It’s March 1959, and Keith Dryden is on a special Canadian National Railway train bound for Ottawa.
The Western Producer reporter is on assignment, joining carloads of prairie farmers, led by then-Saskatchewan Wheat Pool president Jack Wesson, who are on their way to ask prime minister John Diefenbaker for deficiency payments.
His editor, Tom Melville-Ness, is on another train with the same purpose.
Both men are, with the help of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool secretaries and Gestetner copiers, producing daily newspapers for distribution to the farmers on board.
The approximately 1,100 farmers on the trains are just a few of the 302,000 who have signed petitions calling for assistance.
“A remarkable feature of this mass delegation moving east to Ottawa is delegates’ unity of purpose,” Dryden wrote from CNR Train No. 2.
“You can get in an argument anywhere on the train on any subject under the sun except deficiency payments. On that subject there is a unity of thought reminiscent of the western farmer’s regard for the Canadian Wheat Board.”
Today, Dryden recalls that trip as a landmark in terms of rallies and lobbies.
During his career he covered many smaller rallies but nothing quite like this one.
“It was a huge undertaking, and an expensive one,” he said.
“It didn’t get an awful lot of results but it made a lot of fuss for a while.”
This was the third large farmers’ rally in Ottawa since the West had been settled and agriculture established.
The first occurred in December 1910 when about 500 western farmers joined 300 from Ontario to push their way on to the floor of the House of Commons to demand federally owned grain elevators, a rail line to Hudson Bay and tariff reductions.
“In 1910, farmers were not a mere special interest group to be blocked with iron fences and security guards,” wrote Garry Fairbairn, also a former WP editor, in his history of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, From Prairie Roots.
“They were a majority of the population and agriculture was still the foundation of all things economic.”
The 1912 Canada Grain Act was largely a result of this rally. Grain terminals at Port Arthur, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Calgary were built, and eventually Edmonton and Lethbridge had large inland terminals as well.
The second major rally occurred in 1942, after Canada lost the western European market for wheat because of the war.
Ottawa imposed delivery limits and measures to take wheat out of production, but farmers were mostly incensed over initial prices of 70 cents a bushel.
Sask Pool, led by Wesson, pushed for at least $1 per bu. and warned that farm income would drop to less than half of what it had been. However, the government responded with price controls and a wheat price frozen at 77 cents.
Meetings, particularly one in March 1941 in Abernethy, Sask., led by former agriculture minister W. R. Motherwell, led to a wider protest effort.
On Sunday morning, Feb. 1, 1942, two trains carrying 400 Saskatchewan farmers arrived in Ottawa. They also carried petitions with 185,000 signatures demanding higher wheat prices.
Prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and his agriculture minister, Jimmy Gardiner, were among those to hear the farmers’ concerns and while they were a sympathetic audience, they didn’t meet the farmers’ demands.
The Canadian Wheat Board initial payment was raised to 90 cents, but that is all they received.
By the late 1950s, formal international wheat agreements had eroded and farmers increasingly looked to Ottawa for a domestic assistance program.
The pool had begun arguing in 1956 for deficiency payments. Its position was that Ottawa should make such payments when farmers’ revenues fell below their fair share of the national income.
They first asked for payments of 22 cents a bu. on 1955-56 deliveries and later 36 cents for 1956-57.
However, the Diefenbaker government in 1958 instead promised a comprehensive crop insurance program, more agricultural credit and special payments of $1 an acre up to $200 per farm.
Pool delegates said that was inadequate, and more than 1,000 meetings were held between Dec. 15, 1958, and Jan. 15, 1959, to mobilize farmers and prepare for a trek.
“The capital’s memories of the orderly 1942 March on Ottawa seem to have faded, for extensive security precautions were taken,” wrote Fairbairn.
Recalled fieldman Ted Nyhus: “The fear in Ottawa was that they were a bunch of hayseed barbarians coming with pitchforks.”
However, the March 1959 rally was peaceful, with nearly 1,100 delegates arriving with a 302,000-name petition urging deficiency payments.
Wesson was again a spokesperson, but this rally was prairie-wide, including the other pools, each province’s farmers’ union, three provincial federations of agricultural and United Grain Growers.
“We went down to the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa and then over to the government building and met with members of Parliament,” Dryden recalled.
“There were quite a number of distinguished people from the government of the time, and bigwigs from the opposition, too, because it’s always good politics.”
However, the farmers didn’t get what they wanted.
Instead, Diefenbaker again in 1960 provided the $1 an acre payment.
The pools had also asked for a two-price wheat system, which was denied.
“Despite all the signatures and groups involved, results were disappointing,” wrote Fairbairn.
Since those first three events, farmers have often held rallies to protest various issues, and many have been larger.
The National Farmers Union, for example, has a long history of organizing protests, particularly to support the wheat board. According to a history of the organization published in 2009, rallies in 1970 saw 2,000 farmers march on the Alberta legislative building, 7,500 in Regina and 2,800 in a Winnipeg parade.
Dominant themes that have brought farmers together over the years included transportation issues, such as railway service and the future of the Crow freight rate, drought relief and free trade.
One of the largest rallies occurred in Ottawa in 1992, when 30,000 farmers protested the potential loss of supply management under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations.
In 1993, about 13,000 farmers packed Saskatoon’s hockey arena to demand a third line of defence payment, as well as to maintain the Crow rate and strengthen the CWB.
More recently, protests focused first on keeping barley under the wheat board and then on the im-pending loss of the board’s single desk monopoly.
Over the years farmers have rallied on Parliament Hill, in front of legislative buildings, in small cold rural halls and with tractors, grain trucks and combines on major highways.
All of these have met with mixed results: the Crow was ended in 1995, the wheat board monopoly is gone and acreage payments never materialized.
Dryden is philosophical about the results: “When you lean on the government, they won’t give you what you want necessarily, but they will decide that they have to do some sort of a thing to appease you.”
THEN: Ottawa delegation to be 1000 strong
REGINA — More than 1000 delegates from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will converge on Ottawa next week to present to the Government of Canada on March 10 one of the longest petitions in Canadian history. The petition carries more than 300,000 signatures of farmers, business and professional men and workers. It requests the government to make deficiency payments on wheat, oats and barley delivered in western Canada during the last three years to provide grain producers with a more equitable share of the national income.