EDMONTON — The sketch of the rodent looks menacing.
“You can’t ignore the rat,” the caption reads. “Kill him.”
The poster dates back to the 1950s when, for 10 straight years, the rat was the public enemy No. 1 in Alberta and citizens united behind the cause of preventing an infestation.
As the province currently struggles to maintain its self-proclaimed status as the only rat-free jurisdiction in North America, researchers at the University of Alberta say one of the main reasons spotting a rat in the province is big news today is because the rodents were so vilified in a campaign six decades ago.
“The rat-free idea became a very important part of the Alberta identity,” says visual culture master’s student Jingjing Zheng, who along with art design professor Lianne McTavish, has done a visual analysis of the provincial government’s decade-long campaign against rats, which started in 1950.
“These visual materials played a very important role constructing community identity,” Zheng said.
Material collected from the time has a distinctly propaganda feel.
Posters were mostly about defending the province’s boundaries from “an enemy” and shaping “an identity.” Citizens were taught to be alert and able to spot “enemy activity,” McTavish said. The posters touted the Alberta Rat Proofing and Rat Control Act and were put up at hundreds of government buildings and schools around Alberta.
“We were surprised to see how many posters showed the enemy as a rat,” McTavish said.
The province also distributed 1,500 anti-rat pamphlets to citizens each year.
The study also found Norway rats portrayed as Second World War enemies — the Japanese and Nazis.
“We find them fascinating and very funny too,” McTavish said. “They were very complicated, multi-layer images — almost like cartoons — sending a mix of messages.”
But the campaign was about more than messaging.
The province hired pest control officers to patrol the Saskatchewan boundary and paid a Winnipeg company thousands of dollars to “poison proof” a 250-kilometre stretch, blowing 60,000 pounds of rat contact powder along the boundary.
At the time, farmers also received free rat poison and rat corpses — imported from Winnipeg — were posted at government offices, schools and public events to re-enforce the message that the best rat was a dead rat.
Rats have always been linked to poverty and diseases, so the government played on people’s sense of citizenship, Zheng said.
There was also an emphasis on the family values, McTavish said.
“A beautiful farmstead and a happy family were the social values behind these posters,” she said.
“They presented a certain view of Alberta as distinctive within North America and populated, for the most part, by citizens who were devoted to these values of keeping out these vermin rats.”