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Manitoba History: Review: W. Peter Ward and Robert A. J. McDonald (editors), British Columbia: Historical Readings

by Jacqueline Gresko
History, Douglas College
New Westminster, BC

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

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

British Columbia: Historical Readings. Edited by W. Peter Ward and Robert A.J. McDonald. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1981. xii, 692 pp. ISBN 0-88894-303-2.

Since no survey history of British Columbia has been produced in twenty-five years, “a textbook reflecting the interests of the province’s most recent historians,” will be welcomed by local students and scholars and those outside the province.

W. P. Ward and R. A. J. McDonald’s British Columbia: Historical Readings can serve as an introduction to the scope of that province’s history and historical writing. Approaches are as cosmopolitan as the topics: from a reappraisal of Spanish imperial attitudes to the Northwest Coast to a reassessment of Scandinavian immigrant views of the Pacific frontier. Fine research illuminates several articles on Indian-white relations. Mature scholarship marks business and trade studies by J. M. S. Careless and H. K. Ralston. Younger scholars essay modern analyses. R. A. J. McDonald shows how Vancouver took over from Victoria at the turn of the century and what that development meant to the province. W. P. Ward takes a controversial stance on modern British Columbia society. He uses social science models of pluralistic society to develop the thesis that race not class has been its main division. By contrast, political scientist W. D. Young discusses personality as well as ideology in the origin of the provincial C.C.F. A combination of careful research and creative touches marks articles by M. A. Ormsby and P. Roy on depression era premier T. D. Pattullo and on his constituents’ fear of Asians.

The one specially commissioned essay in this volume particularly indicates the variety and quality of recent British Columbia historians’ work. In “The World the British Settlers Made: Class, Ethnicity and Private Education in the Okanagan Valley,” Jean Barman uses both traditional and oral history research. She ponders “the implications of the Vernon Preparatory School [1914-1970] for the history of British Columbia.” It was a boarding school “functioning ... as if it were in Britain ...” The British class and ethnic values of the school extended via a province-wide clientele across the provincial society. Boys educated at Vernon and similar schools such as North Vancouver’s Caulfield became “a class unto themselves,” distinct in and at the top of society. This analysis casts light on the province’s development and its contemporary political culture. Barman notes that long-time premier W. A. C. Bennett entered politics while one son was at Vernon Prep. His other son who attended Caulfield has just been re-elected premier of British Columbia. He should be appreciated historically as part of that province-wide upper class of old boys.

For investigation of this or other intriguing topics of British Columbia history Ward and McDonald’s anthology involves some frustrations. Readers outside the province, like beginning students in it, will note the absence of bibliography, index or map. Both the brief biblographical note and A. Smith’s “The Writing of British Columbia History” recommend the bibliography in J. Friesen and H. K. Ralston, Historical Essays on British Columbia (Carleton Library Series No. 96, 1976). Perhaps it might have been included here. S. D. Clark’s forty-year old description of mining society might have been excluded. Paterson’s complicated economic study on the North Pacific seal hunt should have been excised as well. Then there would have been room to include articles on the land-based fur trade and the lumber industry. There might have been a source list for Robin Fisher’s synthesis of Indian mission work. This would have been especially helpful since the final fifty-two footnotes of P. Cumming and N. Mickenberg’s Native Rights in Canada section on British Columbia have been left out in this anthology.

Most of the deficiencies of British Columbia: Historical Readings are attributable more to lacunae in modern historiography than to the editorial abilities of Ward and McDonald. They point out in their brief introduction that British Columbia historians have more work to do on economic development, on provincial society, and on political culture. They should, however, include in the next issuing of this anthology a bibliography of works in allied disciplines on these topics. Beginning students and those outside the province would in particular enjoy reading, or being directed to read, D. Elkins “Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows,” BC Studies, no. 30, 1976. Elkins explains how Liberal and Conservative arrangements for the alternative ballot system in the 1952 provincial election not only kept the CCF, but also those older parties from power. Ironically adherents of all three parties assisted the entry of Kelowna hardware merchant W. A. C. Bennett and the Social Credit into the premier’s office. The ballot system went but the bedfellows are with us yet.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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