Rats and Communism: Protecting Alberta from Invasion in the Early Cold War

"You Can't Ignore the Rat," Provincial Archives of Alberta. Commissioned and Distributed by Division of Entomology, Department of Public Health, Government of Alberta, 1950.

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Among Alberta’s various international claims to fame is its status as the only rat-free region in North America. While the Norway Rat, a species that now inhabits all continents save Antarctica, is not native to Alberta, the fact that it has never made the province home is the result of six decades of careful planning and policing on the part of the Alberta government and its citizens. From its inception in 1950, the Alberta Rat Control program drew verbally and visually upon the Cold War rhetoric of surveillance, infiltrating threats from the east, and anxiety about impending disaster. The rat, as portrayed by this program, reflected mid-century Albertans’ fear of communism.

During this era, communism, much like the rat, was seen as an infiltrating force. It was an “other” that could invade through the “familiar.” Seemingly “normal” Canadians could in fact be communists, and could spread the ideology through friendship, family, and the home. Similarly, the rat could enter Alberta from Saskatchewan, a neighbouring farming province with a more lax attitude towards policing vermin. The rat was often deemed dangerous because of its cunning, its destruction of property, and its transmission of disease. These were defining symbols in the popular comparison of communists to rats; society could succumb to the “disease” of communism and be influenced by “dirty” leftists. The portrayal of communists as invasive vermin, among other things, was heightened during the 1950s. [1] In particular, Alberta’s right-wing Social Credit government fed anti-communist sentiment; the rat, like communism, had the potential to dismantle the province’s economic structure and way of life.

The Alberta anti-rat campaign was not the first time that war had been declared on a rodent in Canada in a manner that mirrored a larger global conflict. As Canadian troops battled Germans in the First World War, residents of Saskatchewan waged war against the gopher. The gopher was portrayed as an agent of the “Hun” in its destruction of crops and, by extension, the threat it posed to the Canadian war effort. Saskatchewan’s wheat was important to the Allies and agricultural production equalled patriotism. With most able-bodied Saskatchewan men fighting overseas, the important task of eradicating gophers fell to children. The battle against gophers persisted, but its strongest years were from 1914–1918. Alberta’s efforts to stem the migration of rats westward was more extensive and more invested with symbolism. The anti-rat program began in Alberta in 1950, the same year that the Norway Rat, which had slowly moved west across Canada over the course of nearly two centuries, reached Alsask, Saskatchewan. The discovery of the rodent in this hamlet on the provincial boundary spurred the Province of Alberta to defend its rat-free status and protect the province’s agriculture and therefore its economy from destruction. Awareness of the rat’s negative effects upon other agricultural regions in North America prompted the government to take immediate action, reflecting Alberta’s preparedness for disaster and occasionally nativist-driven anxiety surrounding invasion.

A typically urban animal, the rat was drawn to areas of human habitation. Alberta’s primary concern about rats, however, was not so much their invasion of cities (although urban centres are involved in the anti-rat program, through the severe regulation of pet rats, for example) as rural areas. In its trek across the sparsely populated prairies in the early twentieth century, the Norway Rat was drawn primarily to farms. In this continuing war of humans against rodents, environment and topography played important roles. With the Badlands and the Cypress Hills to the south and southeast, the Rockies to the west, and the boreal forests to the north, the point of Alberta’s vulnerability lay on its central eastern boundary with Saskatchewan. Policing this considerable area was, and continues to be the focus of pest control officers.

The province moved quickly following the 1950 discovery in Alsask. Using the 1942 Agricultural Pest Act, which authorized Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture to designate any animal likely to destroy crops or livestock a pest, Alberta declared rats an official threat and encouraged land owners and municipalities to kill them on sight. The effort to manage the program relied heavily on civilian participation. While patrol officers and the rat poisoning program were largely funded by the provincial government after the mid-1950s, much of the project’s success can be attributed to surveillance on the part of individual Albertans. Here we can see another connection between the anti-rat campaign and Cold War anti-communism. At the same time that civilians were encouraged to watch one another for subversive (read: communist) behaviour, Albertans were urged to report rat sightings to the province. Pest control officers monitored regions susceptible to invasion, and continue to do so, while urban and rural Albertans monitored their own properties and communities.

