THOUGH Canada's three Prairie Provinces are great in size -- eight times as large as the United Kingdom -- they have fewer inhabitants than the state of Kentucky. Measured by their accumulated wealth and annual income, they are insignificant compared with any two states in the American Middle West. Why, then, should one take an interest in their problems or inquire into their sentiments on imperial and international affairs?

The answer can be given in one word -- wheat. When growing conditions are ideal, the Canadian Prairies are capable of raising enough wheat to supply, on the basis of present demand, the import needs of almost the entire world. Western Canadian wheat is the finest on earth, being superior in flavor, keeping quality and protein content to any other. It is rivalled only by Russian wheat, from which indeed the best Canadian strains have been derived. Small wonder, then, that these seemingly insignificant Prairies have a world importance all their own.

In terms of British imperial strategy the Prairies are of particular importance, for without their wheat no British war effort could probably be sustained. Britain fighting for her life would be hard pressed indeed if ample wheat were not available across the narrow and easily protected North Atlantic. British experience in the last war clearly demonstrated that Australia and the Argentine are too far away -- freight rates are prohibitive and the danger of attack from enemy raiders and submarines is greater on the unprotected long-distance hauls. North America, and more particularly Canada, is Britain's only reliable source. Between 1915 and 1919, under the joint stimulus of very high prices and the Government's appeals to agrarian patriotism, the Prairie wheat acreage doubled. It rose from ten to about twenty million acres; it stands today at about twenty-four million acres.

The people who hold this key position in world strategy and world economics are a mixed lot: heterogeneous, polyglot, by no means completely melted in the crucible of Canadian citizenship. Even Prairie dwellers find it hard, when gazing at the traditional atlas-red of Canada, to realize that only 275,000 of their total number of 2,400,000 were actually born in Britain, that only 49 percent of them are of Anglo-Saxon stock, and that of the latter many were born in the United States. A remark made by one of these during the Czechoslovak crisis a year ago has its significance. A group of Canadians were discussing the possibility of war, and one of them, a Britisher by birth, remarked that he became more and more conscious of the traditional bonds of blood and family as the prospect of war increased. The American-born Canadian smiled, and observed that he had never felt that tug. "You see," he said, "I never heard of the British Empire until I was 18 years old." That was the year when, as a youth from north Texas, he crossed the international boundary to find himself in the midst of a British country at war. Such an experience is not an uncommon one on the Prairies. Not only do less than half the inhabitants have British blood, but 330,000 of them were actually born on the Continent of Europe and such strains as German, Ukrainian and Scandinavian make up almost 30 percent of the Prairie total. Such facts necessarily condition the thinking of the people, even though, as elsewhere in Canada, Anglo-Saxon blood predominates in positions of power and influence upon public opinion.

It should not be thought, however, because of these mixed strains and because of the relatively late arrival of these people on Canada's shores, that the Prairie population is lacking in Canadianism or in loyalty. The Prairie people take part in all national movements with the same zeal and intelligence as the people in other parts of Canada. At elections they vote -- the majority of them -- for one of the great national political parties. Their political divergences are due, not to their origin and background, but rather to the economic conditions under which they live. Whenever the Liberal and Conservative Parties depart too far from a middle course of compromise, maverick political groups arise in the West, very similar in their way to the protest movements which have marked the political history of such states as Kansas and North Dakota. The Granger movement and the Non-Partisan League have had their counterparts on the Canadian Prairies where, twenty years or so ago, the Progressive Party found its greatest support.

In Alberta, most westerly of the three Provinces, progressivism in its local form was overthrown by the demagoguery of the Social Credit Party which, after four years in power, has given up trying to put its weird monetary cult into practice and has become what Prairie political revolts always become, a protest party devoted to the removal of those things that farmers hate most -- debt, high interest rates, buying in a protected national market and selling the product of their labor on an unprotected world market. For this reason the Coöperative Commonwealth Federation, the Canadian socialist movement, has attracted more support on the Prairie homesteads than among the industrial workers in the cities of Eastern Canada. Its agrarian program was designed to meet the most urgent necessities of the farm people, and laid little stress upon the need for the socialization of the land. It has attempted not only to right agrarian wrongs but to obtain satisfaction for the demands of that sturdy individualism which, in the main, still marks the Canadian farmer who left Europe in order to become his own boss and who therefore fights hard against tendencies which might throw him back into a peasant status.

