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Wet prairie : an environmental history of wetlands, flooding and drainage in agricultural Manitoba, 1810-1980 Stunden Bower, Shannon

Abstract

Southern Manitoba’s wet prairie region is marked by persistent problems with surface water management. Through a historical geographical approach to wetlands, flooding, and drainage from the early 19th to the late 20th century, this dissertation offers an environmental history of a dynamic landscape, emphasizing the complex two-way relations between changes in human communities and environmental conditions. European newcomers mimicked Aboriginal populations in making use of wetland resources, and the development of property relations attuned to the local environment helped define the Red River settlement, established at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in 1812. The creation of the Province of Manitoba in 1870 prompted new disputes over land rights, and perceived racial distinctions were consolidated by differences in how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal claims were adjudicated. Farming expanded in late 19th century Manitoba. Many farmers failed to account for environmental variability and found their progress hampered by wet areas or periodic flooding. Early government drains were inadequate, and failed ditching efforts compounded settler frustration. The Land Drainage Act of 1895 expanded reclamation, but settler expectations remained unmet. The environmental consequences of intensive agriculture compounded the problem. Provincial inquiries in the first half of the 20th century revealed the patterns of contention that, along with the ditches themselves, defined the drained landscape. Flood problems at the international border, the continental significance of waterfowl habitat, and the catastrophic 1950 flood along the Red River were catalysts of change, and led to involvement by American interests and the Canadian federal government. Still, contention continued. Ultimately, it was new concern over surface water erosion--a problem in many ways specific to the local topography of southern Manitoba--that proved most important to the reconceptualization of the drained landscape. This dissertation examines efforts to reconcile progress, property and the Manitoba landscape, often through the exercise of government authority. It engages the notions of bioregion and nation, highlighting the importance of culture in the interconnected processes of human and environmental change. Finally, it emphasizes the importance of cultivating the capacity for adaptation to dynamic environments.

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