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Creating a Modern Countryside: Liberalism and Land Resettlement in British Columbia

By James Murton

Review By John Belshaw

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 159 Autumn 2008  | p. 141-3

British Columbia is noteworthy among Canadian provinces for its paucity of good farmland. Too much is rocky, the coastal forests are daunting, a great deal is arid, elevations are too great to support crops, and the better part of the rest is vertical. Notwithstanding a few lush valleys with moderate climates, the whole has very limited agricultural potential. This has not held back governments from trying to do something about it. 

In the years immediately after the Great War, BC administrations tried to reconceptualize, recast, and resettle lands that had never before seen the plough. Applying the new-found power of the state and what seemed at the time like the rich possibilities held out by science, the provincial government and its agents tried to build a brighter future through the farming of reluctant landscapes. By creating an idealized countryside of smallholdings, they sought to carve out a niche for returned soldiers and others who sought peace on the land. This “peace” entailed more than just relief from war: it also held the promise of respite from modernity and its chief forms – industrialization and cities. These new model farmers would, indeed, be yeomen insofar as they were independent and self-sustaining. But they were, as well, set down the path towards an alternative modernity by a liberal state willing to actively shape society with dredges, flumes, and barbed wire.

In Creating a Modern Countryside, James Murton examines four very different BC settlements that sprang out of interwar beliefs that science could mould the wilderness into something that looked recognizably like “countryside” and communities of self-supporting (if not self-sufficient) settlers could be established as exemplars of a rural, “alternative modernism.” Merville (in the clear-cut rainforest north of Courtenay), Sumas (in the Fraser Valley), Oliver (in the south Okanagan), and Camp Lister (south of Creston, itself remote) are treated in turn. Merville and Lister were soldier settlement projects; Sumas and Oliver, agricultural projects. The principal difference seems to be that huge sums of money were thrown at the latter pair to recreate the environment into a farmable countryside. At Sumas a tidal lake had to be drained. It was done, but the costs were enormous and the returns very slender. In the south Okanagan, the desert had to be reclaimed through irrigation. Of the four, Oliver most nearly met its promise. To Murton, it succeeds in part because the engineers involved tried to work with nature rather than against it (as was most clearly the case at Sumas). 

The career of Thomas “Duff” Pattullo Wgures large in this account. It was Pattullo’s role as minister of lands in the 1920s and his willingness to spend, spend, spend that brought results in Oliver, the community named after Pattullo’s boss. (One cannot but speculate that taking the name of the premier contributed to the Okanagan project’s success.) The book closes with the impact of the 1930s Depression on visions of a rural modernity. It was, in a word, disastrous. An obvious solution to urban mass unemployment would be to afford people the chance to become farmers. But the goal of masculine self-sufficiency on the land gave way in the 1930s to subsistence farming, and even that could not be sustained. It was, as Murton points out, “a counsel of despair” (175). Pattullo thus presided over the brightest and (as premier) the darkest moments of these back-to-the-land movements; his choices took the Liberal party in British Columbia through an interventionist, pro-rural, pro-planning phase (with individualism at its heart) and into a conservative, pro-capitalist, and pro-urban version of the New Deal. 

Creating a Modern Countryside stands apart from an older generation of political histories of the province in that Murton does not mistake the best will in the world for success. Murton’s environmental concerns – which come down to an interest in how the land is understood by those who wish to live upon and use it – adds a further dimension. But he shares intellectual terrain with Ruth Sandwell and Ian McKay, complementing and articulating through example their observations about Canadian liberalism. Sometimes this feels like contortion. The ability of Liberals to embrace and then discard a policy of alternative modernity–essentially a rejection of modern urban industrialism – is insufficiently contextualized within contemporary Liberal modernity. The Liberals might have had a vision of the country, but they were also a party of the city. Were they hobby farmers on a provincial scale? Two words seem to escape Murton’s vocabulary. As near as I can see, Murton never refers to the liberal Liberals either as “pragmatists” or as “reactionaries,” and yet they compromise their vision repeatedly while championing the ideal of the gentleman orchardist/farmer. Another term, “antimodernism,” is disposed of rather carelessly on pages 55 and 175, but some of the Liberals’ understandings of rural life would clearly qualify for this description. He identifies a-liberal elements that found a home within modern liberalism (11-13), but that is neither particularly explicit nor especially helpful, a bit like finding shades of red in royal purple. He is at pains to show how their policy was neither Arcadian nor Agrarian but Alternative Modern. This is a difficult balancing act. Arcadian and Agrarian values are the ghosts that haunt this story, lurking in the hedgerows and orchards, possessing a politician in the odd speech or manifesting in a brochure.

There is the question, too, of what would constitute “success.” Is it reasonable to expect 100 percent of the settlers in these experiments to produce thriving farm operations? Perhaps at the time, perhaps when carried away by their own rhetoric, politicians like Oliver and Pattullo might have looked for 200 percent success, with newly arrived rural-modernites elbowing their way into the modiWed environments. But what about now? Might we not set the bar a bit lower and say, given what we know about soil and market conditions, 26 percent continuous occupation of farms constitutes success? Murton wrestles with this question of conditional success and says of Merville and its legacy: “Any place that can produce such warmth and generosity cannot be labelled a mistake or a failure” (106). Perhaps not, but Murton’s own very fine writing gives us a tragic account of the devastating 1922 fire in Merville – caused almost certainly by wasteful, lazy, and ecologically foolish logging practices coupled to rail transport that spat sparks onto dry tinder – and we are left gasping for air. The tale is genuinely terrible and Murton recounts it with skill. It is hard to look these grieving families in the historical eye and not call the whole project a total bungle.

At the end of the day, this is not a book about farming. It is a study of policy making, ideology, and the sheer cussedness of the physical world when confronted by cocky science. The title is, in this regard, misleading. Better it should have taken its name from this nice line penned by Murton, who describes agriculture in mountainous British Columbia as “farming in the clouds.” The ideological goals of the government and the agricultural-scientific theory of the day were no less airy and rarefied.