Up until ten years ago the course of events in Western Canada encouraged him to believe that such an elevation in his status was possible. The Prairie people are perhaps the last of those frontier groups that opened up virgin country during the closing years of the greatest period of expansion the world has ever seen, the period ending with the World War. Year after year, hundreds of thousands of men and women poured into the Prairies and spread out over 300,000 square miles of land through which lines of railway were being hurriedly thrown. It is apparent today that mistakes were then made which could have been avoided. Some sections of the Prairies should not have been opened to settlement. Others should have been maintained as the short-grass range country nature intended them to be. Some of the railway lines should never have been built. It may well be that, with some scientific check upon the exuberance of the lavish pioneer spirit, much of the debt contracted would not have been created; there would have been less carelessness about accepting the burden of high interest rates; there would have been a more just appraisal of the ultimate earning capacity of the land. But, in the heyday of that development, no one gave a thought to such limitation upon the vision of the hour. Had not the country's Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, declared that the twentieth century belonged to Canada, and was not the West the greatest treasure in Canada's inheritance?

The Canadian Hansard throws a flood of light upon the minds of the men who built Canada. There was, in their eyes, no limit to the possibilities of the West. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1884, Sir Charles Tupper, one of the Fathers of Confederation, had this to say about the Prairies: ". . . let me just ask the attention of the House for a single moment to a few figures which will indicate what the capabilities of that country are in regard to the production of wheat. One hundred thousand farmers, each farmer cultivating 320 acres of wheat land -- has any hon. member made the calculation of what they would produce?" Sir Richard Cartwright: "Yes." Sir Charles Tupper: "I am glad the hon. gentleman has done so. I am glad his attention has been drawn to the fact that 100,000 farmers cultivating 320 acres each, or 200,000 farmers cultivating half that quantity each, and taking the product at only 20 bushels to the acre, instead of 27 or 30, which is the average in the North West in favourable years, would give 640,000,000 bushels of wheat, or 50 percent. more wheat than the whole United States produces today . . . and when you remember we have six belts running through that fertile country that would each give 320 acres each to 100,000 farmers, you can understand to some degree what a magnificent future awaits us in the development of that great country."

Men believed this. They honestly thought that the Canadian Prairies could easily produce 3,840,000,000 bushels of wheat a year. In 1938, when the world's population was much larger than it was in 1882, the whole world (excluding Russia and China, for which accurate statistics are not available) produced only 4,400,000,000 bushels. This means that Sir Charles, and most Canadians besides, believed the Prairies capable of producing enough wheat to feed the whole world. The idea that there might be trouble selling it never appears to have crossed their minds. It need hardly be said that Canada has not approached Sir Charles' estimate. In 1928 the Prairies produced their biggest crop, about 530,000,000 bushels. Canadians used about 125,000,000 bushels and had a great deal of trouble selling the rest of it.

This is not the place to embark upon a discussion of the world wheat problem. But it is important to understand that the Fathers of Canadian Confederation and the men who came after them thought in terms of a world of constantly expanding trade and population. What they lived in, and what they thought they saw ahead was (though they did not use the term) an international world: a world in which, broadly speaking, there was freedom and security of trade, security of investment, assurance of prosperity and limitless markets. They did not interpret that world in terms of internationalism, but in terms of British imperialism, and they were not far wrong in doing so. Looking back at that golden age, we see that the greatest single factor in maintaining that free trading world was Great Britain and its Empire, with its own fiscal example, its own world-wide responsibilities, its own world-wide trade. The British Empire was the greatest single guarantor of the world's freedom to trade, and the great instrument of that guarantee was the British Navy. Under its sheltering protection Sir Charles Tupper and his contemporaries were entitled to imagine to themselves those six belts of fertile prairie land, each with its 100,000 farmers, each of them tilling his 320 acres, all jointly producing that colossal total of three and a half billion bushels of wheat which the world would greedily buy each year.

It does not matter much, looking back at this noble vision, that Sir Charles Tupper did not know the hard facts now available to us as the result of soil surveys and experience. He did not appreciate that there would be cycles of dry years when the fertile plains would become almost a desert. He did not realize that much of the soil was unsuited to wheat or to any other cereal. He could not know that the 24 million acres now seeded in wheat represent about the maximum amount possible of cultivation and that some of it is indifferent, inferior land. Nor could he, or anyone else for that matter, have foreseen the ultimate consequences of an agonizing and ruinous four-year World War. What has mattered is that the Canadian Prairies, built to one set of specifications, have been forced to embark on a reconstruction the end of which they could not see; and what has hurt them most has been the realization that many of their troubles derived from the same thing that formerly insured their security -- the policy of Great Britain.

