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Looking Back at the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration

Robert A. Halliday   |   October 2020


Photo: Graham Ruttan on Unsplash

Today’s Covid-19 pandemic hearkens back to the Great Depression, a time when the collapse of world markets led to major economic disruption. The impacts were enormous in prairie Canada as they were combined with severe multi-year droughts. Alberta and Saskatchewan flirted with bankruptcy and Alberta defaulted on its debt. Some three million acres of farmland were abandoned. In 1935 the federal Conservative government passed the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act to:

“… secure the rehabilitation of the drought and soil drifting areas of the Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and to develop and promote within those areas, systems of farm practice, tree culture, water supply, land utilization and land settlement that will afford greater economic security …”

This legislation established the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), a federal institution that would endure for 78 years until being dissolved by a future Conservative federal government in 2013. Now PFRA is back in the spotlight. In last month’s Speech from the Throne, the federal government stated their intention to restore some of PFRA’s lost water management capacity through the establishment of a new Canada Water Agency. In light of this commitment, it is worth taking a closer look at the purpose of the PFRA and what we can learn from its rich history.

A Brief History

Early work by PFRA included establishment of model farms in varying soil and climate zones, initiation of land reclamation projects, testing cultivation and land cover approaches, and undertaking water development and water conservation projects. Such was the early success of PFRA that when the federal government met its demise later in 1935, the new Liberal government embraced PFRA. Three significant developments ensued: increased reliance on professional advice, moving PFRA headquarters from Swift Current to Regina, and the development of community pastures in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Alberta had already initiated its Special Areas program, which had similar objectives, and was adamantly opposed to federal ownership of provincial lands. Nonetheless, the province supported the use of PFRA expertise and financing for a series of irrigation projects in the Lethbridge area. All the provinces supported the work of PFRA in creating shelterbelts as well as earthen dams and farm dugouts for stock-watering. While PFRA had a much more positive reception in Saskatchewan than in Alberta, it’s important to note that Saskatchewan had a larger population (and much more farmland) than either of its neighbours at that time.

The construction of water infrastructure became an important part of PFRA’s activities. Projects included water supply and irrigation dams and smaller farm level water development projects. Beginning in 1944, at the request of the British Columbia government, PFRA developed irrigation works in the Okanagan Valley for the benefit of returning war veterans. The most significant engineering project, however, was the construction of Gardiner Dam in Saskatchewan, which became operational in 1967. As a result of that development, the PFRA Demonstration Farm at Outlook was transformed into the Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre.

In response to a significant drought in 1961, the area of PFRA’s mandate was extended to include all agricultural areas of the Prairie Provinces as well as the Peace River block in British Columbia. In 1969, PFRA was removed from the agriculture department to become a regional economic development agency. Under that mandate it became more involved in development of water infrastructure for rural communities. PFRA eventually rejoined Agriculture Canada in 1983. Over the years it worked to refurbish all of its agency-owned infrastructure and turn it over to the provinces.

As one of the federal members of the Prairie Provinces Water Board – Environment Canada being the other – PFRA led the development of harmonized water-related databases across the three prairie provinces and participated in countless hydrology and other water studies. In recent years, as farm-related water quality problems became more evident, PFRA devoted resources to that problem as well. Dugout and water well contamination issues became part of PFRA’s scope of work.

The PFRA’s water infrastructure legacy is extensive. It includes some 847 dam projects, as well as small water development projects totaling 148,417 dugouts, 111,552 wells, 14,839 stock-watering dams, 10,723 irrigation projects, and 711 pipelines. The expertise developed by PFRA was also applied to water problems in many parts of the world. This includes the United States where PFRA assisted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the struggle against the great Mississippi flood in 1993.

Lessons Learned

In retrospect, PFRA had many strengths. From its inception it had strong political support regardless of the federal party in power. That political support extended into the provincial sphere as well, although there were federal-provincial concerns raised from time to time. Headquartered in Regina, PFRA was able to operate outside the Ottawa bubble with considerable freedom of action. Client support for PFRA was very strong. Rural folk generally liked what PFRA did and how they did it. In its heyday, the organization had many small offices in prairie Canada staffed by people who were well-grounded, competent, and open. These people were backed up by a cadre of very able professionals in the Regina headquarters. A few decades ago, it seemed that almost every water engineer practicing in the prairies had worked for PFRA, even if only as a student.

In PFRA’s strengths lay weakness. Irrespective of the department in which PFRA was housed, the agency’s success, independence, and political support led to rifts with senior Ottawa bureaucrats. One could make an argument that by the 1980s all the “good dams” had been built. PFRA had to transform itself from an organization having a strong civil engineering capability to one with a broader range of competencies and, in 2009, was directed to offer its services nationally. In doing so it became more like other federal agencies and was shut down by the Conservative government in 2013.

PFRA was created during severe drought conditions to assist the prairie region, its people, the agricultural sector, and its communities “achieve greater economic security”. The tragedy of its demise is that with Canada facing a climate crisis there is no federal agency with boots on the ground that can assist a climate skeptical rural population meet the challenges of the future. It appears as though the creation of a new Canada Water Agency will restore some of the federal support for water management that was lost when the PFRA was shut down. In doing so, the Agency must focus on mitigating climate change and building climate resilience across the prairies as a key part of its mandate.    

Robert A. Halliday is a Saskatoon-based consulting engineer. He is the board chair of the Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin and the current president of the Canadian Water Resources Association, Saskatchewan Branch.

Additional Reading:

Canada Department of Agriculture. 1961. PFRA: The Story of Conservation on the Prairies. Publication 1138. 70 pp.

Gray, James H. 1978. Men Against the Desert. Western Producer Prairie Books. Saskatoon, SK 250 pp.

Marchildon, Gregory. 2009. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration: Climate Crisis and Federal-Provincial Relations during the Great Depression. Canadian Historical Review. 90:2 275-301

Woodvine, R.J. 2018. PFRA’s Role in Prairie Water Development. Presentation at October 1-3, 2018 Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River Basin Annual Conference, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

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