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Manitoba History No. 89
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Manitoba History: Review: Eric Wells, Winnipeg: Where the New West Begins, An Illustrated History

by Randy R. Rostecki
Winnipeg, Manitoba

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 webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Winnipeg: Where the New West Begins, An Illustrated History. Eric Wells. Burlington, Ont.: Windsor Publications (Canada), 1982. 288 pp., ill. (some colour). ISBN 0-89781-039-2.

Winnipeg writers and broadcasters Eric Wells and Edith Paterson-Risk have borrowed the slogan of a 1912 advertising campaign promoting Winnipeg to act as a subtitle to the above volume. The use of this phrase is quite apt, given the sponsorship of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. Indeed, the Wells-Risk volume is quite reminiscent of that turn of the century puff, Frank Schofield’s Story of Manitoba, in that both contain the paid “biographies” of various business firms or individuals. One only wishes that the Wells-Risk book represented a more scholarly treatment of what can obviously be an interesting topic.

Wells and Risk paraphrase history as it was written up to about a dozen years ago. A reading of the book reminds one of the so-called WASP histories of the days of yore—glorifying the British connection and race, and relying more upon legend than fact. For example, there is nothing to suggest that the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers had any human importance prior to the arrival of the Selkirk Settlers, a serious omission considering that archaeological investigations have demonstrated the site was significant to various native groups. The authors also seem to be of the mind that politics was something introduced by the Nor’Wester in 1859, even though the subject had been rearing its head much earlier in instances such as the Sayer Affair of 1849. The authors also consider that Henry McKenney invented Portage Avenue, which shows a complete disregard for the fine scholarship of George Reynolds which has shown that the Portage Trail had been around longer than McKenney, who merely capitalized on its presence.

Not being content with misinterpreting the past, Wells and Risk commit numerous factual errors. The Hudson’s Bay Reserve did not extend just to Ellice Avenue, but to Notre Dame (p. 107); the picture of Sutherland Avenue (on p. 136) is actually that of Henry Avenue in 1918; there never has been any evidence to suggest that the 1875 City Hall was a poor building as the authors suggest—its demise came because of a poorly built 1882-3 addition (pp. 159-60); the defects of the 1884 City Hall were not inherent to the structure, but more to the perennial lack of maintenance which is still a characteristic of older civic properties. Indeed, the authors’ suggestion to fill the old building with concrete in order to ensure its preservation (p. 162) smacks of the wild imaginings that characterize much of this book.

Winnipeg: Where the New West Begins is the product of Windsor Publications of Woodland Hills, California, whose Canadian subsidiary at Burlington, Ontario, published the book. The American Windsor has also published similar histories of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and perhaps others whose titles are unknown, for Windsor does not submit to Books in Print. The St. Paul history is very similar in design, layout, and sponsorship to the Wells-Risk book. This suggests that some attempt is being made to machine-produce local histories with a Chamber of Commerce flavour, subsidized by commercial biographies. The format and layout of these volumes are exceptional. In the case of the Wells-Risk book, these features redeem the volume from being only puff and a promotion for Mr. Wells’ Western Canada Pictorial Index. One wishes that many of the WCPI-credited illustrations were credited back to their original holding institution, the Manitoba Archives.

Mr. Wells and Mrs. Paterson-Risk have obviously attempted to write history for the “person in the street,” but they have only succeeded in over-simplifying topics which might have held a deeper interest for that person. The book lies at an extreme end of a spectrum which is opposed by the competent but dull meanderings of many academic historians. The bibliography is not cluttered with the names of such “drier” writers as Reynolds, Pannekoek or Blake. But ordinary readers are capable of understanding far more than what the authors have given them, and are indeed deserving of much more since they have to pay a hefty price for an already heavily-subsidized volume. One cannot be entirely negative, however, in view of the excellent design and layout work of Pamela Mosher. This is the outstanding feature of this book and provides many ideas which professional historians might consider in making their own works more appealing to a wider public. Mosher’s contributions make the thirty-dollar price tag somewhat easier to bear.

Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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