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W.R. Motherwell: The Politician Behind the Plough

For the week of Monday May 19, 2014

On May 24, 1943, farmer and politician William Richard Motherwell died, but not before reading how his community felt about him. Celebrating his achievements, Abernethy’s citizens wrote enthusiastically about his “untiring efforts to bring about better conditions” in the agriculture industry and the “many tangible benefits” the work had produced for Canadians.

Motherwell Homestead, built by Motherwell himself, is now a national historic site.
© Parks Canada
Born in 1860, Motherwell grew up on a farm in Ontario. He attended Guelph’s Agricultural College on scholarship, and after graduation staked out a homestead in Abernethy, Saskatchewan. As an active community member, he hosted meetings at his home and was the school district’s secretary. He co-founded the Territorial Grain Growers Association in 1901 to advocate for farmers who objected to unfair grain grading and inadequate railway transportation.

In 1905 Motherwell was elected to the Saskatchewan government and ran the Department of Agriculture, striving to provide farmers with the knowledge to succeed. He issued pamphlets on such topics as crop rotation and diversification, and created a network of local fairs. He also established the popular “Better Farming Train,” which travelled the province with informative displays and demonstrations. When the University of Saskatchewan was founded in 1907, Motherwell ensured that it was one of the first to incorporate a College of Agriculture.

William Richard Motherwell as federal Minister of Agriculture, 1923.
© Library and Archives Canada / C-021163

Motherwell’s policies were equally effective at the federal level when he was Liberal Minister of Agriculture from 1922-30. He sought to improve farmers’ lives and the quality of farm production with measures such as national grading systems and farming co-operatives. Motherwell fought the spread of tuberculosis by introducing “Restricted T.B. Areas” for eliminating cows that tested positive, thereby reducing transmission to humans. He was creator of the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory to develop disease-resistant wheat.

By his retirement in 1939, Motherwell had been in politics for more than 30 years. In that time he introduced not only broad agricultural reforms, but also initiatives to help the individual farmer. For these efforts William Richard Motherwell is designated a national historic person, while his farm, Motherwell Homestead, is commemorated as a national historic site. The founding of the Territorial Grain Growers Association is a national historic event.

To find out more about Motherwell and western farm life in the 1800s, visit Parks Canada’s Motherwell Homestead website. To discover other farming activists, please see Charles Avery Dunning: The Farmer's Politician and James Garfield Gardiner: Prairies Farmer and Politician. To learn about Canadian agricultural innovation, please read The Wheat Wizard and C.E. Saunders and the Miracle of Marquis.

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