John is born in 1920. He is the oldest of 11 children. He is 15 in 1935 when the Depression is ravaging Saskatchewan. His family lives on a small farm, his mother is the post mistress in the nearby small town. There is no work. He rides the rails to Ontario to work in the woods and sends home as much money as he possibly can. With the outbreak of war, he joins the Canadian Air Force. At the war’s end, he returns to Saskatchewan. No one knows about post-traumatic stress disorder so he cries under the table when the dog barks but he holds it together well enough to buy a section of land set aside for veteran’s allowance. He turns a section of bush into a successful hog operation and wins the Master Farmer award for Saskatchewan in the 1970s. By 1982 his two boys want to buy the farm and do so for about half of what the valuation of the times says it is worth—the boys avoid the massive over-inflation of land values common in the early 80s. But they have to keep up with 20-plus percent interest on their loans and they lose the land. John’s legacy is gone.
Don Layh narrates this biography rapidly and with more than a hint of irony. His career as a lawyer, and indeed his own roots, have made him intimately familiar with the high and low points known by every Saskatchewan farmer since World War I. Our province has enacted some of the most muscular legislation known in the world to protect farmers and Layh has logged a lot of time in the court wrestling judgements out of it for both farmers and for lending agencies. His engagement with the legislation led him to write a book. His conclusions go far beyond anything imagined by current acts of government.
The law in question is the Saskatchewan Farm Security Act enacted in 1988. Layh’s book, A Legacy of Protection, reveals the act to be a monumental achievement in securing a farmer’s right to keep his or her land despite economic disaster. The act has its roots in law dating back to the 1930s but it entered Saskatchewan’s legal inventory at a time when farming, and more specifically the profile of a farmer, had already taken a radical departure from the past.
“You see an evolution through this legislation,” says Layh. “You start in the 1930s where there were a lot of desperate economic circumstances. We put in some very important legislation in the 1930s. “The whole spirit of the 1930s was that the credit was all held in the East anyway so if Saskatchewan farmers are pitted against Eastern equipment vendors let’s not make it easy on the vendors. Let the shareholders of the Royal Bank get a few pennies less on their dividend payment and we won’t worry about it in Saskatchewan. Or, if you’re a vendor of farm machinery and you’ve sold on credit, you’ll get your machinery back but you’re not going to sell it for a shortfall and then go back to the farmer for the balance.”
Layh suggests that the 1930s was a time of discord between lenders and farmers. The antipathy between lenders and farm families was acute after 1925 when the wheat economy peaked and began to tailspin. Legal protection for farmers devastated by weather or market disasters came too late for many but it was a nice setup for the prosperity following WWII.
The laws themselves, however, were not argued in court during the period they were established. “Farmers were not of a culture to default on debt during that period so the law wasn’t tested for the first 50 years,” says Layh. “There was very little case law.”