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Manitoba History: Review: Gerald Friesen, The West: Regional Ambitions, National Debates, Global Age

by David G. Burley
Department of History, University of Winnipeg

Number 39, Spring / Summer 2000

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, The West: Regional Ambitions, National Debates, Global Age. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1999. pp. xviii, 189, ISBN 0-14-028421-4, $19.99.

“The West is a national issue?” wondered a surprised Gerald Friesen when eastern Canadians queried him in 1996-97 about the commitment of westerners to Canada. (xiii) Were the region’s debates so different from those to the east that outsiders could not relate to western issues as national concerns? Could westerners not communicate their perspectives in ways that engaged all Canadians in the questions that aroused their passions? In reaction, Friesen set out to explain the West so that Canadians might better understand the region—as he sees it.

To recognize a polemic for what it is does not diminish its importance or utility. Gerald Friesen has written an engaged and thought-provoking interpretation of the polit­ical culture of western Canada since the Second World War. That he himself is a participant in what he has endeavoured to explain by no means disqualifies his arguments. Friesen remains committed to the relevance of a new social democracy to confront the contemporary neo-liberal accommodation to global capitalism. The West in the postwar era has become a different region, defined by different forces; like other political constructs, regions are relational and mutable. But what have remained from the old to the new West are provincial political cultures and political systems organized around deep ideological differences. More so than in eastern Canada (where, one might argue successions of centrist partisan dynasties have often been weakly opposed), in the West left and right have remained in continuing contest, reacting to advantage that shifts between well-matched adversaries. East and West confront the same global issues, but each region experiences their incidence differently because of its economic structures and each resists or accommodates itself to them differently because of its political culture.

Those readers familiar with Gerald Friesen’s award-winning book, The Canadian Prairies (1984), may wonder about the author’s current conceptualization of region and regionalism. His earlier book voiced a geographical and historical appreciation for the sense of Prairie regionalism as the awareness of living and working in particular land­scapes that stood in relationship to other regions or centres of power. Now to Friesen the West is ultra- and cismontane, uniting British Columbia with Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. “The old two-region vision of Western Canada—the Prairies and the Coast—has been superseded by a single economic and social experience.”(xvi) The contrasting physical features of coast and alpine valley, great plain and mountain, grassland and boreal forest have less to do in forming our experiences as westerners than do our common economic dependence on export commodities and the global influence of international capitalism.

History too has been superseded. Westerners confront this “global age,” and enter the modern debates between left and right over its implications, within four provinces with historically distinctive sets of economic policies, political cultures, and party systems. So, within a single regional West are four provincial Wests. According to Friesen, the local state, the province, has become central to our public life in the post-Second World War era. Yet, the national forces to which the rise of the provinces was a response no longer pose the most significant challenges to the well-being of the region. Although the two western regions of old were shaped by their history, “our perceptions of the past may stand in the way of our seeing its present reality dearly.” (xvi) As his argument proceeds, it is apparent that, for Friesen, seeing clearly will require us to set aside the old historical narratives that have supported right and left politics. He has little patience for the view from the right that, as in the past, the West must struggle to free itself from the policies of local and national government that restrain the initiative of creative, independent, and self-sufficient people. On the other hand, the old social democratic story of the farmers’ struggle for equality and justice against eastern Canada and outside capital lacks contemporary resonance in a region that is no longer rural and in which cities grow with new arrivals from Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and the North. Still, for Friesen, this story, more than the conservative alternative, is worth reinterpreting.

Friesen organizes his argument around three themes. The first is historical and explains the economic and social transformations that have made one West. The second examines the four provincial political responses to global issues. The last contrasts right and left perspectives on broad issues of national concern—social diversity, domestic relations, economic regulation, and national unity.

The first theme explores the place of the regional in the global. Major structural economic changes after World War Two remade two Wests into one. Based upon different export commodities—lumber, minerals, and fish in British Columbia and wheat on the Prairies—the two regions before the war experienced very different histories of income fluctuations and very different relations with the federal government. After the war, British Columbia and the Prairies came to resemble one another more closely as both economies diversified their staple exports and cultivated growing urban manufacturing and cultural and service sectors. This new regional economy achieved significant productivity gains—“a kind of economic miracle”(31) —through technological innovation that made it globally competitive, if subject to international market fluctuations. For a time, from the 1930s through the 1970s, the intrusion of the federal welfare state into matters formerly left to provincial jurisdiction supported income stabilization across the region that made rural life “more attractive than it might otherwise have been.”(28) From the 1980s, however, the federal government has incrementally abandoned “the nation as the basic organizing unit for most aspects of production and marketing.”(28) Left on their own, the provinces have attempted to control their economic desti­nies through “province-building” policies aimed at diversification. Their mixed record has demonstrated the limits of the possible for local governments confronting the “intractable international forces” of a dominant “international capitalist system. “(41) In the wake, marginal producers have been forced from the farms and commercial fisheries, and increasingly concerned voices are questioning the environ­mental cost of an export-based prosperity. The result is “a profound contradiction: this is a rural world in precipitous decline, leaving aging residents in emptied villages where once had been youthful hopes and a viable society. It is also a vigorous, competitive, globally oriented economy produc­ing more goods at lower costs than ever in history.”(27)

