The same extreme drought and wind conditions that brought the Dust Bowl to Oklahoma and other Plains states in the U.S. extended north into the Prairie provinces of Canada. Saskatchewan was especially hard-hit, beginning in 1929. Year after year the rain failed to fall. The land dried and the earth’s surface cracked and hot winds stirred up huge dust storms, carrying away the parched soil and piling it in drifts against fences and buildings. At least a quarter million people fled Saskatchewan during the ‘30s. Those who remained hoped against hope that each year of drought would be the last, that when they planted their seed in the spring it would take root rather than blowing away with the next wind. But year after year the drought continued until by 1934, its resources exhausted, Saskatchewan could not feed itself.
Aid poured into the region by the boxcar, chiefly from Canada’s eastern provinces, from both government and private sources. At least a thousand families were totally dependent that year on the food collected elsewhere and distributed by Saskatchewan’s churches and government agencies. Yet it never seemed to be enough: photographs of dead cattle and the gaunt faces of hungry people appeared in issue after issue of most newspapers.
To the west, the Mormon farmers of southern Alberta were living in much different conditions. Not only was the drought not so severe, but the irrigation canals dug by their fathers and grandfathers at the turn of the 20th century brought water to virtually every Mormon farmer’s fields. The growing season of 1934 produced a bumper crop in the Lethbridge Stake, with potatoes, onions, cabbages, turnips, and other produce piling up in the barns and storehouses of the Saints.
Grateful for their abundance and keenly aware of the suffering elsewhere, the high priests’ quorum of Lethbridge Stake joined the national effort to relieve the farmers of southern Saskatchewan. Under the direction of stake president A.E. Palmer and the day-to-day management of George W. Green, committees were formed in every ward and branch, and farmers began pulling into the designated depots and contributing their loads of vegetables. Others donated cash, or sacks, or contributed their time to bagging the produce for shipping.
The committee contacted officials of the Canadian Pacific railway company who agreed to ship the collected food without charge. The Church had few direct contacts in Saskatchewan – Regina’s 20 LDS families would be among those who received aid, but they could hardly be asked to assume responsibility for the entire distribution. Too, this aid was intended for any hungry family, not only members of the Church. In one of the first great ecumenical partnerships to include LDS humanitarian aid, the United Church of Canada agreed to cooperate with the Lethbridge Stake and see that the produce reached those who needed it most.
With the publicity given to the project by the UCC, non-Mormon farmers of southern Alberta joined in the effort and soon the trucks and wagons dropping off their loads of potatoes and cabbages were as likely to be driven by Methodist, Catholic, or Presbyterian farmers as by Latter-day Saints. Instead of the single car anticipated by the Lethbridge committee, two boxcars were filled and sent on their way.
One car reached southern Saskatchewan before Christmas; the other shortly after. Willing hands among all churches in that province unloaded the cars and saw that the produce reached hungry and grateful farm families. At least 200 families received produce from the first shipment, and an unknown additional number from the second.
The tons of produce shipped from Lethbridge and surrounding communities was only a drop in the ocean of aid that poured into Saskatchewan from all sources, but it was a significant donation by a relatively small group of farmers. In addition, it proved that Mormons and their neighbors could cooperate despite the interminable tensions between them, setting the example for future humanitarian efforts throughout the world.
“And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” (Jacob 2:19)