Viewed from a symbolic standpoint, this program mirrored broader concerns about communist infiltration during the 1950s. Indeed the spread of rats, a European species, from Canada’s eastern ports beginning in the 1770s was entwined with other types of historical invasion, most obviously European colonialism on North American land and its disruption of the then-existing environmental balance through the process Alfred Crosby famously termed ecological imperialism. European migration to North America, after all, initiated the Norway Rat’s invasion. The Cold War connection, however, cannot be ignored, especially given the place of the rat within the period’s anti-communist rhetoric. In the well-publicized effort to keep the province free of the species there were obvious links made between the rat’s historical migration from east to west and the feared spread of communism along the same trajectory. Given the common portrayal of communists as vermin, the similarities between the portrayal of the rats and that of leftists in conservative Social Credit Alberta are not insignificant. [2]

That the rat stood for something more than a rodent, pest, or invasive species was especially evident in the campaign’s posters. Posters are an effective form of communication, particularly for a public campaign reliant on civilian surveillance and action. The anti-rat program used language and imagery akin to the era’s more well-known civil defence programs that worked to prepare civilians for nuclear attack. Its posters portrayed the rat as an equally pernicious threat to society. One from 1950 emphasized the dangers of infiltration.

"Rats are coming," Provincial Archives of Alberta. Distributed by Field Corps Branch, Department of Agriculture, Government of Alberta, c. 1950.
“Rats are coming,” Provincial Archives of Alberta. Distributed by Field Corps Branch, Department of Agriculture, Government of Alberta, c. 1950.

Featuring a swarm of menacing rodents around the clearly defined province, the poster evoked the dangers of contamination and invasion across both provincial and international borders. [3]  This simple graphic portrayed Alberta’s success in preventing the invasion of Norway Rats while warning against the peril that Alberta would meet should it let down its guard. It suggested contemporary concerns about other kinds of contamination, such as communism, espionage, and nuclear radiation, while encouraging civilians to report suspicious activity to maintain the province’s safety.

A second poster published in the same year referred more explicitly to the dangers that rats posed to Alberta. Here the dangers of the impending rodent invasion were explained rather than implied. The rat was a single force, a “he” that could be identified as not only a danger to Alberta but also as a threat to the province’s very foundation: “health, home, and industry.”

"You Can't Ignore the Rat," Provincial Archives of Alberta. Commissioned and Distributed by Division of Entomology, Department of Public Health, Government of Alberta, 1950.
“You Can’t Ignore the Rat,” Provincial Archives of Alberta. Commissioned and distributed by the Division of Entomology, Department of Public Health, Government of Alberta, 1950.

The poster’s slogans warned that complacency towards the rat’s destructive nature could lead to significant and negative social, environmental, and industrial consequences. Citizens could not afford to ignore the rat. In this way, the poster’s rhetoric was very similar to that of contemporaneous campaigns that warned citizens against the dangers of the spreading “disease” of communism.

Many Cold War threats, including impending nuclear war and the growing force of international communism, seemed insurmountable. But the Alberta government’s concern regarding economic “fallout” from the destructive rat was immediate, tangible, and, ultimately, manageable. Using techniques popular in the Cold War, such as posters urging civilian action and domestic surveillance, Albertans remained vigilant in their efforts to keep their province free of the Norway Rat. Viewing the rat control program through the perspective of Cold War disaster management, the campaign successfully endeavoured to control chaos at a time of measured disorder, anxiety, and potential disaster, with corresponding environmental effects that have lasted up to the present day.

Notes:

[1] Murray B. Levin, Political Hysteria in America: the Democratic Capacity for Repression (New York: Basic Books, 1971), 151.

[2] James Muir, “Alberta Labour and Working-Class Life, 1940-59,” in Working People in Alberta: A History, ed. Alvin Finkel (Edmonton: University of Athabasca Press, 2012), 109.

[3] Lianne McTavish and Jingjing Zheng observe that posters such as this one resembled wartime posters depicting “the potential invasion of the home front.” Lianne McTavish and Jingjing Zheng, “Rats in Alberta: Looking at Pest-Control Posters from the 1950s,” The Canadian Historical Review 92, 3 (September 2011): 543.

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Frances Reilly

Frances recently completed her PhD in history at the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation, "Controlling Contagion: Policing and Prescribing Sexual and Political Normalcy in Cold War Canada," examines the fear of infiltration and the 'enemy within.'

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