Pioneers of Canada - Saskatchewan
The earliest human inhabitants of the area that became Saskatchewan were nomadic Aboriginal peoples grouped roughly from north to south as follows: three tribes of the Athapaskan linguistic group (the Chipewyan, the Amisk and the Slavey); two groups speaking Algonquian (the Cree and the Blackfoot); and two tribes of the Siouan group (the Assiniboine and the Gros Ventres). Each of the three main language groups occupied approximately a third of the area. Those in the north depended heavily on caribou and moose as a staple food; those in the southern third (i.e., that part which is now the agricultural belt) on the buffalo. These peoples lived in small groups and did not live within fixed territorial boundaries. Some of these Aboriginal communities — especially those close to waterways — were in contact with Europeans as early as 1690, when Henry Kelsey, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, followed the Saskatchewan River west to the area that is now Prince Albert and then proceeded south into the plains.
Exploration of the Canadian prairies came as the fur trade expanded to meet European demand for beaver pelts, which were used to make hats. The Europeans, once they had discovered the usefulness of the plains for this purpose, wasted little time in moving in. The Hudson's Bay Company was two decades old when Kelsey first saw Saskatchewan in 1690. Pierre Gaultier La Vérendrye then explored some of southeastern Saskatchewan in the late 1730s and he was followed by several more English explorers, of whom the best known is probably Peter Pond. None penetrated north of the Churchill River until 1796, when David Thompson explored the area before heading to Lake Athabasca. At that time little was known of the southern third of the province, but in 1800 Peter Fidler crossed the area using the South Saskatchewan River. Aboriginal peoples participated in the fur trade by trapping furs as well as procuring supplies for the European traders. Others served as middlemen between the trading posts and Aboriginal groups farther to the west. Some groups such as the Cree, Ojibwa and Assiniboine moved west as the fur trade expanded to maintain their role in the trade. Contact with Europeans brought great changes to Aboriginal culture and society. The introduction of the horse and the rifle changed the method by which Aboriginal peoples hunted buffalo and other big game upon which they were reliant. Additionally, horses, which were able to carry more than humans or dogs, allowed for a greater accumulation of wealth and more elaborate cultural institutions. Beginning in 1781, epidemics of European diseases, such as smallpox, devastated the Aboriginal population, as did the introduction of alcohol. The Métis, descendants of European men and Aboriginal women, are another product of this contact. On the Plains, the Métis formed their own culture distinct from that of their European and Aboriginal progenitors. Not all exploration was motivated by profit. Men interested in the land and the environment entered the region a century behind the traders. The best known of the early observers were Sir John Franklin and Dr. John Richardson, between 1819 and 1827, and John Palliser in 1857–58. Palliser also led the Palliser Expedition, and around the same time Henry Hind assessed the region’s agricultural possibilities. Previously, the Northwest had been viewed as a desolate wasteland, unsuited for settlement. The reports produced by the Palliser and Hind expeditions refuted this long-held belief and helped to encourage European settlement and agricultural development in the region.
