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Manitoba History: Review: James K. Smith, Wilderness of Fortune: The Story of Western Canada

by Hal J. Guest
University of Manitoba

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 webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Wilderness of Fortune: the Story of Western Canada. James K. Smith. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1983. 310 pp., ill., maps. ISBN 0-88894-365-2.

This book is a tribute to the printer’s art. It was commissioned to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D. W. Friesen and Sons, the Altona printer, who “wanted to tell the fascinating story of the evolution of western Canada from the wilderness it once was, to the very dynamic and important part of Canada it is today.” The result, in material terms, is a fine book, beautifully illustrated and attractively packaged.

Wilderness of Fortune is popular history for readers not familiar with the historiography of this region. The narrative—and the book is almost entirely narrative—follows some well beaten paths. The synthesis of fur trade history, for example, is quite old fashioned, as is the discussion of the expanding agricultural frontier. The book contains a sketchy and often superficial survey of major events and brief but lifeless portraits of major characters. There are also some curious omissions. There are no villains here and character flaws are too often overlooked. Surely Peter Pond was more than just “quick tempered,” Alexander Mackenzie’s “self-assurance and self-righteousness” only contributed to his unpopularity, and George Simpson’s palpably racist predilections had a profound impact on the Red River settlement.

There are more serious weaknesses in the author’s decision to examine the “whole west,” the prairies, the territories and B.C. The sum is less distinct from “the east” than is each of the parts. The west may be unified by economy, geography and history, but that unity is not emphasized in the text or in the illustrations. Abrupt shifts from the prairies to the “transmontane west” too often break the train of the narrative and these sudden departures interrupt the historical continuity of the process of development from the fur trade era through Canada’s acquisition of the west to the formation of new territories and provinces. The north, in addition, receives scant attention.

The only provocative passages appear in the last chapter, “Power and Alienation.” To his credit, Smith has not merely recited the litany of regional grievances with confederation but, still, he ought to have addressed the great bogeys of western history. In this book, the CPR emerges virtually unscathed, federal land and settlement policies are hardly questioned and the tariff appears as just another issue. While Smith concedes that western discontent is nothing new, he does not establish the context for his comments on contemporary alienation where, incidentally, he confuses the interests of Alberta with the interests of the larger region. His contention that the National Energy Program “is a watershed in Canadian history” is, at best, debatable. The NEP is not an isolated case of central Canadian rapacity, but rather the latest expression in a process of calculated underdevelopment which began three centuries ago. The emphasis on economic matters provides a gloss of legitimacy for western secessionist groups which they may not, in truth, possess. In this scenario, “popular exponents of independence” appear as concerned citizens voicing “the all-too-familiar catalogue of eastern sins that began with freight rates” and not as chronic malcontents defending Anglophone uniformity and imperial measures. Yet, the book ends with an implicit rejection of independence. Secession is not a respectable alternative for it would break faith with the hardy pioneers who made the west Canadian.

Despite the complaints above, Wilderness of Fortune is an attractive book. If enthusiastic and occasionally naive, it nonetheless conveys a version of western history which will appeal to many western readers. It will not arouse passions nor will it help to settle disputes, but that clearly was not the author’s intent.

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