What Makes the West Different?

Aubrey Fullerton November 1 1911

What Makes the West Different?

Aubrey Fullerton November 1 1911

EDITOR’S Note:—No one denies that the West is different from the rest of Canada, but the difficulty is to know wherein the difference lies. There is, of course, the difference in climate, in topography and so on. But there is also a difference between the Westerner and the Easterner. Place twin brothers in two places: one in Ontario, one in Saskatchewan. In three years they are different in a thousand ways, different in the way they look at life, the way they spend money, or live or work. Mr. Fullerton’s article may not explain everything in this connection but it gives food for thought—interesting thought—about one’s country.

IT is easier to feel distinctions than to define them. Everyone knows, by experience or by hearsay, that the West is different, but to lay one’s hand on the secret of the difference is not so simple a matter as it would seem. Even where the West most resembles some other place, or its life is most like some other life, there are subtle differences, and its very resemblances heighten its contrasts. The West knows that it is different, and is glad of it. But precisely what are its differences?

A globe-trotter who was doing the West a few years ago spent fifteen minutes in Moose Jaw, between trains. It was a rainy day, the streets were muddy, and he walked the length of one block and back to the train. It happened that in that time he met but one person, a homely man with red hair. In the story of his tour, as it afterwards appeared in print, he said that “every time he was in Moose Jaw it rained, and every person he saw in the town was homely and red-haired.” That man may have thought he had found the secret of at least one town’s individuality, but he hadn’t. Generalities, to be safe, must go deeper than the surface.

The western country itself is the first and most apparent distinction. It is an unusual kind of country, rolled out flat in one part, piled up high and rough in another. This neighboring of contrasts is unique. It is a question of origins. Nature was very busy away back in the early Sometime when the West was being made, and the movements that went on, with no one to see, shaped the destiny of the country of to-day and to-morrow. There is a connection between the black prairie soil and history, and between the Rockies and the hoary Past.

There is a piece of every other province in the provinces and territories of the West. In places the West is like the East, reproducing here and there its general features and its natural lay-out. But, in addition, there is a distinctive West-ness that Manitoba and British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, all possess. They have touches of the East, but they have something else. To find the like of that “something else” one would need to visit the Argentine, Southern Siberia, Switzerland, and the Dakotas; and even there would be some characteristics unaccounted for.

Part and parcel of the country is its climate. It makes the West what it is as much as do the prairies and the hills. It colors the life of the people, it tints the landscape, it grows the crops. The West’s climate is its very own, and unmatchable. These are its marks: long days and summer twilights, prairie sunsets, mountains that range from semi-tropic to polar, the electrical air of the plains, the soft expansive flavor of the harvest-time, the ringing frostiness of the prairie winter, the pleasant greenness of the coast country. Summer or winter there is a mystery about it; and there is a power about it. Men like it or dislike it, as the case may be, but in either case it grips them.

Now this climate of the West is not a fixed quantity. Covering, as it does, a quarter of the continent, it changes with the miles. It has its surprises, too. By rule of latitude, the far North should be dead and cold all the year through, but in fact there are gorgeous wild flowers on the summer shores of the Arctic, while winter in the Peace River country is frequently milder than it is five or six hundred miles south. To be sure, the Western climate goes sometimes to extremes. It is foolish to deny it. But there is a staple climate, which has its own ways and wiles, its wonders and witcheries, and all in all it makes the West different.

Of one of the Western cities it was said by a skilful paragrapher once upon a time that it was “bounded on the north by the aurora borealis, on the west by the everlasting hills, on the south by eternal sunshine, and on the east by the tramp of incoming multitudes.” Boundaries of this kind are possible only of places that are geographically and climatically unique. But the last of these happy figures points to another, and this time a personal uniqueness.

The people of the West are the chiefest of its outward differences. They are more varied than the climates, more picturesque than the mountains. Nowhere else in all the world can be found such an assortment of human beings, such differentiations of the human element. It would seem that the country fastened upon even its first inhabitants some of its own characteristic divergences, for the Indians and Eskimos of the West and Western North are different from their kinsmen in the East. The pioneer white men who came next developed, in a peculiar and very marked degree, the brand of the West. And in these latter days, human nature in all its shades and lights has been poured into and spread over the four provinces until its very mixedness makes it different from any other aggregate of human nature in the world.

