An understanding of the history of agriculture in the province of Saskatchewan must begin with the vital contributions of First Nations. Indigenous people of the western plains were the true “sod-busters”—the earliest and largest group to attempt agriculture west of the Red River Settlement, beginning in the 1870s. But the history of Indigenous agriculture goes back much further than that: in Central and South America, Indigenous agriculture preceded the arrival of white settlers by about three millennia. Indigenous Americans excelled in the arts of plant domestication: nearly 300 food crops were cultivated, including corn, potatoes, sunflowers, tomatoes and squash, which were all introduced to Europe following contact. Indigenous foods of the Americas constitute 60% of the world’s crops now in cultivation.
There was pre-European contact agriculture even in the northerly stretches of the plains that became Canada. Agriculture was a far more ancient and indigenous tradition on the Great Plains than equestrian culture, which was only introduced after European contact. Groups such as the Mandan, Arikira and Hidatsa maintained a flourishing agricultural economy on the upper Missouri as far north as North Dakota. There is archaeological evidence that this village and agricultural complex extended into the Canadian plains: remains have been found near the present-day town of Lockport, Manitoba, which date to 400 years before the arrival of the Selkirk settlers, often heralded as the west’s first farmers. The Blackfoot were found by the earliest of European Explorers to be growing tobacco, likely in what became part of Saskatchewan; each spring an elaborate tobacco-planting ceremony was conducted, with which over 200 songs were associated.
Although at the time of European contact, beginning in the 17th century, the people of the plains of Saskatchewan were primarily mobile buffalo hunters, they had extensive contact with Indigenous agricultural products through trade, particularly with the Mandan. They also “farmed” the prairies, collecting over 180 plant species used for foods, medicines, ceremonies, and construction materials. They had a profound knowledge of the resources and climate of the west, and were thus much better equipped than White settlers to expect the extreme variations, locusts, fire, drought and frosts that discouraged so many newcomers. Several of the Indigenous groups who moved west, including the Saulteaux (Plains Ojibway), the Assiniboine and the Dakota, had backgrounds in Indigenous agriculture.
Well before the treaties of the 1870s Indigenous people had begun to raise crops and cattle in Saskatchewan. In the 1830s and 1850s, a group of Cree known to fur traders as the Magpies cultivated corn and potatoes. In 1857 explorer John Palliser met Cree Church of England catechist Charles Pratt in the Qu’Appelle Valley, and noted that his house was surrounded by an excellent garden. Pratt and Hudson’s Bay Company employees informed members of this expedition that the Cree were anxious to try agriculture and would begin operations if they had the proper equipment. Among the people who began to cultivate and raise cattle before the treaties we find the Pasquah, Little Bones, Yellow Quill, Cote, Key, Kishikonse, and Sakimay bands. In the treaties of the 1870s, Saskatchewan’s Indigenous negotiators requested that they be provided with the means to establish an economy based on agriculture, including tools, seed and animals. Clauses in the treaties as well as oral promises assured that the necessary assistance would be given to establish an alternative economy following the disappearance of the buffalo; but the implements and livestock promised in the treaties proved inadequate: ten families, for example, were to share one plough. Government officials were reluctant to distribute even what had been promised in the treaties. Indigenous people were expected to begin farming before they could receive their implements, oxen and seed; yet it was impossible to begin cultivation until they had received the promised assistance.
The first Indigenous farmers of the 1870s to early 1880s laboured under many disadvantages—some of which they shared with all other farmers, and others unique to their situation. The seed grain that was provided in the earliest years arrived damaged and too late for sowing. Indigenous farmers of the 1870s were issued Ontario-made ploughs that were not suitable to prairie conditions. There were no blacksmiths to attend to broken metal parts of ploughs and other equipment. Implements, carts and oxen sent to many reserves were the cheapest that could be found, and were altogether unfit for use. Wild Montana cattle were sent to many reserves. Other disadvantages of these early agriculturalists included the fact that there were no grist mills located near the reserves.
By the late 1870s, as a result of the disappearance of the buffalo and a lack of progress of reserve agriculture, starvation loomed for the Indigenous people of Saskatchewan. The 1879 government response was to send farm instructors from the east, who were to instruct in agriculture and raise quantities of food on “home farms” to feed the hungry. This was an ill-conceived and short-lived program. It soon proved that the instructors could not raise even enough to sustain themselves and their families, and they could not both do this and instruct. The program was shelved by the early 1880s, although farm instructors remained on southern Indian agencies.
The early 1880s brought a series of natural disasters to all who tried to farm in Saskatchewan: drought, frosts, and prairie fires. While non-Indigenous farmers left in large numbers,Indigenous reserve farmers were obliged to stay: they could not try their luck elsewhere as they were prohibited from taking up homesteads under the Indian Act. They had fewer privileges and rights than newly arrived farmers, as they could also not sell any of their grain or other produce without a permit, and after 1885 a pass system controlled and confined movements off the reserves. Indigenous farmers could not take out loans and they had difficulty acquiring credit from local merchants.
Despite this series of setbacks, reserve farmers in some localities began to make headway in the later 1880s, increasing their acreages and herds, raising a surplus for sale, acquiring the necessary machinery (mowers and rakes, and self-binding reapers), and competing for local markets in grain and hay. This provoked loud complaints from non-Indigenous farmers, who alleged that government assistance gave Indigenous farmers an unfair advantage. Non-Indigenous settlers had the misconception that reserve farmers were lavishly provided with livestock, equipment and rations, and did not have to worry about the price at which their products were sold. The solemn promises of assistance made to them in the treaties, in exchange for sharing the land that permitted the settlers to acquire their farms, were regarded as charity. As a result of this clamour, in 1889 the federal government imposed a “peasant” farming policy. Indigenous farmers were to reduce their acreages dramatically and to grow root crops, not wheat. They were to use the most rudimentary implements: to broadcast seed by hand, harvest with scythes, bind by hand with straw, thresh with flails, and grind their grain with hand mills. They were to manufacture at home any items they required. Indigenous farmers were profoundly discouraged by the new rules, and the Indian agents and instructors were dismayed by the policy that robbed reserve farmers of any potential source of revenue. By the mid-1890s per capita acreage under cultivation on the reserves had fallen to about half of the 1889 level, and many serious farmers had given up farming altogether. Although this policy was shelved after 1896,Indigenous farmers gained little ground in the early 20th century, as large tracts of arable land were “surrendered” to non-Indigenous interests.