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The Canadian state and native migrant labour in southern Alberta's sugar beet industry



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Recent studies of labour have clearly established that the capitalist state is very involved in the recruitment, relocation and retention of migrant labour forces. Most of the literature tends to analyze migrant labour within the broader social, political and economic context of expanding capitalism. Consequently, studies tend to focus on how the use of migrant labour is profitable to capitalism because it is cheap and easy to exploit. Such studies, however, neglect the ways in which the state actually intervenes in the labour market in order to facilitate the flow of migrant workers to places of employment. Therefore, this thesis explores the relationship between the migration of labour, the state and the reserve army of labour through an analysis of the Native migrant work force in the sugar beet industry in southern Alberta. Through the use of archival material, which includes various federal and provincial documents, annual reports of the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers' Association, newspapers and other materials, the circumstances underlying state intervention in the economy of the southern sugar beet industry became clear. While analyzing the structure of the sugar beet industry in southern Alberta, it was found that throughout much of the history of the sugar beet industry, farmers received low returns for their beet crops. Moreover, farmers also suffered financially from the high cost of machinery and, more recently, from the increased costs for fertilizer and chemical weed controls. An examination of government documents on the FederalProvincial Agricultural Manpower Committee, whose mandate was to recruit workers and move them to areas of need in agricultural sectors throughout Canada, revealed that the federal part of the committee was represented by officials from the Department of Manpower and Immigration and, beginning in the early 1950s, officials from the Department of Indian Affairs, who represented Indians on reserves. When the working conditions in sugar beet industry were examined, it was found that they were very poor for beet workers. In general, the weeding and hoeing of the sugar beets was difficult and the housing accommodations inadequate. Moreover, because of the low return on their beet crops and the high costs of machinery, fertilizer and weed control, the farmers had to keep the cost of labour as low as possible, which, meant paying low wages to beet workers. Moreover, it was found that throughout much the history of the sugar beet industry in southern Alberta, agricultural workers were unprotected by labour laws, which, was very conducive to reproducing conditions for cheap labour. Consequently, few wanted to work in the beet fields of southern Alberta if other employment could be found. Prior to the 1950s the state recruited immigrant workers and even prisoners of war from internment camps to supply farmers with the needed labour for their beet crops. However, in the early 1950s unskilled immigrant labour could no longer be procured for beet work. It was at this time that the sugar beet industry, through the Federal-Provincial Agricultural Manpower Committee, turned to recruiting Natives, particulary northern Alberta and northern Saskatchewan reserve Indians, to perform their labour requirements. In order to maintain this needed work force, the state helped organize Native migratation to southern Alberta at the start of the beet season and also helped ensure that they stayed there for the duration of the needed period.



sugar beet industry - Alberta - working conditions, labour migration - native workers, native migrant labour



Master of Arts (M.A.)







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