5 Patriotism, Politics, and Parity: William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Death of the Small-Scale Farmer in the Prairie West, 1941-1946

Kelsey Lonie


Historians generally agree that food production was of vital importance to Canada during the Second World War. Food was needed to sustain soldiers, civilians, and Allied countries, and Canadian farmers played a crucial role in that initiative. Agriculture was an essential aspect of Canada’s war effort, and farmers in Western Canada, particularly, played a significant role in the production of both livestock and grains. Canadian newspapers boasted that food would help win the war,[1] and Hon. James G. Gardiner, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and the former premier of Saskatchewan, reminded Canadians that victory would be achieved only if Britain and Allied troops were well fed.[2] Even Walt Disney produced a short film entitled “Food Will Win the War.”[3] One might, therefore, assume that Canada’s farmers were in good standing with Prime Minister Mackenzie King during the Second World War. However, this was not the case.

Determined not to repeat the high inflation of World War One, Mackenzie King chose to enact a price ceiling on all goods in December 1941. Even if it achieved his objective on inflation, it drove a wedge between his government and the farmers of Western Canada. Under the Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB) that had been established in 1939, the price ceiling placed a ‘freeze’ on prices so that producers could not charge a higher price for their commodities than the one dictated by the government. Farmers argued that a price ceiling contradicted King’s earlier promises of equal opportunity and freedom; with prices set so low, farmers felt unable to meet production quotas, buy new equipment, or compete in the labour market.[4] While a few large-scale farmers may have been able to mechanize and adapt to production demands, most smaller farms were still recovering from the Great Depression. Any hope of a wartime boom for small scale farmers had been dashed by King’s policy. If food was supposed to “win the war,” farmers must certainly have wondered how this would happen under Mackenzie King’s policies. Farmers voiced their opposition in newspaper articles, at meetings, and in letters to the Government. While Mackenzie King did introduce subsidies and allow irregular changes in the price ceiling, he remained dedicated to his anti-inflation approach in his government’s policy. Over the course of the war, trust in the Prime Minister waned in Western Canada, and many farmers eventually rejected Mackenzie King’s Liberal Party, believing that their cries for parity with other business enterprises had fallen on deaf ears.

Prior to 1941, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s relationship with Western Prairie farmers had been favourable. King had carried the vote in the Prairie West throughout the latter half of the Great Depression, winning 26 of the 38 seats in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and expressing sympathy for the demands of labour and farmers who struggled against big banks, railways and other corporate interests.[5] His Liberal Party promised labour reform and new social policies, and many farmers welcomed his message of equality and justice for all Canadians. Political Scientist Reginald Whitaker provides a detailed analysis of Mackenzie King’s definition of “liberalism” that would drive his party platform.[6] Mackenzie King tried to balance his policies and promises between conservative and liberal values; his Christian values may have been more conservative, but his policies favouring the redistribution of wealth were much more liberal.[7] One of King’s greatest inspirations, the economist Arnold Toynbee, influenced many of his policies as Prime Minister. Toynbee’s teachings were critical of a laissez fair economic market and he imagined a “political economy which would retain the market and individualism but with a dedication to Christian duty impelling capitalism toward more moderate redistribution of resources to the poor.”[8] Such a doctrine appealed to Mackenzie King, a politician whose policies were driven by compromise and the desire to build a more united country. King believed if he could protect and promote individual rights while, at the same time, redistribute the nation’s wealth and foster an equitable market, perhaps he could unify the upper class with the working class and build a more co-operative and united nation.[9]

However, Mackenzie King’s balanced approach to the economic management and his promotion of equal opportunities and freedom for all Canadians was tested when the nation entered the Second World War. For farmers living in Western Canada, especially, one of his most divisive policies was the decision to impose a universal price ceiling policy on Canadians. It stirred up feelings of resentment and friction with King’s Liberals even though farmers in the Prairie Provinces had long been praised for their wartime food production. It is true that farmers put forth a concerted effort, increased production, and provided a necessary service during the Second World War, but they also complained bitterly about inequality in the market due primarily to King’s price ceiling. This paper addresses how the crisis created in Western Canada by King with his price ceiling policy impacted the agricultural industry during the Second World War and how it helps explain why Mackenzie King lost favour with the farmers in the Prairie West as a result.[10]

The first section of this paper explores Mackenzie Kings decision to enact a price ceiling in December, 1941 and how the policy worked. Section two examines the ways that Mackenzie King’s speeches appealed to the farmers’ sense of patriotism and duty, hoping to encourage their acceptance of the price ceiling and engage, at the same time, in the government’s policy of total war. The third section argues that while they were well aware of their patriotic duty, small-scale farmers were conflicted about how to meet production quotas while their incomes remained largely stagnant from the pre-war period. Section four analyzes the growing disconnect between Mackenzie Kings attempts to centralize control over the economy and the regional impacts on farmers created by the price ceiling. As small farms in Western Canada were replaced by larger, more efficient producers, Mackenzie King’s basic promise of the liberal values of equality and fairness never materialized in the opinion of Prairie farmers. As this paper will show, it was King’s approach to wartime market prices that precipitated among farmers in Canada’s western provinces a loss of confidence in Mackenzie King and his Liberal government.

