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"The West and Beyond"

The West Unbound: Social and Cultural Studies


Writing on the western halves of Canada and the United States once focused on the alienation of the peoples of these regions from residents of the eastern regions. The mythology of a homogenized West fighting for a place in the sun blunted interest in the lives of ordinary people and the social struggles that pitted some groups in the West against others, usually the elite groups that claimed to speak for the whole region on the national stage. The West Unbound series challenges simplistic definitions of the West and its institutions. It focuses upon the ways in which various groups of Westerners—women, workers, Aboriginal peoples, farmers, and people of various ethnic origins, among others—tried to shape the institutions and attitudes of the region. This series draws on a variety of disciplines and is intended for both university audiences and lay audiences with an interest in the American and Canadian Wests.

Series Titles

Expansive Discourses:
Urban Sprawl in Calgary, 1945–1978

Icon, Brand, Myth:
The Calgary Stampede

The Importance of Being Monogamous:
Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915

Liberalism, Surveillance, and Resistance: Indigenous Communities
in Western Canada, 1877–1927

One Step Over the Line:
Toward a History of Women in North American Wests

The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region

The West and Beyond

New Perspection on an Imagined Region





Part One
Frameworks for Western Canadian History

1 Critical History in Western Canada 1900-2000


2 Vernacular Currents in Western Canadian
Historiography: The Passion and Prose of
Katherine Hughes, F.G. Roe, and Roy Ito


3 Cree Intellectual Traditions in History


Part Two
The Aboriginal West

4 Visualizing Space, Race, and History in the North:
Photographic Narratives of the Athabasca-Mackenzie
River Basin


5 The Kaleidoscope of Madness: Perceptions of Insanity
in British Columbia Aboriginal Populations, 1872-1950


6 Space, Temporality, History: Encountering Hauntings
in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside


7 The Expectations of a Queen: Identity and Race Politics
in the Calgary Stampede


Part Three
The Workers’ West

8 Capitalist Development, Forms of Labour,
and Class Formation in Prairie Canada


9 Two Wests, One-and-a-Half Paradigms,
and, Perhaps, Beyond


10 Disease as Embodied Praxis: Epidemics, Public Health,
and Working-Class Resistance in Winnipeg, 1906-19


11 Winnipeg’s Moment: The Winnipeg Postal Strike of 1919


Part Four
Viewing the West from the Margins

12 “Our Negro Citizens”: An Example of Everyday
Citizenship Practices


13 A Queer-Eye View of the Prairies:
Reorienting Western Canadian Histories


14 Human Rights Law and Sexual Discrimination
in British Columbia, 1953-84


Part Five
Cultural Portrayals of the West

15 W.L. Morton, Margaret Laurence,
and the Writing of Manitoba


16 The Banff Photographic Exchange: Albums, Youth,
Skiing, and Memory Making in the 1920s


17 Eric Harvie: Without and Within
Robert Kroetsch’s Alibi


18 “It’s a Landmark in the Community”:
The Conservation of Historic Places in Saskatchewan,




The editors of this volume thank all members of the organizing committee for the conference “The West and Beyond: Historians Past, Present and Future,” held at the University of Alberta in June 2008. Committee members (aside from the editors of this volume) were Catherine Cavanaugh, Erika Dyck, Gerhard Ens, Jeremy Mouat, James Muir, Liza Piper, Shannon Stunden-Bower, Erna Dominey, and Francis Swyripa. Special thanks to Melanie Marvin and Daniel Sims of the Department of History and Classics of the University of Alberta for all of their work, and to Tereasa Maillie for her work on the conference website. Ken Munro translated our call for papers. Mary Hildebrandt’s photo of the riverbank at Edmonton was used in all our conference material and website. Thanks also to our team of graduate student and other volunteers: Denise Ens, Daniel Johns, Natasha Julian, Erik Lizée, Melanie Niemi-Bohun, Katie Pollock, and Eric Strikwerda.

Major sponsors for the conference were the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Athabasca University, the Faculty of Arts of the University of Alberta, and the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation. Other sponsors were Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, Canada West Foundation, Department of History and Classics of the University of Alberta, Historical Society of Alberta, Legacy magazine, NiCHE—the Network in Canadian History and Environment, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Thanks to all.

The editors would also like to thank Trevor Rockwell for all of his work on this manuscript, as well as everyone at Athabasca University Press, including Walter Hildebrandt, Erna Dominey, and Tiffany Foster. Each submission for this collection was peer reviewed by reviewers chosen by the editors, and we thank all the reviewers of submissions, whether the articles they reviewed made it to the final cut or not, for their insights that helped our authors to reconsider their submissions in various ways. Two reviewers chosen by Athabasca University Press read the entire manuscript, and we thank them for their valuable comments. *


The very first history conference attended by co-editor of this book Sarah Carter, then a Master of Arts student at the University of Saskatchewan, was the 1977 ninth annual Western Canadian Studies conference held at the University of Calgary: “One Century Later: The Native Peoples of Western Canada since the ‘Making’ of the Treaties.”1 Presenters included people from the Treaty Six and Seven nations, such as Harold Cardinal, Chief John Snow, Marie Smallface Marule, and Stan Cuthand. Arthur J. Ray gave a paper that has been used in courses and readers ever since: “Fur Trade History as an Aspect of Native History.” George F. Stanley—whose monumental 1935 study, The Birth of Western Canada, remained in 1977 the most sustained academic treatment of the Métis and First Nations—was also a presenter, shedding light on the neglected history of the Dakota in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. As Ian A.L. Getty and Donald B. Smith, editors of the volume of papers from the conference, commented in their introduction, the conference not only highlighted the work then being done but also pointed to the “topics that [cried] out for further study” such as the history of the implementation of the treaties and “Indian policy” of the twentieth century, drawing on documentary sources but also oral histories.2

A tremendous sense of energy and vitality infused the 1977 gathering, including important exchange and dialogue across disciplines and vocations among the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal delegates. The conference was also more accessible for graduate students studying in Western Canada than those held in the active conference regions such as Ontario. Yet when Carter’s advisor, Ted Regehr, introduced her to David Bercuson, one of the Western Canadian specialists at the University of Calgary, Bercuson immediately asked how an MA student could possibly afford to attend a conference. (She was too embarrassed to stammer in reply that she had piggybacked on her parents’ visit to Calgary and Banff, which happened to coincide.) Conference attendance was, and remains, expensive for graduate students, and a conference outside of the Prairie provinces would have been well beyond the means of most at the West’s universities. Yet conference attendance is critical for graduate students. It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact this gathering of more than five hundred students, teachers, and the general public had on Carter, who was casting about for a thesis topic and knew virtually nothing about the history of the Aboriginal people of the West. The conference helped lead her to and shape the topics and approaches she pursued in her graduate work and beyond. Ten years later, as a newly minted PhD, Carter gave her first conference paper at a Western Canadian Studies conference held at the University of Saskatchewan. It was close to home (at that time Winnipeg) and manageable, as her one-year-old daughter could be left with family in Saskatoon.

These conferences ended in 1990, after a stretch when they were no longer annual and were no longer always held at the University of Calgary. The last one, held in Banff, was on the theme of women’s history.3 Why they ended is not clear, but the suspects include conference burnout on the part of the Calgary organizers and collection editors, funding drought, fewer Western Canadian specialists hired to academic positions, Western Canadian specialists deserting the field for other areas of study, new Western Canadianists’ unwillingness or inability to grab the baton, a changing political climate with less focus on region in favour of other identities, and a burgeoning of other academic networks with conferences on diverse areas of focus such as the fur trade, labour/working-class history, women’s history, and Native Studies. Conferences were still being held in and about the West, but the Western Canadian Studies banner disappeared, even though British Columbia Studies and Atlantic Canadian Studies continued to flourish.4 A focus on provincial history in the years leading to the centennials of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 2005 drew attention away from the broader region. But the three interdisciplinary Prairie conferences—held at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba in 1998, 2001, and 2004—helped to revive interest in a broader regional and interdisciplinary approach. Three collections of essays have resulted from these conferences.5 Important collections of essays on Western Canadian history that were not the product of conferences have also been published.6

The main goal of “The West and Beyond: Historians Past, Present and Future.” held at the University of Alberta, 19–21 June 2008, was to determine whether there was interest in reviving the Western Canadian Studies conferences that began in 1969 and ended in 1990. The first then-annual Western Canadian Studies Conference was launched at the University of Calgary in 1969, but its spiritual forebear was the 1967 Centennial Conference on the history of the Canadian West, held in Banff.7 At the Banff gathering, presenters included many distinguished scholars and writers of the time, such as W.L. Morton, (“A Century of Plain and Parkland”), L.G. Thomas (“Historiography to 1867—The Fur Trade Era”), J.C. Ewers (“Cultural Conflicts on the Prairie: Indian and White”), W.J. Eccles (“New France and the Western Frontier”), and W.O. Mitchell (“The Canadian West in Fiction”). The lieutenant governor of Alberta, historian Grant MacEwan, gave the keynote address at the banquet.8 Although papers from this conference were never brought together in a publication, many were published elsewhere and had long-lasting significance.

Described as the founder of the Western Canadian Studies conferences, David P. Gagan, at that time with the University of Calgary history department, explained in his preface to the volume of papers from the 1969 inaugural gathering that the specific objectives were to have “an informal, broadly interdisciplinary exchange of views on regional problems” and “to contribute, in a meaningful way, to western Canadian historiography.”9 Organizers wanted to involve and inform the community and have “more general appeal than scholarly deliberations usually enjoy.” Regional politics of the late 1960s—Western “alienation” arising from the neglect and interference of national governments—provided the catalyst. Gagan explained that the first annual meeting was timed to “take advantage of the undercurrent of interest in the Prairie region” evoked by recent events, including the federal-provincial constitutional conferences and the national debate on bilingualism and biculturalism, which created a “crisis of confidence in Confederation.” Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau was particularly disliked for his policies and his perceived indifference and indignities toward the West. In the summer of 1969, several hundred protesting farmers greeted Trudeau on the Regina stop of his Western tour, heckling his speech and holding placards that read “Flour Power” and “Hustle Grain Not Women.” The annual conference born that year was intended to “cast new light on the origins and nature of the Prairie regional identity which now, as has happened so frequently in the past, seems to be aggressively reasserting its presence.”10 Discontent and indignation with federal governments fueled the Western Canadian Studies conferences long after Trudeau’s 1969 confrontation with Regina farmers. As David Bercuson wrote in his introduction to the proceedings of the fifth conference in 1973: “Without any significant political muscle and overshadowed by the confrontation of French and English, Western Canada has been ignored, patronized, wooed, and scolded but never satisfied.”11

The first two conferences focused on the Prairies, and the first two collections of papers were entitled Prairie Perspectives. Thereafter efforts were made to include a broader region, including British Columbia, the North, and Western Ontario (and Prairie Perspectives became Western Perspectives). The conferences were always interdisciplinary, including presenters from political science, sociology, literature, geography, economics, fine art, education, and other fields although a heavy emphasis on history predominated. Both academic and popular historians, such as Hugh Dempsey and Grant MacEwan, presented papers. Speakers included participants in key events, such as Hon. Justice Emmett Hall, who helped forge Medicare, and Cree activist John Tootoosis (1983). There was generally a closing banquet with keynote speakers from the non-academic world, including Tommy Douglas (1979) and Roy Romanow (1983). Many of the conferences had broad and sweeping themes with the goal of deepening understanding of the West while challenging assumptions and stereotypes. David Bercuson explained in his introduction to the fifth conference that the goal was to demonstrate that the West was both ancient and modern. The region had a long history of “civilization” that began with its Native people and involved more than just the French and the British, as it was built by people of much more varied ethnicities. Nor was it a rural backwater that could be ignored. The region had been urbanized since the late nineteenth century, and its metropolitan centres were among the largest in Canada. Other conferences focused on more specialized themes: the fourth (1972) on “The Unknown Decade: The Twenties in Western Canada”; the “One Century Later” conference in 1977 mentioned above; the eleventh (1979) on the “Dirty Thirties in Prairie Canada”; the twelfth (1980) on “The New Provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan,” an event coinciding with the seventy-fifth anniversaries of those provinces; and the 1983 conference on “The Making of the Modern West: Western Canada Since 1945.”

