Review: Forest Prairie Edge

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Reviewed By: Naomi Horst (University of Guelph)

Published: The Otter-NiCHE (December, 2014)

Merle Massie, Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014. 336 pp. $27.95 (paperback) ISBN: 978-0-88755-763-7.

Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan is an impressive and complex account of the deep-time place history of Saskatchewan and the Prince Albert region. It is a place history that challenges the conventional regionalism of Canadian historiography.

Merle Massie contests what she sees as having been the dominant story of Canada’s forest fringe–an agricultural society moving north–and challenges the cultural construction of north/south by analyzing not only what moved people from the south but also what drew them north. The author believes Saskatchewan’s history “should not simply be a story of what people were running from; it is also imperative to consider what they were running to” (p.15). Massie highlights the important role of the environment throughout Saskatchewan’s history and emphasizes the importance of the forest-prairie edge.

The book is divided into ten chapters characterizing different points in the history of Saskatchewan’s fringe and the Price Albert region. It begins with an introduction to academic themes, which Massie suggests her first audience, neighbours and friends, may want to skip. This is followed by a detailed characterization of the region’s historical and present physical environment and traditional land use. She then outlines the emergence of Northern Saskatchewan’s economic markets and the population booms of the Great Trek during the Great Depression and population busts of the Great Retreat following the Second World War. This book paints a complex and intricate picture of life on the edge and its importance in Saskatchewan’s history and geography.

A predominant theme throughout the book is that of ‘the edge’ as a site of resilience. Massie highlights that throughout the history of the region, the forest-prairie edge has ensured the success of its inhabitants by providing diverse livelihoods and economic opportunities that drew on both farm and forest. From the beginning of occupation of Saskatchewan, those who lived on the edge fared better. In early history, Aboriginal groups living on the edge benefited from the variety afforded by the edge including varied transportation options and livelihood opportunities, unlike their counterparts in the western interior of the province. Even after the collapse of the lumber industry in the north in 1919, those living on the forest edge prospered by employing the diverse livelihoods afforded by the edge such as mixed farming and clearing forests for cordwood in order to expand agriculture.

In the opening pages, Massie declares that she aims to challenge the stereotypical assumptions about Saskatchewan’s identity. She confronts the predominant narratives of Saskatchewan’s history that overemphasize the importance of the Plains and further explores the north/south dichotomy. Massie illustrates how the story of the forest fringe has traditionally been told in one of two ways. The first is the story of homesteaders bravely facing the elements, as told by Denis Patrick Fitzgerald, who describes a type of super-pioneers who “gird themselves for battle in a land…thrice cursed by Thor” (1). The second story is indicative of the work by J. David Wood (2) who tells a story of decline and of pioneers deliberately misled either by their own ambition or by boosters of the North. Massie describes this work as “regionalism carried to its absurd degree” (p.14) as Wood “assumed that the story he knew best applied everywhere” (p.14). She challenges these approaches by exploring the deep-time of a small region (1,120 square kilometres) surrounding Prince Albert from as early as 11,300 to after the Second World-War. She defines this deep-time approach as “a specific effort to examine environmental change across sequential culture” (p.19) as previously characterized by Flores. Massie emphasizes the importance of the North in Saskatchewan’s development including its contribution to industry, providing settlement opportunities to immigrants and soldiers, its role in the expansion of the railways, and the edge’s ability to ensure prosperity when the Plains declined.

Massie joins historians John Herd Thompson, Ian MacPherson and Peter Russell in looking beyond and challenging the monolithic wheat narrative. One of the author’s most impressive strengths evident in this book is her ability to address and confront the assumptions made by previous historiographies (3). One of the ways the author accomplishes this is through the use of local accounts. This is demonstrated in the following passage where Massie discusses how dominant narratives of the north had discounted the benefits of life on the edge. She asserts “although many researchers have characterized the pursuit of off-farm income as an indication of the marginal nature of forest edge farms, those who recorded their stories in local history books viewed such income as a significant aspect, and part of the draw, of forest fringe life” (p. 175). In much the same way, the author is able to present seemingly conflicting interpretations of edge life and negotiate her own explanation.

At times the level of detail that Massie provides can be tedious and difficult to absorb. Massie enlivens her text, however, with personal narratives and interesting local accounts such as magazine excerpts, advertisements, photos, and stories of the lives of those on edge. This includes the stories of best friends David Dunn and James Stoddart, who describe homesteading and immigrant life on the edge (p.123). The story of these two men illustrated how government policy on homesteading and soldier resettlement was essential in increasing the occupied land of Northern Saskatchewan. Dunn and Stoddart first acquired a quarter section homestead where they took advantage of the diverse economic opportunities of “working on farms and in cordwood campus, freighting, and construction to get a few dollars ahead” (p. 123). However, Dunn and Stoddart found that they could not afford the improvements to their homesteads required. “The men conferred. Homestead rules dictated a simple solution: they abandoned their two quarters, claiming they were too stony to farm. Opting to abandon the land and lose the ten-dollar filing fee gained them time and retained their homestead rights. By 1914, they felt confident in their savings and together filed again, on two quarter sections next door to their originials… by 1915, the two were well on their way to fulfilling their homestead duties. But the war grew in strength and needed able men. Dunn and Stoddart signed on with the Prince Albert Battery Royal Canadian Army…Returning from the theatre of war in 1919, Dunn and Stoddart brought home English war brides and a posse of fellow soldiers ready for new lives at Paddockwood. A grateful government offered each a quarter section Soldier Grant in addition to a homestead, doubling the potential acreage, plus loans to purchase new livestock and machinery” (pp. 123 -124). The narratives and local accounts employed by Massie not only enliven her text but add detail that is accessible to the reader.

In sum, Merle Massie’s Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan is a remarkable piece of work that has contributed to filling a significant gap in both Saskatchewan and Canadian history. This book challenges not only dominant regional approaches to environmental history, but also the assumptions held by most of us about Saskatchewan as a purely prairie province.

Naomi Horst is a Master’s Candidate in Geography at the University of Guelph. Naomi’s research is on ethical consumption and the role of knowledge in consumer decision making. Follow Naomi on Twitter: @nhorst

Citation: Naomi Horst “Review of Merle Massie’s Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (December, 2014).

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(1) Fitzgerald, Denis Patrick. “Pioneer Settlement in Northern Saskatchewan PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1966. Pp. 3-4.

(2) Wood, J. David. Places of Last Resort: The Expansion of the Farm Frontier into the Boreal Forest of Canada c. 1910-1940. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

(3) Massie challenges previous historiographies including: Fitzgerald, Denis Patrick. “Pioneer Settlement in Northern Saskatchewan PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1966. Flores, Dan “Place: An Argument for Bioregional History”, Environmental History Review. 18 (4), 1994. Lower, A.R.M., and Harold Innis. Settlement and the Forest Frontier in Eastern Canada and Settlement and the Mining Frontier. Vol. 9 of Canadian Frontiers of Settlement. Macmillan, 1936. Ray, Arthur J. The Canadian Fur Trade in the Industrial Age. University of Toronto Press, 1990. Wood, J. David. Places of Last Resort: The Expansion of the Farm Frontier into the Boreal Forest of Canada c. 1910-1940. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

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Naomi Horst

I'm a current MA student in Geography at the University of Guelph, studying ethical consumption and the role of information and new technologies to facilitate change.

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