Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Western Canada became a cereal grain and mixed agriculture region as the result of deliberate public and private initiatives that were geared to facilitating the creation of a domestic industrial economy in Canada. The famous "national policy" implemented by successive Canadian governments after 1878 was actually a series of policies. The three foundational policies were the establishment of protective tariffs, the promotion of western settlement, and the construction of a transcontinental railroad. An expanding agricultural population in the West was to provide export cash crops and serve as a captive market for Canadian industry, with the Canadian Pacific Railway providing transportation. Although it took longer to come to fruition than the business and political leaders had envisioned, after 1900 Canada did in fact experience an economic boom. There were, however, underlying structural problems, especially in the West.

The market relations that Prairie farmers engaged in with the grain trade were inherently incompatible because farmers' incomes were dependent on maximizing the price they received for their products, while the profits of grain dealers were maximized by minimizing what they paid the farmer. As a result, farmers began to complain about the trading, marketing, and pricing actions of the grain trade. Given the importance of Prairie settlement in the overall national policy, the Canadian government was quick to intervene. Before 1900 the first of several Royal Commissions investigated the grain trade. The end result of the First Commission was a major regulatory initiative, the Manitoba Grain Act, passed in 1901. The act was designed to regulate and supervise the grain trade so as to provide fair practices and prices. Problems persisted, however.

As a result of a bumper crop in western Canada in 1901, many farmers found themselves unable to market their crops because the grain companies and the Canadian Pacific Railroad were not adhering to the provisions of the Manitoba Grain Act. In order to redress the situation, farmers in what was then the Northwest Territories organized a meeting to discuss their options. Organizers were optimistic that they could get twelve people to attend their meeting in Indian Head (in present-day Saskatchewan), but when the doors opened, about seventy farmers were waiting. The farmers decided to form a nonpartisan organization to represent their interests, and the Territorial Grain Growers Association (TGGA) was born. A year later, when the TGGA held its first general meeting, its membership was 500.

The TGGA deliberately and explicitly did not affiliate with any political party; rather, it was to be the voice of all farmers. As settlement proceeded and new communities developed, locals of the TGGA were established. By 1902 the member of Parliament from the region was bringing resolutions and motions dealing with grain-handling problems, passed at the annual TGGA meetings and by TGGA locals, to the House of Commons, where they were typically enacted as amendments to the Manitoba Grain Act. The farmers had discovered that collectively they could wield considerable political power.

Perhaps the greatest boost to the stature of the tgga came in 1902 when the organization addressed the continuing problems associated with grain boxcar allocations. It appeared that the Canadian Pacific was ignoring the provisions of the Manitoba Grain Act in its allocation of grain cars. After an unsuccessful visit to the company's offices in Winnipeg, the TGGA convinced the federal government to lay a court charge against the railroad. The company was convicted and forced to comply with the provisions of the legislation. The court victory demonstrated the effectiveness of collective action, and the membership of the TGGA grew even faster. In Manitoba a branch was formed under the name the Manitoba Grain Growers Association. In the years that followed, the TGGA worked closely with its Manitoba counterpart, regularly visiting Ottawa to lobby the government for action on various matters.

When the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were established in 1905, the former Territorial Grain Growers Association disappeared. However, the change was in name only. The name of the Saskatchewan section was changed to the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association (SGGA), and it went on to play an important role in regional and national economic and political developments. The SGGA was instrumental in the establishment of subsequent Royal Commissions to investigate the grain trade, as well as in dispatching Prairie firebrand E. A. Partridge to investigate the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, a development that ultimately produced one of the region's first major farmers' cooperative grain companies. While the SGGA experienced internal conflict and eventually fragmented over the question of direct political participation, it and its predecessor laid the foundation for much of the collective activity that shaped the region.

Murray Knuttila University of Regina

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