The Politics of Inflation

Food production has always played an important role in times of war, but political leaders rarely agree on how the market for food should be managed. During the First World War, Canada’s Prime Minister, Robert Borden, took a laissez-faire free market approach to the economy.[11] Farmers raised their prices to match increasing transportation, production, and manufacturing costs, and while urban Canadians begged the government to impose a price ceiling to fight inflated food prices, none was ever established. The Canadian Wholesale Price Index, which measures the cost of essential goods, doubled between 1914 and 1918, and likewise, the prices of agricultural products spiked with a general upward trend in inflation. Farmers obtained mortgages at high interest rates so that they could invest in land, machinery, and labour, which, arguably, led to inequity, profiteering, and greed among many producers. Such inflated prices could not be sustained in the post-war period and, by 1923, farm product prices had fallen 50 percent from their 1920 rate, and the agricultural economy crumbled.[12]

Agricultural distress was exacerbated by a world-wide depression that followed in 1929. The international market for agriculture collapsed, and drought and drifting soil led to repeated crop failures on the Western prairies.[13] Year after year, farmers saw little improvement, and by 1933, a study revealed that 79 percent of Saskatchewan farmers were in a state of indebtedness that they could not overcome. With so many farmers on the verge of bankruptcy, the Dominion Government under R.B. Bennett established the Farmers’ Creditors Arrangement Act of 1934. This act appraised the value of farms and provided relief or debt adjustments, allowing farmers to remain on their land during the worst years of the Great Depression.[14] Over time, their homes, equipment, and land deteriorated further. Many families endured hopelessness and famine as they anticipated better days to come.[15] The Second World War and improved weather conditions finally restored a glimmer of optimism to those who had survived the worst of the Great Depression. With Europe at war again in 1939, farmers hoped that the wartime economy would pull them out of debt and increase production quotas, as had occurred after 1914.[16]

However, Mackenzie King was determined not to allow prices to spike and crash as they had during and after Borden’s leadership. To control wartime inflation, Mackenzie King established The Wartime Prices and Trade Board (WPTB) on 2 September 1939, at a time when Canada was still experiencing the low prices and high unemployment rates of the Great Depression.[17] With almost a million Canadians on relief in the 1930s, it took time for Canada to gain economic momentum, and the country did not reach full employment until the spring of 1941. Canada’s price index reflected the situation; wholesale prices rose, as did the exchange rate, freight and insurance rates, and wartime commodity taxes.[18] Canada’s official Cost of Living Index between February and October of 1941, was equal to that of the previous 18 months of war.[19] The WPTB was ready and waiting to combat this inflation.

By the summer of 1941, Mackenzie King began to examine price ceiling models under the WPTB. To create a balanced economic program and control the cost of the war, he would need to place controls on prices.[20] Mackenzie King had always been committed to “total war,” meaning that all available resources and materials were needed to aid Canada in battle. If the government were to compete with an unregulated price system, then it would be constantly outbidding its citizens, creating a significant increase in prices and driving up the cost of living. Such a development would also increase the overall cost of war, create social and political unrest, and make post-war readjustment more difficult.[21] In his mind, Mackenzie King was left with no alternative but to consider whether he should enact selective or universal price fixing. A selective ceiling fixed the prices of wartime goods and services that were directly related to the war, meaning that cosmetics, clothing, and other civilian materials, for example, would not be subject to fixed pricing. However, in “Canadian War-Time Price Controls, 1941-6,” K.W. Taylor notes that “the price structure is a complex and delicately balanced thing,” and the price of one item is always closely tied to another.[22] If a primary producer’s costs were fixed, he would find it difficult to purchase secondary materials not covered by a price ceiling. In those cases, the system could hardly be considered fair, and would not promote the sense of unity that Mackenzie King desired for Canada. Therefore, he chose to impose a universal price ceiling; it was simple, fast, fair, and easier to manage from an administrative standpoint.[23] However, it would be much more difficult to convince Canadians that this was, indeed, the case. In B.K. Sandwell’s introduction to Mackenzie King’s collection of speeches, he explains that the Prime Minister had been given the “difficult task of introducing Canadians to a degree of control in their economic life which most of them must have regarded as simply unthinkable up to the moment when he spoke.”[24] Mackenzie King knew that it would take significant effort to assure the people of his vision for a balanced and fair economy, and his speeches attempt to do just that, especially early in the war.

