- Harm's Way: Disasters in Western Canada
Disasters are compelling, although generally not for historians, it seems. Largely interested in exploring the longue durée of social continuity or transformation, social historians have tended to drop apparently ephemeral and transitory events, like disasters, from the historical narrative. Even cultural history has tended to avoid such topics, focusing on practices and processes that have left a larger footprint on the historical landscape. [End Page 363] Saying something significant about apparently unique events is a challenge, as reflected by the trite comment on the back cover: 'It is the persistence of the human spirit and its adaptability to challenges that is the true story of a century of development in western Canada.'
Fortunately, such sentiments are not substantially reflected in the book. It is true, of course, that life goes on, but for the most part these stories are far from inspiring. And, they are far more interesting. The disasters examined here by ten well-established historians are wide ranging. Some, such as the epidemics of smallpox that ravaged Aboriginal populations in the fur-trading era and of Spanish influenza after the First World War, killed thousands. Others, such as the Turtle Mountain rock-slide that crushed much of the Crow's Nest mining town of Frank, Alberta, and the 'cyclone' or tornado that ripped through Regina in 1912, were sudden and deadly, but local. In many cases, the catastrophes were not immediately or widely life-threatening, but posed considerable challenges to those attempting to persist and make a living on the prairies. Brutal winters, drought, weeds, floods, and foot-and-mouth disease suggested that this was not a hospitable place for human habitation, particularly on the model of modern commercial agriculture. Indeed, in some cases such as Palliser's Triangle in southern Alberta, the main narrative is one of abandonment rather than persistence against all odds.
Despite the diversity of challenges, they do seem to be tied together by human error, short-sightedness, and greed, as much as steadfastness and courage. Smallpox was carried by traders who ignored the dangers of contagion; the Frank slide and the 'Atlantic No. 3' oil well blowout and inferno were the product of the rush to extract resources from the region. So too was the 'weed disaster' the product of the model of agricultural development that relied on extensive wheat monoculture on large, undercapitalized farms. In any case, the causes of these disasters quickly took a back seat to the problem of image. If anything ties these articles together it is the fear shared by those with a substantial stake in the region that skittish investors and settlers would be put off by catastrophes regardless of the cause. The veracity of stories of drought or of farm families freezing to death in the harsh winter of 1906-7 were secondary to public relations efforts to maintain the perception of the Prairies as a welcoming abode for newcomers. The Regina cyclone was quickly recast as an opportunity to snap up newly vacated land and vie for reconstruction contracts.
It is to be expected that many threats were not foreseen or were dramatically underestimated. Still, little historical memory should have been required to recognize that droughts would return to southern Alberta, or the Red River would overflow its banks from time to time. Not only did those who invested in the region downplay the risks, but also there was remarkably little preparation for the future perils. Indeed, very little was [End Page 364] expected of the state before, during, or after disasters. The Winnipeg flood and Regina cyclone cases are particularly revealing. Both the authorities and those affected by the disaster turned to volunteers. In fact, Regina had trouble finding takers for the emergency funds that it was willing to provide. For its part, the federal government was wary of establishing a precedent if it responded with more than token assistance. Readers will breathe a sigh of relief at the sense of entitlement that the emerging welfare state would eventually bring...