The “tramp of the incoming multitudes” is not poetry alone. There is fact for it. Nor is this movement of people merely a stage in the process of land settlement: it is a chapter in world history and a study in world psychology. Can you explain it—the drawing, the gripping, the tearing-up, the moving, the settling down, the new living? To know the real inside workings of even the average immigrant mind, before and after, would be as entertaining as a day with Dickens and as instructive as a course in sociology.

It is saying a little too much to say, as has been said, that forty different languages may be heard in the course of a walk on the streets of Winnipeg. Such an achievement, at least, would require very good walking and very sharp hearing. But it would be quite within the fact to say that at one point and another throughout the city, in open and in secret, forty or more different tongues are spoken in the course of a day. The Englishness of Winnipeg is still predominant, but it has its Babel, as has every other city in the West. The whole West, indeed, is a Babel.

The lay of the land, the feel of the air, and the look of the people are outward differences. They are the distinctions seen or felt, but they are, after all, only the occasions of other and more vital differences below the surface. There is an intermediary difference, however, that is partly outward and partly inward, bridging between the two. It is the West’s business.

Business in the West is growing visibly. The wonderful development of trade and commerce is apparent even to those to whom the human interest of the immigration movement does not appeal. It is a great game, and bold moves are being made by the men who are playing it. What makes it different from the business game in the East is its twin support; the two natural conditions of land and wheat. The hunger for land and the hunger for bread are admirable business feeders, and from these two universal appetities has grown an extensive commerce, which the West is peculiarly fitted to carry because it is laid off so generously and mixed so richly. Other enterprises, great and small, have clustered around these parent enterprises; they are of much the same ilk as elsewhere, but land and wheat are the West’s distinctive stock-in-trade.

These combined agencies at work, then, produce the life of the West, which is the really significant differentiation. Their interchanges and co-relations are a veritable maze, difficult enough to follow in the process but more plainly discernible in the result. “The life of the West” means more than is covered by the external conditions of land, weather, people, and work. It is the native quality of the people acted upon and re-molded by the influences of land, weather, work, and neighbors, that gives us the spirit of the West, which means the spirit of the Western people. This is the real West, and if one can get at it he will find it to be the real difference of the West. It cannot be found by superficial looking. Fair judgment of Western life and spirit requires experience of it.

It is a large life. The bigness of the country, the wideness of the sky, the greatness of the work, impel the Westerner to larger thoughts and bolder habits. Men who came to the West ten or twenty years ago made much of its ‘freedom’ and the absence of petty restrictions; but as time goes on the general freedom is rightly being narrowed by the demands of society. Still, there is a freshness in the air and the life that convention has not yet spoiled, and it helps to emphasize the largeness of things. He is a poor Westerner who does not realize in some measure the magnitude of the task involved in the opening up of the country and the assimilation of its many peoples; and the knowledge that this work is going on around him gives to his own work, consciously or not, a new importance and a larger interest. There is not so much of this sense of largeness in the Eastern provinces, whose history is more nearly made and whose skylines are closer set.

The West is democratic, as a natural result of its freedom. There is a disposition to give every man a chance, and frequently a second chance. If he makes good, his place is assured; if not, he goes out. Men have come to the West with bad pasts and, finding this willingness to give them a trial, have been put on their mettle and have made good. Social lines are not so closely or tightly drawn. A man’s a man. And still there are conventions and artificialities; in time the West will very likely lose some of its democracy.

It is a busy life in the West. The amount of work to be done is tremendous, and much of it urgent. Seemingly things are never finished. Twenty hours of summer daylight do not find us any better caught up than in ten hours in the winter. “So much to do” is everyone’s cheerful complaint. Leisure is a dream which many have forgotten and which some could not now enjoy were it to be had. There is no explanation for it but that there is more to be done than in the East, for everywhere, and in all walks of life, one hears the same; not enough time, no time at all. The West is very busy, and genuinely so. It takes too much time to make-believe.