Attendance waxed and waned due to many factors. While the 1977 “One Century Later” gathering had more than five hundred delegates, the conference the year before had only sixty-three formally registered though many more attended the free sessions.12 The low attendance in 1976 was apparently due to declining financial support, as travel grants could no longer be offered. But it was reported at the business meeting that the University of Calgary would increase its support if other funding failed. This must have happened, as the conference was once again on solid ground the next year.

An important legacy of the conferences is the fourteen volumes of papers that were very quickly produced, edited, and given introductions, mainly by the University of Calgary historians.13 A historiographical analysis of these would be a worthwhile and interesting project. The topics were diverse but there was a heavy emphasis on political history and the agricultural settlement era. Women’s history first emerged in the 1976 volume of the eighth conference, with Sheilagh S. Jameson’s “Women in the Southern Alberta Ranch Community, 1881–1914.” Women presenters were relatively few, but they gained momentum. Patricia Roy of the University of Victoria appears to have led the way with her paper at the 1972 gathering on “The Oriental ‘Menace’ in British Columbia.” At the time of the 1984 conference, held at the University of Victoria, on “The Forgotten Majority: A Conference on Canadian Rural History,” papers were given by Eliane Leslau Silverman, Nancy M. Sheehan, and Cecilia Danysk. Susan Trofimenkoff was the only woman to edit a volume of conference papers. These publications ended in 1993 with the volume edited by R.C. Macleod, Swords and Ploughshares: War and Agriculture in Western Canada. The volumes as a whole constitute a remarkable record of these gatherings. As Anthony Rasporich wrote in his introduction to The Making of the Modern West from the 1983 conference: “From their very inception a decade and a half ago, the Western Canadian Studies Conferences have made a considerable contribution to mapping the historical landscape of the terra incognita of the western interior of Canada.… When one thinks of the mindscape of the West before this enterprise began in 1968 [sic] and its strong self-consciousness today, it is to some degree a reflection on the willing efforts of western academics, writers and thinkers who have sown and reaped a bountiful crop.”14

Organizers of the 2008 Western Canadian Studies meeting thought that it was time for a new crop of academics, writers, and thinkers to rise up, evaluate, and appraise the state of Western Canadian history, acknowledging and assessing the contributions of historians of the past and present while at the same time showcasing the research interests of the next generation. The meeting was meant to encourage a dialogue among generations of historians of the West and among practitioners of diverse approaches to the past. It was hoped that such a meeting would facilitate conversations across disciplinary and professional boundaries.

The field of Western Canadian history has expanded in multiple directions in the last twenty-five years. New histories of the West emphasize its diverse social landscape. Reflecting interdisciplinary approaches, these histories stress plural perspectives, inequality, relationships of power, human agency, and the environment. Recent histories have uncovered both the ancient and modern history of the region, moving beyond an emphasis on the settlement era. Themes of memory and commemoration—how we have constructed our visions and myths of the West—have been explored by a new generation of scholars. Influenced by developments in the field nationally and internationally, recent histories of Western Canada draw on postmodern, cultural, feminist, environmental, and post-colonial approaches, methods, and theories. The conference organizers felt it was time to pause and take stock of this energetic and imaginative range of scholarly activity; as this collection attests, the field of Western Canadian history has stretched its reach in a number of different directions.

While developing the conference, the organizers felt it was important to include a wide variety of people and opinions with the goal of hosting a conference that reflected the interests and perspectives of those in the field. This engagement was initiated in the winter term of 2007, when more than one hundred scholars active in the field of Western Canadian history were asked about the possibility of reviving the Western Canadian Studies Conference series. They were also asked what the main purpose and objectives of such a meeting should be. This initial email was followed by a very lively gathering at the Saskatoon meeting of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in June 2007. In both instances, tremendous support was expressed for the concept and the timely need for such a conference. The organizers learned about the areas of research the responders wished to see explored, and these were reflected in the meeting. Respondents also made known the distinct need to assess the historiographical development of the field. In addition, they urged the conference organizers to recognize a number of new fields in the scholarship, including the social and physical diversity of the West, memory and commemoration, environmental history, medical history, and the development of the modern, post-World War II West. As a result of our consultations, organizers decided not to define the West and not to limit the West to Prairie Canada, but rather to recognize multiple Wests and to include British Columbia, northern Ontario, Northern Canada, and the borderlands with the United States. These choices led to a wide range of presentations that attempted to define their “West” in a number of innovative and exciting ways; the editors are pleased that the collection reflects this variety.

The conference was designed to assess the work of historians past and present, and to showcase the work of a new generation of scholars. Our plenary session speakers—Adele Perry, Lyle Dick, and Gerald Friesen—addressed the overarching historiography of the West. Two of their papers have been collected for this publication, and all of their presentations are available as pod-casts (https://digiport.athabascau.ca/wcsc). A number of specialized panels of established and emerging scholars were also initiated to address major historio-graphical themes and developments.15 These were an outstanding success, and a number of their presentations have been collected as podcasts and as papers for this publication. Of particular note is the roundtable discussion “‘Settlement’—An Environmental History Perspective,” sponsored by the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). The discussion, hosted by NiCHE and available as a podcast,16 provides a critical examination of the term settlement when considering the populating of the West. NiCHE also hosted a number of the other conference presentations related to environmental history that offer an important window into the development of the field within a Western Canadian context. Other panels provided a rich and wide sampling of the depth and diversity of the new and exciting research, and many of these are available as podcasts on the Western Canadian Studies Conference website or as articles in this collection.17

The conference also provided an opportunity to evaluate the importance of Western universities in fostering the development of the field. The year 2008 marked the centennial of the University of Alberta, which has been an important centre for the teaching, mentoring, and writing of Western Canadian history. In the session of 1949–50, Lewis G. Thomas introduced a course on the history of Western Canada, which was for many years the only such course at any university in Canada. Generations of Alberta undergraduates learned of their own history through this course. Thomas was also an important mentor to many of the most distinguished scholars in the field, including the late John Foster, Sylvia Van Kirk, Frits Pannekoek, T.D. Regehr, David Breen, and others. The importance of Thomas’ scholarship and mentorship was recounted in a keynote presentation given by one of his most accomplished and respected students, R.C. Macleod. The presentation provided Macleod with an opportunity to recognize and assess Thomas’ achievements and the important role of the University of Alberta’s history department in shaping our understanding of the history of Western Canada. The presentation has been brought into the public realm as a podcast accessible on the Western Canadian Studies Conference website.18

The conference organizers also felt that the meeting should recognize more than the contributions made by academic historians. A number of sessions were therefore organized to consider the important role that public history has played in the development of the field, with a particular focus on the role of public historians, institutions, discourses, and writers. These sessions culminated with the performance of Catherine Cole, Maria Dunn, and Don Bouzek at the Royal Alberta Museum. Taking the closure of the Great West Garment Company as their subject, the performers were able to effectively demonstrate the power of a story in the hands of artists with a historical conscience. Together, these presentations offer an important perspective that, as Lyle Dick’s article suggests, is too often forgotten in the academic discipline of history. In this vein, the editors are pleased that they are able to make such a large volume of the material produced at the conference public through the Athabasca University’s Open Access model. As the digital landscape expands opportunities to disseminate information, it is important that scholars—privileged in their seats of authority—do all they can to make the information they produce as accessible as possible. In this way, they will demonstrate their relevance and continue to make important contributions to the public discourse. The conference organizers, contributors, and editors are excited that Athabasca University Press has provided them with this opportunity.

Finally, the editors hope that the collected material and published collection of papers will make an important contribution to scholarship within the region. They hope the forum will help to revitalize and expand the field and bring together a new generation of scholars—both actually and virtually—who can share and build on each other’s work.

Our collection begins with three introductory essays that develop themes discussed in keynote addresses at the conference. Gerald Friesen’s “Critical History in Western Canada, 1900–2000” outlines five broad stages of scholarly writing on the Canadian West. Beginning with a concentration on the achievement of self-government before World War I, regional history shifted to an interwar focus on the West as a hinterland of Central Canada. After the war, Central Canadian influence in the region was treated more critically, and greater emphasis was placed on alleged regional particularities. A fourth stage, beginning in 1968, rejected much earlier writing as too concerned with regional elites and turned the spotlight to social history, placing women, Aboriginals, workers, and immigrants at the forefront. A fifth stage, beginning about 1989, treated the notion of regions as problematic and tended to locate both the social and political histories of Western Canada within global developments and to view them through the lens of postmodernist discourse.

Lyle Dick’s essay, “Vernacular Currents in Western Canadian Historiography: The Passion and Prose of Katherine Hughes, F.G. Roe, and Roy Ito,” argues that non-scholarly historians were providing some voice for non-elites in the period when scholarly historians narrowly focused on elites and their various nation-building and region-building agendas. Archivist Hughes’ biography of Father Lacombe included the Aboriginal response to the nation-building plans of the Canadian elites. Farmer and worker Roe challenged “expert” claims that Aboriginal people had hunted the buffalo to near-extinction, while Ito’s work on Japanese Canadians who served during two world wars gave direct voice to internees, furnishing a challenge to official scholarship that had justified the evacuation of the Japanese from their coastal homes in 1942.

Winona Wheeler’s essay, “Cree Intellectual Traditions in History,” explores the persistence of oral history traditions in defining Cree identity. Just as Dick demonstrates that non-academics assembled evidence that provided perspectives that challenged conservative, elitist social constructions espoused by early professional historians of Western Canada, Wheeler asserts the importance of history recognizing “other ways of knowing,” including the Aboriginal oral methods. “Accuracy, precision and procedural protocols,” she notes, rather than anecdote, characterize the work of the Elders responsible for transmission of the stories of the people.

