The Canadian Prairies

Prairie provincesThe vast stretch of land between British Columbia and Ontario comprises an area known as the Canadian Prairies, a 2 000 km valley of plains, forest, and farmland. Divided into three provinces — Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan — the resource-rich region has long served as the country’s breadbasket, and a crucial lynchpin in the national economy.

While the Prairies now have their share of big cities, rural living remains an important component of the region’s identity. At a time when more and more Canadians live exclusively in downtown apartments and make money in 21st century, post-industrial jobs, the Prairies is a place where farming and mining still generate a livelihood for many, and conservative-minded folk live in small, pioneer communities separated by vast fields and open skies.

Geography

Trans-Canada Highway

The long drive across the prairies is a common route for Canadian truckers and college kids looking for adventure. Luckily, it can be easily accomplished via the massive Trans-Canada highway that links Quebec City to Vancouver, and everywhere in-between. Photo: Bryan Passifiume

The Prairies begin where the Rocky Mountains end, which is to say, Alberta’s western border with British Columbia. Moving east, the landscape proceeds to get very flat very quickly, as tall forests give way to plains, lowlands and grassy fields. The dark soil that lies beneath is the best in Canada, and together the three Prairie provinces house nearly 90 per cent of the country’s arable farmland. Vast fields of wheat, barley and other crops remain among the region’s most iconic — albeit not terribly exciting — sights. Flatness is by far the defining adjective of the region, though the Prairies’ lesser-known and mostly underpopulated northern region is far more forested and hilly.

Weather-wise, the prairies alternate between warm, dry, sunny days and cold nights, which get particularly fierce in the winter. Warm Chinook winds and thunderstorms have similarly helped contribute to the romantic idea of the Prairies as a land with sharp, moody seasons.

Owing to the region’s history of aggressive settlement and farming, the population of the Prairies is more evenly distributed than anywhere else in Canada, with towns and cities spread all over the interior of the three provinces rather than huddled along the U.S. border, as is common in the rest of the country.

History of the Region

Many homesteader families were members of unpopular religious groups that were fleeing European persecution, such as Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors and Jews. Seen here, a Doukhobor family from Imperial Russia.

A lasting monument to the Victorian-era colonization plans of the Canadian federal government, the three Prairie provinces all trace their histories back to 19th century settlement programs. Following Ottawa’s acquisition of the massive Rupert’s Land territory from the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870 and subsequent completion of the sea-to-sea Canadian Pacific Railroad, Ottawa promoted “homesteading” — where large swaths of government land were given to settlers — as a way to ensure the speedy occupation and development of the new territory. It worked, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries large waves of immigrant farmers, particularly from Germany, Scandinavia, Russia and the Ukraine, helped transform the previously underpopulated area into a thriving base of Canadian agriculture.

Canada’s farming boom came to an abrupt end during the 1920s and thirties, when the so-called Dust Bowl era of storms, droughts and crop failures further devastated a region already hard hit by the Great Depression (1929-1939). Born from economic unease, the Prairies quickly became a hotbed of political radicalism; socialism, communism and fascism all rose in popularity, as did the uniquely Canadian movements of farmer progressivism and Social Credit monetary theory. All the provinces retain unorthodox political parties to this day.

After World War II (1939-1945), things returned largely to normal, though all three provinces have made efforts in recent decades to diversify their economies, moving away from farming and natural resources in favour of more service-oriented and white collar forms of employment.

The Prairie Provinces

Alberta stats and flag

Calgary Stampede

The Calgary Stampede, a 10-day fiesta of rodeo competitions, livestock shows, and country music, is always the year's proudest celebration of Alberta culture. Photo: Mike Ridewood.

The country’s energy powerhouse, Alberta has exploited its great natural resources to become the richest per-capita province in Canada — with a generous self-image to boot. Today, Alberta is known for being a sort of “Canadian Texas,” due to its vast oil fields, cowboy culture and long tradition of political conservatism.

Owing to the region’s comparatively dry, grassy landscape, Alberta’s early homesteaders found their land better suited for cattle ranching than farming, founding a thriving Albertan beef industry that continues to this day. In 1905, the federal government agreed to make Alberta into a province, but its poor farmland made it an unpopular destination for settlers, most of whom preferred to flock to the lusher terrains of neighbouring Saskatchewan and Manitoba. For several decades Alberta languished, but then in 1947 oil was discovered in the city of Leduc, and the province was never quite the same.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Alberta underwent a massive oil boom that helped Canada become one of the world’s leading petroleum-exporting countries, and Alberta the nation’s richest province. Cities like Calgary and Edmonton exploded in population as new jobs in the energy sector (and all the related industries around it) drew thousands of wealth-hungry new residents, while a government rich on royalties was able to attract even more with promises of low taxes and cheap utilities. Despite some economic ups and downs in the decades since the initial boom, oil remains Alberta’s dominant industry to this day. In recent years, as traditional wells begin to dry up, there has been something of a second boom thanks to the province’s recently developed oil sands in the north.

Albertan oil sands

Alberta's oil-based economy has become increasingly controversial with the environmentalist set, who blame it for propping up the petroleum industry and contributing to global warming.

Albertan culture is known for being quite conservative and traditional, with a strong focus on family, Christianity and community. Politically, the province is often portrayed as a right-wing outlier in an otherwise fairly liberal country. Alberta has not had a nominally progressive government since 1935, when the Depression-era United Farmers of Alberta party was kicked out in favour of the Social Credit party (who were then kicked out by the Progressive Conservatives in 1971). In a reflection of the ideological one-sidedness of the place, the main opposition to the Conservative government comes from the Wildrose Party which is mostly made up of dissident ex-Conservatives who felt the party wasn’t right-wing enough. During federal elections, it’s not uncommon for Albertans to send a 100 per cent Conservative delegation to Parliament.

