Manitoba History: Review: Esyllt W. Jones and Gerald Friesen (editors), Prairie Metropolis: New Essays on Winnipeg Social History

by Greg Thomas
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 65, Winter 2011

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

Too often the research products of graduate students remain buried in obscurity and do not reach a broader audience. This creative alliance between the Winnipeg Foundation, the University of Manitoba Press and two History professors, Esyllt Jones and Gerald Friesen, has resulted in the publication of a very useful collection of eleven essays by university scholars examining a diverse array of topics associated with Winnipeg’s social history.

We sometimes forget how recent the serious academic research, writing and teaching of Winnipeg and Manitoba’s history are. Professor J. Edgar Rea’s stimulating epilogue in this volume, “Prairie Metropolis: A Personal View”, reminds us that he launched the first university course dedicated to the history of Winnipeg and Manitoba as recently as 1968–1969. This provocative personal overview sets the stage for the contemporary work on the social history of Winnipeg.

In their insightful introduction, Jones and Friesen effectively place the essays in their historiographical context as the successors to the “new” urban history represented by Alan F. J. Artibise’s Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874–1914. The current generation of historians represented in this volume pays rigorous and creative attention to categories of difference in Winnipeg’s society—namely class, gender, ethnicity, race and sexuality. While appreciating the broad historiography in these areas, the reader will also be struck by the creativity of the articles in their use of primary sources hitherto not utilised broadly.

The essays are organised into two segments: Part One includes essays dealing with “reform and growth” in Winnipeg’s first sixty years, and Part Two focuses on the Second World War and its aftermath. A recurring theme in Part One is the plight of the immigrant poor in the city’s North End and the complex individual and institutional responses to this community of newcomers. Another recurring story that emerges from this first series of essays is that of how Winnipeg was out in front of the rest of Canada in some social areas, such as the creation of the juvenile court system, as illustrated by Kozminski and Woloschuk.

The essays in the second part, while strong academically in their own right, reflect the reality that research into the interwar and post-Second World War social history is only beginning to gain momentum. Clearly, Winnipeg’s aspirations as a North American centre of influence have been replaced by a regional metropolis of reduced importance, but not without its distinctive personality. It is illuminating to read scholarly work by Janis Thiessen and Leslie Hall on two very important communities in Winnipeg’s modern social fabric, the Mennonite and Aboriginal communities, through the lens of a successful Mennonite-owned business and the evolution of the Winnipeg Indian and Métis Friendship Centre.

The publication of these eleven essays examining Winnipeg’s social history is very encouraging. While they reflect a range of writing styles and a diversity of topics, this well-edited volume contributes considerably to the depth of research and analysis available to students of Winnipeg history and a broader public audience. What is particularly striking is the application of international historiographical scholarship to urban history. To build on the tradition of Artibise and the recent emergence of strong popular Winnipeg thematic works, what is needed is a new synthesis of Winnipeg’s history. Perhaps one of the talented historians represented in this volume will rise to the challenge and, in the spirit of Professor Rea, capture Winnipeg’s “historic personality” once again.

Page revised: 17 August 2016