Part 2 of The West and Beyond examines ways in which both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have attempted to portray the millennia-long history of Aboriginal people in the West and their interaction with non-Aboriginal people. Matt Dyce and James Opp study the gaze of the European newcomers on Aboriginal people. That gaze shifted over time, as their study of two early Edmonton professional photographers and their work in the Athabasca-Mackenzie River Basin suggests. Both Charles W. Mathers, the dean of Edmonton photographers, and his successor, Ernest Brown, were mainly interested in Natives only to the extent of their compatibility with the changing economic order represented by colonialism. Mathers initially photographed what he viewed as ethnographic portraits of traditional Aboriginal people, but later fastened on the development of the resource economy, portraying Aboriginal people as labourers along the river system whose work was helping to shape an emerging capitalist economy. Brown went further in subordinating the place of Aboriginal people within the territories that they had long inhabited, giving only circumscribed roles to Natives and the Hudson’s Bay Company with which they had long traded. Northern river systems, so important to Mathers, largely vanished in favour of Euro-Canadian settlements, with the North reduced to a hinterland of Edmonton and with Aboriginal peoples pushed to the margins of the story of Euro-Canadian economic development that Brown extolled.

Though colonial-minded photographers constructed a new West in which Euro-Canadians dominated while Aboriginal peoples seemed to disappear, Aboriginal peoples in fact persisted. They attempted as best they could to maintain their cultures and underlying beliefs. This often led to conflicts with the colonialist authorities who claimed to govern them. Kathryn McKay traces such conflicts in the area of mental health in her article, “The Kaleidoscope of Madness: Perceptions of Insanity in British Columbia Aboriginal Populations, 1872–1950.” McKay observes that both colonialism and psychiatry embody discourses that label groups and individuals as normal or abnormal. Examining patient files from the Department of Indian Affairs, she demonstrates the ways in which racial constructions were important in the “treatment” that was offered to Aboriginal people. Cultural beliefs at the root of Aboriginal understandings, such as communication with spirits, were labelled signs of madness. The department’s psychiatrists seemed as well to believe that the more Aboriginal blood an individual had, the less likely he or she was to respond to treatments other than long-term institutionalization. Individuals categorized as being mixed-race were more likely to be the subject of aggressive treatments than individuals categorized as fully Aboriginal.

The characterization of Aboriginal lives and Aboriginal spaces as marginal and dangerous continues to the present. Amber Dean reflects on such characterizations in “Space, Temporality, History: Encountering Hauntings in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.” Observing that the so-called Downtown Eastside was Coast Salish territory before the imposition of a colonial regime, she views it in its current form as the continuation of colonized territory. Within its boundaries, many prostitutes from various backgrounds, but with a significant over-representation of Aboriginal women, have gone “missing” and may be presumed to have been murdered. She challenges depictions of the area as a latter-day Western frontier and suggests that there is a clear historical line from colonization to the poverty of the area and the murder of women who have been marginalized, victims of both racial and gender stereotypes.

Finally, this section closes with a story of an Aboriginal woman who was named Calgary Stampede Queen in 1954. Susan Joudrey’s “The Expectations of a Queen: Identity and Race Politics in the Calgary Stampede” traces the story of Evelyn Eagle Speaker, who won the Stampede beauty contest in 1954. Eagle Speaker had entered the contest in an effort to combat stereotypes of Native people as uneducated and unwilling to contribute to Canadian economic development. A high school graduate and experienced rancher, Eagle Speaker was embraced by the five Treaty 7 Southern Alberta Nations, who named her “Princess Wapiti” and sponsored her entry into the Stampede contest. While Eagle Speaker won, discussions in the media during and after the contest indicated how difficult it was for many non-Aboriginals to accept her self-depiction as both a proud Aboriginal and a cowgirl. Questions of whether this beauty queen should be attired in Native or cowgirl garb filled newspaper columns and letters to the editor for a considerable period.

If the place of First Nations in the discourse of region and nation has been controversial, so has the place of working people as opposed to the entrepreneurs and farmers that settlement literature has favoured. Part 3 examines “The Workers’ West.” Jeffery Taylor opens the section with “Capitalist Development, Forms of Labour, and Class Formation in Prairie Canada.” Taylor portrays Prairie capitalist development as just one part of the larger development of capitalism in Europe and the colonies of European powers. While the capitalist mode of production co-existed with traditional kin-ordered First Nations economies during the fur trade period, the settlement period marginalized the latter and placed independent commodity production on the farms side by side with capitalist exploitation in the emerging industrial sectors.

Elizabeth Jameson furthers Taylor’s analysis with a comparison of class and labour developments across the U.S.–Canada borders. She notes that workers’ real lives, reflected in migrations, demonstrated the porousness of national and regional borders. Complex economic transformations and the imposition by governments of class, racial, and gender legislation all put restrictions on the possibilities for control over the lives of individual working people, including homemakers. Overarching theories such as Turner’s frontier theory (in the U.S.) and Innis’ staples theory (in Canada) fail to explain most things about the real lives of people in either country. We need to explore more of their individual stories and to expand our paradigms rather than our myths.

Esyllt Jones provides one such paradigm in her exploration of “Disease as Embedded Praxis: Epidemics, Public Health, and Working-Class Resistance in Winnipeg, 1906–19.” While public health authorities, reinforcing elite ideology, claimed that disease was common in working-class quarters because of lack of cleanliness on the part of working-class families, the trade union movement, representing workers, argued that low wages leading to poor housing and nutrition lead to weakened working-class bodies. Workers’ desire for some measure of freedom from interfering authorities sometimes led to anti-vaccination campaigns but also to demands for a fairer distribution of wealth. The higher death rate among working people during the 1918–19 influenza epidemic heightened class conflict.

In 1919 Winnipeg’s workers launched a general strike that spread to many cities across the country. John Willis examines a previously unexamined group of strikers, Winnipeg’s postal workers, and uncovers the extent to which these workers challenged management’s right to set work rules. The strikers proposed their own rules for sorting and delivering the mail in order to create greater equity among workers. The federal government responded by dismissing the most militant workers and asserting its right to impose whatever work regime it wanted.

Part Four examines the efforts of other marginalized groups to challenge regional and national narratives that excluded them. Dan Cui and Jennifer Kelly analyze an African-Canadian newspaper column that appeared at various times in the 1920s in both Edmonton daily newspapers. Called “Our Negro Citizens,” the column provides, according to these authors, “an example of everyday citizenship practices.” The elite members of the African-Canadian community who wrote this column used it to counter dominant negative stereotypes of African Canadians as violent and lazy. As Evelyn Eagle Speaker attempted for Aboriginal communities, they tried to focus on community members who were educated and making a contribution to society. The focus on “racial uplift,” while conservative and tending to downplay the impact of racism on creating social justice, co-existed with efforts in the column to fight systemic discrimination, appealing to readers’ notions of Canadian justice and fair play.

Another submerged group that gradually emerged from the shadows of illegality to demand justice and fair play were gays and lesbians, whose presence has until recently been barely mentioned in a Western Canadian historical tradition that tends to assume universal heterosexuality. Valerie Korinek’s “A Queer-Eye View of the Prairie” attempts to reorient Western Canada’s history, especially its urban history, to make it more inclusive. She traces the efforts by gays, lesbians, and transgendered people to carve out spaces for themselves, sometimes simply as quiet couples or as participants in gay social clubs, but also sometimes as gay activists. While homosexuals, like heterosexuals, were divided by class and race and did not create homogeneous cultural communities, the lives and communities that they created help to nuance the stereotype of Prairie families as uniformly heterosexual and nuclear.

Dominique Clément’s article places the gradual acceptance of difference in Western Canada in long-term perspective with his outline of the emergence of human rights law in British Columbia, emphasizing its impact on sexual discrimination in the province. In the period before human rights legislation was introduced in British Columbia, employers freely and habitually discriminated against women in employment in every imaginable way. But the introduction of legislation that would protect women from discrimination occurred quite unevenly, benefitting from New Democratic Party periods in government and then becoming gradually unravelled each time conservative parties took office. Throughout, suggests Clément, a focus on individual rights as opposed to systemic discrimination placed limits on the efficacy of the “human rights state” in creating greater social equality.

Part Five turns to critical pieces on “Cultural Portrayals of the West.” Robert Wardhaugh looks at writer Margaret Laurence and historian W.L. Morton as representatives, albeit with views at variance on many subjects, of small-town mid-twentieth century white Anglo-Canadian southwestern Manitoba. Both focused on the region of the mind that constituted the authentic expression of Prairie culture for them. For Morton, that culture, while resisting control by Central Canada, was British and agricultural, and immigrants troubled him when they did not sufficiently assimilate into WASP Prairie culture. Laurence both embraced and critiqued that culture but gave a special place in her thoughts and writing to Aboriginal culture, particularly that of the Métis. Both, however, were united in their devotion to views of region that accord with the third phase of Prairie historical writing observed by Gerald Friesen.

At a more local level and in a limited era, Lauren Wheeler pinpoints one variant of a WASP-identified West in “The Banff Photographic Exchange: Albums, Youth, Skiing, and Memory Making in the 1920s.” Photographic collections document identity formation and the coming of age of WASP middle-class boys in Banff as they took up skiing, and their later introduction of the sport to their girlfriends and wives.

Robyn Read finds a somewhat broader notion of Prairie culture in “Eric Harvie: Without and Within Robert Kroetsch’s Alibi.” Harvie’s desire to collect artifacts of interest knew no bounds, and the regional museum that he founded, the Glenbow, became a repository for his multi-themed collections. In turn, Kroetsch, while focused on Prairie individuals and landscape, creates “carnivalesque fictions” that collect fragments of lives and events, and avoid boundaries, both territorial and mental.

The book ends with a consideration of what is deemed to have sufficient “cultural significance” to result in preservation of historic sites and events. Focusing on Saskatchewan, Bruce Dawson’s “‘It’s a Landmark in the Community’: The Conservation of Historic Places in Saskatchewan, 1911–2009” traces the determination of landmarks in that province from a decision to preserve Saskatoon’s initial school rather than tear it down in 1911 through to recent provincial programs that involve both provincial and municipal authorities, along with community groups, in deciding which sites will be constituted as heritage sites and preserved. As Dawson suggests, values and power relationships are reflected both in decisions about what to preserve and what not to preserve and in the rationalizations given for these decisions. *


1 Ian A.L. Getty and Donald B. Smith, eds., One Century Later: Western Canadian Reserve Indians Since Treaty 7 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1978).

2 Ibid., xi–xii.

3 A collection of papers from this conference was to have appeared in the Journal of Canadian Studies, but this did not materialize due to factors beyond the control of the journal, so there are few traces of this conference.

