Shannon Stunden Bower is arguing for a damp look at Manitoba’s agricultural history.
The professor and author notes the image of the 1930s Prairie dust bowl still persists with many Canadians today, when in reality much of southern Manitoba is very wet, with poor natural drainage and frequent flooding.
“The first settlers embraced wet areas for a variety of reasons; hunting, growing certain crops and semi-wet areas are good for grazing,” said the post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, who has just published the book, Wet Prairie: People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba.
However, Bower added that before long, farming practices of the early settlers gave way to larger more industrial farming operations.
“At that point water became seen as a problem, and a problem that needed to be solved,” she said.
The author said people who came to Manitoba with the dream of homesteading were often at odds with environmental conditions and the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, which required improvements to be made to land holdings.
“Farmers would then often try to drain their own land, but it’s very hard to do that without flooding out your neighbours,” she said. “If you’re not storing the water on the land, it’s going to go somewhere and it will get there quickly.”
The result was the formation of local and provincial drainage councils, which allowed for a more cohesive drainage network to be developed.
That development also laid the groundwork for local political development, taxation and representation.
Bower said Manitoba’s lowlands and river valleys also influenced the political and social landscapes of the province. “You could say geography is destiny,” she said.
She said drainage and flooding in the past, much like today, became the subject of intense debate, aiding in the development of new alliances and new rivalries at the provincial and national levels, helping to define the province.
Bower herself grew up in Manitoba and felt the need to shed light on this often overlooked slice of Canadian history.
“It’s safe to say I have some experience with flooding,” she said.