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Figure 1: Mackenzie King Addressing an Outdoor Audience on his Western Tour, 1941, 1941, Library and Archives Canada, C-068667, https://www.flickr.com/photos/28853433@N02/6348497074

In a CBC broadcast from Ottawa, 18 October 1941, King reminded Canadians that while “a few made large fortunes,” in the First World War, most had only experienced anxiety, inflation, and sacrifice.[25] He shared that as Prime Minister, he felt personally responsible to ensure that such a situation did not happen again, and that while it was not an easy decision to make, Canadians could expect a price ceiling to be imposed in the coming months. King emphasized that in a democratic country, price control cannot succeed without the active support and co-operation of the mass of the people,” and that this would require “cheerfulness” and “willingness” on the part of all Canadians.[26] King specifically addressed farmers in the broadcast, reminding them that agricultural prices were higher now than they had been at any time in the past ten years, and that by its policy the government hopes to avoid the fears, the sense of insecurity, the suffering and the profiteering which the inflation of prices inevitably brings in its train. The measure now being announced should help in the winning of the war, and, after the war, facilitate recovery and reconstruction.”[27]

Less than two months after enacting the price ceiling, King described his plan as “progressive and orderly” in a speech in the House of Commons on 26 January 1942.[28] He reminded Canadians that the ceiling had been imposed only when it became “really necessary.”[29] His approach, he added, was a “balanced programme” that would to help to keep “our country united.”[30] Mackenzie King had carefully constructed his speeches to reassure Canadians that he had their best interests in mind. However, one might also discern a warning in his words; unlike Borden’s Conservative government in the First World War, Mackenzie King was not willing to accept greed or the manipulation of market prices The Prime Minister’s economy would remain highly regulated to avoid the pitfalls of a free market during this period of crisis.

Mackenzie King’s decision to establish a price ceiling was well-received by most Canadians. He had taken measures to ensure that the evils of inflation, which had ravaged citizens in the Great War, would be minimized. King’s vision for unity fueled his belief that a country’s various interests and economies should be balanced. He claimed that the price ceiling was part of Canada’s total war effort, enacted to keep the country united.[31] His rhetoric on the importance of total war and total mobilization, were used as a continuous effort to encourage Canadians throughout the war to work together as a nation to achieve victory. By 1942, Louis C. Wagner had already published an article titled “Price Control in Canada,” in the Journal of Marketing, noting that the price ceiling had been reasonably successful. The cost of living had stabilized and the cooperation of the people had been positive.[32]

Farmers Fight for Parity

Despite its positive attributes, Mackenzie King’s price ceiling policy was disruptive for Western Prairie farmers.[33] The Canadian government had inserted an extreme measure of control over market prices, and while many Canadians were thankful for the cessation of inflation, small-scale farmers were not. They were frustrated. Mackenzie King’s price ceiling made it clear that farmers would not enjoy the same economic growth that they had experienced in the previous war. Farmers began wondering how they could be expected to recover from the Great Depression, update their equipment, and compete for labour if they were victims of price controls. An article in The Western Farm Leader reflected those sentiments when it reported, Persons who have not actually carried on farming in Western Canada since 1930 have but little conception of the extent to which farm machinery has been worn out and is in need of replacement, due to the distressed conditions in agriculture which prevailed at least from 1930-1937.”[34] Their land, buildings, and machinery had not been maintained or updated in almost a decade. With that critical investment, farmers feared they would not be able to meet wartime production demands.

It is important to note that not all farmers shared these concerns. In “The End of Agrarianism,” David Monod analyzes how large- and small-scale farmers responded to Mackenzie King’s market controls.[35] Farmer with sufficient capital and land were able to adapt. They brought modern conveniences into their homes, invested in capital expansion, and organized themselves into wheat pools and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA). A price ceiling actually stabilized the economy for them and lowered production costs for those who had the capital to afford it. They viewed the price ceiling from a long-term perspective. Price control allowed farmers to accurately predict future prices, which afforded them with a measure of stability.[36] However, as agriculture became more industrialized, smaller farms were not able to compete in the market. Instead, they continued to cultivate quarter-section plots and resist the price ceiling through strikes, agitation, and a demand for parity of prices under the United Farmers of Canada (UFC). Soon, large and small farms became two distinct classes of farmers, with large-scale ones complaining that there were too many farmers trying to “scratch out an existence” in the Prairie West and small-scale farmers struggling to survive.[37]

The smaller-scale farmers in Saskatchewan and Alberta feared that the price ceiling would reduce their abilities to maintain their standard of living and compete for labour, which was in short supply because of the war. Machinery was expensive, and without a suitable margin of profit, smaller-scale farmers would be unable to afford new equipment.[38] Further exacerbating their plight was the rationing of materials; by the end of 1942, with much of the manufacturing of equipment reoriented towards the war effort, Canada was producing only one third of the machinery it had built in 1940, requiring farmers to continue to use outdated, less-efficient equipment.[39] They also feared that a price ceiling would limit their ability to offer a competitive wage for farm labour in a booming economy where there was a constant demand for additional manpower. A Maclean’s article in early 1943 reported that 400,000 men had left the farm for higher paying industries or the Armed Services since the beginning of the war, and argued that if farmers were expected to meet higher wage demands, the current price ceiling could not be maintained.[40]

