The Homesteaders: From Confederation to the Great War by Sandra Rollings-Magnusson
By Sandra Rollings-Magnusson. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2018. xi + 175 pp. Figures, endnotes, bibliography. $39.95 CDN $29.95 USD, paper.
It was a Saskatchewan success story. Six years after entering confederation as a province, Saskatchewan's population almost doubled, making it the third most populous province in Canada. The reason for the dramatic growth was settlers—lots of them. More people applied for homesteads in western Canada in the first decade of the twentieth century than during the entire previous century. In fact, for the years 1906 through 1911, three out of every five [End Page 106] homestead entries in the three prairie provinces were in Saskatchewan.
Sandra Rollings-Magnusson tells this story in The Homesteaders. The work is an informative and intimate portrait of the Saskatchewan homesteading experience, largely in the words of those who settled the land. In 1955, as part of the province's diamond jubilee celebrations, the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan sent questionnaires to homesteading families with an invitation to provide information in a number of areas. Thirty-five hundred responses were received—and Rollings-Magnusson has mined every one in preparing the book.
The Homesteaders documents the recollections of those who won the prairie gamble—in other words, those who stayed on the land and successfully met their homestead requirements. The book not only describes the challenges that prospective settlers faced in turning their pioneer holdings into working farms, but also examines other day-to-day activities such as cooking, schooling, or social events. Rollings-Magnusson makes great use of the questionnaires to talk about these experiences. And she has nicely complemented the text with the rich photographic record. Anyone with farming roots will get lost in the book for several hours.
What is generally missing, though, are those that failed to prove up. Success could be elusive—dependent on any combination of factors—and 2 of every 5 (40 percent) gave up. Their voices are understandably absent from the questionnaires. But their story needs to be told. The homesteading system assumed that all the land was of equal value, and settlers on marginal land found themselves in an impossible situation.
Rollings-Magnusson also rightly notes that it was a white settlement frontier, that settlers of color were not welcome. But immigrants from continental Europe also faced discrimination from the dominant Anglo-Canadian society, and their treatment needs greater examination.
Finally, Rollings-Magnusson explains that Indigenous people were not part of the settlement experience—had no future in the region—and are consequently missing from the story. But they didn't disappear. Indigenous people helped settlers in any number of ways—from cutting hay and fence posts to picking rocks to serving as midwives. Indeed, until large-scale mechanization arrived on the prairies, Indigenous people were a vital part of the farm labor force. That contribution needs to be recaptured to come to a better, fuller understanding of Saskatchewan's great success story.
University of Saskatchewan