In another way the West has experienced social trans­formation since the Second War. Because aboriginal people make up such a high proportion of the population and because their experience here have differed from those elsewhere, Friesen contends that “Westerners, above all other Canadians except the residents of the north, have learned in recent years that First Nations people are taking on new roles.” (50) Those new roles resist the ways in which aboriginal people have been rendered colonized as “other” groups in three historically defined western regions: one defined by the numbered treaties that ceded the Prairies to the Crown; a second long left unacknowledged in British Columbia where land claims were never settled; and the third, the Metis who without treaty recognition have received only ambiguous constitutional and political recogni­tion. Applying to the whole region a metaphor used by a Quebec journalist to describe Winnipeg, Friesen contends that aboriginal aspirations and frustrations have rendered the new West “a time bomb that must be quickly defused .” (50)

Only implicitly does Friesen perhaps offer some hope for a resolution to aboriginal issues. A long history of ethnic tensions and conflict over immigration policy have made individual and group accommodation a “part of western communities’ identities”.(57) The past cannot be denied: racism and violent confrontation have erupted in the West, and the assimilation of newcomers was and still is for many the desired end. But he reminds us, “most of the one-time persecuted (though not all) remained in the West, having coped with the hostility and having established more amicable relations with the rest of the community. They lived side by side in suburbs, consumed the same goods and travelled to the same vacation spots.” (62) As banal as common membership in consumption communities is as a social end, the embourgeoisement of fragments of older ethnic communities suggests the path of unequal social mobility that may follow for new “other” groups. At the same time, globalization has homogenized tastes so that the favoured can recognize and demonstrate their status by what they consume. Of course, Friesen may not have intended, and may not agree, with the assimilationist inferences I take from his observations.

The second section of the book examines the western provinces individually. Friesen demonstrates that, while each province possesses its own political culture and con­fronts different global forces and peculiar strains in its relations with Ottawa, all do so within a well-established political system of opposing left and right ideologies. In British Columbia, “deep ideological disputes” characterize divisions between “a people’s approach to public policy, which places a primary emphasis on community and family and class, and an approach designed to smooth the path and encourage the profits of corporations [as a means to] ensure the wider community’s prosperity.”(70) The two sides assume consistent positions on global issues. The threats that capital might flee from the forestry and mining indus­tries contend with the defenses of local labour practices; on aboriginal land settlements, protests over the local economic cost of federal intrusion in provincial matters are met with the defense of the legal process and claims for justice.

The cycle of economic boom and bust has profoundly shaped Alberta’s political culture. On the one hand, the prospect of prosperity has encouraged the in-migration of the entrepreneurial, the risk-taking, and the economically motivated; on the other hand, the memory of collapse has promoted a recent concern for “sound” fiscal housekeeping. Parties at both ends of the ideological spectrum have accepted their limited control over their province’s oil and gas economy and would resist any encroachment of a national energy plan on areas of provincial jurisdiction. But they disagree over the pace of development, the need for environmental protection, and the distribution of royalty income.

Saskatchewan too has suffered, as an export-based economy has grown increasingly vulnerable in global agricultural commodity markets. Concern over the fate of the farm family has been expressed within a political culture deeply committed to public consultation, yet increasingly skeptical about the possibilities of government policy to protect citizens from external forces. At a time of economic stress and declining resources, the province must also deal with aboriginal claims for land and justice. The issues and context may be unique to Saskatchewan, but the responses remain well within the classic political debate over the proper balance between liberty and equality. “Those who praise the virtues of personal initiative and uncontrolled markets are today’s advocates of a particular kind of liberty; those who emphasize state ownership in peripheral economies and greater redistribution of wealth stand for equality.” (107-8)