4 Examples of the conferences held on the West from the mid 1980s include the CCF–NDP history conference held in Saskatoon (1983); the Winnipeg General Strike conference (1984); “1885 and After” held at the University of Saskatchewan (1985), and a conference held later that year, also on the theme of 1885, at the University of Alberta; the 1991 symposium of the Women and History Association of Saskatchewan and Alberta (WASH); “The Canadian Cowboy,” held at the Glenbow Museum, Calgary (1997); and “Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West through Women’s History,” held at the University of Calgary (2002). Organizing for the 2005 centennials of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan likely dissipated the energy of those who worked on the earlier conferences. A 1987 conference in Red Deer on the Alberta centennial was organized to put in place plans for research and publication for the centennial. The focus on provinces led to a decline of a broader regional perspective. In 2001 a “Centenary Symposium on the Labour Movement in Saskatchewan” was held at the University of Regina, and in 2002, there was another “Centenary Symposium on the Labour Movement in Saskatchewan” held at the University of Regina. From the mid 1980s, the Centre for Rupert’s Land Studies of the University of Winnipeg held bi-annual symposiums on fur trade-era history.

5 Robert Wardhaugh, ed., Toward Defining the Prairies: Region, Culture and History (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2001); Alison Calder and Robert Wardhaugh, eds., History, Literature and the Writing of the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2005); Len Kuffert, ed., The Prairies Lost and Found (Winnipeg: St. John’s College Press, 2007).

6 See, for example, Catherine Cavanaugh and Jeremy Mouat, eds., Making Western Canada: Essays on European Colonization and Settlement (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1996); R. Douglas Francis and Chris Kitzan, eds., The Prairie West as Promised Land (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2007).

7 A.W. Rasporich and H.C. Klassen, eds., Prairie Perspectives 2 (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), 1.

8 “Notes and Correspondence,” Saskatchewan History 20, no. 1 (Winter 1967): 40.

9 David P. Gagan, “Preface,” in Prairie Perspectives, ed. David P. Gagan (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), iv. David P. Gagan is described as the “founder” by Rasporich and Klassen in their introduction to Prairie Perspectives 2, p. 1.

10 Ibid., 3.

11 David Jay Bercuson, ed., Western Perspectives 1 (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974).

12 Keith Stotyn, “Western Canadian Studies Conference 1976,” Archivaria 1976, 79–80.

13 Gagan, Prairie Perspectives; Rasporich and Klassen, Prairie Perspectives 2; Susan Trofimenkoff, ed., The Twenties in Western Canada (Ottawa: National Museum of Man, 1972); Bercuson, Western Perspectives 1 (1974); A.W. Rasporich, ed. Western Canada: Past and Present (Calgary: McClelland and Stewart West,1975); Henry C. Klassen, ed., The Canadian West: Social Change and Economic Development (Calgary: Comprint Publishing Company, 1977); Getty and Smith, One Century Later (1977); Howard Palmer, ed. The Settlement of the West (Calgary: Comprint Publishing Company, 1977); David Jay Bercuson and Philip A. Buckner, eds., Eastern and Western Perspectives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981); R.D. Francis and H. Ganzevoort, eds., The Dirty Thirties in Prairie Canada (Vancouver: Tantalus Research, 1980); Howard Palmer and Donald B. Smith, eds., The New Provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan, 1905–1980 (Vancouver: Tantalus Research, 1980); A.W. Rasporich, ed. The Making of the Modern West: Western Canada Since 1945 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1984); R.C. Macleod, ed., Swords and Ploughshares: War and Agriculture in Western Canada (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1993).

14 Rasporich, Making of the Modern West.

15 Panels were specifically solicited on the topics of politics, women and gender, Aboriginal history, ethnicity and immigration, social class, borderlands and comparative, environmental history, and African-Canadian history.

16 https://niche.uwo.ca/audio-video/wcsc2008.

17 https://digiport.athabascau.ca/wcsc.

18 Ibid.


Part One

Frameworks for Western Canadian History

Critical History in Western Canada 1900–2000


This essay deals with the development of a professional historians’ canon, one associated with publishing about, and university teaching in, Western Canada, and it relates this story to changing cultural perspectives. Its focus is the historical writing that, as Carl Berger defined it, broke the “traditional patterns of interpretation.”1 It suggests that, on the prairies, the traditional patterns have been challenged and supplemented five times in the course of one hundred years and that a comprehensive regional cultural history would have to take these five shifts in perspective into account.

A list of the founders of critical history as a discipline in Western Canadian universities must include Chester Martin (who joined the University of Manitoba in 1909), Arthur Silver Morton (Saskatchewan, 1914), A.L. Burt (Alberta, 1913), and Walter Sage (British Columbia, 1918). Though a case can be made for the historians of the nineteenth century as founders of the discipline in the region, including George Bryce of Manitoba and Judge F.W. Howay of British Columbia, they were closer to nineteenth-century amateur than twentieth-century professional in terms of research effort, scholarly documentation, and attention to broader schools of interpretation. Martin, Morton, Burt, and Sage were pioneers. Each commenced his training before the First World War, each contributed important books that discussed the Western past, and each stood out in his respective province for his institutional contributions, including teaching in the schools, the development of archival collections, and the founding of provincial historical societies and university history clubs.2

A second step in Western historical writing connects the twenties, the thirties, and the Second World War. The important histories published by this interwar generation concerned forests, mines, grain, and immigration, and were written by such famous academics as Frank Underhill, Harold Innis, Arthur Lower, J.B. Brebner, and S.D. Clark. The era also encompassed the planning (not the execution, in which the many volumes varied enormously in approach and interpretation) of four important publishing projects: the Frontiers of Settlement series, the Carnegie series on Canadian–American relations, the studies commissioned by the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations, and the Social Credit in Alberta series. In this period, Underhill was interested in protest movements, Innis addressed the export of staples, and Clark, a father of Canadian sociology, linked those two stories (political protest and staple economies) by suggesting that “new forms of economic enterprise” imposed stresses, social and political, upon frontier regions.3 These various scholarly enterprises undertaken between the end of the First World War and the end of the Second World War continued the political themes set out in the preceding generation, but, not surprisingly given the events of this quarter-century, they emphasized that the physical environment and economic forces shaped human action. For example, Carl Dawson’s important volume on immigrant groups implies that those groups could be placed on a gradient running from isolation to assimilation and suggested that ethnic bloc settlements, such as the Mennonite and Doukhobor, would move quickly from the former to the latter as the economy, the state, and communication technology consolidated a Prairie Canadian way of life.4

This era’s historiography has sometimes been associated with the frontier theory, but as Jeremy Mouat and Elizabeth Jameson have argued, F.J. Turner was not central to professional writing about the Canadian Prairie past. (Walter Sage in British Columbia and Burt in Alberta had a different view.)5 W.A. Mackintosh’s historical writings, Innis’s emphasis on staples, and the Canadian interest in the metropolitan side of the story were more important in Western academics’ thought. And George Stanley’s frontier in The Birth of Western Canada was “not so much a Turnerian frame of reference,” Carl Berger cautioned, “as an imperial one that compared the destruction of Métis society with the fate of other peoples who unsuccessfully resisted the march of white civilization in Africa and Australia.”6

The Second World War, like the first, constituted a profound challenge to Canadian scholars. That crisis drove the historiographical reorientation that occurred in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Innis, Underhill, Lower, and Clark addressed new topics, none directly related to the West. And in history, new institutional leaders in each of the Western provinces—W.L. Morton in Manitoba, L.H. Thomas in Saskatchewan, L.G. Thomas in Alberta, and Margaret Ormsby in British Columbia—directed their discipline along a new path. Morton has received the lion’s share of attention, due in part to Berger’s decision to devote a chapter to Morton’s work in The Writing of Canadian History.7 The Manitoba historian would have been quick to reply that this was an achievement of many, not one. Among the scholars in related disciplines who contributed to local historical study in the post-war decades were Vernon C. Fowke, a distinguished member of the so-called Saskatchewan school of economics; geographers in each university (Tom Weir, J.H. Richards, William C. Wonders, J. Lewis Robinson); political scientists (Murray Donnelly, Evelyn Eager, J.R. Mallory, C.B. MacPherson); sociologists (S.M. Lipset, Forrest LaViolette, Stuart Jamieson); anthropologists (W.J. Mayer-Oakes, Wilson Duff); and even psychologists (John Irving) and students of literature (E.A. McCourt, George Woodcock, Chester Duncan).8 The regional history movement also included students of local societies located in other parts of Canada, ranging from J.M. Beck and Stewart MacNutt in the Maritimes to Maurice Careless in Ontario.

Eric Hobsbawm suggests that the events of the late 1960s, notably in 1968, marked a turning point in world history, not because of their immediate political impact but because of the cultural changes that the popular uprisings in Europe and North America helped to consolidate.9 His statement deserves attention in Canada because the “new” history—social history, mainly—which reached the peak of its influence in the next twenty years, began for Canadians in the late 1960s. It encompassed what Berger described as a “vast expansion” in the number of Canadian academic historians, an “explosion of research and publications,” and “new fashions” in historical writing.10 It was accompanied by an initial boom in university hiring and enrolment, another boom in book publishing, yet another in the founding and expansion of university presses, and still another in spending on libraries, museums, and archives.11 New subfields emerged—led in the 1970s by urban history, labour history, ethnic history, and most of all, Aboriginal history—with their own journals, conferences, and, it seemed, infinite futures.

Historians’ worlds changed again around the beginning of the 1990s. The collapse of the communist bloc, the birth of the Web, and the rise of North American academic interest in the postmodern were markers of a cultural shift between the late 1980s and the end of the millennium.12 In Canada, the absence of new university and public history appointments constituted a crisis of a different kind. Graduate students continued to enrol, theses and articles were written, but the conferences and the social connections gradually declined in number and creativity. Historians had to regroup under the pressure of the new ways. They were fewer in number and they were being recruited for legal work by Aboriginal, environmental and city planning interests while simultaneously dealing with their colleagues’ insistence that they decentre their interpretive language, abandon metanarratives and essentialist categories, acknowledge the instability of boundaries by moving beyond the national to the global, and re-think such basic terms as gender, race, space, the state, the body, and identity.13

What does a cultural history of these five generations look like? The founders such as Burt and Martin were outsiders who moved west to take jobs and develop a discipline. The vantage point from which they surveyed the Canadian West was London, Oxford, or Edinburgh, where their understanding of the discipline was established. Their conceptual tools were empirical, their questions political. The flaw they perceived in the writings of the previous generation, an error that the Great War group aimed to correct, was amateurism. They resolved to undertake more extensive research in primary sources and to look more rigorously at the documentary record. In terms of cultural outlook, Burt, Martin, Sage, and A.S. Morton belonged to Careless’ Britannic School and, in the case of Burt and Martin, to Berger’s category of historians preoccupied by Canada’s achievement of self-government.14

The interwar histories were written by Canadians whose vantage point was Toronto and whose conceptual tools were rooted in economics. The flaw they perceived in the work of their predecessors was an excessive preoccupation with Britain and with the British system of government. These interwar historians sought to establish the material foundations of a national society. The key to understanding their cultural location was that they treated the West as a hinterland, a receiving vessel for outside influences, rather than as a pattern-maker that would create its own history.