British foreign policy, for two centuries at least, has been the reflection of the domestic needs of a great world-trading state. It was to suit those needs that Britain fought to maintain the Narrow Seas; that the Low Countries became a British "vital interest;" that more than once Britain valiantly fought to preserve the Continent of Europe from falling under the hegemony of a single Power. This devotion to the preservation of her trade was the secret of Britain's might; and its preservation for so long was due largely to the wisdom with which she permitted not only the expansion of British trade, but fostered the vast commercial development of the whole world which characterized the nineteenth century. Had it not been for British dominance, the course of that century would have been far different; had it not been for Britain's commercial trusteeship there might well have been great delay in developing the Canadian Northwest. Either the Prairies trade with the world or they perish. The Western farmer knows that there is no future for him if world markets are closed.

Thus it was that the people of the Prairies hailed with satisfaction the creation of the League of Nations. They knew that Britain's power had been threatened and that other Great Powers were challenging the place she had held so long. They interpreted the League, correctly if too simply, as an attempt by Britain to pass over her trusteeship to a committee which would be charged to preserve those conditions of freedom and security that had brought about the halcyon age of the Prairies' growth. The farmers were Canada's best internationalists, adapted to the rôle both by their vocations and by their mixed racial origins. They foresaw that the League, and only the League, could preserve the conditions of their way of life.

It was for this reason that thoughtful Westerners regarded the events of the year 1931 as an ominous and terrible portent for the future. The autumn of that year saw two events of significance to the whole world, but nowhere did they have greater significance than for the Prairie wheatgrowers. The League of Nations began to break down under the impact of the Japanese attack on Manchuria; and almost at the same time Great Britain abandoned her historic policy of free trade by adopting a protective tariff. The report of these two events in Western Canada had all the doleful significance of the tolling of a bell. Where did the Prairies belong in a world where the attempt to maintain collective security had collapsed and where Great Britain had withdrawn behind a tariff wall? It was not long before the meaning of both events was driven home to the Prairies. The postwar world had fallen to pieces, and there appeared to be no readiness on the part of Great Britain to try to shoulder once more the responsibilities she had carried up to 1914. There was no illusion on the Prairies about the meaning of tariffs. The farmers were aware that high Canadian duties were making it still harder for their goods to reach a market. It was with something like horror that the wiser of them saw the tariff walls go up around their biggest customer, the United Kingdom. A closed economic system was being created, and they knew it.

The year 1932 was little better, for it saw the Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa. The pageantry of Empire which surrounded that conclave could not conceal the shortsighted, selfish bargaining that disfigured the proceedings. A half dozen protectionist governments haggled together in an attempt to get something for themselves without giving anything in return. The economic results in themselves were not actually of great importance, as was revealed by the fact that a very minor diversion of trade occurred in the following years. But the effect upon the world at large was disastrous from the point of view of the Prairies. Canada's wheat customers assumed, and perhaps properly enough, that if the Empire was determined to concentrate its trade within itself, the Empire should assume the purchase of all the Empire's wheat. Yet the principal offset that the Prairies received was the imposition of a duty of six cents per bushel on non-Empire wheat entering Britain. The value of this concession may be estimated from the fact that, when the Anglo-American trade treaty forced the removal of that duty in 1938, no important Prairie voice was raised in protest. It had been worthless.

Meanwhile, international affairs continued to follow a discouraging course. "Appeasement" had begun. From Manchuria to Munich there was not a single step taken that could bring any cheer to the hard-pressed farmers of the Canadian Prairies. Instead they saw a world slowly but steadily closing in on itself, ever removing itself further and further from the only kind of life in which 2,400,000 people, landlocked in a sea of wheat, could make a decent living. Naturally those people commenced to ask themselves most disquieting questions, which even the startling metamorphosis of British foreign policy that began last March failed to silence.

The wiser of them saw clearly that if certain conditions becoming visible in Britain should persist, that country must radically change its economic life. Obviously, a self-contained Britain could no longer be a clearing house for world trade. The Prairies would then either have to stop growing wheat, or develop new connections -- possibly with Britain's successor in world power -- through which they could reach the world's markets.