Links About Alberta:

Saskatchewan stats and flag

Saskatchewan wheat fields

The sprawling wheat fields of Saskatchewan are so famous, they're even on the provincial flag. Though wheat is no longer the backbone of the Saskatchewan economy, to many Canadians, the crop and province will always be synonymous.

Easily the most stereotypical of the Prairie provinces, Saskatchewan is said to have the most intense version of everything the region is known for: the flattest land, the biggest farms and the dullest people. Though I suppose you could debate that last one, the other two are indisputable: Saskatchewan is entirely mountain-free, and its vast acres of farmland comprise nearly 50 per cent of the country’s total.

The favourite destination of settlers during the homestead period, Saskatchewan was the third biggest province in Canada until about World War II, prospering greatly from the Canadian agricultural boom of the early 20th century. Though the province was dubbed a “one crop economy” for being so dependent on wheat exports, technological advancements after the war led to the discovery of new resources under the ground, too, notably uranium, oil and potash, allowing for more diversified exports. Fuelled by high resource prices and growing trade with the United States, in recent years Saskatchewan has steadily risen to become one of the richest jurisdictions in all of Canada.

Few Saskatchewaners work as farmers or miners these days, however, as more and more residents take up careers in the vast “service sector” of office jobs, bureaucracy and retail that have come to dominate the Canadian economy in general. Still, the province’s less than one million residents remain fairly spread out, and even Saskatchewan’s two biggest cities, Regina and Saskatoon, collectively house less than 40 per cent of the provincial population. The province’s famously easygoing, small-town culture of tractors, trailers and truck stops has been celebrated in everything from a hit Canadian sitcom (Corner Gas) to the folk-rock songs of the Tragically Hip.

Tommy Douglas

As the first premier to introduce a form of universal health care in his province, Tommy Douglas is often dubbed the "father of Canadian Medicare." Fun fact, he is also the grandfather of beloved action star Kiefer Sutherland (b. 1966), seen here on the left. Photo: Don Healy.

During the Great Depression, suffering Saskatchewan farmers and labour activists founded a new political party known as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and elected Baptist minister Tommy Douglas (1904-1986) as the first openly socialist head of government in North America. Though the CCF (now known as the New Democratic Party) has remained a powerful force in Saskatchewan politics ever since, ruling for most of the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s, its commitment to socialism has noticeably declined, and has ironically maintained much of its continued electability due to its commitment to fiscal conservatism. The leading right-of-centre party in the province is the creatively-titled Saskatchewan Party, which has, since the 1990s, steadily risen to replace both the Liberal and Conservative parties as the dominant anti-NDP force in the province.

Links About Saskatchewan:

Manitoba stats and flag

Louis Riel

Louis Riel (1844-1885) was president of the Red River Metis colony, and in this capacity helped negotiate the entry of Manitoba into Canada. As his people were steadily displaced, he felt betrayed, and in 1885 led a second armed resistance against Canada for which he was eventually tried and executed. Founding father or traitor? Canadians still debate.

An interesting historical case study in aboriginal rights, Manitoba was founded to be something quite different than what it ended up becoming. The province traces its roots back to the Red River Settlement of the early 19th century, a small southern Manitoba community of so-called “Metis” people who were the offspring of the Native women and French-Canadian fur traders that cohabited the area. These Metis people formed a distinctive hybrid culture of aboriginal and French traditions, and were largely independent and self-governing, having little contact with the outside world. This came to an end in 1869, when the Canadian federal government attempted to take over the Red River lands in order to make way for the Canadian Pacific Railway, triggering a phase of armed resistance between the Metis and Canadians known as the Red River Rebellion. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and the government of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald negotiated with the Metis leaders to found Manitoba, Canada’s fifth province, in 1870.

In the years that followed, however, much of Metis culture was wiped out once wave after wave of new settlers flooded into the province and displaced the locals. Today, the province is 90 per cent white, with most Manitobans tracing their roots to 19th century British, French, German or Ukrainian immigrants. Only in recent years has Manitoba belatedly come to celebrate its Metis past as an important part of its identity.

Manitoba bison

The proud bison is the official symbol of Manitoba. Although native to the region, more of them live in other provinces these days.

Geographically, Manitoba is a mix of northern forests and southern grasslands, and contains three of the country’s biggest lakes — Lake Manitoba, Lake Winnipegosis and Lake Winnipeg. Though the vast majority of Manitobans live in or around the capital city of Winnipeg, the far-north city of Churchill on the coast of Hudson Bay remains almost equally famous for its history with the fur trade and tourist-friendly arctic animals.

Manitobans take pride in being hearty survivors of some of the harshest weather in Canada (floods and tornadoes are not uncommon), but also take pride in the diverse natural beauty and wildlife of their region. In contrast to Alberta and Saskatchewan, Manitoba lacks an easily caricatured identity, and has had far less cultural, political and economic impact on the country at large. In many ways, the defining theme of Manitoba may simply be its mellow diversity — of land, nature, politics and people.

Links About Manitoba:

Quick Facts:

  • The Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are best known for their flat farmland.
  • Much of the Prairies' population is descended from 19th century farmer settlers.
  • A thriving oil industry has helped the province of Alberta become the country's richest.
  • Residents of the Prairies are often stereotyped as being rural, redneck types.