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Manitoba History: Review: Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History

by Irene M. Spry
University of Ottawa

Manitoba History, Number 9, Spring 1985

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

The Canadian Prairies: A History. Gerald Friesen. Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 1984. xv, 524 pp., maps, ill. ISBN 0-8020-2513-7.

Harvesting grain at Clarence Thomsen farm, Dugald, Manitoba, 1937.
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

“The prairie west is rich in historical literature, but it has never been the subject of a scholarly synthesis that tells its story from the days of Indian-European contact to the present.” (p. xiii.) In this opening sentence of his Preface, Gerald Friesen sets the stage for the task he addresses in this admirable and important book. In it he examines human experience in the country that stretches from the head of the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains on the Canadian side of the forty-ninth parallel, from pre-historic ages to the early 1980s, with complementary attention to the context of what was going on in other parts of North America, in Britain and Europe and elsewhere in the world.

The book is not a mere chronicle of successive happenings, but an analysis of the complex forces that shaped the changing patterns of prairie life, with just sufficient reference to events and dates to provide the necessary framework. A notable feature of the analysis, some highlights of which will be summarized here, is the attempt to give due weight to the experience of the region’s native peoples. Out of seventeen chapters, five and part of another are devoted to native history—that of the Indians and of the Métis. Indeed, Friesen’s point of view is mainly that of the region’s inhabitants, whether of Indian, French, British, American or “ethnic” origin. Only two chapters tell the story from outsiders’ points of view, namely chapter 4, “The Europeans’ fur trade 1640 to 1805” and chapter 8, “Canada’s empire 1870-1900: The region and the National Policy.”

In discussing the National Policy, Friesen rightly includes, besides the three strategies traditionally attributed to that policy—settlement, the CPR and the tariff—three others: The North-West Mounted Police, the Indian Treaties and reserves, and the square township survey system. His treatment of the role of the Mounted Police in western development is most perceptive, as is his account of the Indian Treaties, though in discussing them he does not allow sufficiently for the mutual lack of under-standing between the Indians and the white Treaty Commissioners as to what exactly the Indians were surrendering in accepting the treaty terms. The Indian concept of entitlement to land was simply the right to use the land and the resources on it, in contrast to the white man’s concept of land as real estate to be bought and sold like any other commodity. However, Friesen does develop as a central theme changes in views as to rights to nature-given resources—from common-property, shared by all the members of a tribe, to open-access resources, available to all corners, and finally to individual private property.

Friesen gives an excellent account of the settlement of the country by the immigrants who acquired the land, either by fulfilling homestead conditions, by purchase, or by special grants. At first settlers came mostly from Ontario (apart from those in a number of block settlements such as the Mennonites and Icelanders), and, after the turn of the century, from the United States and many European countries. After a sensitive discussion of the differences in the way in which the various groups of immigrants adapted to the prairie environment, Friesen suggests that the result is like a stew in which each ingredient retains its own flavour and special character but still blends in with the other ingredients in a coherent and distinctive whole. He gives an illuminating account of the shift from the early twentieth century acceptance of ethnic immigration to the World War I backlash against aliens—especially “enemy” aliens—and the upsurge of “nativism,” which had its climax in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Saskatchewan. Also informative is his discussion of the rise of “majoritarian” reforms and the “Social Gospel.”

Friesen’s picture of rural settlement is balanced by a revealing analysis of the rise—and sometimes the decline—of urban centres. The future of the City of Winnipeg, as the metropolis of the prairie region, seemed in the years from 1900 to 1913 “to be boundless” (p. 278). After 1914, when the Panama Canal opened, Vancouver began to challenge Winnipeg’s supremacy in handling wheat exports and in trade, while changes in technology gave Central Canada stronger direct authority in the region. Though Winnipeg continued to grow, partly in response to the coming of air traffic and other service industries, the elan of its early expansion was over. Four other prairie cities, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon, together with a number of smaller centres, grew in importance, assuming some of the functions formerly performed by Winnipeg. The phenomenon of “boosterism” that attended this urban proliferation managed to create “an ethos of community solidarity that transcended class, income and occupation” (p. 284), though “social gradations” were nonetheless “a powerful distinguishing characteristic of prairie society in the post-1900 decades.” (p. 284). However, Friesen argues, between the wealthy business elite and the working classes a “third social grouping” emerged that “provided the glue that held the community together.” This was the professional and service sector, consisting of “teachers, preachers, health care workers, government employees” and the like, who “in politics and in public debate sometimes sided with the leaders of social reform and, at other times, backed the business leaders’ calls for economic progress and social austerity.” (pp. 289-291.)

This “social glue” seems to have been lacking in the resource towns, especially in coal-mining towns, and in construction camps, where class distinctions were very marked. Life for the workers in coal towns was squalid in the extreme. “Complaints about housing, water supply, sewage service, schools and company stores” (p. 296) were widespread. The work was dangerous and labour turnover high. Life in frontier camps was rough, providing a harsh introduction to prairie life for many immigrants. The capitalist labour market, however, did not entirely quench aspirations for “upward mobility,” which remained “an integral part of the prairie creed,” so that “class identity was correspondingly weak.” (p. 300.)

