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Manitoba History: Review: Douglas Owram, Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West

by D. N. Sprague
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 4, 1982

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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To an historian of ideas, a movement is a group of like-minded formulators or popularizers. and an idea is a perception which starts the movement and determines its evolution. Douglas Owram is an historian of ideas but the movement he examines deals with perceptions of the West in the period during which westward expansion was a fact of economic development as well as an idea to the self-appointed advance-men of Canadian colonization. One of the central problems for the reader, therefore, is to distinguish cause from effect in the relationship between ideas of the West and the successive uses of the region. In doing so, however, one discovers that the Promise of Eden is remarkably materialist despite its Introduction which smacks resoundingly of historical idealism.

Ignoring this, one discovers in the rest of the book that as long as the region of Rupert’s Land was used primarily as a fur-trade hinterland by the Hudson’s Bay Company, access to the land was ordinarily by way of Hudson Bay without penetrating the continent far to the south. Consequently, the idea of the West in this period was of a territory quite inhospitable to settlement, notwithstanding the apparent occasional successes of the farmers at the Red River settlement. This one colony was an exceptional “island,” not a fit symbol for the future. Later, as speculative pressure on the “wild” land of Upper Canada restricted settlers’ access to vacant ground suitable for agriculture a reconsideration of the first idea of the West began.

Henry Hind and John Palliser identified a “fertile belt” between the Arctic and the American Desert, and in this second idea of the West, the Red River settlement was not so much an island as a toehold on the bridge over which civilization might pass in its westward expansion in a great arc of agricultural development through the Saskatchewan river system west to the Rockies. Later still, as this expansion process began, unusually wet summers made the Canadian part of the American Desert, “Palliser’s triangle: blossom in vegetation, and excited the hunger of expansionists like John Macoun to broaden the area of potential settlement. This also justified the owners of the Canadian Pacific Railway in their choice of a more southerly route, and made way for a third but unrealistic idea of the West as “garden,” a northern Eden which had the potential to support seven times more farms than Hind and Palliser had estimated twenty years earlier. Ultimately, this myth of the garden expanded to include even Hudson Bay. a Canadian “Mediterranean” over which modern commerce might move as once much smaller ships had operated in the service of the HBC. Now, however they could steam by rail or through improved waterways to the very edge of the wheat fields in the world’s greatest granary.

Then came disillusionment. A slowed pace of westward migration in the 1880s, rebellion in 1885 and the stubborn refusal of “Eastern Interests” to permit northern transportation improvements. led to the mature conception of the West as a sub-nation unjustly exploited by selfish powers in Central Canada. Thus. Owram charts the development of a number of ideas of the West as they appeared in response to changing material conditions or in rationalization of new desires. In this respect, the book is refreshingly different from what its introduction seemed to promise: a work “primarily concerned with ideas” (p. 8).

Readers indifferent to the abstract goals of intellectual history will not be aroused by such critique especially if they believe that intellectual historians have yet to chart the evolution of human perceptions as a function of changing social and economic realities. Also, on the basis of the short summary above. these same readers might conclude that even though the volume is satisfactorily realistic, it does not seem particularly original. The Wests Owram delineates are already well known. Indeed, the author himself confesses that in addition to a few works hitherto obscure to historians, he has based his study on the vast secondary literature of numerous published works and less well known theses to fill in “details” and provide him with “ideas” (p. 256). In this way, the Promise of Eden is a useful synthesis of more specialized works, offering a short but comprehensive general account of the theme for the latter half of the nineteenth century. The author skates airily over huge developments, pausing occasionally to probe more deeply with an intelligent insight, or to offer a bit of new material in the detailed exposition of some particular expansionist responding to specific economic or demographic phenomena.

Since the book is short, it is bound to be selective. Missing are details or qualifications of generalizations which might have led the author to a critique of expansionist thought. All is well until we reach the idea of the second West, the years after 1857 during which the “North West became progressively less associated with the Arctic” (p. 65). In this transition, the writing of Henry Hind looms large for the “scientific and dramatic support” he gave to those who would “extend the proven fertility of the Red River valley to the west” (pp. 65, 68). Hind’s work certainly did serve this purpose, but equally, however, his “explorations” established the vacant nature of the region. Standing in the midst of the Red River settlement he wrote that this fertile ground would be of no value until it was occupied “by an energetic race, able to improve on its vast capabilities and appreciate its marvelous beauties” (p. 72). He did not think the occupants of the Settlement in 1857 were suitable for the task, and his hierarchy of suitable other races may not have included the French in Quebec.

