Reading: Ed Whitcomb, A Short History of Saskatchewan, 2005: a Review

Map of Canada showing the province of Saskatchewan with the Saskatchewan flag image
Map of Canada showing the province of Saskatchewan with the Saskatchewan flag image | Source
Louis Riel at his trial, 1885
Louis Riel at his trial, 1885 | Source
"SASKATCHEWAN 1953 plate WHEAT PROVINCE"
"SASKATCHEWAN 1953 plate WHEAT PROVINCE" | Source

Paradoxes of a Prairie province

Dr. Ed Whitcomb, A Short History of Saskatchewan, Ottawa, Ontario: From Sea to Sea Enterprises, 2005, ISBN 0-9694667-3-0, p. p. 66

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Here, in readable form is a very interesting introduction to a Canadian province's history which should be better known than it actually is.

The author is at pains to emphasize that he has aimed at writing a provincial political history. This does of course beg the question of whether a Canadian province is simply the sum of its provincial political events. (What I mean here may become clearer later.)

Predictably, many Saskatchewanian individuals (by birth or adoption) are handled about whom one might well expect to read: not in any particular order: mystical Métis leader Louis Riel, and his tragic trial at Regina, popular Premier Tommy Douglas associated with the coming of Medicare, Liberal Premier Jimmy Gardiner and his patronage machine, M J Coldwell and the CCF (later to become the NDP), and many others. The province's close association with the former North West — now Royal — Mounted Police, the relatively early participation of women in provincial elections and the prevalence of wheat farming all prominently feature also.

Some curious omissions — or possible cases of a lack of emphasis — seem to feature, in addition.

I would comment that John Diefenbaker's Saskatchewan background was very significant; consider his consciousness of the effects of the Depression in the province which for him overrode his Progressive Conservative Party's commitments to Bay Street; the province's multicultural character; a strong locally ingrained sense of individual rights; and the favours he perceivedly owed to the farming sector. All these factors so deeply informed his outlook and aspirations for Canada, that I would have expected more than two passing mentions of Diefenbaker in a work of this nature.

Given that the writer makes much of the perceived championing of provincial rights by Saskatchewan NDP administrations, I would have thought that their relations specifically with the Trudeau government would have merited a mention.

Tommy Douglas in 1945
Tommy Douglas in 1945 | Source
The old logo of the Canadian Pacific Railway
The old logo of the Canadian Pacific Railway | Source

Historical contradictions and poignancy

A strong sense of paradox and even contradiction seems to be a leitmotif in Saskatchewan's history. For example, it was a left-leaning NDP government, long identified with having given its own civil servant supporters in the labour movement the right to strike, which overrode worker grievances in the early 1980s in a way not even private sector employers would have done. It was an NDP administration which had long ridden on waves of local, anti-Ottawa sensibilities by articulating the position that a Prairie provincial government should defend its people's near-exclusive right to benefit from the exploitation of its own natural resources. And yet it was Allan Blakeney's NDP government that proceeded to argue that its own uranium resources should not after all be exploited, although the NDP government had itself already agreed with the Eldorado mining company to this effect.

Then of course there is great significance to the undoubted facts of the heavy dependence of farmers on the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose monopolistic tendencies they resented, and of the lack of sufficient rail network in the late 19th century in what became the Province of Saskatchewan. And yet it was Sir Cornelius Van Horne of the CPR who could agree that paradoxically only when Louis Riel became a military threat to the Dominion and thus made the railway an essential military asset, that the Dominion government became sufficiently committed to supporting the railway in a viable manner.

Probably the most poignant aspect of the history of the province which the book covers is the fate of First Nations, successively outmanoeuvred and even starved by agents of the Dominion government.

An extra proofreader would have usefully contributed to the elimination of the too many typos which are retained in the book.

This book taught me a lot I did not know and I would certainly recommend it as an introduction to the history of this intriguing Prairie province. Obviously, different historical authors will approach their task in various ways, and I happen to think that coverage of the contribution of Saskatchewan and its prominent representatives to the Federal side of politics also would also be of interest in a work of its purported scope.

June 27, 2013

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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