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Manitoba History: Review: R. Douglas Francis and Howard Palmer (editors), The Prairie West: Historical Readings

by David G. Burley
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 14, Autumn 1987

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.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The Prairie West: Historical Readings. R. Douglas Francis and Howard Palmer, eds. Edmonton: Pica Pica Press, Textbook Division of the University of Alberta Press, 1985. xiv, 660 pp. ISBN. 0-88864-048-X.

This collection of readings samples the key interpretations of the Prairie experience filling that cycle of historical writing which began with W. L. Morton and has been completed with Gerald Friesen’s The Canadian Prairies. The strengths and weaknesses, insights and blind spots of the regionalist interpretation are also evident in The Prairie West.

More so than their peers in other regions, Prairie historians have appreciated the significance of Native peoples and their contact with whites. Consequently this constitutes the book’s largest theme, one that is addressed in articles by Olive Dickason, John Foster, Frits Pannekoek and Sylvia Van Kirk among others. Yet the very rich quality of this literature underlines the failure to pursue the theme of the place of Natives in white society after the 1880s. The question asked by more than one student — “how long has Winnipeg (or other Prairie cities) had an Indian problem?” — remains unanswered, and unasked here. Francis and Palmer cannot be faulted for not including the as yet unwritten. But their mandate as editors is to comment critically upon the literature, an obligation not rigorously fulfilled in their introductions to the various topics.

Perhaps a reluctance to name “the evil that dwells within” — racism — is understandable in editors who have reprinted one of W. L. Morton’s articles arguing that the Prairie West has come to be a “distinctive civilization” characterized by a tolerance for ethnic and cultural differences. Francis and Palmer introduce the section on immigration and ethnic relations by posing the options available to early twentieth-century westerners: the transplant of a society on “a British or Ontario model” to which immigrants would be made to conform or the acceptance of “a unique prairie culture” which mingled various ethnic and religious traditions. It is little wonder that regionalists like David Hall, whose fine article on Clifford Sifton’s immigration policy is presented, find Frank Oliver, Sifton’s successor as Minister of the Interior, less attractive as a Prairie leader. Oliver wanted British immigrants, and was not sympathetic to “multiculturalism.”

Prairie historiography has tended to see consensus within the region; conflict has arisen between regions because of federal discrimination against the West. Articles critical of this interpretation by Ken Norrie and Roger Gibbons are included, but do not receive adequate editorial comment: the existence of western alienation, the belief, is judged more significant than whether this belief was consistent with reality. The Norrie-Gibbons interpretation is more than “balanced” by the editors’ remarks and the inclusion of more orthodox articles, such as L. H. Thomas’s on farming and T. D. Regehr’s somewhat polemical article on transportation policy. Even the main example of conflict, the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, is interpreted by David J. Bercuson consistently with this approach: an expression of regional radicalism arising in part from the regional impact of national and international factors. The editors ought to have at least noted in the selected bibliography contrary interpretations such as those advanced in the special number of Labour/Le Travail (Spring 1984) on 1919.

The regionalist interpretation with its conviction of western exclusivism is least satisfying in its analysis of the 1920s and 1930s. Reform movements — those of the First War discussed by John H. Thompson, the Social Gospel examined by Richard Allen, Progressivism studied by L. D. Courville, feminism addressed by Veronica Strong-Boag — voiced regional protest and, even when external connections and influences are noted, the authors generally conclude that in the West reform held its greatest appeal and produced its greatest achievements. Analysis of the Depression by regionalists has been especially weak. Surely time has come to look beyond the formation of third parties — and the work of Walter D. Young on the CCF and John Irving on the Social Credit, fine as it is — for the western Depression experience. Why, a critical editor might ask, has there been a reluctance to do so?

This volume is a complete compendium of Prairie historical writing. Would that the editors had exercised their right to evaluate as well as to select.

Page revised: 27 March 2011

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