Small farms and a poorly chosen word (part 6)

 Part six of a series about the history of the Special Areas.
Most people living in our region know that the Special Areas was created due to hard times in the 1930s.
The weather was certainly a factor in creating the so-called dirty thirties. But another event, often overlooked, played an equally significant role in the Special Areas saga. The groundwork for the circumstances that led to the creation of the Special Areas was largely laid by Ottawa.
For years, Canada’s federal government desperately wanted to turn prairie Canada into quarter- and half-section farms, even though it was widely known that many parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan could never sustain small dryland farming.
Ottawa was single-minded about it, sacrificing arriving homesteaders to the elements, telling them that summer fallow would solve their moisture problems.
As a result of the policy, homesteaders in many regions endured years of chronic crop failure, hardship and heart-wrenching poverty that forced the overwhelming majority of them to abandon their homesteads.
By 1918, in excess of 600 homesteaders north of the Red Deer River had already abandoned their farms. By the mid-1920s, an area spanning millions of acres had lost more than 80 per cent of its population, leaving early municipalities and school boards in financial ruin.
Quickly planted towns experienced a short season of life, then faded rapidly. A good number of them died. Many people don’t realize that in the region that became known as the Special Areas, roughly half the population had already left before the Special Areas Act was passed.
In 1938-39, the Special Areas Board was created to address a problem that had been going on for 25 years or more.
The task of the Special Areas and the Special Areas Board was to oversee the continued depopulation of the region, and step in where local municipalities had become financially destitute.
The Special Areas was supposed to be temporary, like a bankruptcy receiver, which is why the Alberta government in the ‘50s and ‘60s set up not one, but two government commissions to investigate.
The second of these, called the Hanson Commission, carefully pointed out that there is absolutely nothing unique or extraordinary about our region.
It said: “Other parts of Alberta suffer[ed] the same trouble as the Special Areas. Probably the only unique thing about the Special Areas is that settlement on a half-section basis… and establishment of municipalities had been completed before it was [fully] realized the area was unsuited to small grain farms.”
The Commission went on to say: “[The Special Areas Board] was actually a… treatment to cure an ill and as such must have an end when the ill is cured…. When the necessary adjustments are completed, it is expected that the Act will be replaced… to allow for the rehabilitated community to take its place along with other communities in the province.”
The Commission further said: “It is unfortunate that the name ‘Special Areas’ was applied because the conditions which created the problem exist[ed] over much of southeastern Alberta… “
It clearly stated that there is nothing special about our region, and further indicated that we are not permanently handicapped or otherwise less able to govern and manage our own affairs than people living elsewhere in Alberta.
Consequently, the Commission said: “It is in the interests of good citizenship that residents of the Special Areas assume responsibility of self-government…”
This commentary is by the Hard Grass Landowners Council and is prepared by an editorial committee whose members include: Bruce Beasley, Richard Bailey, Murray Sankey, and Pat Rutledge.

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