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Manitoba History: Review: David A. Morrison, Profit & Ambition: The North West Company and the Fur Trade 1779-1821

by Michael Payne
Edmonton, Alberta

Number 64, Fall 2010

In 1936 Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King remarked that, “If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography.” King’s clever but somewhat glib assessment of our national legacy reflects a widely held view that history and geography are distinct. This book suggests the contrary and makes the case that history cannot be separated from geography, or geography from history. The physical geography of a place sets limits on how people can live in a particular space, but culture and experience play a role too in determining how people interpret and respond to climate, resources, and other environmental factors.

Although Harris suggests in his introduction that this book is aimed at a general readership of people interested in “a broad account of land and life in early Canada,” the book parallels general survey textbooks for pre-Confederation Canadian history courses in form and structure and seems aimed at a similar market in historical geography. It offers, however, an interesting counterpoint to most other survey textbooks by downplaying biography and any overarching narrative of events in favour of an emphasis on the changing “arrangement and interactions of people and land in early Canada and of the humanized spaces of early Canadian life.”

This is a huge task. As Harris notes, throughout much of this period and in most areas there was no real equivalent to the current nation state and, while patterns of land and life were often old and well-established, they tended to be organized within “a complex matrix of more local identities organized at various scales.” Indeed, Harris’s key message is that Canada emerged in 1867 out of a “fractured discontinuous past” that is best understood regionally. Harris describes Canada as a confederation of multiple identities that succeeded, to the extent it has, on a series of pragmatic accommodations made among what were already highly regionalized and diverse populations. This in turn suggests that any sense of Canadian-ness is something of a conscious social and political construct “allergic to precise definition.”

This analysis relies heavily on research undertaken for volumes 1 and 2 of the Historical Atlas of Canada, and the book can be seen as a less visual and more text-heavy expansion of the Historical Atlas project. Indeed, many of the maps and illustrations in The Reluctant Land are taken directly from the Historical Atlas volumes. But Harris has also done an excellent job of extracting key insights from new research by historians, anthropologists and geographers working since the first Historical Atlas volume appeared in 1987.

Readers of Manitoba History will probably be most interested in Harris’s relatively brief chapter on the “Northwestern Interior” region from 1760 to 1870. His survey of this area and period makes good use of the work of Arthur Ray, Barry Kaye, Wayne Moodie, Gerald Friesen, Frank Tough and a number of younger scholars with strong interests in environmental, local and social history. The chapter discusses important issues such resource depletion, disease diffusion, trade networks, the intersection of imperial and local economies, and early settlement patterns. It also makes the case very strongly that relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in the region are crucial to understanding the formation and subsequent evolution of communities across this vast territory. Harris pays particular attention to the Red River Settlement and the way this small community reflects much larger issues of how an indigenous land was remade to suit new interests.

Harris concludes with several broad observations on how shared and separate identities can be culturally fashioned and then refashioned; how the physical environment intersects with the social, political and economic aspirations and values of people; and how what he calls a “reluctant land” made Canada distinctively Canadian. The latter point is a key one. Harris asserts that a fundamental distinction between Canadian and American history is that American society seems based on deeply engrained notions of extension and abundance, while Canada grew out of boundaries of discontinuity, paradox, and limitation at almost every turn.

Readers may well disagree with some of his conclusions, but the book is thought-provoking and offers a very different approach to a general history of pre-Confederation Canada from most other commonly used texts in university survey courses. We may live in a reluctant land, but that should not make us reluctant to explore the significance of a country that may actually have both too much history and geography for easy categorization.

Page revised: 9 July 2016

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