Manitoba History: Review: R. C. Macleod (editor), Swords and Ploughshares: War and Agriculture in Western Canada

by David McCrady
University of Manitoba

Number 27, Spring 1994

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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R. C. Macleod, ed., Swords and Ploughshares: War and Agriculture in Western Canada. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1993, xv, 262 pp.

Swords and Ploughshares is a collection of essays originally presented at conferences held at the University of Alberta. The papers are divided into two sections: “Western Canada in the Era of the Rebellion” and “The Agricultural Experience in Western Canada.” Ironically, given the title of the book, none of the essays deal specifically with warfare or agriculture.

The volume opens with an essay by George Stanley, the dean of Western Canadian history. Stanley reflects upon his life as a historian, offering a candid appraisal of his university training (at both the University of Alberta and at Oxford) and an assessment of the historical significance of his first, and still best-known book, The Birth of Western Canada. Noting the trend among historians to be influenced by social scientific methodologies, he suggests that “There seem to be few places left in the world in which humane historians can do their own thing” (p. 15). But if there is division within the ranks, there is new exploration and creativity as well. The essays in this volume illustrate, in fair measure, the growing diversity of the historical literature in terms of both subject matter and approach.

T. A. Crerar (seated centre), with directors of the United Grain Growers Company, 1913. Crerar led the Progressive Party until his resignation in 1922.

Brian Titley brings a narrative approach to his contribution, a biography of Hayter Reed focusing on Reed’s career in the Department of Indian Affairs. Hired as the Indian Agent for Battleford in 1881, Reed became the deputy superintendent general, the highest civil post in the department, twelve years later. This is a long overdue study, as no full-scale biography of Reed (or his usual superior, Edgar Dewdney) has been written, despite the fact that he played a significant role in the administration of Indian affairs in Western Canada in the years before, during and after the Northwest Rebellion. Reed’s strict adherence to the department’s “work for rations” policy, his involvement in creating the pass system, and his desire to turn Indians into “peasant” farmers, all make his career worthy of careful study.

Rota Herzberg Lister examines the way historical sources on the Northwest Rebellion, and the trial of Louis Riel in particular, have been used over the years by Canadian dramatists. She contends that playwrights have become increasingly more sophisticated in their portrayal of character and motive, and have, as a result, created more genuine suspense and believable characterizations. At the same time, she points out that each “wave” of dramatizations is important in its own right for understanding how Canadians of different eras have come to terms with the dilemmas posed by Riel and his rebellions. Lister’s article adds to our knowledge of Western Canada in the era of the Rebellion. Others, including Stanley, have commented on the different historical perspectives brought to bear on the study of Riel’s life. Riel has been cast as a symbol of the rift between Anglo- and francophone Canadians, as the leader of an indigenous people confronted by colonial settlement, as a defender of Western rights, and as a prophet. Each generation poses its own questions and finds its own answers. Lister finds complementary developments in the world of drama.

Two essays, one by Patricia Roy, the other by John Gilpin, explore the question of “law and order” in Western Canada. Roy’s essay examines the “orderly” image of British Columbia that immigration pamphlets presented to potential immigrants during the 1880s, and then contrasts that image with the reality of life in the province. By studying four occasions when violence nearly erupted, she concludes that the authorities’ control over the population was not nearly as complete as the image suggests, but that violence was still rare. The image of the law-abiding West was close to reality. Gilpin approaches the issue from another perspective. His article explores the response of Edmonton area settlers, both Métis and white, to disputes over land in the years before the Northwest Rebellion. Denied title to their claims in the absence of government surveys, and plagued by timber regulations they thought were unfair, settlers organized protest meetings and sent petitions, telegrams and, finally, a delegation to Ottawa to have their views heard. In the end, the government agreed to conduct a settlement survey, which was completed in 1883. While violence against settlers who violated the community’s unofficial rules concerning property rights was not unknown, peaceful methods of safe-guarding land claims generally prevailed. When the Rebel-lion broke out two years later, Edmonton area settlers did not participate.

Wiesinger’s essay on the evolving urban West brings a geographical perspective to the study of urbanization and to the study of history. Noting that few studies in Western Canada have focused on the role of institutions in creating urban places, Wiesinger examines the urban land sales policies of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canada North-West Land Company. She then analyses trade flows between centres in Manitoba and the United States, Great Britain and Eastern Canada. Such studies, she points out, are important for understanding the role of urban centres in the economic and social life of the prairies.

History is no longer simply “past politics,” and it can be with some reticence that scholars explore political topics today. However, much remains to be said. Noting that it might seem “almost foolhardy to tackle these hoary old chestnuts again,” Ed Rea argues that much of what is known of the Progressive Movement has been “misunderstood, distorted, or misinterpreted in our historical literature” (p. 223). Rea’s paper re-examines three events in the career of T. A. Crerar and the Progressives (the negotiations between the Progressives and the Liberals following the election of 1921, the Progressives’ decision not to form the Official Opposition, and Crerar’s resignation as party leader in 1922). Delving into the Crerar Papers held by Queen’s University Archives, Rea challenges the Ontario-centred interpretation of the Progressive Movement by trying to understand the perspective of Crerar himself. What emerges is certainly a better understanding of Crerar’s own beliefs.

Source: Glenbow-Alberta Archives

It has taken some years for the University of Alberta Press to publish these essays, and several have already appeared elsewhere. Donald Smith’s paper on the St. Catherine’s Milling case, which first tested the meaning of aboriginal land title before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, appeared in The Beaver in 1987. [1] (The version appearing in The Beaver contained a useful map and several photographs that are not printed here, but lacked the endnotes.) David Smith’s contribution on the career of Liberal politician and agrarian leader James Gardiner was published (with the addition of several photographs) in Saskatchewan History in 1987. [2] Gerhard Ens’ provocative essay on the Métis economy prior to their dispersal from Red River appeared in roughly the same form in the Canadian Historical Associations Historical Papers for 1988. [3] Finally, the paper by Maurice Doll, which provides a brief summary of the archaeological work conducted between 1970 and 1982 at the Buffalo Lake Métis site in Central Alberta, has been incorporated into his much larger (and very useful) co-authored report on the site. [4] Still, it will be an advantage to students and interested readers to have these essays brought together in a single volume.

Swords and Ploughshares suffers from a number of production problems. Typographical and proof-reading errors abound. The endnotes appended to the text of Donald Smith’s article are misnumbered. (Two notes are assigned the number 7 and all the subsequent notes are, therefore, off by one.) Editorial additions made to the quotations in the article by David Smith are set off with parentheses (), not brackets []. Most distracting of all (and, unfortunately, a practice prevalent among may academic presses today), there is an attempt throughout the text to eliminate commas. A good many sentences must be read more than once to be understood. Still, it is a solid collection of readings, with a good introduction by Rod Macleod which draws out a number of themes raised by the contributors.


1. Donald Smith, “Aboriginal Rights a Century Ago,” The Beaver 67, 1 (February/March 1987), pp. 4-15.

2. David Smith, “James G. Gardiner: Political Leadership in the Agrarian Community,” Saskatchewan History 40 (1987), pp. 47-61.

3. Gerhard Ens, “Dispossession or Adaptation: Migration and Persistence of the Red River Métis, 1835-1890,” Canadian Historical Association, Historical Papers (1988), pp. 130-144.

4. Maurice F. V. Doll, Robert S. Kidd and John P. Day, The Buffalo lake Métis Site: A Late Nineteenth Century Settlement in the Parkland of Central Alberta, Occasional Paper No. 4 (Edmonton: Alberta culture and Multiculturalism, Historical Resources Division, 1988).

Page revised: 11 April 2010