As in Saskatchewan, Manitoba’s agriculture sector in recent years has experienced the dislocation of global agrarian capitalism. To a degree, a more diversified econo­my has mitigated, or drawn attention from, the overall effect of rural decline. Other sectors, however, present other problems, especially in the North where well-established forest, mining, and hydroelectric export industries co-exist with impoverished aboriginal communities. For Friesen, the delay in tackling crucial aboriginal issues such as land settlement, justice, and effective mechanisms of representa­tion highlight the more general failure of political leadership at both government levels in Manitoba (excepting perhaps the new social democratic governments, elected after the book’s completion). Winnipeg and the province have suf­fered from “budgeting, anti-public sector administrations,” whose “hands-off laissez-faire” governance has failed to tackle those problems only susceptible to political solutions.(125) It is no wonder then that “a deep sense of spiritual sadness,” as one journalist termed it (124), has pervaded Winnipeg, or that leaders have lacked the cultural vision to overturn the image of dullness that has attached itself to both the city and province.

In the final section, Friesen argues that the same ideological difference that exists within western provinces also structures regional positions on issues of national importance. Debates over policies on ethnic and racial diversity, civil liberties and respect for different lifestyles, and government involvement in markets divide along the western fault line between liberty and equality. In the West, however, the new social democratic politics offers some creative and imaginative policy choices that have not been advanced elsewhere, and this is at the heart of Friesen’s polemic.

On issues of equality, Friesen credits the federal govern­ment for introducing the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with its provision for affirmative action to redress group and individual discrimination and disadvan­tage. But beyond that profound principle, the federal government’s initiatives have been largely limited, at least on ethnic and racial issues, to symbolic measures to preserve the country’s multicultural heritage and to promote reconciliation with aboriginal peoples. No serious consideration, he contends, has been directed to dismantling of the Department of Indian Affairs, something that would mate­rially improve the quality of aboriginal lives. On the other hand, at the provincial level something can be achieved; a previous Manitoba New Democratic government, demonstrated that educational “access” programmes can effective­ly open up job market opportunities to groups suffering “society-wide discrimination.” (141) Similarly, on issues re­lating to the family, sexuality, and differing lifestyles, Friesen lauds the Saskatchewan’s social democratic government’s willingness to entertain new labour laws, which accept that traditional gender roles on the farm cannot be sustained in a global economy that demands multiple incomes from those attempting a rural family life. (One wonders why the federal government does not more graciously entertain policies for the West analogous to those supporting Atlantic fishing communities.)

In the final chapter on Quebec and the Senate, Friesen minimizes the global framework, but nonetheless observes the same western divisions between left and right on these issues. From the right, Senate reform and a tough position on Quebec sovereignty assert a commitment to provincial equality and a limit to the ability of external interests to determine local affairs. The left would abolish the Senate and sustain a strong central government able to redistribute wealth and to support a social minimum. On Quebec, Friesen’s left perspective is as hortatory as it is explanatory. Accepting that “Quebec is in most respects a ‘nation’ in the nineteenth-century definition of that term” (175) and not a province like the rest, he urges Westerners, too often raised in an “anti-French, anti-Quebec culture” (173), to be com­passionate and to seek reconciliation with Quebec. No doubt such leadership of opinion is required in the West.

In sum, Gerald Friesen has advanced a thoughtful and challenging interpretation in The West. Its presentation does occasionally reveal the haste that afflicts polemics written to be timely. Chapters are of uneven length, and parallel themes in related chapters are often left implicit for the reader’s inference. Also, it is amusing that the most fre­quently cited source for a book on western regionalism is Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and that the eastern Canadian press is cited as often as the western. But these are minor quibbles.

Friesen’s contribution is to show that the political cultures and party systems, formed in an older national political economy have structured the ideological divisions between left and right in ways unique to the new West. In consequence, observers at both ends of the political spectrum have used political narratives based on their under­standing of that history to contend with the new forces of international capital and the provincially specific incidence of globalization.

Westerners on the right have accepted the dislocations of globalization because their historical narrative has privileged the virtues of individual initiative and unfettered enterprise that are compatible with the ideal of a global market place uncluttered with the regulatory impediments of the nation state. On the left, Friesen contends, the old political narrative needs some revision. Westerners must accept the global market, especially when national govern­ments embrace it and provincial governments cannot effec­tively combat it. But provinces can enhance competition within it in ways that sustain the social democratic commit­ment to equality. Polemic indeed, but it is not an un­appealing vision after a decade of the hurtful human costs of global restructuring within economies of apparent pros­perity and unprecedented national wealth. But is it enough? As the street violence and theatre in Seattle against the World Trade Organization so fleetingly demonstrated, in­ternational capital can be both embarrassed and frustrated on a global scale by local action. Is there another praxis for the left?

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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