Many of the post-1945 generation were born in the West and spent their careers there. Their vantage point was located within the territory, often in rural communities. They knew the local leadership and respected local people. The excess or flaw they saw in the work of their predecessors was its Central Canadian, centralizing bias. Their conceptual tools were increasingly drawn from a range of social science disciplines. Their achievement, as Berger asserted about Morton (but the judgment applies to many), was to see the West and the nation as equally prominent in their lives and to find a means of expressing this dual loyalty.15

The post-1968 social histories were also written by academics who had grown up in the West. These scholars sought to write history “from the bottom up.” Like their predecessors, their vantage point was located within the region, but they chose to situate themselves outside privileged circles. The flaw they saw in the work of the post-1945 group was its elitism and its England-centred social outlook. Their goal was to develop the points of view of the less powerful in society, including ethnic groups, Aboriginal people, or the working class and, by the 1980s, women. Their models included a wide variety of social histories that drew upon Marxist, literary, and anthropological traditions.16 They believed that writing the history of the region and its less-privileged peoples would, in and of itself, contribute to a richer nation-state. Their intellectual mooring was the concept of “limited identities,”17 a term developed by Ramsay Cook and Maurice Careless to encapsulate the belief that Canada’s identity lay in the absence of a uniform national identity—what Joe Clark later described as a “community of communities.” These post-1968 social historians recognized that the Western Canadian economy remained small, open, resource-based, and export-oriented. And many among them believed that, because the West was still subject to sharp fluctuations in the production of and demand for its primary products, the periodic outbursts of regional protest—now renamed “Western alienation”—were justifiable responses to Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy and its offspring. These views spawned debates that continued through the 1980s on the role of the market in the allocation of resources and the fate of communities.18

The writers of the post-1989 publications belonged to yet another cultural age. Their ideal vantage point was perhaps a satellite looking down on the earth that enabled them to see all human activity and environmental change as one. Their predecessors’ flaw, they might say, was to observe the world from within the confines of the region and the nation-state, and thus to slight the international dimensions of their society.19 When post-1989ers looked at language, social relations, and individual identity, they saw instability, contingency, and deception. They sought to identify what was similar in imperial and state-driven and identity-forming experience among the peoples of the world.20 Their goal, like their predecessors, was to talk on the same plane and in the same terms as colleagues around the world. But their emphasis on such approaches as the post-colonial and the feminist, and on such themes as race and gender and borderlands, seemed to threaten the very “regions” that had been developed in the four previous generations of critical history.

Though the post-1989 approaches reduce the importance of Western Canadian or Prairie regional history, they do not make it irrelevant. Rather, the new themes place greater emphasis upon the scale of our analysis, as Richard White has suggested, and multiply the range of scales—local, regional, national, global—that must be considered as we define our topics.21 One example of region’scontinued relevance lies in the history of immigration to the Prairies. In the mid-twentieth century, newcomers from Europe settled in Prairie cities where they encountered two regionally distinctive groups of Canadians: migrants fleeing rural areas whose families had been in Canada for several generations and “established Canadians,” British in ethnicity, who had been accustomed to setting the cultural tone of the community. The negotiations undertaken by these three population fractions in the burgeoning Prairie cities constituted an important chapter in the story of a Prairie regional culture and resulted in the creation of a “Nordic prairie” cultural synthesis. The following two or three decades encompassed another immigration wave, this time from the global South, and another rural-to-urban migration, this time of Aboriginal people. These two groups encountered a third social type in Prairie cities, a quite different host than the one that had met their mid-century counterparts: the “Nordic prairie” host society, having coalesced in the previous generation, now greeted newcomers with more inclusive institutions and more ambitious multicultural ideals. The three groups’ adaptations after 1968 did not eliminate racism, did not end gender issues, did not transcend global communication developments, but they did suggest why such themes—race, gender, culture—drawn from “world history” found resonance in a Prairie Canadian “regional” historical writing.22

The foregoing is structured in terms of generations of historians for purposes of clarity, but the image is misleading. Really these are five distinct conceptual languages, each of which, once introduced, survived in a wide range of historical works published in later decades. Most are still in use, sometimes to great effect, sometimes only to elaborate on conventional wisdom. Recognizing this continuity, Lyle Dick has suggested that professional history operates in sedimentary layers and that eventually its interpretations compress even outright error and prejudice into bedrock.23 And he is right to say that a deeply rooted and implicitly racist narrative such as the so-called Seven Oaks massacre, as it was recounted between 1900 and the 1950s, is difficult to dislodge from its position as a historical “truth.” But the emergence of five distinct analytical patterns during the course of the twentieth century suggests that new conceptual frameworks do challenge the old and may, given time, even replace or at the least recast some of the inherited stories.

The hostility that sometimes erupts between professional and popular historians has its roots in the contrast between old and new conceptual languages. Thus, when Peter C. Newman used crude terms to describe Aboriginal women in the fur trade, he was roundly criticized by scholars who viewed his descriptions as unacceptable. Yet it is well known that scholarly books languish in academic libraries while their apparent competitors—Newman, Bruce Hutchison, James Gray, Pierre Berton, J.G. McGregor, Grant MacEwan, and George Bowering, among others—sweep the prizes and reap the rewards accompanying higher sales figures. The academics’ seeming marginalization might prompt them to doubt the relevance of scholarly research, but the preceding history of the canon suggests one additional observation. Scholars have learned to write more effectively, to assess the present and to anticipate the future more convincingly, through contact with international historical and social science publications and increasingly global conceptual languages. And the finest works in their field, such as A.J. Ray’s contributions to our understanding of Aboriginal history, have demonstrated the worth of truly innovative scholarship.24

This conclusion would not be complete without a word of caution. We might recall Carl Berger’s closing shot at the new social historians in the 1986 edition of his landmark history of English-Canadian historical writing: “Of only one thing we may be certain: in time the new history will experience the same fate as the old history, for Clio is still an inspiring muse but she has the alarming habit of devouring those who respond to her charms.”25 Berger’s comment offers a dash of cold water while underlining that historians should approach their predecessors with humility. Understanding of the human condition changes continuously and so does the language in which it is expressed. The relatively long-lasting issues addressed by today’s historians—modes and relations of production, sexual difference and sexuality, colonialism, the nation-state, the environment, the body—endure for a good reason: citizens have not finished debating their meaning and their proper place. Contemporary historians may make lasting contributions to public understanding through their original research and through their understanding of the changing language of scholarship. Nevertheless, they have to accept that their works, in turn, will at best become part of the historical canon. Image


1 Carl Berger, The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing Since 1900, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), ix. When addressing historians’ “search for fresh perspectives” in the 1940s and 1950s, Berger wrote: “It was typical of the subtlety of the reorientation of the forties and early fifties that [J.M.S.] Careless could, in 1954, restate in language appropriate to his generation one of the central arguments of the historians of the twenties: that the pragmatic temper of the Canadian character and the national habit of compromise and maintaining opposites in balance implied certain qualifications for a fruitful participation in international affairs” (177–78). Berger’s The Writing of Canadian History is a superb study: deeply researched, judicious, and perceptive. It serves as the guide and foundation for all that follows.

2 On Morton and archives, see Joan Champ, “Arthur Silver Morton and His Role in the Founding of the Saskatchewan Archives Board,” Archivaria 32 (September 1991): 101–13; Arthur S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West to 1870–71 (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1939). The nineteenth-century origins of Prairie historical writing are discussed in Doug Owram, Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West 1856–1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980); L.G. Thomas, “Historiography of the Fur Trade Era” and T.D. Regehr, “Historiography of the Canadian Plains after 1870,” in A Region of the Mind: Interpreting the Western Canadian Plains, ed. Richard Allen (Regina: Canadian Plains Studies Centre 1973), 73–85 and 87–101; “Introduction,” in Historical Essays on British Columbia, eds. J. Friesen and H. K. Ralston (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976), vii–xxvi; Allan Smith, “The Writing of British Columbia History,” in British Columbia: Historical Readings, eds. W. Peter Ward and Robert A.J. McDonald (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1981), 5–34. Chester Martin, in his work on the long-lasting federal-provincial debate over public land and natural resources, established a Prairie version of national history’s early preoccupation with the growth of self-government. Burt wrote a Prairie history survey for the schools, The Romance of the Prairie Provinces, and civics textbooks for Alberta and Manitoba that combined the history of the British parliamentary system and provincial constitutional principles.

3 Berger, Writing of Canadian History, 164. In Clark’s view, the local version of Social Credit was a typical protest movement of the North American frontier—“intensely localist, separatist, … [seeking] autonomy and withdrawal from the infringements of outside authority.” Ibid., 167.

4 Carl Dawson, Group Settlement: Ethnic Communities in Western Canada (Toronto: Macmillan,1936), 109. A British Columbia volume in the Canadian-American series was F.W. Howay, W.N. Sage, and H.F. Angus, British Columbia and the United States: The North Pacific Slope from Fur Trade to Aviation, ed. H.F. Angus (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1942).

5 Elizabeth Jameson and Jeremy Mouat, “Telling Differences: The Forty-ninth Parallel and Historiographies of the West and Nation,” Pacific Historical Review 75, no. 2 (2006): 183–230; George Stanley, “Western Canada and the Frontier Hypothesis,” Canadian Historical Association Report (1940): 105–14; Morris Zaslow, “The Frontier Hypothesis in Recent Historiography,” Canadian Historical Review 29, no. 2 (1948): 153–67.

6 Berger, Writing of Canadian History, 164, 167, 175. Some popular historians used a simple frontier approach, but the single most important book in that vein was written by Wallace Stegner. His much-acclaimed Wolf Willow relies on the frontier to construct a romantic past but is cruel in its assessment of the frontier’s successor, the small Saskatchewan town. Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (New York: Viking, 1966). See also J.F.C. Wright, Saskatchewan: The History of a Province (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1955), ix–xi. George Stanley’s reflections on the theme, including his definition of A.L. Burt as a Turnerian, are recorded in George Stanley, “The Last Word on Louis Riel—The Man of Several Faces,” in 1885 and After: Native Society in Transition, eds. F. Laurie Barron and James B. Waldram (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1986), 3–22.

7 Berger’s memorable conclusion: Morton’s “major intellectual achievement was … the successful effort to construct a framework and find a vocabulary to convey his attachments to both Canada and the West.” Berger, Writing of Canadian History, 256; W. L. Morton, “Clio in Canada: The Interpretation of Canadian History,” in Contexts of Canada’s Past: Selected Essays of W.L. Morton, ed. A.B. McKillop (Toronto: Macmillan, 1980), 105; originally published in University of Toronto Quarterly 15 (April 1946): 227–34.

