An aspect of Saskatchewan’s labour history that receives little attention is the seasonal migration of Indigenous workers to the southern Alberta sugar beet industry. Yet, Indigenous workers have migrated annually to southern Alberta to hoe, weed and harvest sugar beet crops since the mid-1900s. Shortly after World War II, the sugar beet industry experienced extreme difficulty in procuring workers to meet its labour requirements; it was then that Indigenous workers, particularly First Nations people from reserves in northern Saskatchewan, were recruited to fill the labour gap. Prior to World War II, farmers in southern Alberta had hired European immigrant workers to hoe, weed, and harvest their sugar beet crops; even during the war, when labour was in short supply, farmers were able to utilize Japanese Canadians held in internment camps. At the end of the war, once again European immigrants were recruited for sugar beet work. By the early 1950s, however, the flow of unskilled immigrants to Canada dwindled, and sugar beet farmers experienced a severe labour shortage. The sugar beet industry, with the assistance of the Dominion-Provincial Farm Labour Committee (DPFLC) and the Department of Indian Affairs, then turned to recruiting Indigenous workers to perform the labour formerly done by European immigrant workers.
In 1953, the Indigenous labour force consisted of only 120 workers. By 1962, however, 551 farmers in southern Alberta employed over 2,100 Indigenous workers. In 1966 this labour force reached its highest point when over 3,000 Indigenous workers were hired on a seasonal basis to cultivate and harvest sugar beet crops. Although Métis and non-status Indian workers comprised a significant portion of the labour force, the majority were First Nations workers from reserves in northern Saskatchewan, some of whom traveled over 1,000 km to get to the sugar beet fields in southern Alberta. Many, for instance, came from the Montreal Lake, Lac la Ronge, Sandy Bay and Pelican Narrows reserves. During the 1960s it was not uncommon for about 95% of the population of some northern reserves, including men, women and children, to migrate to southern Alberta during May and June for six to eight weeks, or even longer.
In the post-World War II period, when immigrant labour could no longer be procured, the DPFLC and the Department of Indian Affairs used a number of tactics to recruit, mobilize and retain Indigenous workers for sugar beet work. For instance, letters and application forms requesting workers were sent to the Chief and Band Council on reserves; chartered buses were sent to northern reserves and Métis communities to transport workers to a reception centre in Lethbridge, Alberta; and Social Assistance benefits were even cut off to induce workers to migrate. The Alberta Sugar Beet Growers Association and the Federal-Provincial Agricultural Manpower Committee (FPAMC), formerly the DPFLC, sought to retain the workers by providing housing and work training programs, and by inviting workers as guests to the annual stampedes in sugar-beet country. During the period when the pool of First Nations workers was recruited and mobilized by the FPAMC and the Department of Indian Affairs, it was referred to as the “sponsored movement.” By the mid-1970s, however, First Nation workers migrated to southern Alberta on their own to seek employment opportunities.
Indigenous workers comprised the largest component of the labour force in the southern Alberta sugar beet industry until the early 1980s. By that time farmers had increased mechanization and the use of chemical weed controls to such an extent that their need for hand labour was significantly reduced. Also, in the late 1970s farmers began to augment their Indigenous labour force with Mexican Mennonite workers, who before long became the major labour force in the industry. Nevertheless, in 2004 it was found that 15% of the sugar beet crops grown in southern Alberta used seasonal hand labour for weed control purposes, and that a significant portion of the workers were Indigenous—mainly from reserves in northern Saskatchewan: Island Lake First Nation, Onion Lake First Nation, Thunderchild First Nation, Witchekan Lake First Nation, and Big River First Nation. The importance of Indigenous labour to the success of the southern Alberta sugar beet industry is unquestionable. During the period when they comprised the largest component of the labour force, few non-Indigenous people sought to work there because it was low-paying, back-breaking work during long hot summer days. The workers coped through their sense of humour, some jokingly referring to themselves as the “grab-a-hoe Indians.”