Plowing the Virgin Canadian Prairie
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“As a youth in Saskatchewan, I remember thinking,
Why did my parents come and bring us in tow,
From the far Syrian desert with sands blowing,
To the Saskatchewan desert of wind and snow.
Our life was one long path of struggling,
To build a future by making grain in desert grow,
But how many times did my parents,
See the hot windburn the grain row after row.”
In June 1979, at a family reunion in Kelowna British Columbia, I recited a long poem of which these lines were apart, telling the story of our family. I believe that from these few words one can draw a picture of our family’s early history in western Canada. It was a tale which began when our family was given a homestead and began to plow the virgin prairie soil.
In the fall of the year 1923, my father, part farmer, and part trader left the then French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon for the New World. To him and his fellow farmers, America, which to them meant the whole of North America, was literally a continent whose streets were lined with gold.
To this land, he had come to seek his fortune. Like many Syrian immigrants in that era, my father began his new life by peddling knickknacks to the farmers. He made a little money and a year later he was able to send for my mother. However, even though he was making a fair income, he hated the trade. He could not become accustomed to begging people to buy his few pieces of clothing and household trinkets. He yearned to own a farm. To him, farming was the noblest of trades.
During that time, my father was peddling; he was always searching for a piece of land. His wish was fulfilled when he was granted by the Canadian federal government a quarter section of land as a homestead. He was overjoyed. From peddling, he had saved a few hundred dollars and with this, he bought another quarter- section of land, a team of horses, a wagon and a plow.
I have often wondered how my parents must have felt when they reached their empty land. In the old country, they had been accustomed to seeing relatives and friends, now they were alone with not even a neighbor’s house in sight. As they looked across the barren land, how they must have longed for their home in Syria or even their little shack in their first home in Canada, Governor, a town now gone, which at that moment must have seemed like a palace.
Nevertheless, in that summer of 1927, my parents were young and ambitious, and surely they must have known that homesteading on the unbroken prairie was no easy task. To begin from nothing must have been an unnerving experience, but there was no turning back. They were pioneers in a land they had chosen and were determined to settle, ready to conquer any of the odds that came their way.
Their first task was to build a habitable structure before the cold winter winds blew across the land. On the purchased quarter section, the previous owner had partially constructed a small frame-building. However, he had left before even the outer walls had been completed. This unfinished shell served as the outer walls of an adobe interior that my father and mother built in the same fashion as their Syrian village home.
At the same time, as the house was being finished, my father started to plow the land to ready the soil for the next year’s crop. However, preparing the soil ready was no easy task. Not only did it need to be plowed, but thousands of rocks had to be hand-picked from the fields.
Every morning my father would wake my brother and myself at four a.m. and take us to the fields to help remove the unending rocks. We could, as tiny tots, only pick the very small stones, while my father labored with the large boulders. We picked stones morning after morning until, as the years went by, even as a child, I loathed the sight of piled rocks. In those years, to me, the house chores were pleasant tasks when compared to the picking of stones.
My father who in Syria had, like his ancestors for thousands of years, plowed the land with one-blade wooden plows, pulled by oxen, now used a much more efficient one-blade steel plow pulled by horses. When my father told me that plowing was easy in Canada when compared to the old country, it did not impress me. It seemed an endless task, plowing in circles day after day.
The virgin land being plowed by my father hosted many wild animals and birds found on the south Saskatchewan plains. Almost, every day when my father returned from the fields, he would bring a few prairie chickens or rabbits home for our daily meals. There was no problem keeping the extra meat. In summer we put the meat in a pail, then lowered it into the well above the waterline; in the winter, an outside shed made an excellent refrigerator.
Nevertheless, even though meat was important, it was only one item in our diet. During the spring and summer months, my mother would scour the nearby fields for the roots and edible greens known to her during her youth in the old country. In addition, every year she had a thriving vegetable garden which, with my brother’s help and mine, was watered by hand. From this excellent garden, she kept us fed for the whole year. What we did not eat during the summer, she dried or cooked in jars for winter use. Hence, even though money was very scarce, we always ate well.
During the 1930s, the Great Drought occurred and southern Saskatchewan became a desert waste. Nothing grew and the soil blew back and forth like the deserts of Arabia. How many times my father and mother must have cursed the day they came to this land where they had thought the streets were paved with gold.
During these years our neighbors, the nearest being three miles away, began to abandon their parched farms, but my father, with an expanding family, could not afford to move. We had to make do.
I recall how during the long winter evenings my mother would relate to us nostalgic stories about life in Syria. Her eyes would shine as she talked about the orchards and vineyards heavy with grapes which, at that time, I had neither tasted nor even seen. Besides the orchards, she talked of sunny climates and a land filled with people. She would reminisce about her home village where she had many relatives and friends, comparing it to the homestead, where we had a visitor perhaps once or twice a year.
In the years to come, we would move away from our homestead to farm in a better part of the country, but memories of the piles of rocks and my father plowing the virgin land with a one-blade plow have forever been impressed on my mind. The streets paved with gold are now, the history of my youth – a leaf from the Canadian Thousand and One Nights.