on community telephone lines, who got to eavesdrop on the latest scuttlebutt. It was called “rubbernecking.”

Pin-setters in bowling alleys.

[From community histories, and]