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Manitoba History: Review: Roger Gibbons, Prairie Politics and Society: Regionalism in Decline

by David Smith
University of Saskatchewan

Manitoba History, Number 3, 1982

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Canadian social scientists like company in the small corners they choose to investigate, as the disproportionate interest in the study of prairie politics continues to attest. Yet from these labours has appeared the most extensive corpus of political writing on any Canadian region. Prairie Politics and Society reflects this special interest while at the same time it argues against treating the prairie provinces any longer as a region.

The book’s thesis can be simply stated. In electoral terms Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta once behaved as a region distinct from the others. Rejection of the old political parties coincided with a time when, in socio-economic terms, the three were more like each other and less like the rest of the country (the author’s benchmark is Ontario). Engaged in a one-crop economy, their polyglot, largely rural population with its “shallow social roots,” lived in a world of primitive communications that kept them isolated from outside influences. Distance and economic discontent spawned distinctive attitudes and behaviour, among which radical labour movements, large and small cooperatives and denominational factionalism were primary examples.

Technological and demographic change has under-mined prairie life and, in turn, resistance to national parties. Only Alberta grows, but as a proportion of the national population the prairies lag ever farther behind Ontario. Ethnic heterogeneity remains a characteristic, only now in its third generation, while “old Ontario” has, since 1945, become the home of nearly two million first generation immigrants. Prairie agriculture has diversified and its labour force declined but every move away from the wheat economy brings the prairies closer to Ontario’s occupational profile. Perhaps the most potent change has been the influence of mass communications which have transmitted national expectations to regional man.

In place of third party protest, prairie voters now favour one or other of the old parties. That they so regularly support one and not the other might suggest the Progressive Conservatives have become a surrogate for western protest. This conclusion is rejected on the grounds that the Tories seek nation-wide support and refuse to be swayed in their policies by areas like the West which give them the greatest electoral support. Provincial, as opposed to federal, voting behaviour on the prairies offers no evidence of regional protest either. The provinces are so compartmentalized in their activities and behaviour within them is so distinctive that common patterns fail to appear.

Is there no regional perspective left? There is, but Professor Gibbins claims it is manifest in “political beliefs, values and perceptions” and not in electoral behaviour. Taken together these pass as “western alienation,” which he describes as “the distinguishing core of a prairie political culture” (167). Economic discontent and antipathy toward Quebec are its principal components while rejection of the Liberal party at both levels of the federal system and support for vigorous provincial governments are its most visible result.

The evolution of prairie society described here is indisputable. The data from Statistics Canada do not lie. And yet one wonders if the emphasis on the early distinctiveness of the prairie environment is not misplaced. If values, beliefs and perceptions are important now, were they not always important and, if so, to what extent was the prairie region always a cultural construct? To answer that question would involve extensive primary research on prairie politics and society, considerably more than is evident in this volume which is based almost exclusively on secondary sources. The author’s survey of the Alberta electorate (in the chapter on western alienation) is an exceptional instance of primary research, one whose results make the reader (and the author) regret the lack of similar analyses elsewhere: “The extent to which the Alberta situation paralleled that in Saskatchewan and Manitoba cannot be documented and is open to conjecture” (172).

Professor Gibbins attributes more importance to the environmental bases of regionalism than his data support, while he provides insufficient evidence to grant the cultural interpretation of western alienation the significance he gives it. Environment limited but never determined behaviour. Culture always had a part to play and there is every reason to believe that it plays a bigger part today than before.

But more proof is needed. One possible source would be the policy output of prairie governments. Institutional linkages between governments and between individuals on the Prairies may be scant but policy diffusion, even in the area of culture, is clear. For example, the three governments have been active in the last decade defining themselves as multicultural and polylingual communities. The stimuli would appear to be, in terms of Professor Gibbins’ analysis, environmental and cultural, with a large element of competition thrown in as the provinces seek to counter the federal government’s own bilingual and multicultural policies.

In the same month as this book was published, another, also touching on the subject of regionalism, appeared: David Elkins and Richard Simeon, Small Worlds: Provinces and Parties in Canadian Political Life (Toronto: Methuen, 1980). One of the recurring themes of that volume is that regional perceptions are remarkably complex and infinitely subtle: in a survey of 2500 respondents from across the country, over two hundred different regions were named but not one of the respondents defined his or her province as a region. The regional dimension may be the product of relative values as well as of absolute ones. Knowledge of the outside world need not produce a desire to be included in it so much as a feeling of being excluded from it. In place of envy, a sense of deprivation or discrimination could find a stronger regional consciousness.

Notwithstanding the subtitle of Professor Gibbins’ book, regionalism as a subject of study is not in decline. This book heralds no end to research on “the Prairies.” Rather, by his thesis, Professor Gibbins challenges some of the traditional attitudes held about the Prairies and encourages the reader to reinterpret not to reject the regional concept.

Page revised: 23 April 2010

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