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Manitoba History: Review: Gerald Friesen, River Road: Essays on Manitoba and Prairie History

by Michael Payne
Alberta Community Development

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.

Gerald Friesen, River Road: Essays on Manitoba and Prairie History. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1996, xii, 246 pp, illus., ISBN 0-88755-639-6.

A few weeks ago as I was helping my son with a school assignment I had occasion to consult one of my old school textbooks. I was not able to find the information I was looking for, but I was amused to note that the flyleaf of the textbook read “Michael Payne, Oakenwald Avenue, Fort Garry, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Prairie Provinces, Canada, North America, Western Hemisphere, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, the Universe.” It reminded me that almost every student in the world has inscribed a textbook or two in much the same fashion at some point in their school careers, and thought little of it other than to try to include the maximum number of locational references. For historians, however, this process of trying to determine where and how we fit into a great chain of geographical being is critical. It defines our research interests and approaches from biography to world history, and our choice of subject. After all, if we are really interested in the history of the solar system or the galaxy, we usually wind up studying astronomy or physics, not western Canadian history.

Some historians have tried to argue that this continuum of identities is roughly hierarchical—at least through its first seven or eight categories. In recent years an interesting debate has arisen in Canada over the purported decline of national history, and a number of prominent historians have argued for a renewed emphasis on the political, economic and cultural history of Canada as a whole. The essays, articles and historiographical syntheses in this book explore political, economic and cultural history, but they also raise questions about what is local or regional and what is national or global in a world where O. J. Simpson and Kosovo compete for our attention with the fortunes of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the closure of neighbourhood schools. Nor is there anything new in this. As Gerald Friesen points out, Mary Kennedy, living on the River Road north of Winnipeg in the 1880s, balanced the most mundane of domestic and local concerns—baking cakes and describing the state of the roads—with sharing a taste for reading Walter Scott with tens of thousands of other people around the English-speaking world and worrying about metaphysical questions such as “what good am I to anyone?” (pp. 9-11)

At its most basic level, River Road can be read as a spirited defence of the continuing importance of the histories of regions, provinces, individual communities and localities and, in some instances, even individuals themselves. It is also a critique of historians who would have us believe that bigger is better, or at least more meaningful and important, when it comes to history. More subtly, it also makes the case that national history is not always about what goes on in Ottawa or in corporate board rooms in Toronto or Calgary. As the essay “Manitoba and the Meech Lake Accord” (pp. 29-37) points out, a major turning point in Canada’s constitutional history was shaped by the particular circumstances of Manitoba’s provincial politics in the late 1980s as well as Elijah Harper’s individual stand. In this case national, provincial, and individual histories are essentially one and the same.

The book is divided into three sections which reflect different aspects of Gerald Friesen’s work as a historian. The first section of this book includes six of what he calls historical essays on language and culture. Each essay uses a historical perspective to look at cultural and political issues of interest to the general public. For example, he explores Manitoba’s long tradition of bilingualism and accommodation between Anglophone and Francophone Manitobans (pp. 23-28) and notes that Manitoba was not created as a province “just like the others” in part because it was effectively a bilingual and multicultural community in 1869-70. As he notes, bilingualism was requested as a constitutional principle by Manitobans in 1869-70; it was not imposed on them by the social engineering policies of a national government. This essay, like the essay on Manitoba and Meech Lake, and one exploring the mistaken belief that there is a single “western” Canadian view on constitutional politics (pp. 39-45), reflect the author’s “social democratic” political ideals and often strike a gently polemical tone. The essays on the River Road as a community (pp. 3-12), co-written with Jean Friesen, on the role of La Verendrye and fur traders from Quebec in founding Manitoba (pp. 13-16), co-written with Kathryn Young, and a third essay cum book review on several works by and about Louis Riel are less overtly political. Nonetheless, each argues in its own way for a wider public recognition of the many diverse cultural strands—French, English, Cree, Métis, Scots, Swiss, Orcadian, Saulteaux among others—that shape the history of Manitoba and western Canada.

The second section of this book includes five pieces which Friesen describes as historical articles on dominant and alternative cultures. Most originally appeared in scholarly journals or books or were prepared as talks given to academic audiences. In many respects, they explore themes introduced in the earlier essays but in greater depth and with a narrower focus. For example, Friesen looks at the alternative political and economic ideals of the Winnipeg socialist and industrial unionist Bob Russell (pp. 121-46). Russell’s socialist politics and support of the Winnipeg General Strike earned him a brief stay in Stony Mountain Penitentiary after he was convicted of seditious conspiracy in 1919. Over time however, these same ideals seem to have become less threatening to authorities. By the time of his death in 1964 he was a revered figure in the union movement and a person of some substance in Winnipeg. In fact, some of the goals he fought for in 1919 were viewed not as seditious but good public policy by the 1960s. Although he would certainly fit at the militant end, Russell is a good example of the evolving tradition of social democracy that Friesen explores in an earlier essay. He also serves as a living embodiment of the significance of class and class relations in western Canadian history; once again refuting a persistent myth that Canada is somehow a class-less society or one where class identifications have little relevance.

A second article in this section was co-written with Associate Chief Justice A. C. Hamilton and Associate Chief Judge C. M. Sinclair. This article looks at justice systems and Manitoba’s Aboriginal peoples, including the Métis (pp. 49-77). The article is quite particular in arguing for the coexistence of multiple justice systems that date back prior to 1870 and the Manitoba Act. After 1870 there was a concerted effort to bring Aboriginal peoples in under a single justice system based on British legal principles, although this was often resisted and was not applied uniformly across Manitoba. The article outlines some of the problems this policy produced and suggests an argument that returning to multiple justice systems, including some shaped by Aboriginal people, may be historically valid and good policy as well.