8 Robin Neill, “Economic Historiography in the 1950s: The Saskatchewan School,” Journal of Canadian Studies 34, no. 3 (Fall 1999): 243–59. Another disciplinary synthesis was Edward McCourt’s The Canadian West in Fiction (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1949).

9 Eric Hobsbawm, “Reflections on ’68,” New Statesman, 12 May 2008, 33.

10 Carl Berger, “History and Historians,” in The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, ed. Gerald Hallowell (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004), 286–89. The most frequently cited statement of the new age was by J.M.S. Careless, “Limited Identities in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 50, no. 1 (1969): 1–10 and “Limited Identities—Ten Years Later,” Manitoba History 1 (1980), https://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/01/limitedidentities.shtml.

11 “Archives and Social History,” special issue, Archivaria 14 (Summer 1982); Tom Nesmith, ed., Canadian Archival Studies and the Rediscovery of Provenance (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993).

12 Ellen Meiksins Wood, “What is the ‘Postmodern’ Agenda? An Introduction” and Francis Mulhern, “The Politics of Cultural Studies” and Terry Eagleton, “Where Do Postmodernists Come From?” in Monthly Review 47, no. 3 (July–August 1995): 1–12, 31–40, 59–70; Keith Thomas, “Coming to Terms with the Death of Certainty,” Guardian Weekly, 18 September 1994; Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994).

13 One illustration, in addition to the works cited above, is Peter Burke, “Overture: The New History, Its Past and Its Future,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), 1–23.

14 J.M.S. Careless, “Frontierism, Metropolitanism, and Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 35 (1954): 1–21; Berger, Writing of Canadian History, 32–53; Chad Reimer, “The Making of British Columbia History: Historical Writing and Institutions, 1784–1958” (PhD diss., York University, 1995).

15 Berger, Writing of Canadian History, 256.

16 The most complete outline of this literature is the chapter Berger added to the second edition of The Writing of Canadian History, 259–320. Sherry B. Ortner, “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26, no. 1 (January 1984): 126–66. The generation enjoyed closer affiliations because the University of Calgary convened many conferences on Western studies between 1968 and 1984, followed by others (Saskatchewan, Alberta); see “Introduction: Tandem and Tangent,” in Toward Defining the Prairies: Region, Culture, and History, ed. Robert Wardhaugh (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2001), 3–11.

17 Careless, “Limited Identities in Canada.”

18 Ken Norrie’s 1984 essay addressed Alberta’s experience, but its conclusions fit the rest of the West; Ken Norrie, “A Regional Economic Overview of the West Since 1945,” in The Making of the Modern West: Western Canada Since 1945, ed. A.W. Rasporich (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1984), 63–78; Norrie’s earlier article on regional economics was the first entry in that debate: “The National Policy and Prairie Economic Discrimination, 1870–1930,” in Canadian Papers in Rural History, ed. Donald H. Akenson (Gananoque, QC: Langdale Press, 1978), 1:13–32. A note of protest was struck in David Jay Bercuson, ed., Canada and the Burden of Unity (Toronto: Macmillan, 1977). An alternative view, more imbued with social history’s categories, is represented by R. Douglas Francis, “In Search of a Prairie Myth: A Survey of the Intellectual and Cultural Historiography of Prairie Canada” and Douglas Cole, “The Intellectual and Imaginative Development of British Columbia,” Journal of Canadian Studies 24, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 44–69 and 70–79. The market debate became central to the national “free trade” election of 1988.

19 Antoinette Burton, “Who Needs the Nation? Interrogating ‘British’ History,” Journal of Historical Sociology 10, no. 3 (September 1997): 227–48; Adele Perry, “Nation, Empire, and the Writing of History in Canada in English”, in Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, eds. Christopher Dummit and Michael Dawson (London: University of London Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2009) 123–140.

20 Ian McKay, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 4 (December 2000): 617–45, esp. 620.

21 Richard White, “The Nationalization of Nature,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (December 1999): 976–86.

22 Roy Loewen and Gerald Friesen, Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth-century Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

23 Lyle Dick, “The Seven Oaks Incident and the Construction of an Historical Tradition, 1816 to 1970,” in Making Western Canada: Essays on European Colonization and Settlement, eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Jeremy Mouat (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1996), 1–30.

24 Ted Binnema and Susan Neylan, eds. New Histories for Old: Changing Perspectives on Canada’s Native Pasts (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007).

25 Berger, Writing of Canadian History, 320.

Vernacular Currents in Western Canadian Historiography: The Passion and Prose of Katherine Hughes, F.G. Roe, and Roy Ito


“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.”

—E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910)

In a 1985 review article on Gerald Friesen’s The Canadian Prairies and Pierre Berton’s The Promised Land, David C. Jones argued for a new approach to Canadian historiography. Specifically, he called for a fusion of best practices of the genres of academic and popular history, and asked: “What is the scholar’s responsibility to the masses?”2 Jones thereby identified an issue of continuing relevance to our discipline—the relationship between practitioners of history and the people whose history is being represented. Jones was primarily concerned with promoting popular forms of writing, but I would like to focus attention on another important but neglected dimension of historical work over the last century: the vast and undervalued production of vernacular history.

Some clarification of terms is warranted. Over the last century, the term vernacular has held little currency in Canadian historical discourse, consigned largely to such sub-fields as architectural history, classical or medieval disciplines, and folklore studies. However, the term vernacular has experienced a long genealogy, originating with the Latin verna, meaning “home-born slave,” “indigenous,” or “domestic.” As an adjective, it refers to 1) a person “using a native language or dialect of a country or district”; 2) the language or dialect “spoken as the mother tongue by the people of a particular country or district;” 3) a composition “written or spoken in the native language of a country or people”; or 4) an artistic form or feature “native or peculiar to a particular country or locality.”3 In earlier eras, vernacular writing played important and sometimes even dominant roles in the historiography of European countries, especially in France and England in the late medieval period.4 More recently, various cultural theorists have embraced the vernacular in their assorted critiques of modernism, its hierarchies, and its exclusions.5

My use of the phrase vernacular history refers generally to grassroots historical practice in North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as discussed in my 1991 article on the Seven Oaks incident of 1816 and John Bodnar’s application of vernacular culture in his 1992 book on commemoration in the United States.6 Bodnar and I drew similar distinctions between the unofficial or vernacular historical memory of local groups and the official histories sanctioned by the state or established elites. However, we might heed Bennet Schaber’s cautionary advice to avoid characterizing vernacular writing in terms of “traditions.” Schaber prefers the term situation to describe the contexts within which vernacular performance is constituted or sanctioned, and situation seems to better approximate the contingent circumstances within which vernacular historical texts have been produced in Western Canada over the last century.7 These circumstances echo the diverse contexts of vernacular architecture within which local builders in particular situations have confronted the challenge of fashioning usable forms from a limited repertoire of materials, through the application of accumulated experiential knowledge and the practitioners’ capacities for on-the-spot problem solving.8

Yet vernacular historiography does not simply respond to the local but often also borrows from and comments upon the larger scene of historical writing. As the historian Robert Blair St. George has usefully argued, vernacular expressions, while rooted in local knowledge, generate texts derivative of “collisions of imperial interests and autoethnographic resistance.” Drawing inspiration from both macro- and micro-levels of history, vernacular forms are always mixtures, referencing “uneven and uneasy attempts to create artifacts or texts that address simultaneous but divergent social realities.”9 The mixing of forms and genres also characterizes the concept of hybridity as elaborated by the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin.10 Some of the most interesting aspects of vernacular historical production have included its tendency toward formal promiscuity—the sometimes indiscriminate mixing of forms, both the high and the low. Because its practitioners were not schooled in traditions favouring unitary and internally cohesive forms, they were therefore obliged to develop new forms within which to express the diverse strains bearing on their writing. This very tendency toward hybridity is one of the features endowing vernacular production with its continuing resonance and relevance to lived experience and memory.11

Notwithstanding a diversity of practices, forms, and perspectives, practitioners of vernacular history share the common experience of operating outside dominant discourses of power and authority. It must also be acknowledged that vernacular writing does not always run against the grain of prevailing discourses and may incorporate concepts and ideological content derivative of hegemonic forms. In this regard, the sociologists Kent Ono and John Sloop usefully point out that vernacular discourse “is not, by definition, liberatory” and may indeed incorporate conservative or even reactionary elements. However, Ono and Sloop also acknowledge that vernacular discourses “emerge from discussions between members of smaller, self-identified communities within the larger civic community,” …, and as Bakhtin observed, the dialogical character of such interactions ensures that the audience or addressee participates in the production of meaning alongside the nominal author or addressor.12 It is its strong connection to the local that helps ground vernacular writing within the experiential contexts within which it emerges. We might go farther in suggesting that, whether pursuing accommodationist or oppositionist strategies, the marginalized status of vernacular discourse makes it incapable of fully reproducing dominant power relationships. Unschooled to operate comfortably within discursive conventions established according to guild protocols, vernacular practitioners must necessarily draw on their own experience in fashioning their historical works. In this regard, sociologist Richard Harvey Brown usefully distinguishes “official” from “unofficial” history as they relate to two terms: cogency and coercion. In Brown’s formulation, official history has exhibited a high level of inner cogency or coherence, albeit shaped with coercion, while unofficial or folk history “characteristically is highly malleable precisely because its expression has not been rationalized and justified in terms of official canons of reasoning, whatever these may be.”13 By definition a subordinate genre, the vernacular stands outside of or on the margins of the official canon, sometimes merely co-existing in relative obscurity within vernacular domains but on other occasions critiquing and challenging the canon and its claims to dominance.14

Brown’s categorization was earlier anticipated by Bakhtin and members of his circle in several important works on the history of Western discursive forms. In his famous essay “The Epic and the Novel,” Bakhtin identifies two opposing forces in cultural history—a centripetal tendency that he associated with official culture and the contrary centrifugal tendency of unofficial culture.15 As Bakhtin scholars have noted, official forces seek to impose order on an essentially heterogeneous and messy world, while unofficial forces continually disrupt that order.16 The Bakhtin circle also distinguishes between the “linear style” of authoritative discourse and the “pictorial style.” In this schema, authoritative discourse flows from efforts by a group to entrench approved forms of writing by discouraging any tampering or alterations to an approved canon. It seeks to standardize discursive forms to minimize individuality of expression, which might reveal the origins of a work in the specific, and therefore partial or incomplete, experience of the author. Therefore, official forces seek “stylistic homogeneity,” imbuing writing with the impression of authority or universality, and with minimal personalization. By contrast, the pictorial style seeks to maximize personalization by breaking down the boundaries between the reported speech and the speech of the author, calling attention to the relationship of style or form to social realities and attitudes, and enhancing dialogical interaction between speech and its contexts.17 These distinctions also closely correspond to Bakhtin’s important differentiation between monological and dialogical imperatives in writing. Monological, or single-voiced, discourse comprises the forms in which the author’s own voice takes precedence to the exclusion of other voices, while dialogical forms acknowledge a plurality of consciousnesses and perspectives in any given social situation. For Bakhtin, all writing can be placed on a continuum between the absolute monological closure of the traditional epic and the fully dialogized open-endedness of the modern novel, as exemplified in the work of Dostoevsky, in which each character is accorded her or his own authentic voice, unsubordinated by the voice or perspective of the author.18