“The cities, the railways, the coal towns and the lumber mills had as their common purpose the development of one of the world’s great agricultural regions.” (p. 301.) In “two generations, 1880-1930, the farm had become the paramount institution in the prairie west” (p. 301). By 1920 the settlement frontier had been succeeded by “agriculture specialized in the production of wheat for export.” (p. 301.) Pioneer hard work, pioneer aspirations and pioneer co-operation had established the wheat economy. Farmers had had to fight for every adjustment in national policy. Whatever their social status, they “were beginning to see themselves as a distinct ‘class’ in the 1920s” (p. 320). The introduction of tractors, combines and trucks, also in the 1920s, displaced hired hands and threshing outfits and made it necessary for farmers to borrow heavily to finance the new capital-intensive technology. Then drought and depression struck in the 1930s which “stand out in prairie history because they provided a collective experience that was as important in the development of a regional society as the era of the pioneer.” (p. 382.) Some 250,000 people left the prairies between 1931 and 1941, while there was “an exodus of population from the short-grass plains of the south to the wooded parkbelt further north.” (p. 388.) Despite these departures, the farm community in the southern prairies was resolved to defeat the Depression. Soil and moisture conservation methods worked out on the basis of co-operation between scientists and farmers and disseminated under the aegis of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration reclaimed much farm land, while the federal Canadian Wheat Board provided “a buffer between chaotic conditions in the international wheat market and the farmers on the land” and the Prairie Farm Assistance Act of 1939 “extended the farmers’ safety net.” (pp. 392-394.)

The “Dirty Thirties” left the people of the prairies determined both to diversify their economy and to find some means of attaining “economic security and amelioration of social injustice.” (p. 409.) The labour movement and the farm protest movement gave rise to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) which came to power in Saskatchewan. In Manitoba John Bracken’s coalition party lasted for more than three decades continuing even after his departure, while William Aberhart’s Social Credit Party initiated Alberta’s “propensity to single party domination,” the so-called “quasi-party” system characteristic of that province.

These political changes were paralleled by fundamental economic changes. The homestead farm gave way to large-scale business farms, and new resource industries developed: oil and gas, potash, uranium and hydro-electric power. “Western capital came of age in the 1970s” (p. 446), though the out-look of the three provinces on what was the “proper mix of government and private enterprise” (p.439) differed markedly.

The emergence of a distinct identity in each of the three provinces has not destroyed the common regional identity “rooted in place and past.” A “regional voice and a regional audience” (p. 458) have developed in spite of the increasing homogenization of international culture.

The struggle for prairie self-determination is traced through the tragic loss of Indian autonomy to the escape of the white inhabitants from colonial subordination to Ottawa, to full provincial status, ownership of and jurisdiction over western natural resources and a vigorous role in discussions of policy between the two levels of Canadian government.

This summary cannot begin to do justice to the richness of Friesen’s work. In analysing the complex issues involved, he is at pains to give all sides of scholarly disagreements and makes it clear when there is insufficient knowledge for any conclusion to be reached. He makes use of an impressive range of sources, including both long-established authorities and contemporary records, the latest writings of scholars, both published and unpublished, and government reports. I have noticed only one surprising omission, namely Morris Zaslow’s important contribution to an understanding of the difference in character between the Canadian and the American frontiers.

In discussing this difference, Friesen remarks: “Violence there was aplenty in the Northwest as there was in the United States.” (p. 170.) This surely obscures an essential contrast. In chapter 3 Friesen shows that in Rupert’s Land “after nearly two centuries natives and Europeans lived side by side in relative peace.” (p. 44.) The long-standing partnership between Indians and their fur-trading allies was succeeded with only a brief interregnum by the seven Indian Treaties (1871-1877) and enforcement of “law and order” by the North-West Mounted Police. In Canada, there were no prolonged Indian wars. There was remarkably little gun-play and virtually no lynch law. Friesen has an interesting theory about “crime and class” to explain why (apart from hypocrisy) Canadians were shocked by American frontier violence: American violence involved elements of society that, in Canada, would have been the respectable middle-classes which, by definition, were law-abiding. “Stability was the ideal of middle-class society, and the Mounted Police, who shared this ideal, ensured that it would be maintained.” (p. 170.)

There is an index, a set of useful maps, good illustrations and a bibliographical note to supplement the references in footnotes. The type is excellent but why are publishers not cited in the references?

Friesen’s style is lucid and lively. He has a gift for pithy summary. Generalizations are inescapable in a work of such dimensions as this, but he brings them down to earth with concrete, individual examples and apt quotation from contemporary sources. Some of his economic concepts are inadequate. For example, in his comments on the cost of European goods (pp. 32 and 29-30) traded at the Bay to Indian middlemen and by those middlemen to inland trappers, he does not allow for the costs of transportation. Similarly, he fails to allow for labour inputs in calculating the real capital cost of making a new farm on virgin land (p. 310).

There are some curious omissions. For example, Friesen neglects the role of the American hide hunters in the disappearance of the buffalo, and pays little attention to the contribution made by farm women to prairie development. There are a few apparent slips, such as a reference to going up-river, instead of down (this seems to be a local idiom, not a geographical misconception) and an apparent misattribution of a reference in a consolidated footnote. These are minor flaws in a volume that is a splendid celebration of the rich heritage which “the struggles, sacrifices and successes of the past three centuries” (p. 467) have given the peoples of the Canadian Prairies.

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