For “West Is West” and So On
A COUPLE of years ago in the city of Winnipeg—where one may learn the primer of most that is good, bad and indifferent in the Canadian West —there was a poor but honest man who was struggling to support a family on a mediocre salary without investing in real estate or going into speculation of any sort. He was a man of some intellect and a casual caustic wit. His employer was one of those vanishing old-timers to whom Winnipeg and any town that has been a fur post and is now a young yearning city, owes a big debt. He also professed to be a poor man who had been familiar with Portage Avenue when a lot at the corner of Portage and Main could have been purcnased for a hundred dollars; said land, at this time of which we write, being worth about two thousand dollars a foot frontage. But the boss’s chief regret was—not that he had not bought these lots at a hundred dollars apiece and sold them at two thousand a foot; but that Winnipeg was fast losing its ideals—not Winnipeg and the West alone but the whole (iod-forsaken country—since he had been a young man.
“Oh yes, Tom’s a pretty good joker,” remarked the young man when a visitor friend told him about these natural regrets of his employer. “He’s about as good a sample of hypocrite as I know. As a matter of fact he’s worth over a hundred thousand in land and he hasn’t a real personal ideal in his whole make-up. He’s just playing to the gallery. What’s the matter with the place? Why, it’s going ahead like a house afire; values are going up steadily; everybody agrees that the boom of ’81 will never be repeated; people are pouring in-”
He waved his napkin sardonically.
“Say,” returned the visitor friend, “you talk like a British journalist. You’ve got the average dope. But please don’t inflict it on me as a form of wit. This town is real estate 'otten. It’s land crazy and wheat mad. I hate the-place.”
He was emphatic and spoke like a sincere man. He even affected to despise most of the people—more particularly those who seemed to be getting rich quick —and the average person in his opinion seemed to be heading in that direction as fast as possible. He had considerable sympathy, however, with the immigrants at the C. P. R station and the labor unions, and the chaps that held mass meetings cn the street corners; and he frequently delivered Sunday afternon socialistic addresses. When ne dined at the Royal Alexandria he had a notion that he was mixing with railway robbers and real estate thugs. He was the making of an anarchist.
“Well,” said the host as they shook hands at the train pulling out on the new main line to Edmonton. “Mavbe you’ll see the leal West one of these days. That mav give you a different story.”
The visitor knew something about the West—but not the modern West. He had lived in Edmonton for a year at the beginning of 'Canada’s Century’ when the fur-post was the beginning to yearn for a railroad. He had left the town on a trading scow and had seen the Saskatchewan valley when it was just as the trailsmen knew it in the days of the Red River cart, the pemmican bag and the coffee pot. But this time he arrived in Edmonton by train; and had to rub his eyes to make sure he hadn’t descended at the wrong station. The whole place was two storeys higher than it had been seven
years before. Its population had been multiplied by ten. Real estate values had gone up by about a thousand per cent. Every fourth door on the main street was a real estate office; and the log shacks of the old-timers were harder to locate than a full-grown ideal in Winnipeg.
There was an amazing interest in the place. Its transformation from a half born little town fed by a cable ferry and one iron bridge, to a young city with fourstorey buildings and land quoted at a thousand dollars a foot, was enough to have satisfied even the god of Progress. But more remarkable than the place itself was the change in the people. Of course in the West—and sometimes in the East —we are assured that population is the main thing and that people may be left to take care of themselves. And while it was quite evident that Edmonton, like its old rivals Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon, had made as much of a fetich of population as any of them. Still the character of the Edmonton people seemed to be of more interest to one who had known some of them at the begining of the new century.
Real estate had made most of the difference. In 1901 the men who were able to afford anything but plain little frame houses, half hidden among the poplars, might have been counted once on the fingers. It was so in Calgary and Regina and Brandon and Prince Albert—while in Saskatoon at that time there had been nobody of all its lonesome little four hundred people who had enough to spare for a railway ticket back East where in those days a good many of the western townspeople were hankering to go. But in 1908 the half hard-up and hopeful people of a few years before had become wealthy. Most of them had sold the old house when the price of land had jumped so that folk began to move out to the suburbs to leave room down town for the real estate offices. Men who had been struggling to pay store bills in 1901 were driving motor cars and living in miniature castles in 1908. They remembered the older Edmonton as a place where they seemed to have spent a few melancholy years of waiting and hanging on—and now, by heavens, they had come into their reward and they proposed to show that they knew a good thing by grabbing all the real estate they
could get their hands on at any reasonable figure, building houses to sell them again, hiring decorators from New York, buying big automobiles, getting their names into the social columns of the daily newspaper, making bridge parties and pink teas, dances and theatre parties and wearing top hats on Sundays.
