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Manitoba History: Review: John Herd Thompson, Forging the Prairie West

by David McCrady
University of Winnipeg

Number 37, Spring / Summer 1999

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.

John Herd Thompson, Forging the Prairie West. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998. xii, 212 pp. Maps, 166 illus., notes, bibliography, index, $29.95. ISBN 0-19-541049-1.

Forging the Prairie West is an illustrated survey history of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and one of a six-volume series covering the regions of Canada. Thompson is a professor of history and the Director of Canadian Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Thompson leads the reader through four important eras in Prairie history: The first three chapters address the years before confederation with Canada, and discuss the geography, flora and fauna of the prairies, Native/European contact, the involvement aboriginal peoples in the European fur trade, the merger of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies, the origins and early history of Métis society and the Red River Resistance of 1869/70. The next chapter discusses steps taken by the Canadian government to make the West Canadian: dispatching the North-West Mounted Police, negotiating treaties with aboriginal peoples, surveying the land, financing and building railways and suppressing the North-West Rebellion. Two chapters examine the wheat economy and farming lifestyle, the diversity of immigrants to the West, the labour movement and Prairie politics to build a picture of the distinctive society that emerged on the Prairies before the Second World War. The concluding chapters look at the evolution of the Prairie provinces in the years since WWII. These years have witnessed a gradual loss of those characteristics which made the West unique: farming became a commercial venture, farm populations dropped and urban and suburban populations increased. The composition of the Prairie population became more like that of the rest of English-speaking Canada, national brands became more available and the influence of American popular culture grew.

The text follows the standard format of survey histories—it begins with the geography of the region, moves on to aboriginal people, and then Euro-Canadians. Like all survey texts, it is shaped, and limited, by the available secondary literature. Chapters on the late twentieth century look more at politics (admittedly, the histories of the CCF, Social Credit, United Farmers and Progressives are important) and economics and less on social history largely because the secondary literature focuses more attention on these topics.

The paucity of work on aboriginal peoples in the twentieth century means that they all but disappear from the later pages of this and other surveys.

This is elegant, economic prose—perhaps a little too economic. Thompson alights too briefly on each topic and does not always provide enough context. Reference is made, for example, to the Canadian Party and to the Winnipeg General Strike. Both are old chestnuts in Western Canadian history well-known to many, but undergraduates who use this as a text will need to have these things explained. Likewise, Thompson refers to Pierre LeMoyne as one of the “‘great men’ of Canadian high-school history.” It is questionable, however, in this age of revisionist, “new” history that such heroes are taught in the high schools of the 1990s.

It is refreshing to see illustrations used—not to embellish a text—but to support and add to it. Thompson points out that images are documents. They are not transparent “facts,” but the proper subject of textual analysis. Thompson’s mention of some of the methodological issues surrounding the use of illustrations is useful and (for a survey text) unexpected.

Thompson places his work within the historical literature. Beginning with Careless’s discussion of “limited identities” as a context for regional history, Thompson uses the latest literature in environmental, new western and women’s history to re-evaluate and re-appraise Prairie history. His real contribution has been to make Prairie history speak to the concerns of the present generation of historians, and to make that dialogue accessible to both students and lay readers.

Page revised: 13 October 2012

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