History of the Canadian Weed Science Society aka the Expert Committee on Weeds 1929-2002 William H. Vanden Born1 and Jack F. Alex2

The organized life of Canada’s weed science community was conceived on 4 October 1929 when a group of eighteen people who were gathered in Edmonton asked the National Research Council to appoint a committee to find answers for weed problems plaguing farmers. The fetus, named the Associate Committee on Weed Control, went through several developmental stages, though not exactly in utero, during a gestation period that lasted some 65 years. Labour pains began in the early nineties and lasted about ten years. The birthing process reached completion when, on 28 June 2002, the Canadian Weed Science Society was officially proclaimed.

Four quite distinct developmental stages can be identified in the history of the Canadian Weed Science Society and its predecessor organizations. Before 1929, there was no organization of weed scientists at all. From 1929 to about 1935 there was a committee funded by and under the auspices of the National Research Council. Between about 1938 and 1941 there was a gradual transfer of responsibilities to the variously named federal department of agriculture. The responsibilities (and the authority) remained there until about 1993, when a movement towards independence began. That movement culminated in the formation of the Canadian Weed Science Society in 2002.

Weeds have been a problem in Canada ever since people began to grow crops. As early as 1897, James Fletcher, then Dominion Botanist, published a bulletin on weeds, Canada Department of Agriculture Bulletin 28. The first full-time weed scientist in Canada is said to be George Knowles, who first was appointed in 1923 as assistant to someone else, and in 1935 was appointed as weed scientist for fiber crops. In My twenty-two years with weeds (1954) he wrote: ‘In the year 1932 when I was asked to devote my full time to weed control I felt greatly humiliated. This, in my opinion, was the lowest form of experimental work one could be asked to undertake.’ However, he shared an office with Sidney Barnes, who painted for him ‘such a clear picture of the mustard-infested Regina Plains that I could see those Plains without looking at them. “Wipe mustard from the Regina Plains”, he used to say, “and you shall have done something worthwhile”.’

Bulletin No. 2 of the Field Crops Branch of Alberta’s Department of Agriculture was entitled Alberta’s Weed Problem and was published in 1928. It included The Noxious Weeds Act, complete with coloured drawings of fourteen weeds. Three were perennials (Canada thistle, perennial sow thistle, blue lettuce), and eight of the eleven annuals were members of the mustard family. Two quotations that caught my attention:

“Sheep are excellent weed controllers. A few sheep should be kept on every farm.” (page 15)

“The Weed Burner has been greatly improved the past few years. Its use in the fall of the year, as well as in the spring, to burn dry and semi-dry plants, is particularly valuable. The public is much interested in this machine. There is a great need for it.” (page 18)

In 1929, in response to requests from several organizations, Dr. Henry Marshall Tory, president of Canada’s National Research Council, invited eighteen people to a conference at the Macdonald Hotel in Edmonton, on 4 October, to talk about the Destruction of Weeds by Means of Chemicals.

The proceedings of the conference constitute a court-record-type verbatim account of the discussion (52 pages), followed by 114 pages of experimental results and related observations about weeds. Clearly, research in weed control already had been happening in each of the three prairie provinces. The term ‘herbicide’, however, was not yet in vogue. Chemicals that were used included sodium chlorate (sold as Atlacide), iron sulfate, and sodium arsenite. Chlorates cost about $58 per acre! Wild oats were reportedly bad, as were perennial sow thistle, quackgrass, and Canada thistle. Weeds were said to ‘have come from the East to the West’, along with settlement.

Clinton Evans, an author with a little different slant on things, wrote in The War on Weeds in the Prairie West, An Environmental History (2002): ‘By 1905, therefore, all the basic elements of modern prairie weed culture were in place. Governments had assumed command of the war on weeds by providing weed experts and weed police, through the enactment of increasingly draconian noxious-weed laws, and by launching a massive propaganda campaign. Extensive, ecologically unsound farming was well on the way to becoming entrenched and the majority of today’s problem weeds were already proclaiming their presence.’

The chairman of the 1929 conference (Mr. F.E. Lathe, assistant to Dr. Tory who was ill) pointed out that ‘the destruction of weeds by chemicals must of course be supplementary to crop rotation, summer fallowing and other control methods, which will always have a prominent place.’