In the last century, in Western Canada, as throughout Western Europe and North America, vernacular practitioners and associated dialogical forms of writing were marginalized by the rise of the academic discipline, which introduced the new categories of “professional” and “amateur” history, and the associated privileging of professional production in opposition to its amateur counterparts.19 Academic history was constructed through the entrenchment of a series of hierarchies, including, among others, 1) the privileging of written documents over oral testimony, 2) the favouring of scholarly distance over direct experience, and 3) the development of a master narrative of progress to advance the new critical methods of academic historians in opposition to the putative biases of “promoters, patriots, and partisans” in nineteenth-century historiography.20 Other hierarchies flowed from the gender, ethnocultural, and class identifications of members of the historical profession throughout much of the twentieth century. Prior to the advent of social history in the 1970s, most practitioners of scholarly history were male, Euro-Canadian, middle class, and heteronormative in background, and these associations clearly influenced their perspectives on and practice of history. This is not to pursue an essentialist argument that identities rooted in these social categories necessarily predisposed practitioners to particular outlooks. However, current historiography suggests that few professional practitioners departed from the mainstream credo that suffused so much of the academic historical canon during the century following Confederation.21 Not until Gerald Friesen’s The Canadian Prairies: A History in 1984 and Jean Barman’s The West Beyond the West in 1991 was the social history of Aboriginal people, women, and working-class residents of the West significantly acknowledged in synthesis histories.22 For much of the twentieth century, non-mainstream issues in Western Canadian history were either addressed by vernacular or grassroots historians, or not at all.

It might be useful to try to isolate some of the characteristic features of these two major currents in Western Canadian historiography. Academic or scholarly history, which has been dominant since about 1900, has been predominantly deductive in approach to evidence and interpretation. Argument-or thesis-driven, it has usually been based on primary and secondary written sources. Over the last century, academic historians have preferred to write in the third person, expressing a position of detachment from the topic, and in the plain prose style pioneered in scientific writing by Francis Bacon.23 Academic discourse has thereby assumed the removed stance of Antonio Gramsci’s “traditional intellectual,” operating on the assumption that the realm of truth is separated from the world.24 Emphasizing the crafting of syntheses and generalizations from specific examples, these practitioners have preferred to subsume the voices of witnesses or other historical observers under the author’s synthesizing voice. Academic history has been presented in the synchronic (thematic) or diachronic (narrative) temporal modes, and less often in analytic modes. It has tended to be carried out by individual scholars although collaborative research is becoming more common.

By contrast, vernacular history, which was dominant up to about 1900, has historically been largely inductive in its authors’ approaches to evidence gathering and processing. Vernacular histories have also typically lacked a central argument. Like academic history, vernacular history has often been grounded in research in primary oral or written sources, or a combination of the two, but unlike academic history, it has been written in a variety of voices, including first, second, and third person. Vernacular authors have often not displayed scholarly detachment; their writing has tended to be informed by direct experience and animated by a passionate involvement with their subjects of study, more in keeping with Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual.”25 Vernacular writers have resisted synthesis and generalization; rather than integrate other sources into their own arguments, they have often quoted sources at length and displayed the voices and perspectives of witnesses to history for readers to consider and evaluate for themselves. Vernacular history has been presented in narrative, thematic, or analytic modes but has also been cast in idiosyncratic forms. It has sometimes been prepared by individuals but in other cases collaboratively when it has served as a vehicle for the social memory of an ethno-cultural community or other social group. Like scholarly history, vernacular history has included a wide range of practitioners and practices over the last hundred years. Vernacular historians have ranged from community historians to individual scholars to so-called history buffs, and their practice has assumed many forms, from informal pioneer reminiscences to highly crafted works of scholarship, exemplifying varying levels of talent, experience, and imagination.

Rather than approach these two categories as binary opposites, my preference is to treat both vernacular and academic histories as encompassing a range of strategies on a continuum extending from a close identification and engagement with one’s audience to a position of distanced removal. This continuum corresponds to the range of levels of interaction between performer and audience as mapped out by folklorist Roger D. Abrahams. In Abrahams’ schema, the spectrum of narrative expression extends from conversational genres, expressing full interpersonal engagement, to static genres of vicarious experience and removal from the audience, with various gradations between these poles. These categories also correspond to different narrative concerns—conversational genres tend to be more concerned with conflict and dramatic movement, while the static genres express a preoccupation with resolution, repose, and stability.26 Generally, academic writing has been weighted toward remoteness from the subject and vernacular history toward greater interpersonal connection, although it is important to reiterate that we are not talking about “traditions” so much as loosely defined genres, tendencies, and currents.27 My assumption is that even today vernacular currents persist in academic contexts, just as scholarly currents may be found within the vernacular, in keeping with the notion that vernacularity is more than a condition of “outsidedness” obtaining from local, class, or gender identity and difference, but also a position that writers may choose to inhabit through a close identification with and connectedness to vernacular communities and concerns.

This paper is concerned with three vernacular historians writing in three different periods in the twentieth century: Katherine Hughes, a female journalist, archivist, and social activist, whose most significant historical work predates the First World War; F.G. Roe, an agricultural settler and railroad engineer, who produced major works from the interwar era to the period after the Second World War; and Roy Ito, a Japanese Canadian war veteran and teacher, whose historical research and books date from the 1980s and early 1990s. While informed by Gramsci’s concepts of organic and traditional intellectuals, this discussion shares a greater affinity with Grant Farred’s reformulation that places vernacularity as “operating outside organized political structures.” As Farred wrote, “the vernacular is a mobile and flexible experience, accommodating of different trajectories.”28 The practice of the three historians discussed in this essay does not readily correspond to particular class membership or consciousness in the manner of Gramsci’s formulation. Of these three practitioners, only F.G. Roe clearly meets the definition of a member of the working class, while Hughes and Roy Ito might more accurately be placed in the professional white-collar, or “petit bourgeoisie” class, upwardly mobile but also occupying a recurrently insecure position owing to their gender or racial difference.29 Regarding Roe, while clearly animated by populist sympathies, his work does not directly bear upon issues of class unless his deconstruction of academic authorities can be taken as an allegorical stand-in for resistance to class structures represented in mainstream historical discourse. Nevertheless, we might hazard an inference that Hughes’ experience as a woman writing in a patriarchal era (and as a Roman Catholic functioning within a developing Protestant dominance in the Prairies), Ito’s identity as a Japanese Canadian in an era of racial marginalization, and Roe’s proletarian origins in Sheffield at the height of the British class system influenced their formal approaches to history and prompted much of the passionate engagement that imbues their work with its resonance. As the African-American poet and philosopher Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) wrote in the 1960s: “The view from the top of the hill is not the same as that from the bottom of the hill.”30 In important ways, each of these practitioners was an outsider for whom gender, class, or racial barriers might have impeded their acceptance within mainstream historical discourse but whose very otherness was also what afforded them perspectives on history unlike those of other contemporary practitioners.

Katherine Hughes (1876–1925)

THANKS TO THE RESEARCH of the Irish Studies specialist Padraig O Siadhail, a good outline of Katherine Hughes’ life is already available. She was born in Prince Edward Island in 1876, the second youngest of nine children in an Irish-Canadian Roman Catholic family and the niece of Cornelius O’Brien, archbishop of Halifax between 1883 and 1906. Hughes was educated in Charlottetown at Notre Dame Convent and Prince of Wales College, from which she graduated with a first-class teacher’s licence in 1892. Soon afterwards she apparently moved with her family to Ottawa and became engaged in missionary work with First Nations in eastern Ontario and Quebec. In 1899 she worked as a teacher at the Mohawk reserve at Saint-Régis (Akwesasne) and in 1901 founded the Catholic Indian Association, which sought to find employment outside reserves for graduates of Indian schools.31 Like most missionary teachers of her era, she espoused an assimilationist ethos, albeit one informed by a deeply felt concern for Aboriginal people.


Katherine Hughes, n.d. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Photo no. C-008785.

In the early 1900s, Hughes found work as a reporter with the Montreal Star, where she impressed William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. In June 1904 she became a founding member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, established en route to the St. Louis World’s Fair.32 Perhaps also through Van Horne’s connections, she caught the eye of Frank Oliver, publisher of the Edmonton Bulletin, who offered her a job with his newspaper in 1906. Within two years, she had accepted the position of Alberta’s first provincial archivist; in this role, she actively sought textual and photographic collections for the archives while carrying out oral history research with old-timers in the region to preserve their stories. “I should like to get from them, if possible, portraits of the early settlers, buildings, fairs, banquets, or any striking incident connected with the old times,” she wrote in an advertisement.33 In 1909 Hughes was appointed private secretary to Premier A.C. Rutherford; she also served as secretary to his successor A.L.W. Sifton. In 1912, at the request of Bishop Legal, she organized the Catholic Women’s League of Edmonton (within the Diocese of St. Albert) to assist Roman Catholic immigrants to Alberta. In 1913 she transferred to London, England to become assistant and secretary in the office of the agent general for Alberta. By the time she returned to Canada in 1915, she had become a passionate advocate of Irish independence, which proved harmful to her standing with Anglo-Canadian elites.34

Hughes was acquainted with Father Lacombe even before she moved west, and they evidently developed a warm friendship.35 Lacombe had long intended to write his own memoirs but complained that distractions had prevented him from pulling it together. According to historian Raymond Huel, Lacombe first approached Hughes in 1904 with the request to write his memoirs, and in 1907 she agreed to take on this assignment, apparently with the church’s blessing.36 Hughes’ published biography of Lacombe, entitled Father Lacombe: The Black-Robe Voyageur, was in some ways an extension of the archival project she had commenced as provincial archivist. Specifically, her book illustrates an archivist’s approach to collecting and displaying oral history. As she showed during her trip to northern Alberta in 1909, Hughes saw her role as one of collecting and preserving the reminiscences of old-timers, written biographies, and original documents for posterity.37 She prided herself on including extensive dialogue in the book and especially on the authenticity it represented. In the foreword to the 1920 edition of the biography, she writes: “Where I repeat conversations in Père Lacombe’s Life, I am not making magnificent guesses at what these people likely would have said. I am repeating from the lips of participants what actually was said—or what I myself heard.… This record is History—picturesque western History caught for posterity before it had passed out of memory—and while many of its makers still walked with us.”38