The fight for parity of prices was becoming a mantra of the small-scale farmer. If farm commodities were not placed on a price level that matched the increase for other products in the industry, the farmer would not be able to cover his input costs. The less financially secure farmer depended on short-term gains to cover the cost of next year’s planting, and if the price level did not match that of other industries, he would not be able to compete within the market.[41] Many farmers believed that by asserting government control over the agricultural prices, Mackenzie King had effectively threatened to eliminate all of the independent, small-scale farms in Western Canada. Centralized federalism may have been of benefit to other industries, but prairie farmers had become its victims.[42]

Farmers voiced their concerns over the price ceiling in both Maclean’s Magazine and prairie newspapers.[43] The Minister of Agriculture, James Gardiner heard their protest and advocated strongly for them. A former Saskatchewan premier and a product of the prairies, he empathized with prairie farmers and stubbornly defended their interests in Cabinet meetings. To Gardiner, the only way for all farmers to advance and thrive was to raise or remove the price ceiling.[44] When he noticed a gap growing between farming and non-farming wartime industries, he reminded Mackenzie King that if there was not equity across Canada and the various sectors of the economy, the nation could never be unified.[45] Gardiner maintained that the WPTB’s desire to curb inflation did not seem to consider the plight of the less financially secure farmer. No small business owners or farmers sat on the WPTB, and the Prairie West was under-represented in Canada’s wartime policy-making process.[46] Gardiner also argued that the National War Services Board had drafted “almost everyone off the farm” and would not do any favours for a Liberal government in the Prairie West.[47] In Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, Robert A. Wardhaugh notes that Gardiner battled relentlessly in defence of western issues,” which became an annoyance to others in Mackenzie King’s Cabinet.[48] The Prime Minister mentions this irritation himself in his diaries, notably on 21 February 1944, when he recorded that Gardiner again had proposed more subsidies to the agricultural industry. Mackenzie King wrote that “the whole business was most difficult and tense.”[49] However, most members of Cabinet stood against Gardiner and understood the importance of controlling inflation during the war and remained firmly loyal to the price ceiling policy.[50]

Patriotism as a Solution

Mackenzie King’s movement towards a centralized style of governing eventually led to a loss of support from many small farmers in the Prairie West. Once Mackenzie King shifted his gaze away from the regional needs of farmers and towards central Canada, the rift was almost irreparable. Canada was quickly evolving from a rural-agricultural nation into an urban-industrial one during the Second World War, and the Prairie West felt ignored.[51] While trying to balance the economy, Mackenzie King was also centralizing power in Ottawa in a desperate attempt to contend with Quebec over the issue of conscription and general management of the war effort. The world was at war, and King was not able to address regional needs as he had done earlier in his career. Instead, it was of utmost importance to him for the nation to work collectively towards a common goal.[52]

As farmers began to radicalize, it clashed with Mackenzie King’s desire to promote unity and balance the country’s competing interests. Wardhaugh argues that even if Mackenzie King was sympathetic towards Western prairie farmers, his hands were tied. If he opened the agrarian market or removed tariffs on farm products, Eastern Canada would then have their own demands that King would have to accommodate. Moreover, if King conceded to Prairie demands, transportation and freight rates would increase, inflation would spike, and the cost of living would rise, which would anger many citizens.[53] Mackenzie King had always maintained that Canada had entered the war united on Canada’s contribution, and that total war called for cooperation and sacrifice on the part of all citizens. In a CBC broadcast from Ottawa on 4 December 1943, Mackenzie King reminded Canadians that true patriotism was demonstrated in the practice of self-denial and self-discipline; the nation would succeed because of citizen cooperation.[54]

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Figure 2: International Harvester, All Working for Victory, Now Farm Work is War Work! Join the Farm Victory Volunteers, See Your Principal, Circa 1940s, War poster, 47 x 30.5 cm., Hennepin County Library, MPW00857, https://digitalcollections.hclib.org/digital/collection/p17208coll3/id/1815

As he fought to keep the country united, supply the allied cause with sufficient troops and food, and keep Quebec happy, little time was spent on considering the interests of what many considered greedy farmers. Maclean’s Magazine sympathized with Canada’s Prime Minister, noting that The King Government is like a juggler attempting to keep five balls in the air at the same time. They are the armed forces, the munitions industries, agriculture, civilian services, and government services.”[55] While agriculture was a crucial sector in Canada’s wartime economy, it slowly declined in importance at King’s Cabinet meetings. There were simply too many larger, more pressing issues to manage.[56] In the crisis of the Second World War, Mackenzie King had begun to realize that he would not be able to appease the farmers of Western Canada and continue to promote stability in the economy through price control.[57]

