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Manitoba History: Review: Robert Wardhaugh (editor), Toward Defining the Prairies: Region, Culture and History

by S. C. Sharman
Old St. Andrew’s on the Red

Number 44, Autumn / Winter 2002-2003

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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Robert Wardhaugh, editor, Toward Defining the Prairies: Region, Culture and History, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2001, ISBN 0-88755-672-8, 232 pages, $23.00.

Toward Defining the Prairies contains a selection of the papers presented at a conference of the same name held at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba in September of 1998. The conference was “designed to encourage a return to the multi-disciplinary discussion that marked the previous Western Canadian Studies Conference” [1] ( p.7). Between 1969 and 1987 the University of Calgary organized a series of annual Western Canadian Studies conferences which gathered scholars together from many fields. Many of their papers were subsequently published as contributions to scholarship about Western Canada. This conference followed in their footsteps. It gathered scholars from many fields and promoted a discussion on prairie identity.

It is not an easy task to define the prairies. It does take a multi-disciplinary conference to attempt the chore: an historian or two, a geographer, a political scientist, an economist, perhaps a literary critic or an artist, and certainly a theologian to bring the discussion under the shadow of God’s eternity. Poets must not be left out. Consider these lines:

“The way is deceptive.
Begin early, if you come from the east.
Beware of the straightness. The way is deceptive.
The turns so slight, a moment asleep
Could wake to racing through the fields” [2]

Even with all this scholarship it is hard to arrive at a definition of the prairies. Is it, for example, based on a rural agricultural life; or does the identity of the prairies lie in its landscape, the endless plains stretching westward to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains; or in its history?

The essays in this book are an exploration of these and other elements of prairie identity. As the papers from a conference, they are a mixed lot, some history, some literary studies, some climatology and others. They approach the conference theme of defining the prairies from different directions but are united in their search for this identity.

The first paper, “Defining the Prairies: Or Why Don’t the Prairies Exist” by Gerald Friesen challenges his readers to re-examine their understanding of prairie identity, rural, agricultural and nostalgic in the light of new political and economic realities. The rural agricultural world still exists but it is now overshadowed by an urban and industrial world. Nostalgia reminds us of our roots but the prairies belong to a new world of Western Canada which includes British Columbia. Friesen concludes: “It is time to take stock of a new west. It is time to leave behind the imagined prairie region. The new ways of thinking about this part of the country are the result of changes in western economy, in the structure of government, and especially in the cultural and communication contexts of contemporary life.” [3] With this challenge to an accepted understanding of prairie identity, the book begins.

The second paper “Alberta Social Credit and the Second National Policy” explores the Social Credit government of Alberta’s responses to the social interventions of the Dominion government in the 1950s and 1960s. Alberta responded differently from Saskatchewan and Manitoba and this paper examines the reasons for this difference. It is hard to create an identity for three provinces when one province is out of step in social and economic policies. The description of Ernest Manning’s plans for his Social Credit Party reminded this reviewer of Preston Manning’s plans for the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance: “The Social Credit Party, while being his power base, was worth sacrificing if it could help to fashion a genuine, National Conservative Party with a chance to form a federal government.” [4]

Two papers, Royden Loewen’s “From the Inside Out: The World of Mennonite Diaries” and Molly Rozun’s “Indelible Grasslands: Place, Memory and the Life Reviewed” belong together. The first is a very careful and thorough analysis of diaries written by Mennonite people. The second is a description of two prairie childhoods; that of Argot Raaen in the Dakota Territory, and Annora Brown in Southern Alberta. The diaries speak of life in agricultural communities in Ontario and Manitoba. The childhood memories speak of the simpler more secure life of children on the prairies. Both papers belong to the nostalgic prairie identity, small town, rural and agricultural, which Gerald Friesen insists is the past of the prairies, not their present or future.