Relying on both oral and written sources, including her extensive correspondence with Lacombe, Hughes brought out some nuanced dimensions to her subject that were not well known at the time and have not been extensively treated in the subsequent historiography. For example, she was not averse to pointing out differences between Lacombe’s written records and his oral recollections. One such example was his condemnatory comments on railroad construction workers, whose language and conduct he often found blasphemous. Hughes concludes that Lacombe’s oral reminiscences were sugar-coated in relation to the more frank—and truer—expression of his sentiments as recorded in his diary. She also does not always paint a flattering picture of her subject. Lacombe emerges from her account as a subject with a unique personality; certainly hers is not a generic official biography of a missionary. For example, she relates Lacombe’s reported indignation on encountering intolerance directed toward his priestly robes while visiting Winnipeg in 1874. Recounting Lacombe’s words, she conveys his defiance: “More than once insulting jeering remarks were thrown slyly at him as he passed through the streets; and usually then a very unpriestly desire came to thrash the man or boy who flung the jeer at the crucifix or robe. There never was anything of the turn-the-other-cheek Christianity about Father Lacombe.”39 Hughes’ anecdotal approach, incorporating both extensive direct quotation of Lacombe’s own words and indirect reported speech in the pictorial style, grounds her biography in everyday experience and dialogical interaction with her subject. In her version, according to Padraig O Siadhail, “Lacombe emerges in all his contradictions as missionary and colonizer … simple churchman and wily old politician.”40

Like Lacombe, Hughes was unsympathetic to the armed resistance led by Louis Riel in 1885 although she took pains to document Lacombe’s sympathy for prairie Aboriginal peoples in the West during the Northwest Resistance/Rebellion. In that era, criticism of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s government was rare in the English-language historiography, but Hughes quoted Bishop Grandin’s correspondence with Macdonald, in which Grandin reproached the prime minister for failing to respond with “anything but fine words.”41 In her notes, Hughes also records a conversation with Lacombe in which he revealed he had considered the possibility of most Prairie First Nations taking up arms in 1885, which he thought might buy them three or four more years of freedom. Ultimately, however, he believed it would bring about the destruction of First Nations on the Prairies.42 It was this realization, she implies, that impelled Lacombe to exhort the Blackfoot not to join Riel’s resistance, followed by his famous telegraph to Sir John A. Macdonald assuring him that the Blackfoot intended to remain loyal to Canada. Notwithstanding Lacombe’s role in encouraging the Blackfoot not to take up arms, Hughes suggests that he was dismayed by the aggressive character of Canadian settlement and what he viewed as the newcomers’ lack of regard for the well-being of the Aboriginal populations of the Prairies, a concern she shared. In her notes on Lacombe, she writes: “15,000 people in west at time of transfer—objected to themselves and possessions being signed away without one word of their consent or approval.”43 Her position contrasts sharply with contemporary assertions of George Bryce, the father of academic historiography in Western Canada, who celebrated Canada’s victory in 1885 as an imagined triumph of civilization over barbarism.44

Beyond highlighting aspects of Lacombe’s character, Hughes allowed her biography to be a conduit for the missionary’s major thoughts, including his dismay at developing racism and marginalization of difference within Euro-Canadian communities in the West. Hughes faithfully recorded Lacombe’s words: “Out of these many years of communication with the Indians, I bring this thought, that with all the power left to me, I want to impress upon the white man that the Indians are truly in flesh, feelings, and aims, our brothers. Do not judge the race by one or a score of the worst as you do not judge some of the bad white people—Look upon these poor uneducated populations, scattered in our Northwest with sympathy, charity, and Christian philanthropy. I think that you occupy now the land and ground where they were born and which was once their property.”45

Hughes’s approach to form was to present history not retrospectively as a process completed in the past but rather as a dynamic succession of present-day occurrences, as animated by direct quotation of the participants’ own words. With a journalist’s eye for both a compelling anecdote and first-person dialogue, she imbued her biography with immediacy and contingency. Hughes does not present us with a past that is sealed off and done with. Every episode in Lacombe’s life is presented as he might have viewed it, part of an open-ended present, resonant with future possibilities. Her approach to history derived from her own life experience. As she writes in her unpublished notes, “Experience is knowledge, obtained by one’s own person in senses, spirit, etc.” She divided this experiential knowledge into three categories—physical, mental, and spiritual, all of which she saw as interconnected.46 In this regard, Hughes could not separate her religious beliefs from her writing, and her biography of Lacombe might properly be viewed as an extension of her work as a Roman Catholic missionary and teacher. Rather than assume a position of objectivity and neutrality, she became passionately committed to documenting what she regarded as Lacombe’s selfless devotion to the Prairie First Nations, mirroring her own concerns as a missionary.

Notwithstanding Lacombe’s celebrity, Hughes’ choice of subject departed from the mainstream focus of Anglo-Canadian historiography of the early twentieth century. In that era, the nation-building preoccupations of Anglo-Canadian historians led them to privilege historical figures associated with Confederation or its historical antecedents. These included mostly anglophone and a few francophone political and military leaders, as in the twenty original books of The Makers of Canada series. This series comprises biographies of three colonial governors; three prominent fur traders; three francophone political leaders; three Maritime politicians; war hero Isaac Brock; educator Egerton Ryerson, founder of the Ontario school system; and five Ontario politicians. All the historical figures represented in the series were drawn from Canada’s privileged classes. As historian Daniel Francis observes, these individuals comprise a pantheon of heroes “whose efforts had contributed to the development of the self-governing nation.”47

In contrast, Hughes’ biographical subject was a francophone priest who, while closely connected to pivotal events and prominent personalities involved in Canadian expansion, followed a career path diverging from the nation-building narratives of the canon in that era. Nation building was in any case a tenuous rubric for this particular author, whose nascent Irish nationalism inclined her to take a critical attitude toward Anglo-Saxon pan-Canadianism. Beyond her own authorial voice and Lacombe’s, she quoted the words of the Cree leader Sweet Grass, the Blackfoot chief Crowfoot, Métis and other observers alongside quotations from prominent businessmen and church leaders of the period. She wrote in a period in which the developing discipline of history was increasingly subsuming the diverse voices of history under the professionals’ overriding syntheses, such as the Rev. Dr. George Bryce’s refashioning Western Canadian historiography as a narrative of the ascendancy of his own Anglo-Canadian ethnocultural group.48 While certainly no oppositionist, Hughes brought vernacular voices into Western Canadian historical discourse, a practice that waned as the professionalization project took hold. For Lacombe’s biography, Hughes pioneered in oral history and careful scholarship, and in employing forms of representation enabling the people she was studying to speak for themselves. Hughes’ biography of Father Lacombe was a popular success and is still regarded as a reliable source.49

Nevertheless, Hughes’ biography of Lacombe fell short of a fully dialogized treatment of his life and career. While including quotations from First Nations witnesses, she incorporated their voices within her own narrative framework rather than as fully autonomous individuals with the freedom to challenge or contradict her assertions. Lacombe’s close connections to Canadian Pacific Railway executives Lord Strathcona and Sir William Cornelius Van Horne also raise questions in terms of his apparently divided loyalties, and the missionary experience itself has been considered highly problematic. I do not intend here to make light of these issues although Lacombe’s role as elaborated by Hughes does appear to share affinities with other Euro-Canadian witnesses to colonization who sought to mitigate the negative consequences of Canadian expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.50

Hughes’ biography is not an objective, detached account of Lacombe’s life. Rather, it is a text animated by both her admiration for Lacombe and her compassion for Aboriginal people who had been displaced by advancing European settlement in the West. The book’s merit resides in its status as a faithful representation of Lacombe’s own perspectives on his long career as a missionary, as mediated through Hughes’ sympathetic eyes. By quoting Lacombe and other witnesses at length, she contributed their authentic voices to the historiography of his career and to an important period of Western Canadian history.

Frank Gilbert Roe (1878–1973)

ROE WAS BORN INTO A WORKING-CLASS FAMILY in Sheffield, England in 1878 and moved with his family to the Blackfalds district north of Red Deer in 1894, where they made entry for a homestead, built and established residence in a sod house, and then moved into a log dwelling a year later.51 After the early death of their father, Roe and his brother, both teenagers, attempted to continue farming with their mother. The 1906 Census of the Prairie Provinces enumerated Roe, still single at twenty-seven, as the sole head of the household consisting of himself and his mother.52 Two and a half years later, following the third in a succession of crop failures, they were forced to abandon their farm. Obliged to start again from scratch at the age of thirty, Roe found a job with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and worked his way up to an engineer’s position by 1919. He also assumed a leadership role in the railroad workers’ union. After 1923 he continued his career with the Canadian National Railway (CNR) until his retirement in 1944. Obliged by his family’s straitened circumstances to work at an early age, Roe had no formal education beyond the age of twelve.


Frank Gilbert Roe, n.d. Photo courtesy University of Victoria Archives, Frank Gilbert Roe fonds, AR 110.

Roe’s limited formal education would seem to be a poor preparation for intellectual labour, but Roe was no ordinary school dropout. Early in life he developed a passion for reading and reflection that belied his lack of schooling.53 Roe’s grassroots experiences also imbued him with a down-to-earth quality that apparently never left him. In his published autobiography, he recalls several direct encounters with First Nations people at his family’s homestead in Alberta, including his purchase of two pairs of moccasins for fifty cents from the Aboriginal visitors. A theme running throughout his published and unpublished writings is his persistent sense of injustice regarding indignities that had been visited on Aboriginal people. He was particularly critical of the residential school system imposed on First Nations, which he regarded as paternalistic and authoritarian.54

Roe came to his great subject virtually by happenstance. Aware that certain nineteenth-century British scholars had sought to determine whether or not English roads had begun as animal paths, he developed a similar curiosity with regard to North America. When, as an engineer, he travelled over trestle bridges or high above mountain valleys, his imagination was piqued by the appearance of trails visible from the engine cab; these sightings spurred him to investigate the hypothesis that prairie First Nations trails followed old buffalo routes.55

He began by assembling a large corpus of references to the Prairies, which he had planned to publish before learning that the English Place Names Society was then undertaking to publish much of the same primary material he had already collected. Discouraged at first, it then occurred to him that his assembled materials offered the potential for developing a much larger study on the buffalo as a wild species in its former domain across the Canadian Prairies, Northern Great Plains, and other regions of the continent. Roe continued to collect materials and wrote the manuscript of his book The North American Buffalo: A Critical Study of the Species in Its Wild State between ca. 1925 and 1940, while still employed by the CNR as a train engineer.

What is striking even today is the immense scope of Roe’s subject, encompassing the study of the entire natural range of the North American buffalo across the continent of North America. Inspired by the panoramic prospects afforded a train engineer travelling through the Rockies, Roe applied his expansive perspective to wide-ranging research on this species while other contemporary historians of Western Canada—including A.S.

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