The other articles in this section are less pointedly revisionist, although one on the possible role of labour history in detailing the variety of Métis experiences and identities (pp. 79-89) does offer a balance to those historians who overemphasize the Red River side of Métis history. When Friesen turns to studies of the “dominant” WASP culture in articles on the Manitoba Historical Society (pp. 91-105) and a brief biography of J. H. Riddell of Wesley College (pp. 107-19), the results are somewhat disappointing by comparison. With little desire to defend this dominant position and no real myths or stereotypes to question, both articles aspire to little more than Friesen’s own description of Wesley College: “a competent, cautious institution” led by Riddell “ a dedicated, cautious, respectable Methodist” (p.117).

The final section of River Road is the most ambitious and potentially the most interesting to academic and nonacademic readers alike. It consists of seven articles that explore new syntheses or approaches that could enrich our understanding of Canadian history, in particular the place of western Canada in that history. The first two of these articles argue for more effective use of comparative and “political” history. By the latter, Friesen does not mean writing about politics but rather taking political positions based on critical historical analysis. Unlike most of the rest of the world where history is contested ideological terrain, Friesen suggests that Canadian historians have been reluctant to admit the underlying political biases of so-called objective, empirical history. Both articles, one exploring radical “people’s” history as undertaken in Australia (pp. 149-55) and the other examining parallels between the history of Argentina’s pampas and the Canadian prairies (pp. 157-64), suggest that Canadian historians have been too insular and perhaps too preoccupied with national and regional history to see the value in comparing our experiences with other settlement societies or creative borrowing of insights and approaches from other national historiographies.

Two additional articles explore the writing of ethnic history (pp.183-96) and rural history (pp. 197-214). The former, co-written with Royden Loewen, begins with a very useful survey of how historians and representatives of different ethnic groups have portrayed the experience of immigrant communities in western Canada. Not surprisingly they find that most authors have been concerned with describing the contributions of groups and individuals—a historiography of worthiness—or have emphasized the struggles of early settlers and their efforts to retain significant elements of their culture in a new land. Themes of persistence or “continuity and change” dominate this approach. In recent years however, some new ideas have come to the fore, including a sense that identities are both fluid and constructed. As Loewen and Friesen put it: “ ethnicity is not a single thing bound for a single destination” (p. 192). They also suggest the power of transnational or global economics and popular culture is also redefining ideas of ethnicity and the meaning of our multiple identities. They suggest such ideas have a certain “postmodernist” content that ultimately will enrich ethnic studies, not eliminate them. The article on rural history begins with a reminder that there still is a Manitoba with real people, genuine economic and social concerns, and a history outside Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway. Recent census data suggests just under 30% of Manitobans still live in rural communities. Although historians have not necessarily neglected this fact, the mass media, and electronic media in particular, have not done much to sustain “local markets” or a distinctive prairie culture. In the end, this article is less an exercise in exploring a new historical synthesis than a plea to keep a corner of the television system and the Internet both local and Manitoban.

Friesen also explores politics and public policy as much as historiography in the article entitled “The Prairies as Region: The Contemporary Meaning of an Old Idea” (pp. 165- 82). This article begins with an intriguing review of the ways in which people have tried to define regions such as the prairies. Friesen summarizes these as formal, functional and imagined approaches. Formal and functional approaches suggest the prairies are a region because they look like a distinctive area—open grasslands, flat or rolling terrain, cold winters—or because they are not something else such as the Canadian Shield. Alternatively, regions may be defined because of a shared or predominate industry or way of life: the agricultural west versus the industrial centre, or in relationship to another area: the frontier west and the settled east. The idea that regions may also be imagined constructs created in part by writers and other artists, political experience, and even history suggests that there is nothing organic or inevitable about regional identities. In fact, Friesen suggests that provincial identities may well have superseded any pan-prairie ideal decades ago. In trying to think about how the idea of the prairies as a region has evolved, it is also possible to see how new territory-based loyalties could reshape the political and cultural future of western Canada.

The final two articles in this collection touch on the role of hockey in prairie cultural history (pp. 215-29) and the historian’s changing understanding and interest in the past (pp. 231-37). The former probably should be avoided by anyone still mourning the loss of the Jets, but it also includes insightful comments on sport as an aspect of culture and the ways communities can come to identify with teams and individual athletes. In addition, it includes some observations by Eric Nesterenko that show players as well as fans can be genuinely moved by the game. Sports are important; after all they get their own newscasts, television stations, magazines, and sections of newspapers. This article reminds us of that fact and of the more subtle notion that sports can mirror more fundamental changes in economics, demography and cultural history. The final article is also an afterword aptly titled “Still Teaching the Same Stuff?” Chance encounters between teachers and former students often provoke this question, but anyone who has read this far will realize that for Friesen and most Canadian historians the answer is clearly no. Fields such as social and cultural history or Aboriginal, labour and environmental history have changed our understanding of the past. Similarly debates over the relative importance of regional, national, and global history make teaching the same stuff year after year almost impossible. This afterword is a handy summation of some of the major changes in Manitoba and prairie history even since the publication of Friesen’s survey history, The Canadian Prairies, in 1984.

Reviewers invariably comment on the uneven quality of the articles in any collection of essays, and this book is no exception. Most readers will find some articles or essays more interesting and thought-provoking than others. What they may not agree on is which ones fall into which category. Few readers, however, with an interest in how they fit in between Oakenwald Avenue and, if not the Universe, at least the western hemisphere will not find something to think about in this collection—and a renewed respect for the local and the regional aspects of national history.

Page revised: 29 August 2014

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