Instead, King chose to remind the public of their patriotic duty, urging the workingman to remain patriotic and not lose heart at any inconvenience they faced. “The men in the fighting forces, we know, will never fail us. They are ready, if need be, to sacrifice their lives, as many already have, that others may remain free,” he declared on a CBC broadcast from Ottawa on 10 September 1943. He then proclaimed that “to be worthy of our fighting men, we must work more intensely, accept heavier burdens, [and] cooperate more fully in a united effort.”[58] How could a farmer complain about wartime product prices when his sons and daughters were laying down their lives for their country? Their willingness to produce food for victory and feed the fighting forces conflicted with their mounting frustrations towards the Governments price ceiling. In her dissertation on the topic of wartime agriculture in Canada, Stacey Barker suggests that “For Canadian farmers, the issue would be one of safeguarding their own interests within a wartime atmosphere fraught with the rhetoric of sacrifice and duty.”[59] In a desperate attempt to be heard, many farmers who may have traditionally voted for a Liberal government turned towards political parties that might be better able to fight for their cause.[60]

In 1943, Alberta elected Earnest C. Manning of the Social Credit Party as their government and premier. Saskatchewan followed suit and voted for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) under Tommy Douglas’ leadership in 1944. Both premiers had grown up in Saskatchewan during the darkest days of the depression and drought,”[61] which won them immense respect among farmers.[62] Manning and the Social Credit Party promised “parity prices… fair and equitable adjustment of all farm debts… land tenure… credit facilities… [and] rural electrification.”[63] Tommy Douglas also championed the underdog,”[64] and brought “five farmers, three teachers, a lawyer, a railway man, and a co-operative expert as his advisers” into the Provincial Legislature.[65] In his first year as Premier, Douglas cancelled nine million dollars of farmer debt and passed the Farm Security Act, in which “no farmer can be evicted from his home quarter section of 160 acres under a mortgage agreement.”[66] In choosing Manning and Douglas as provincial leaders, Alberta and Saskatchewan farmers demonstrated their desire to be properly represented in government. As the Regina Leader Post reported, while “the Saskatchewan farmer is not a socialist at heart,” they had been doing a good deal of thinking these past 10 years,” and were ready for social change.[67] Mackenzie King lost his riding in Prince Albert in the general election of 1945, and when Gardiner suggested that he again run for the Prince Albert riding in 1947, King replied that “Nothing would induce me to run in Prince Albert again.”[68] It was clear that Canada’s Prime Minister had given up hope of ever re-gaining favour in the Prairie West.

Death of the Small-Scale Farmer

Overall, Mackenzie King’s price ceiling policy was generally well-received and King was often praised for controlling inflation, the cost of living, and Canada’s total war debt. With it and other policies, Mackenzie King brought Canada through the war without the considerable economic distress that had marked the First World War. The price ceiling stabilized markets during and after the war, and Canada escaped the chaos that enveloped Borden’s government after 1914.[69] Mackenzie King also introduced several social policies and developed three new Government departments to contend with Reconstruction, National Health and Welfare, and Veterans Affairs, partly made possible due to his strict wartime price policies.[70]

If Mackenzie King had eliminated or held off on imposing a price ceiling during the Second World War, the idea of a “total war” would not have been actualized and Canada’s wartime debt might have been much higher. In “Canadian War-Time Price Controls,” Taylor contends that, “Reliance on a free price system would have required the government to keep continuously outbidding its citizens [for goods and services]. The consequent rapid and accelerating rise in prices would have entailed acute hardship on the economically vulnerable.”[71] A free market would have also contributed to social and political unrest, especially in urban areas, increased the total cost of war to the government, and perhaps unleashed economic turmoil in the post-war period.[72] Market prices are interdependent and it could be argued that the Canadian economy during and after World War Two thrived under a universal price ceiling.

The price ceiling contributed positively to agricultural development in Canada as well. During the war, Canada doubled its output of agricultural products, achieving this success with a limited supply of labour.[73] Farmers were pushed to increase production and efficiency, which led to revolutionary advances in farm equipment. More efficient machinery allowed for larger farms with less labour requirements.[74] While only 38 percent of Western Canadian farmers owned a tractor in 1941, that number climbed to 80 percent by 1951.[75] Livestock production also increased and farmers began to explore selective breeding programs, hormones, and scientific breakthroughs in livestock care.[76] Farmers who were able to adapt to the industrialization of agriculture during the Second World War thrived, and the industry increased in both quantity and quality. In Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers, Jeffrey Keshen argues that while the war created the strong, competitive agricultural sector we see in Canada today, it also contributed to the decline of small family farms in the Prairie West and the resentment many felt towards the federal government.[77]

In 1946, small-scale farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan made one last attempt to resist the shift to modern, industrialized farming under Mackenzie King’s Liberal government. Some sixty thousand farmers staged a 30-day strike, the largest in Canada’s agrarian history[78] Farmers blocked highways, halted deliveries, dumped their grain, and froze their shipments of animals to stockyards, hoping to get the attention of Mackenzie King. “Use your Brain. Hold your Grain,” they shouted; “Parity or Poverty!”[79] Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan’s CCF Premier, and Earnest Manning, Alberta’s Social Credit Premier, both quietly supported the farmers’ strike of 1946. While neither openly endorsed it, knowing that large-scale farmers would likely withdraw their support of the premiers, they allowed the strikers to make their demands known to Ottawa.[80]

