- Wet Prairie: People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba by Shannon S. Bower
In this elegantly written book, Shannon Stunden Bower brings meaning and clarity to the complex topic of drainage and agricultural settlement in southern Manitoba’s “wet prairie” in the late-nineteenth and twentieth century. Occupying the southeastern quadrant of the province, the wet prairie formed what has been described as a “soup bowl,” with “slopes seemingly designed to collect precipitation and relatively impermeable soils that ensured the water pooled” (p. 2). A rich agricultural landscape, its topography meant that in many years it was too wet to farm. Stunden Bower tells the story of Manitobans’ efforts to alter this landscape for permanent agricultural settlement, from early drainage efforts by municipalities to the provincial government’s establishment of a district system of drainage in the 1890s, and the extensive and often problematic drainage projects that resulted in the 1910s and 1920s.
This is an unusual prairie history. While most scholars of prairie environments have concentrated on the issue of drought, Stunden Bower turns her attention to the subject of surface water and its effects both on the experiences of residents and the nature of governance in southern Manitoba’s distinctly wet, flood-prone landscape. Settlers faced not only inconvenience from lands that were sometimes wet, sometimes dry, but very tangible threats of starvation when conditions were too wet to grow crops. Efforts to address these problems, Stunden Bower argues, “bore on the ultimate shape of the government itself” (p. 9). The expense of drainage, and the considerable coordination it required across municipalities and regions, directly influenced the size and character of the Manitoba government. The environmental circumstances of the wet prairie also affected relations between the province and the Dominion government, whose limited understanding of the particular challenges of the region made the process of renegotiating Manitoba’s terms in Confederation even more problematic. Here, maps and illustrations are used effectively to clarify what is at times a complicated story.
In exploring the role of the state in the provision of drainage, Stunden Bower engages a growing scholarly literature on the expression and effects of liberal ideology in the Canadian context. With its core tenets of individualism, property ownership, self-determination, and capitalism, liberalism defined the logic of Canadian institutions and elites as they rose to power between 1870 and 1930. Applied to the circumstances of [End Page 223] southern Manitoba farmers and their struggles with a wet and dynamic terrain, the liberal state facilitated the generation of wealth on privately owned farms. Drainage, in this context, became “part of the infrastructure of settlement” (p.12).
Surface water, however, did not affect all farmers equally. The topographical conditions of the “soup bowl,” with its steep sides and flat bottom, meant that “surface water ran from the lands of some (those on the sides) and pooled on the lands of others (those on the bottom)” (p.12). The result was a conflict between “highlanders” and “lowlanders”: those on higher ground were unwilling to contribute to the costs of draining the water that flowed off their lands, while those on low ground felt wrongfully burdened with the task of disposing water that flowed from elsewhere. These divergent interpretations of property rights and responsibilities exemplify what Stunden Bower calls “colloquial liberalism,” the ways that non-experts understood and applied abstract liberal principles based on their daily experience and the position and character of the land they worked (p.13).
The second half of the book explores the history of transboundary water management. In her study of agreements between Canada and the United States in the 1920s and 30s over transboundary flooding, and the novel approaches pursued by the American conservation organization Ducks Unlimited to restore waterfowl habitat in Canada, she shows how Manitoba’s wet prairie was significant to those outside Canadian borders.
Especially interesting here is the narrative of opportunities lost. Although international influences and conservationist ideas contributed to a gradual shift among Manitobans from an “ideal of permanence” to recognition of the need for...