During the last decades of the 19th century and the first couple of the 20th, in order to settle Western Canada and keep it from becoming another U.S. state, the government of the day opened the west to a flow of immigrants. A railway had just been completed to transport the new farmers to the prairies and it worked with resounding success. From 1885 until 1918 each new immigrant was given 160 acres of undeveloped land just for the asking. The flow soon became a floodtide and soon the entire prairies, once the domain of the buffalo and their hunters, were under the plough.
Here is a perfect example of history that would repeat itself endlessly. Present day governments, after funding extensive and expensive studies often ignore them to fill their hidden agendas. This one was to settle the prairies and keep them Canadian.
The warnings were clearly issued by the Palliser Expedition. Sent by the Royal Geographical Society, from 1857 to 1860, to survey conditions in Western Canada, they found a huge semi-arid triangle of land, straddling the U.S. border at its apex and reaching far up into Southeast Alberta and Southwest Saskatchewan. Pallisers Triangle, as it has come to be known, was judged to be much too dry to sustain any kind of agriculture. Ignoring the warnings, it was settled and ploughed. Guess where all the dust came from during the depression of the 1930s. No wonder it came to be called the dirty thirties.
This October, as we traveled south-eastward from Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway, the colour of the grass in the fields changed noticeably from deep green to light brown. This is cattle ranching country with pasture and hayfields measured in kilometres rather than hectares.
While we were stopped in a filling station in Southern Saskatchewan, I asked a farmer how he was coping with an obvious dry spell. This year, he responded, they had had 3 inches of rain. One of his hayfields, which normally supplies from eleven to twelve hundred bales, this year had provided only ninety! In order to import hay he would have to sell some of his stock.
A few days later, on a cool, windy day in Eastern Manitoba, I sat in my car and painted the hayfield seen here in this sketch. Hundreds of the huge circular bales lay in a field of perhaps 60 hectares. The land, surrounded by autumn-gold poplar trees, was a lush green. While we were visiting my father-in-law, now a healthy ninety-one year old former farmer, he had commented about this summers weather. We had so much rain, he exclaimed, that the fields turned into lakes! Definitely not Pallisers Triangle!
As I painted and listened to my car radio, I was not surprised to hear that it was snowing in Winnipeg. The wind, after all, had a real bite to it. Gazing up at a partially blue sky filled with huge cumulus clouds, I muttered, Good! They can keep it there.
It grew increasingly darker as I painted and soon, without any fanfare, huge flakes drifted down across the field and on to the bales of hay. Suddenly the world turned white. Using memory, imagination and visualization, I finished my Manitoba sketch.