“Making Modern Citizens: The Construction of Masculine Middle Class Identity on the Canadian Prairies, 1896-1920” by R. Rory Henry explores a different understanding of Western Canadian identity. Here the identity is to be based on a class of manly men, moral, responsible, good citizens, protestant, British Canadians. The paper discusses the role of education in developing the character of these manly men but neglects to consider the equally important role of the Christian religion. Visions of muscular Christianity and masculine purity were very much “in the air” in Victorian Great Britain and probably influenced Canadian thinking as well. [5]

Alison Calder in her paper “Who’s from the Prairie? Some Prairie Self-Representations in Popular Culture”, explores the stories that outside people tell about the prairies and the stories that the people of the prairies tell about themselves. She comments: “This popular prairie is a strange and paradoxical place, at once a weird, gothic landscape populated by alienated and malevolent rednecks (as in popular representations of Alberta), and also a warm decent place inhabited by honest, hard-working folks with good community values (as in the pictures of church socials that often grace the pages of Canadian Living Magazine”). [6] Her point is that the stories that the people of the prairies tell about themselves are as significant in the forming of the prairie identity as the stories that others tell of them.

Climate is the focus of Gerald T. Davidson’s paper “An Interdisciplinary Approach to the role of Climate in the History of the Prairies”. This paper poses the question: “Are the prairies a fertile crescent, the breadbasket of the world or the northern extension of the great desert?”. Answers to this question from such explorers as John Palliser or Henry Youle Hind shaped the economic development of the prairies.

Birk Sproxton’s paper “Novels that Named a City: Fictional Pretexts of Flin Flon” takes us outside the prairies to Northern Manitoba, a land of rocks, muskeg and lakes. This northern land of miners and mining companies is a different world from that of grain farmers and small towns. It is a reminder that there is more to certain popular conceptions of the prairies. The identity of the prairies is both bigger and different.

The next four articles in this volume, Jean Wiens’ “The Prairies as Cosmopolitan Space: Recent Prairie Poetry”, J’Nan Morse Sellery’s “Western Frontiers and Evolving Gender Identity in Aritha van Herk’s ‘The Tent Pig’“, Clair Omhovere’s “The Female Body as Garrison in Three Prairie Biotexts” and Karen Clavelle’s “Life Sentence, Passwords and Local Pride: Prairie in the Poetic Journals of Eli Mandel

and Dennis Cooley” are works of literary criticism. The first is almost incomprehensible to the general reader due to the specialized language of modern literary criticism. The author is a prisoner of her own terminology. The other three papers are careful studies of contemporary prairie writers. The readers’ knowledge of the works of these authors is the doorway into understanding these interesting and provocative essays.

The last paper, “Don’t Give Me No More of Your Lip, or the Prairie Horizon as Allowed Mouth,” by Robert Kroetsh, is his attempt to make sense of the phrase “he’s just prairie.” There is a whole world of prairie identity lost in those three words; a complex dialogue of place. In the end the prairie identity is like the slough-jumper in Kroetsh’s boyhood memory. It stands in its surrounding either looking like its surroundings or adapting to its surroundings.

What then does this book contribute to the understanding of prairie identity? Some papers reinforce existing senses of that identity — rural, agricultural, small town. Others challenge the reader to look beyond, to the north, to the cities, to an industrial and commercial present and to the Pacific to imagine a wider region which includes British Columbia. The multi-disciplinary approach of these papers produces new insights and the book is worth reading. In the end however, prairie identity can only be discovered by living on the prairies and by thinking creatively about that experience somewhere between Vancouver and Toronto.

This review was written in part on the Greyhound bus between Winnipeg and Brandon. The TransCanada Highway goes west through the first prairie level and up into the Carberry Hills to the second level. Despite everything, there is no escape from the landscape.

“The way is deceptive
The sun at your back
Lights your goal for behind.
There’s now nothing for it
But to drive till the mountains enclose you.” [7]


1. Toward Defining the Prairies, p. 7.

2. Robert Foster “Driving the Prairie” In Robert Foster, Across the White Lawn, Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1979), p. 19.

3. Toward Defining the Prairies, p. 26.

4. Toward Defining the Prairies, p. 41.

5. See Sean Gill, “How Muscular was Victorian Christianity? Thomas Hughes and the Cult of Christian Manliness Reconsidered” and Sue Morgan, “Knights of God: Ellice Hopkins and the White Cross Army, 1883-1895” IN R. N. Swanson, ed., Gender and Christian Religion, Studies in Church History, v. 34.

6. Toward Defining the Prairies, p. 91.

7. Robert Foster, “Driving the Prairies”.

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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