Spreading over the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the vast lands between Ontario in the east and the Rocky Mountains in the west are commonly called “the Prairies”. This is certainly not one of Canada’s more glamorous regions, with the main cities caricatured as dull and the scenery as monotonous. In truth, this image is unfair and comes mainly from the fact that most cross-country journeys use Trans-Canada 1, which passes through generally flat and treeless plains. Here isolated farms guard thousands of acres of swaying wheat or immense grasslands with giant cattle herds. But these landscapes only typify the region’s southernmost part, and even then they’re broken up by the occasional river valley and range of low-lying hills. The prairie’s other major cross-country route – 16 or the Yellowhead Route – lies to the north and travels through a more diverse belt of low hills, mixed farms and sporadic forests in the Aspen Parkland.
Further north again, this transitional zone gives way to the vast and sparsely inhabited boreal forest. Here conifers, rivers and myriad lakes cover the rocky outcrops of the Canadian Shield and well over half the entire region – stretching north to the Northwest Territories and the hostile, treeless tundra around the Hudson Bay. These northerly climes are characterized by deep, cold winters that alternate with brief, bright summers, when the top few centimetres of topsoil thaw to create millions of stagnant pools of water where mosquitoes thrive. Yet the region remains captivating for its rare sense of desolate wilderness, staggering number of first-rate backcountry canoe routes and wildlife that includes caribou, polar bear, bison and all sorts of migratory birds.
The eastern gateway to the prairies is Winnipeg, which is experiencing many green shoots of urban renewal and rewards a stopover, with some interesting historical sights, restaurants and nightlife. The city can provide a base for exploring the varied lakes and plains of Southeastern Manitoba and, if you’ve got the time, Northern Manitoba, where the biggest draw is the desolate town of Churchill, on the southern shore of Hudson Bay, which is one of the world’s best places to see beluga whales and polar bears.
The more varied scenery makes Yellowhead Route (Hwy-16) from Winnipeg to Edmonton (1310km away), the best route west. It takes its name from a light-haired Iroquois explorer and guide nicknamed Tête Jaune (“yellow head”) by the voyageurs, French-speaking boatmen who plied the waterways transporting people, furs and supplies. The culture of original settlers is preserved today in small towns like Dauphin, but the route is most rewarding for its easy side-trips to two national parks, Riding Mountain in Manitoba and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan, both with excellent hiking and canoeing. The Yellowhead Route also runs through Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s largest city, a fairly ordinary but likeable place thanks to an attractive riverside setting and good restaurants. Nearby are important Métis and Plains Indians sites that explore Canada’s heritage. Once in Alberta, the Yellowhead continues on to Edmonton, a slightly bleak but bustling city that’s a gateway to an immense expanse of low hills and boreal forest to the north.
However, the quickest and main route west from Winnipeg is Trans-Canada Hwy-1, which briskly slices through some 1500km of bland and productive prairie on its way to the Rockies. Once the novelty of all the hypnotically swaying wheat, oceans of dazzling yellow rapeseed and the big skies with their ever-changing cloud formations wears off, you can preserve your sanity with a series of diverting side-trips. These can take in old farmsteads, lush provincial parks, the easygoing city and Mountie-capital of Regina, the gritty little atmospheric town of Moose Jaw, with its worthwhile Tunnels of Moose Jaw attraction, and restored Fort Walsh. With more time to spare, it’s well worth striking out from the main route for the attractive coulees and buttes of the pristine and wonderfully empty Grasslands National Park. The first big town in Alberta is Medicine Hat, where Hwy-3 begins – the most direct route to Vancouver. Otherwise, continuing on Hwy-1, the ranching belt gives way to the intriguing and arid Badlands around Drumheller which was once home to dinosaurs, which left abundant traces. The region is just about within the catchment area of Calgary, the oil town and self-styled cowboy city famous for the Calgary Stampede and as the main gateway for the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
If you’re in the Prairie Provinces in the winter, when the temperature can fall to -30°C to -40°C, and the Arctic wind bears down, it’s hard to imagine how the European pioneers survived, huddled together in remote log cabins or even sod huts. Yet they did, and went on to cultivate, between about 1895 and 1914, the great swath of land making up the wheat belt and the aspen parkland, turning it into one of the world’s most productive wheat-producing areas. This development came with a high price: the nomadic culture of the Plains Indians was almost entirely destroyed and the disease-ravaged, half-starved survivors were dumped in a string of meagre reservations. Similarly, the Métis – descendants of white fur traders and aboriginal women – who for more than two centuries had acted as intermediaries between the two cultures, found themselves overwhelmed, their desperate attempts to maintain their independence leading to a brace of futile rebellions (see The consolidation of the west).
With the Métis and the First Nations out of the way, thousands of European immigrants concentrated on wheat yields. With prosperity so dependent on grain prices and railroad freight charges, the region’s farmers experienced alarming changes in their fortunes throughout the twentieth century, as bust alternated with boom. This situation continues to affect the prairie economies, although Saskatchewan in particular has diversified, exploiting its supplies of potash (fertilizer) and some of the same vast oil and gas reserves that underpin Alberta’s economy. Even so, prairie farmers often struggle to make ends meet when wheat prices fall and so formed wheat pools, which attempt to control freight charges and sell the grain at the best possible time. The political spin-off was the evolution of a strong socialist tradition, built on the farmers’ mistrust of markets. For many years Saskatchewan was a stronghold of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the New Democratic Party; in 1944 the CCF formed the country’s first leftist provincial government, pushing through bills to set up provincially-run medical and social security schemes, which the rest of Canada eventually adopted.