In Calgary someone told him, he might observe the same symptoms, perhaps exaggerated. The once ‘cow-town’ has more automobiles, warehouses and thousanddollar-foot lots than the formerly despised city of fur, and trappers. And as a matter of fact, in these two contrasted young cities of magnificent promise and potentiality may be traced most of the signs of the times, and the tendencies of things, in the Empire of Wheat which begins west of Kenora and ends far beyond the last mile of new steel. At once, I suppose, someone living in Regina will ask if that old capital is to be given the go-by when it comes to a study of the sociology of the West. Prince Albert will reckon that she was a focus of new westernism even before Edmonton ; and Saskatoon may argue that any or all of these were old towns when Saskatoon was no further than the temperance colonization stage. But Calgary and Edmonton suffice. This article does not deal with the mere localisms which constitute the woof of western life. It is concerned rather with what the West used to be and what it is not now.
The visitor in Edmonton was entertained at the miniature castle of a citizen who—one of the earlier “new-timers”— had been rat poor in 1901. This citizen was enthusiastic—of course. He had hung on, and waited and wondered; and when the railway came he had sold his house and lot for twenty thousand and gone into real estate. He had a partner, a new arrival whom he had “wired up” there because he had money to invest. This man came strolling in ; and he said to the visitor at once:
“Well, what do you think of our city? Isn’t she a hummer?”
The once Edmontonian squirmed. He had been tnere precisely seventeen days.
“Yes, it’s a very interesting city.”
“Well you bet your boots she is! Sav, we’ve got single tax and civic utilities, street-cars coming next year, more miles of asphalt pavement man-”
“Calgary, of course. Go on.”
“Yes or Regina either. Besides we’ve
got the finest gardens-”
“Uh—perhaps nature helped you there a trifle.”
“Oh, of course; natural advantages. Sunny Alberta you know. We’ve got just as much chinook wind as we need to keep the frost belt under control and we’ve none of those sandstorms so common
“Calgary, of course. Just so.”
“Ah; I see. You’re on. You’ll be a booster for this town yet. We’ve got the livest board of trade and the finest prospects for navigation—not such good water as Calgary perhaps but still the very best —and above all things, sir, we’ve got the record for real estate. I can show you a lot on Jasper Avenue that was bought fo • fifty dollars twenty years ago, in the fur days. That lot to-day is worth fifty— thousand—dollars!”
He shouted it so loud that the echo came back from Strathcona, which he said would be part of Edmonton very soon.
So engrossed did he become that he scarcely saw the box of fifteen-cent cigars being handed round bv his senior partner. He was pinching the knee of the ex-Edmontonian—and every pinch spelled, he thought a hundred dollars investment. But the visitor seemed loggy.
“Yes, I daresay all you tell me is quite true. I lived in Edmonton myself for a year once.”
“And you—chucked it?”
“For personal reasons—yes.”
“When you could have got land for fifty dollars a foot?”
“But I wasn’t buying land.”
“Good heavens! You could have borrowed the money in the East.”
“But why should I?”
The new-comer began to reckon that this man was crazy.
“I guess you were an incurable Easterner. I was”—he added comfortingly, “till I struck this town.”
“On the contrary—I liked Edmonton in most respects much better than any town in Ontario. But it was the Edmonton of 1901. Edmonton then was much more interesting than the common place sort of community you’re trying to tell me about after seventeen days living in it.
Why you haven’t even seen a huskie dog ; and I’m sure you *wouldn’t know a buckskin cayuse from a pinto.”
The sharklette nipped him on the other knee.
“Say, what are you trying to get through you ! This isn’t a fur post. This is a city. Talk about Edmonton—being commonplace ! Say you’ve got the wrong hunch, young man.”
“One hears just such language in every new town he goes to in this country. It certainly isn’t distinctive.”
“But my dear sir-”
“I know. You’ve told me precisely all you know about the town you live in; just because you’re talking not about what gives the place its real character as a Canadian city but because you’re merely talking real estate—which is mainly the curse of the average western town.”
The sharklette became acid.
“Yes, I’ve heard knockers like you before. By George, it’s a wonder a town like this gets ahead at all with such people hanging back on the wheels. Nearly every old-timer you meet grouses just like that. The town was bigger to him then than it is now, when it’s twenty times as big.”
“Because it felt bigger. Isn’t that after all the main thing?”
There was no possibility of agreement. Each was arguing from a different angle. Perhaps each was wrong. But the visitor who had once lived in Edmonton was remembering what had made the old fu> post before any but an old-timer, a halfbreed or a red man ever saw it; just as he remembered what has made Calgary, the cow-town before it was invaded by the main line of the C. P. R. These things were only the day before yesterday to him. Progress had been not only busy but rampant on the prairie. It needed no Kipling to note that. Progress was always the most obvious thing. The West had been the victim of progress even while, in many of its essential phases, it has shown the world what some of the best characteristics of modern progress really are.