In 1871, in order to facilitate westward expansion and, hopefully, avoid the type of conflicts occurring in the United States, the Canadian government began negotiating treaties with Aboriginal peoples in the Northwest to extinguish their title to the land and establish reserves for Aboriginal settlement. Beginning with Treaty One in 1871 and culminating with Treaty Eleven in 1923, they are collectively known as the “Numbered Treaties.” Parts of Treaties Two, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight and Ten comprise present-day Saskatchewan. Aboriginal leaders signed these treaties to maintain as much of their traditional way of life as possible while adapting to the challenges they faced resulting from the encroachment by European settlers and the devastating collapse of the buffalo population. Aboriginal leaders insisted on making grants of farm implements and animals part of the treaties. Although traditionally nomadic, they sought to take up agriculture as they could no longer rely on the buffalo as their principal food source. Their efforts, however, were undermined by maladministration by the Canadian government. In 1885, Métis in the Northwest rebelled against the Canadian government over the issue of land claims. At the same time, small groups of Aboriginals, angry at the government’s violation of their treaties, and starving after several poor harvests and the government restriction of rations, rose in rebellion. Using the nearly-completed Canadian Pacific Railway, the government was able to send troops to the Northwest and quickly put down both uprisings. In the aftermath, Louis Riel, the Métis leader, was executed. Aboriginal leaders Big Bear, Poundmaker and One Arrow were sentenced to prison, and the government implemented more restrictive measures to subjugate Aboriginal populations. Also during this time, in 1872, Parliament passed the first Dominion Lands Act, a provision for homesteaders and an act to stimulate immigration. In 1882–83 the first railway lines crossed the area in a southern route through Regina and Moose Jaw. The prerequisites for European immigration and settlement were therefore all in place well before 1900. The impact of their combined influence shows dramatically in the statistics. In 1885 the population of the area was 32,097, half of whom were British and 44 per cent were Aboriginal. Just over 25 years later, in 1911, the population was 492,432, half of which was still British, and the Aboriginal population had dropped to 2.4 per cent. Many of the immigrants who came during this period were eastern Europeans, especially Ukrainians, whom Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton regarded as the ideal candidates to settle the West. The British had by then consolidated their hold on familiar political institutions; the principles of responsible government, which held the Cabinet responsible to a majority of the legislature, were settled in 1897. Provincial status, first sought in 1900, came in 1905, and with it the relevant apparatus of parliamentary government. The province's size and shape were important; although many leading Prairie politicians favoured one large western province, the federal authorities always insisted that the western plains were too large to be made into a single constitutional entity. Depending on where one settled its northern boundary, such a province could have been the largest in Canada, a potential economic threat to the central heartland. In any event, in 1905 the federal government retained jurisdiction over crown lands in Saskatchewan. Settlement proceeded in a generally northwesterly direction, most of the arable area being occupied by the 1930s. The pattern of settlement itself profoundly affected the nature of Saskatchewan society. Identifiable groups of immigrants, varying from English people desiring to set up a temperance colony to Doukhobors escaping persecution with the aid of Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends (see Quakers), established communities, which in the 1980s still reflected their origins. Time, social mobility and intermarriage have blurred the lines separating the original settlements, but at the time many parts of the province were still discernibly French and German, Ukrainian and Scandinavian, Hutterite and Mennonite.
Leading up to the First World War, there were a number of indications the province was well on its way to establishing stability. In 1909, the Saskatchewan Legislative building opened in Regina. Saskatoon began constructing the University of Saskatchewan in the same year and Prince Albert became home to the federal penitentiary. Roads, hospitals, schools, and courts were also built in this period. Agriculture dominated the economy beyond the interwar years and shaped the lives of those who settled in the province. Wheat was the most important crop grown in Saskatchewan. In the face of falling prices, farmers organized and formed the Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers Ltd. on 25 August 1923 (Saskatchewan Wheat Pool) in an effort to maintain fair prices. Throughout the 1970s, the province has endeavoured to diversify agriculture to include cattle and hogs. Towards the end of the 20th century, small family farms have been replaced by the agri-business model. Immigration en masse into Saskatchewan had ended, at least temporarily, by the 1930s, although a high turnover in the population did not stop. The province's modern history is marked by the steady departure of people from Saskatchewan, especially in rural parts of the province. Sometimes, as in the two World Wars, thousands left over a short period to enlist or to work in war industries, and many did not return. Economically, the most significant single event of Saskatchewan's modern history was the transfer of jurisdiction over crown lands to the province in 1930. Had this transfer not taken place, the province would still have become a great agricultural producer and contributor to the Second World War effort. However, with it, the province not only had access to lucrative sources of taxation, but also new sources of power which affected its influence within Canada in the 1970s and after, giving it a formidable voice in national affairs. The experience of the Depression created an environment that was especially conducive to the idea of a big government that would intervene to manage the economy and alleviate social problems. The CCF championed democratic socialism and made way for co-operation, public ownership of industries and universal health care in the province. The CCF also spearheaded initiatives to integrate and modernize northern parts of the province. Unfortunately, efforts to improve health care facilities, for example, only heightened unemployment and poverty. Aboriginal peoples were adversely affected by these measures.