While impressive, the strike changed little. The small-scale farmers only deprived themselves of valuable income, and their enthusiasm quickly diminished. Quarter and half section farms fell by one-third in Saskatchewan and one-quarter in Alberta during the first half decade of peace, and by 1961, those numbers had been further reduced. Seventy percent of small farms in Saskatchewan and 40 percent in Alberta had disappeared.[81] The loss of small family homesteads was followed by the loss of support for Mackenzie King’s Liberal, centralized leadership in Western Canada.[82] In the 1945 federal election, the Liberals who had held 178 seats in 1941, now held 127. Many of these seats were lost in rural parts of the Prairie Provinces; Liberal seats dropped from 12 to 3 in Saskatchewan and 7 to 2 in Alberta.[83]

One could argue that the growth of mechanized farming was inevitable, with or without Mackenzie King’s price controls. Stacey Barker suggests that the Second World War was less an agent of change, than it was a catalyst. She contends that technological advances and progress would have eradicated the family farm eventually, but the industrial revolution of the Second World War expedited that process. Perhaps a farmer’s success during the war was less about Mackenzie King’s tight price controls and more about their ability to modernize and adapt to the future of the business. Whether it was Mackenzie King’s price ceiling, paired with the inability of small-scale farmers to overcome the ravages of the Great Depression that squeezed many farmers out of business or simply there was an unwillingness to modernize, the number of farms shrank significantly in the post-war years, while the size of farms increased substantially.[84] Nevertheless, in the federal government’s attempt to increase production rates, freeze prices, and commit to “total war,” small family homesteads across Western Canada were, indeed, sacrificed in the process.[85]


Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s decision to legislate a price ceiling under the WTPB was sensible economics and effective management during the crisis of war. It stabilized the economy, maintained an affordable cost of living, and lowered Canada’s overall wartime debt. While inflation reached an estimated 77 percent in the First World War, followed by an economic crash,[86] the difference during the Second World War was remarkable. Following the enacting of the price ceiling in 1941, inflation climbed only 2.8 percent by 1945, the lowest rate experienced by any nation in the war.[87] From a governing standpoint, Mackenzie King’s price ceiling policy was a resounding success.

However, one could argue that in an effort to centralize the economy and mobilize the nation into “total war,” Mackenzie King failed to recognize regional differences and individual hardships experienced by Canadians. His price ceiling policy was particularly disruptive to small-scale Western Canadian farmers who had been decimated by the economic depression and drought of the 1930s. Food production was paramount during the Second World War and the federal government asked farmers to produce more, in order to feed soldiers, citizens, and hungry Allied nations. However, smaller farmers believed that a price ceiling disadvantaged them greatly. As they toiled and broke the earth with fewer labourers and outdated machinery, their incomes were capped by a price ceiling and what they considered an uncaring Prime Minister. The farmer’s livelihood was determined by the price earned on his yields, and if he was not able to keep up with increased production costs, his livelihood would suffer, as farmers insisted it had.

Canada was quickly industrialized and farmers were expected to modernize and update their equipment accordingly, but after a decade of depression, many small-scale farmers were unable to do so. No longer were they in the age of threshing crews and horse-drawn ploughs. However, without the appropriate capital to cover production costs, and replace their worn equipment, farmers fell further behind and began to look “old fashioned” in Canada’s modernized, industrial wartime nation. Farmers voiced their concerns, lobbying to have their regional interests heard by the federal government, but Mackenzie King refused to meet their demands. He was much more concerned with promoting unity and pursuing a centralized war strategy, a stable economy, and achieving balance between Eastern and Western Canada.

There was no simple remedy for the less financially secure farmers of Western Canada. If Mackenzie King had raised the price ceiling or opened the market, the whole economy would have been at risk. However, in his decision to control prices under the WTPB, small prairie farmers were largely sacrificed. Those who were able to modernize, invest in more efficient equipment, and adapt to the industrialized economy succeeded in Canada’s wartime market and beyond. However, in the process, hundreds of family homesteads were abandoned or purchased by others, and after one final attempt to reclaim their place in prairie life with a strike in 1946, many small-scale farmers admitted defeat.

The prairie farmer certainly blamed Mackenzie King and his Liberal, centralized government for their difficulties and resented him for demanding that they act ‘patriotically’ rather than in self-interest when he seemed to be ignorant of their cries for parity in the marketplace. Angry and defeated, they took their vote from Mackenzie King and his Liberal party and gave it to the CCF and Social Credit Party, in an attempt to have their voices heard in the federal chambers of power. It might have been a futile attempt to turn back time, as the world became increasingly more industrialized with little space for the small family farm. However, for many farmers, the price ceiling was an important contributing factor to their demise, and they were determined to exact retribution on the nation’s Prime Minister and wartime leader. The death of the small-scale farmer is inexorably linked to the decline of Mackenzie King’s liberalism in the Prairie West.