No such development ever came to the western towns of the United States which were mapped out before the age of telephones and trolleys and asphalt and municipal ownership. But the cradle of all
the progress made in the first ten years of ‘Canada’s century’ was rocked by a small company of somewhat rude and rough men who got to their doorposts by means of the Red River cart on the Thousand Mile Trail. Twenty, thirty, and forty years these frontiersmen kept the old towns going when there was nothing to do but buy pelts and do “scratch” farming; or run a gold grizzly on the gravel beach at a dollar and a half a day; or cowpunching or running survey lines with now and then an odd job on a side line of railroad. These men saw the first ah tempts at colonization. They fought their own battles two thousand miles from home. Mainly from eastern Canada they came before there was any dream of an ‘American invasion’ or even of immigration from Europe. They were a tough and tireless—if somewhat bigoted—crew; and they had the whole lone land for their parish because they went in by the Thousand-mile trails from trading centre to outpost; and what law and civilization the West had these men gave to it sometimes in violence, mainly in hardship, but always in hope that the day would come when the West should open to the world.
So it opened. These men saw the inrush of peoples at ten times the rate they had dreamed. They saw more development in five years after the railroad struck town than in all the twenty-five years of their efforts before. Naturally they lost the pace. Some of them failed to keep step. They saw new-timers come along and get rolling rich in a few months while they still hung on to the business or the saw-mill or the town lots they happened to have. A nd they ranked mainly—as mediocrities.
Not altogether, of course. For some of these old-timers are among the wealthiest men in the West; and they know very well how glad they happen to be that the big turn came. But in any new city of the prairie that was once an old fur-post you may find the straggled band of oldtimers gradually getting thin and thinner and almost obliterated ; and you will find that in their crude way most of these men have the memory of some ideal—a little bigger than a thousand dollars a foot. *****
It so happened that the visitor—the man who had once been an Edmontonian.
was repatriated in the West. Business kept him there. His friends in the East received, at first, voluminous letters from him, slamming the West. But after awhile there was fewer letters. Such as came were briefer.
Then one day the man who had only gone West for a visit but who had stayed, wired a Toronto friend that he was coming East. They met at an hotel. The “Winnipegonian” ordered cocktails. He was rather garrulously dressed and his profanity was of the double-jointed, compound variety. He cursed the cocktails alleging that he could get far better at the “Royal Alec” in Winnipeg, which by the way, was the best hotel in Canada except possibly the Chateau Frontenac. When he had paid—insistently—for three he grabbed his Stetson hat and bolted for the street. He led his friend at a bronchobusting pace to the corner of King and Yonge, then jostling with the noon-day traffic.
“Good lord,” he shouted. “Where are all the people in this town? Is this civic holiday?”
“Well, of course, this isn’t Main Street, Winnipeg.”
“I should say—it isn’t, Say is there any place in this town worth dropping into! Hmm, Let’s go and look at some of the automobiles—though I’ll bet a broncho you haven’t got a garage in the whole place as good as we’ve got in the “Peg.” Great Scott. Why don’t these people move? Do they think this is a funeral?”
All the Winnipeg man’s desires to get back to the East except for a visit at ‘fair time’ or Christmas had vanished into thin air. He vowed to the once Edmontonian, that he was an out-and-out Westerner. Winnipeg to him now was the gate of Paradise. He was posted on the price of real estate—and he had got several chunks of it. Very first clean-up he made he would buy a ripping red automobile; next he would build a stunning big house out on the Assiniboine. He had discovered a quality of mind in the Westerners that would save Canada from becoming a nation of dull and diligent people. The wheat crop that year would beat all known records. Most of the crop liars lived in the East. As to the Canadian navy he had no convictions : didn’t care if
there never was a navy or a dollar of contribution for a Dreadnought. He believed in railroads pure and simple, East and West, North and South, over the border, anywhere to get the Westerner’s wheat out to the best market and get in manufactured goods as cheap as possible. No, he had no belief in the theory that Western farmers were cropping the land to death. There was more brains in Western farmers than ever there had been on the farms of Ontario. In fact there was no room for argument in his mind. He cared not a continental for what the oldtimers had done for the West before railroads went in. He considered them all stick-in-the-muds and it would be a good thing when the last of them had shut up shop.
“And the reason you’ve turned right
about front inside of a year is-?”
“Look here,” admitted the man with the Western fever shrewdly lowering his note half an octave, “the whole reason is —if I don’t get into the game just the same as the rest of them they’ll walk clean over my collar. Into the game ! You bet I am. Self preservation is the first law of life. Identity is the second. The only way a man can get recognition for his identity out West—is to do the things the rest of the people are doing, but do them harder.”
“And that—is Western.”
“Nope. It’s just ego. There isn’t any West. It—the West I used to know— is buried under real estate. No use kicking about it. Let’s have another drink.”