Friday, March 19, 2010

CCF Colonialism in Northern Saskatchewan

A Review of David Quiring's, CCF Colonialism in Northern Saskatchewan: Battling Parish Priests, Bootleggers and Fur Sharks (Vancouver: UBC Press 2004)
By Ken Collier
Labour/Le Travail

THE TITLE CONTAINS the central conundrum of this book. Who are the colonialists? Apparently not the parish priests, bootleggers, and fur sharks. Indeed, Quiring concludes the book with the claim that churches and private businessmen (including the fur sharks) deliver up more promise of progress, development, and employment than the Government of Saskatchewan.

From 1944 (when the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was first elected) to about 1964 (when the CCF was defeated by Ross Thatcher's right-wing Liberals), the provincial government made use of politically sympathetic existing public servants and appointees to try to transform the northern economy. Quiring's account is that of a historian at the University of Saskatchewan, trying to trace how well that plan worked.

This review rests in part on my living and working in the north starting in 1960 and earlier visits to the north as a somewhat politically aware teenager. I also participated intermittently in the La Ronge CCF club and provincial CCF conventions. 

Quiring defines neither colonialism nor socialism. At least in this case, they go together for him. The book's introduction says he was alerted to the "socialism" of the CCF in his youth when the party called for co-op and government farms in his native southwest Saskatchewan, events which influenced his views of the CCF in the North.

CCF socialism seems to consist of ideologically motivated government intervention in the North at the behest of a couple of cabinet ministers and some partisan government employees, many (but not all) of whom were friends, activists, and CCF members. Leanings toward development of fur, timber, fish and other co-operatives, grants to local housing or employment projects, and evidence from archived government correspondence provide the basis for this view. Prior occupations in private business, subsistence activities, and bush piecework have no ideological content or importance for the author.

Colonialism seems to be founded on the fact that these partisans were there and took action, apparently as external forces sent to "colonize" the North. Though some southern CCF activists went to the north during that time, most mentioned in the book were long-time residents. Little is made of the fact that the number of so-called colonial activists was very small, and that the vast majority of northern government employees were not at all partisan, but merely did long-standing, non-political jobs.

Saskatchewan Archives Board material provides most of the citations. Though Quiring interviewed about two dozen northern and government individuals, archive documents override these voices. Quiring says he found memories faulty or selective. The documents apparently are seen as dependable. But Quiring's own documenting practices leave something to be desired. He makes claims, but the footnotes often show a group of sources, so it is impossible to tell which source made which point. In addition, some sources quoted do not show up in the bibliography. One interviewer, cited by last name only, is several times discovered in the middle of lists of archive sources, making it impossible to tell which source by that surname is being cited (though I know who it was, because I was a peripheral participant in the taping process).

The CCF as a party had very diffuse ideas about changing Saskatchewan's North. To transform an economy from mixed hunting and gathering and resource extraction into a periphery of an agricultural and industrializing provincial economy (which was, and is, a periphery itself) is a task that defeated more disciplined socialist forces elsewhere on the face of the globe.

The Saskatchewan CCF, having become the New Democratic Party in 1961, developed more conscious ideas and organizational forms to try again in the 1970s in the North. It would be more accurate in both earlier and later cases to call those efforts "social democratic management of a capitalist periphery economy." "Colonialism" existed only in the sense that there is some evidence for overt moves to attach the North to the southern provincial economy. The global uranium market, new uses for timber previously viewed as low grade, fleeting hydro power and water export possibilities, greased with federal government funding until the mid 1970s, made the North economically attractive in a way it could not be during the time dealt with in Quiring's book. Quiring cites other authors on colonialism in the North, but definitions and analytical rigour are somewhat stretched among them also. Socialism is normally construed as anti-colonial, so the reader has to do some mental gymnastics to adapt to Quiring's assumptions.

The book is nonetheless a useful read. It marshals evidence that was formerly diffuse. Purposeful marches through archived government files uncovered much detail most ordinary citizens would never see. Quiring's historical assemblage fills in much colour and shading previously rendered in the black and white arguments of the partisans. He has little to say about the reasons why CCF and other socialist and non-socialist activists battled abuses by the parish priests, bootleggers, and fur sharks.

The key role of the former Centre for Community Studies at the University of Saskatchewan is outlined too sparingly. Oddly, the CCF newspaper, Commonwealth, was not accessed for any official party views on the North. Perhaps it had little editorial or news content about this topic, but the very few mentions in Quiring's book indicate there was something there. Quiring conflates the CCF and the Saskatchewan government. He refers to the party members and employees interchangeably, as if the party and the government virtually acted as one. In one case among several, he refers to a person I know well as the CCF Public Relations Director, though he in fact held that job in the provincial government.

Quiring's conclusions seem liberally founded, pragmatically oriented to jobs and incomes within the narrow confines of the bush economy, without much focus on means for political and economic northern transformation. He thinks the aboriginal (his term) people were satisfied with the arrangements set up by the churches and fur trading stores. In the end, he thinks the CCF government activists did no better, and did worse in some instances.

When I showed this book to some of my northern Saskatchewan friends mentioned, they were bemused to see their words (from old government, party, and organization files) in print and analysed. They knew the people and places on the cover pictures, taken in the 1940s. They, like myself, do not share Quiring's views, but took a certain amount of satisfaction seeing their work recognized and acknowledged, even if the results of their efforts were not as hoped.

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