  1. See “Home Economists Elect Miss Gertrude Connors,” The Calgary Herald, 6 October 1941, 16. Women at Alberta’s Home Economics Association annual meeting agreed that “food will win or lose this war,” and “European Hunger seen bar to peace. Food may win the war and it may also win peace of future,” The Montreal Gazette, October 19, 1942, 25, which noted that if there was to be lasting peace after the war, Europe must be restored. This would be attained through food production.
  2. “Food to Help in Winning War Says Hon. J. G. Gardiner,” Ottawa Evening Citizen, June 5, 1941, 10.
  3. Dorothy Thomspson, “Why Does U.S. Government Announce Meat Rationing Four Months in Advance?” The Vancouver Sun, September 11, 1942, 6.
  4. Jeffrey Keshen, Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 65-9.
  5. Robert Wardhaugh, “The ‘Impartial Umpire’ Views the West: Mackenzie King and the Search for the New Jerusalem,” Manitoba History, 29 (Spring 1995).
  6. In this paper, liberalism refers only to Mackenzie King’s vision for the Liberal party. King was passionate about industrial labour reform and a redistribution of wealth to “to better the condition of the poor, denounce corruption, the tyranny of abused power, and uphold right and honoured principles.” As a religious man, he also felt an obligation to “Christianize” capitalist economics by creating equal opportunities for all. See Reginald Whitaker, “The Liberal Corporatist Ideas of Mackenzie King,” Labour, 2 (1977): 144 and Robert Wardhaugh, “The ‘Impartial Umpire’ Views the West: Mackenzie King and the Search for the New Jerusalem,” Manitoba History, 29 (Spring 1995).
  7. Reginald Whitaker, “The Liberal Corporatist Ideas of Mackenzie King,” Labour, 2 (1977): 150.
  8. Ibid., 141.
  9. Ibid., 148.
  10. Some Canadian Historians have written about Mackenzie King’s price ceiling policies and their impact on farmers in Western Canada. Three admirable secondary sources used in this paper should be mentioned here. Sheila Hanlon’s PhD dissertation “Feeding the Hungry Allies,” is an excellent analysis of Canada’s wartime food and agriculture production in the Second World War. Jeffery Keshen’s book, Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers addresses the frustrations farmers felt towards Mackenzie King’s Liberal Government’s price ceiling. Robert Wardhaugh’s book Mackenzie King and the Prairie West provides a detailed history of the declining sentiments towards King in the Western Provinces. The research for this paper builds on the historiographical bodies of work listed above, providing an analytical structure through which to view and contextualize primary sources. A significant number of primary sources were also analyzed in the writing of this paper. Mackenzie King’s diaries and speeches provide insight into the rhetoric and tactics used as he attempted to shape the nation’s confidence in price ceiling controls. Newspaper articles express the ideas of editors, columnists, farmers, and the Government, showing the ideological framework of the time. By including contrasting opinions on the price ceiling, I hope to illustrate the mounting friction between Western Canada and their Prime Minister and the difficult position that both parties were in.
  11. G. E. Britnell and V. C. Fowke, Canadian Agriculture in War and Peace 1935-1950. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), 23.
  12. Ibid., 52-4.
  13. Britnell and Fowke, 73.
  14. R. McQueen, “The Farmers’ Creditors Arrangement Act. 1934,” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 1, no. 1 (1935): 107-8.
  15. Britnell and Fowke, 73.
  16. Keshen, 66.
  17. K.W. Taylor, “Canadian War-Time Price Controls, 1941-6,” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 13, no. 1 (February 1947): 81.
  18. Taylor, 82-4.
  19. Louis C. Wagner, “Price Control in Canada,” Journal of Marketing 7, no. 2 (October 1942): 107.
  20. W. L. Mackenzie King, Canada and the Fight for Freedom (Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada LTD., 1944), 60.
  21. Taylor, 4-5.
  22. Ibid., 85.
  23. Taylor, 86. Initially, Mackenzie King suggested a “horizontal” ceiling, meaning that it would be applied “rigidly at every stage of production and distribution,” but the WPTB argued that it would be a difficult system to moderate. Instead, they chose to enact a “retail freeze,” which restricted producers from charging above a maximum price. The WPTB had complete control over all prices federally, provincially, and municipally and could override any price system previously in place. See Wagner, 107-8.
  24. Mackenzie King, xvii.
  25. Ibid., 32-5.
  26. Mackenzie King, 32-5.
  27. Ibid., 39-41. It is important to note that the previous ten years had been during the Great Depression when prices were exceedingly low.
  28. Mackenzie King, 59-60.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Wagner, 113-4.
  33. This paper will focus on farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but Manitoba and British Columbia farmers were affected by the Price Ceiling as well, as seen in Robert Wardhaugh’s book, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West.
