Dust and Depression

In this lesson, students will conduct their own research into the Dust Bowl.

Created by Elizabeth Phipps Governor General's History Awards Winner 2012 recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching

Posted April 12, 2022

Lesson Overview

Farmers in southeastern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan were deeply affected by the prolonged drought, insect infestations, and the ultimate economic collapse of rural farms, which took place during the Great Depression. In this lesson, students will watch the History Bits video “Dust and Depression” and conduct their own research into the Dust Bowl. They will imagine how a child of a family who lost their farm would feel and write a letter describing their experience.

Historical Thinking Concept(s)

  • Use primary source evidence
  • Identify continuity and change
  • Analyze cause and consequence
  • Take historical perspectives

Learning Outcomes

Students will:

  • Analyze: gather information about the causes and consequences of the environmental disaster using the resources provided or individual research
  • Understand: demonstrate an understanding of the importance of agriculture and climate in the Canadian Prairies
  • Communicate and Apply: summarize the historic causes and consequences of the environmental disaster creatively through a letter rooted in their research

Background Information

Saskatchewan and Alberta saw incredible growth in immigration from 1900 through the 1920s as settlers came to these provinces to establish farms. The area was known as the “Bread Basket” of North America because of the success growing wheat and other grain crops. Prairie land was broken and native vegetation like prairie grasses and low shrubs were cleared from the land and farmers planted crops.

In these early years, farms were successful due to good growing conditions. As the 1930s began, however, the farmers experienced prolonged drought which caused repeated devastation to annual harvests. Farm losses were compounded by infestations of cutworms, sawflies, and grasshoppers.

Farmers struggled to maintain their farms and governments were slow to respond to the crisis. Banks began repossessing farms and other farms were abandoned. It has been suggested that nearly 750,000 farms were lost in Canada between 1930 and 1935 and a majority of them were in southeastern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan.

Families who left their farms appeared to choose three different types of relocation: move to Ontario or eastern United States; move to bigger urban centres such as Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, or Edmonton; or move to the northern part of the provinces. In Saskatchewan, approximately 45,000 people moved from the southern half of the province to the northern forested area during the latter half of the 1930s. This was about 5% of the total provincial population.

 Suggested reading before teaching this lesson:

Lesson Activity

This activity is designed to be incorporated into a bigger learning unit or discussion about the Great Depression in Canada. It can be used as a full class activity or as a learning centre activity.

This activity relies on students considering historical perspectives. Remind students that when considering how people in the past might have felt or thought, it needs to be based on evidence and not their imagination. As explained by Peter Seixas and Tom Morton in The Big Six, “If students are writing a piece of historical fiction and doing it well, they will consider and reflect on the beliefs, values, and motivations of people in the time period. They will research details of the period in order to make factually accurate, evidence-based inferences about their characters, including what the characters might think, what they might do and why, and their responses to the social, cultural, and political environment around them.”

  1. Watch the History Bits video entitled “Dust and Depression.”
  2. Lead a class discussion about the effects of the drought on prairie farmers during the 1930s.
  3. Share some quotes and recollections (primary sources) from people who lived through the Dust Bowl.
  4. Instruct students to write a friendly letter describing the experience of a farm child from that era and how they may have felt. The writing process can include a rough draft, peer editing, and the completion of a final copy.
  5. Provide students with time to complete additional online research about the conditions that existed on the Canadian prairies during the 1930s. (A list of suggested resources is included below.)

This video also comes with French subtitles; you can adjust the language in the captioning section of your viewer.

For assessment purposes, the letter should be evaluated on the following components:
  • The letter uses standard formatting, punctuation, and spelling.
  • The letter contains four historical facts about the conditions that existed on Canadian Prairies farms in the 1930s (e.g. dust, infestation, drought, loss of income).
  • The letter mentions whether the family plans to stay on their farm or to relocate (and if so, where).
  • The letter conveys emotions that a farm child from the 1930s might be feeling (based on research and evidence, not imagination).


Extension Activities

  • Find and interview people from your community (grandparents, great-grandparents, neighbours, etc.) that can share their stories about living through this time period.
  • Using your local library or archives, research newspaper articles and other records to reveal how your community was affected by the Great Depression and/or Dust Bowl.
  • Research and discuss how the farmers’ migration from the southern prairies into the north impacted Métis and First Nations populations.
  • Research and debate the following question: Was the Dust Bowl a natural disaster or was it caused by people’s actions?

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