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Saskatchewan River: Dirty Thirties

Prairie life in the era of the Bennett Buggy

More on the Saskatchewan River:
Saskatchewan River:
From glaciers to grasslands

Early Bird:
Beaked dinosaur is missing link to birds

Dry Bones:
Dinosours abound in Alberta’s badlands

Plains Speaking:
Pioneer in the fight for women’s rights

Last Stand:
The Northwest Rebellions ends Métis autonomy

End of Steel:
Canada's northernmost metropolis

Dirty Thirties:
Prairie life in the era of the Bennett Buggy

Unwild West:
Mounties keep order on the Prairies

Dream of Wheat:
Prosperous farmers feed the world

Wonder City:
Saskatoon sprouts from the Prairie

At first, the crash of the New York stock market in October of 1929 seemed like a remote event to the people of the Saskatchewan River valley. They were soon to learn differently.

The stock market crash was the beginning of an economic depression that spread around the world. Foreign customers could not afford to buy
prairie wheat and the incomes of Saskatchewan farmers dropped by 72 percent from 1929 to 1933.

A vicious circle of cutbacks and unemployment resulted. The railways had no wheat exports to ship. The farm machinery industry had no customers. While millions around the world were on the verge of starvation, unsold wheat overflowed the grain elevators across the Prairies.

The people of the Prairies suffered more than other Canadians. Not only did they lose the markets for their wheat, but a series of natural disasters also devastated the region.

The first was drought. Rain and snow, essential sources of moisture for the wheat crop, seemed to vanish in the early 1930s. Crops withered and died in the field. With no living plants to anchor the surface of the land, precious prairie topsoil and freshly-sown seeds were carried away by the wind.

The Prairies looked like a desert during this time, as the rich soil drifted into dunes that almost buried people along with their houses. Every farm house had drifts of dust on the window sills and floors. Dust even filtered into closets, cupboards and food. Sometimes people could not breathe without holding a wet cloth over their faces.

The drought brought a companion plague of grasshoppers that easily thrive and proliferate in a dry, warm spring season. Prairie grasshoppers eat the grain as it pokes out of the soil in early spring. They grow along with the grain, feeding on it at every stage, until they eventually kill the plant.

The 1930s were a time of utter hopelessness and despair. Families who could not pay their mortgages lost their farms. Most of them had no place to go once this happened. Many children could not attend school because they had no clothes to wear. Thousands of unemployed men rode the rails or wandered the countryside, looking for any kind of work.

Gas was unaffordable so people hitched horses to their cars. With bitter humour, they called the horse-drawn cars, "Bennett buggies," to mock R.B. Bennett, the prime minister at the time. He had been elected on the promise that his government would bring an end to the what came to be known as the Great Depression.

But governments seemed unable to relieve the suffering. In 1931, hundreds of people set out by train to voice their anger in Ottawa. The government was fearful of the demonstration and ordered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to stop it. When the protesters arrived in Regina, they were blocked from continuing. The 1,300 hungry, angry men met to express their deep frustration.

Police tried to maintain order by arresting anyone who attempted to speak at this gathering. Soon, a riot broke out. Before it ended, many people had been injured and downtown Regina was left in a shambles of broken glass and debris.

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the fore-runner of the New Democratic Party (NDP), was founded in Regina as a result of the Great Depression.

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