  34. Hon. J. E. Brownlee, “Rationing Farm Machinery,” The Western Farm Leader, October 16, 1942, 3.
  35. Monod defines smaller farmers as working or owning quarter or half sections of land (up to 320 acres), and large-scale farmers as those who owned or operated over 480 acres. His criteria will be used as measurements in this paper as well. See David Monod, “The End of Agrarianism: The Fight for Farm Parity in Alberta and Saskatchewan, 1935- 48,” Labour, 16, (Fall 1985): 118-9, and 128.
  36. Monod, 127, 130.
  37. Ibid., 120-1.
  38. Keshen, 67-8.
  39. Keshen, 67-8.
  40. The Man with a Notebook, “Backstage in Ottawa,” Macleans Magazine, May 1, 1943, 14-5, 57.
  41. Monod, 123, 131.
  42. Ibid. Centralized Federalism in this paper refers to the movement towards a common economic market and a more “united” country, resulting in less regional autonomy. See Robert A. Wardhaugh. Mackenzie King and the Prairie West (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2000), 231.
  43. See T.L. Shepherd. “A Farmer’s Viewpoint” Regina Leader Post, August 24, 1942, 9, and The Man with a Notebook, “Backstage in Ottawa,” Macleans, April 1, 1943, 14-5, 41.
  44. D. Smith and N. Ward, Jimmy Gardiner: Relentless Liberal (University of Toronto Press, 1990), 264.
  45. Smith and Ward, 254–5.
  46. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, 236-7.
  47. Ibid., 240-1.
  48. Ibid., 233.
  49. Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King (King Diaries), February 21, 1944, 30568, LAC.
  50. Keshen, 66-7.
  51. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, 263.
  52. Ibid., 266.
  53. Robert Wardhaugh, “The ‘Impartial Umpire.’”
  54. Mackenzie King, 304.
  55. The Man with a Notebook, “Backstage in Ottawa,” Macleans, September 15, 1942, 45.
  56. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, 235-6.
  57. One news article that aptly demonstrates the economic state of Western farmers appeared in Macleans Magazine in December of 1942. During the summer, the government launched a large War Bond campaign in hopes that farmers would be willing to accept ‘Victory Loans’ instead of immediate cash payments for their farm produce. By accepting a Victory Loan, the farmer agrees to be paid with interest at a later date, and the Government saves money in the short term. However, out of the 250,000 farmers who were campaigned, only 12 bonds were sold, which was not even enough to pay the cost of the promotional literature. The article accuses farmers of being tax-shy, while their “cash continues to pile up in the bank or be spent in new equipment, livestock, home improvements, etc.” However, if one takes into consideration the previous decade, one can understand why farmers were holding on to their money and making improvements to their farms. In addition to their need for money, the Great Depression had instilled a certain amount of skepticism in banks and investments. See The Man with a Notebook, “Backstage in Ottawa,” Macleans Magazine, December 1, 1942, 14-5, 42.
  58. Mackenzie King, 272-3.
  59. Stacey Barker, “Feeding the Hungry Allies: Canadian Food and Agriculture during the Second World War” (PhD diss., University of Ottawa, 2008), 51.
  60. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, 262.
  61. Hugh Boyd, “The New Premier: No Puller of Punches,” Regina Leader Post, June 17, 1944, 9.
  62. “Manning Becomes New Premier of Alberta,” Edmonton Journal, May 31, 1943, 1-2.
  63. “Hon. Earnest C. Manning, Social Credit,” The Farm and Ranch Review, August 1, 1944, 4.
  64. Hugh Boyd, “The New Premier: No Puller of Punches,” Regina Leader Post, June 17, 1944, 9.
  65. “C.C.F. Assumes Office Monday,” Regina Leader Post, July 7, 1944, 3.
  66. T. A. Rusch, “One Year of Socialism in Saskatchewan,” The People’s Weekly, July 14, 1945, 6.
  67. Hugh Boyd, “Born in Depression: Explaining the Farm Vote,” Regina Leader Post, June 17, 1944, 9.
  68. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, 253, 257.
  69. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, 230 and Keshen, 57.
  70. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, 244.
  71. Taylor, 85.
  72. Ibid.
  73. Barker, 437.
  74. Britnell and Fowke, 406-7.
  75. Monod, 141.
  76. Britnell and Fowke, 410-1.
  77. Keshen, 65.
  78. Monod, 121.
  79. Ibid., 137.
  80. Monod, 138.
  81. Ibid., 139-141.
  82. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, 265.
  83. Keshen, 70.
  84. Barker, 448. During the Second World War, there were 733,000 farms in Canada; in 2008, there were approximately 250,000.
  85. Monod, 143.
  86. Keshen, 57.
  87. “Canada and the War: The War Economy and Controls: Wage and Price Controls,” Canadian War Museum, Accessed February 22, 2023, https://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/newspapers/canadawar/wageprice_e.html


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Canada and the Challenges of Leadership Copyright © 2023 by Kelsey Lonie; Corey Safinuk; and Jonathon Zimmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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