Here in Henry Hind, one finds a cultural bigotry which had plagued Canada since 1760 and was now about to be exported to a region where although not unknown, it was at least tolerably well under control. Instead of developing the exclusivist bias which was politely but unmistakably present in Hind Owram moves from Hind’s affirmation of potential fertility of the ground to the accommodative cultural perspective articulated by S. J. Dawson in order to make the transition from seeding the soil to peopling the country. Whose voice was more typical of Canadian expansionists in 1860? Was it Hind’s. reporting a slate to clean? or Dawson’s reporting that “a nucleus” of colonisation had already been planted by “the population of ten thousand ready to welcome” newcomers and to “give them the advantage of their experience?” The Hind perspective had nothing to learn from indigenous or non-British people. the Dawson point of view seems somewhat less exclusive. But Owram does not pursue the issue.

The question of Ontario expansionists attitudes toward non-Protestant or non-English groups is a vital issue to explore, however, because it becomes a basis for action once migration begins and questions about the character of the new society inevitably arise. Owram faithfully reports that expansionism was mixed up with nationalism and the nationalist orientation which prevailed was regrettably narrow. He also argues that for this reason expansionists tended to dismiss the Red River Métis as “political non-entities” and a potential “labour pool” rather than regarding them as proprietors of the soil (p. 87). Did the Ontario expansionists tend to consider potential French settlers from Quebec and other non-British nationalities in the same light? And did the central government which insisted on controlling the distribution of the public domain for “dominion purposes: consider them narrowly like Henry Hind or accommodatively like Dawson? Here again, the gaps are evident. Both the proletarianization of the Métis and Canadian dealings with non-British minorities are simply not reported.

The passage of the Manitoba Act is described as an accommodative accomplishment, and the migration of soldiers in 1870 and settlers soon after are considered threats to the benign design. Owram quotes an 1874 story from the Canadian Monthly and National Review comparing recent proceedings in Manitoba to bleeding Kansas in the antebellum United States. but apparently only for the colour it contributes (pp. 99-100). The analogy is never tested.

Instead of focusing on evidence which shows that the land-promise provisions of the Manitoba Act were annually amended by the Government of Canada, effectively vitiating the original language of the law, he focuses on the English expansionists’ preoccupation with building a West with a proper British. explicitly non-Yankee social character. Depending upon what was meant by building a society “on the British plan,” the government and lay-expansionists might have been serving each other—and faithfully replicating the American model. The issue is whether the goal of attempting “to build up a nation on the British plan” meant nothing more than building a society like the American although predominantly English-Canadians in population. or whether the goal was to create a society based on British institutions which would represent a fundamental repudiation of Yankee majoritarianism and unlimited acquisitive individualism. Did the “British plan” mean creating an orderly society of many cultures united by their corporate equality to a common political allegiance? Or was this “British plan” simply the American with a British gloss?

The test is the treatment of minorities: indigenous, French. Icelandic, and Mennonite. The last two groups however, are only mentioned as arriving in the 1870s and there is no discussion of how they were accommodated, ideally or in fact. The other groups are mentioned in slightly more detail but without the context of the themes established in the chapter on “The Character of Empire.” On the one hand, Owram quotes Luxton of the Free Press to the effect that the Métis rebelled in 1885 because they had been “deceived and wronged, then neglected” (p. 174). But having omitted the story of the deceit and the lawlessness which had driven the Métis from their homelands, the meaning of the Luxton quote is obscure. Readers are only told that the people who rebelled were “remnants of the 1880s” (p. 173). Yet this suffering is related to the discontents of white settlers and could have provided an important link to the subject of western alienation and the demand for the Hudson’s Bay Railway. Thus we are denied a detailed discussion of the social costs of expansion except as it is supposed to have affected the Ontario migrants to the West showing how they, ironically, became disillusioned and joined in the formulation of the idea of the West as an exploited hinterland. Here Charles Mair one time expansionist and contributor to the Canada First “movement” emerges as an important contributor to this the most recent idea of the West. a hinterland frustrated in its local expanionist design by an indifferent or hostile East.

By the end of the book, the reader is still unable to evaluate the meaning of its central chapter, “The Character of Empire” which addresses the problem of the creation of a new society with the “right” social character: “the Britain of the West.” One is left with the general idea that expansionism generated a western split as Ontario-born expansionists became disillusioned and developed a myth of development thwarted by eastern neglect and exploitation. But what of the overall vision? Did they feel they had succeeded in their self-appointed task? In his conclusion, Owram does hint at the real intent of the British plan when he confronts the reality of the submergence of western minorities. He notes with regard to the French, for example, that they “wanted and desired recognition within the new society” but they failed because “there was no strong indigenous voice to urge protection of traditional rights” (p. 221). Locally, what had come to dominate by 1900 was majoritarianism and acquisitive individualism, just as in the United States. What then was the meaning of the continuing affirmation of the superiority of the “British plan”? Like other important questions this issue remains unresolved, as much because the previous questions are not asked as by its own omission from the story.

Page revised: 1 January 2011

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