The first of these alternatives was thoroughly canvassed. The conclusion reached after a careful survey found expression in a statement by Mr. J. G. Taggart, Minister of Agriculture for Saskatchewan, the largest wheat-growing province in Canada. He said: "The first and most persistent drive of the Western farmers and of all the people of Canada ought to be to sell more wheat rather than to accept the proposition that wheat sales should be permanently reduced." The principal reason for the prevalence of this view is easily explained. The most feasible alternative to wheat farming would be cattle production. But cattle raising does not occupy as large a population as wheat cultivation. Turning to cattle would therefore drive many thousands of people out of the area, destroy towns and villages, and disrupt the economic life of the Prairies in general.

The Dominion Government, working in conjunction with the three Provinces, has had a major plan under way designed to assist distressed farmers to become more self-sustaining on their farms. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act has been making large expenditures to conserve the scanty Prairie moisture by building thousands of small dams and fills which will make it possible for many wheat farmers to maintain a few head of cattle and some hogs and sheep. Water will also be available for truck gardens. In addition, community pastures are being organized on which stock can be raised, and to which cattle can be driven when drought afflicts the farms. However, though these measures are important and useful they have left the major problem untouched. The common sense of Mr. Taggart's conclusion is irresistible if ever there is again to be a sane, international trading world.

The fact that Great Britain could no longer be relied on to provide Canada with a sheet anchor to windward naturally gave rise to new currents of political as well as economic thought. Their net tendency was to emphasize a North American as opposed to a British attitude towards the world. The process was slow, and such events as the royal visit of course worked in the other direction. On that occasion the Prairie Provinces displayed an ardent loyalty unsurpassed by any other part of the Dominion, a passionate devotion to the Crown that surprised most observers. Nor was there doubt, in the light of that experience, that if a major war broke out in the near future the Prairie people would plunge wholeheartedly into the struggle.

This, however, is only a short-run consequence. Times change and royal visits and wars do not occur every year. It is, besides, impossible to imagine that the whole of the Prairies' demonstration last spring was based on affection for the British Empire. Much of it undoubtedly was the expression of a pure Canadianism which ordinarily finds few enough outlets. The Prairie farmers, standing in the night hours at lonely crossings just to watch the lights of the royal train sweep past, were surely feeling an identity with their fellow citizens which Canadians, deeply cursed by sectionalism, rarely feel. The king they saw was the King of Canada. The patriotism they felt was nationalist rather than imperialist.

Some measure of proof for this suggestion was found last spring in the Western support accorded to the bill introduced into the House of Commons with the object of establishing Canada's autonomous position on the vital question of war and peace. The bill, introduced by a Western private member, Mr. J. T. Thorson, an Icelandic Canadian and a Rhodes scholar, attempted to clarify an obscure constitutional position by setting forth that Canada would be at war only by the action of the King on the advice of his Canadian ministers. The bill died on the order paper; but it received substantial support on the Prairies from isolationists who had persuaded themselves, in the face of obvious facts, that Canada could remain neutral in the event of a British war, and from disappointed supporters of the League of Nations who had come to the belief that Munich spelled the end of all hope for collective security. Support for this bill also came from those who believed that such a bill, if enacted, would in the long run stimulate national unity; and that, in certain eventualities, a Canadian war effort might be longer and better sustained if the Dominion had entered it fully responsible and autonomous. Events have, of course, crowded this view out of the picture.

In any future world in which Great Britain had abdicated from many of her former responsibilities, and in which no system of collective security had been set up, a lonely Canada would be bound to seek entry into some new alignment. How closely she could develop her policies in conjunction with those of the United States, whether the identity of interest would ever approach political union, is impossible to guess. Very powerful obstacles, among them the special privileges accorded by the present constitution to the Roman Catholic French Canadian population, would bar the way. But, union or no union, the two countries would inevitably draw closer and closer together. Identic aims, the vast coöperation of American capital in Canadian business, the need of a common policy of continental defense, all would combine to suggest a happy and intimate collaboration in progress towards the same goal. It is not difficult to imagine the American and Canadian peoples, a century hence, as the joint bearers of the great tradition of Anglo-Saxon political ideals and government.

This is all speculation as to a future which in moments like these seems to lie very far ahead. Those in the Canadian West who still looked hopefully to Britain for leadership in a movement to restore those conditions of freedom which alone make life possible for areas where the population depends on the export of wheat, have not found her wanting today.

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