Let it not be thought that this is an unpleasant condition. We of the West rather like it. To be sure, it would be delightful if a greater amount of leisure were possible, but the period of leisure is coming some day, just as the period of culture is already at hand. Meanwhile there is a great satisfaction in doing things, and they who grumble a little at bed-time waken the next morning as willing as ever to go at it again. The West begins the day’s work a little later, perhaps, than the East, but it works longer and more strenuously.

Life of this kind begets nerves, of course. The West is nervous. The busyness of the people is one contributing factor to this, and another is an outward condition; the dryness and keenness of the air. The men and women who are doing things in the West are living at high pressure, and it is not to be wondered at that break-downs come now and then. Yet the breaks are surprisingly few, after all. The zest of the life itself and the tonic of the wide spaces and the open skies keep the workers nerved and braced. A good many of them have found the secret of the second wind. The work of the West is done with a great outlay of nervous energy, and the life is electric, but a type of men is being developed that will be capable of unusual effort. It is too early yet to say just what the permanent Western type will be, but as now making it will at least be energetic, high-strung, and bighearted. Here is where nature and man work together: the same natural conditions that make human energy necessary make it possible.

The West is markedly different by reason of its prevailing optimism. Its people are incurably hopeful and consistently confident. Nothing will make them doubt the future of their country or of its possibilities. This unfailing assurance was very well characterized by a visitor from the East who said that “the West was not so much a place as a state of mind, of enthusiasm, of hope, of optimistic spirit that could not be quenched.” And, indeed, it is no place for the man who cannot command a supply of enthusiasm. Some such have come, but they have gone again, for the West is not congenial, in spirit or atmosphere, to the misanthropes. Its hopefulness may seem at times to be unreasoning and unfounded. Be it said, however, that thus far there seems to be justification for any degree of intelligent optimism. Men who refuse to be stampeded by occasional alarms come out safely in the end. Even during the temporary depressions, when money has been among the unattainables, there has been very little sacrificing of property interests. Landholders have shown their faith in the country in season and out of season, and their persistence has been contagious.

Mistakes have been made, and failures have followed, but it is fairly safe to say that they have not been the fault of the West. Everybody knows that he is in a growing country, where things are sure to get better and bigger as time goes on; and this fact alone serves to keep up the spirits to the optimistic point. It makes men venturesome and aggressive. The Easterner wants to see before he leaps; but the Westerner leaps whether he sees or not, believing that he will strike safely somewhere. And usually he does. The conservative Easterner is more frequently trapped and gold-bricked than is the venturesome Westerner. Optimism that dares is reasonably safe, and that of the West is the bold, daring optimism of vigorous youth.

Youth has its disadvantages, however, and to it are chiefly due the weak points in the life of the West; for it will not do to paint that life in uniformly rosy colors. The West lacks certain desirable qualities because of its newness. The very fact that it is new means that it lacks that charm of the past in which old Quebec, for instance, is so rich. Storied associations do not linger about our Western cities as they do about the cities of the East, and our country villages have none of that delightful tradition out of which novels and poems are made. It would be refreshing at times to see something mossy, but instead one sees things new and crude. Newness has an interest, an expectancy, a hopefulness, but it not often has beauty, arid, treasonable though it may be, one tires now and then of the glaring new and longs for the refreshing old.

The West has always believed in education. It believes in culture, too, but is only beginning to find time for it. There is an over-emphasis upon material interests. Getting and gaining are much with us, and many do not hesitate to proclaim their get-rich-quick philosophy. Yet this is probably nothing more or less than a weakness of youth. And even so, the idealist is side by side with the trafficker, and his influence is being felt, if his voice is sometimes not being heard. Vice is more open, but no deeper, than in the East. Law is respected.

At times the West is somewhat boastful. Its pride cannot always be repressed. But is not boastfulness a failing of youth? And is it not a good-natured failing, at that? Our boasting is of large and generous kind, characteristic, and spicy. The railway conductor who kept a brakeman on the rear platform to name the new towns that sprang up as the train went past had the enthusiasm of a good Western boaster and the spirit, of a good Western citizen.

The very fact of its plastic condition explains the West’s greatest opportunities—the opportunity for personality. The man who has personality can make himself felt in a new and growing community far more greatly and effectively than in a community whose life is already set and whose society has permanently formed. Never in Canada’s history were there such opportunities, not merely for the man of business as such, but for the man of character who has it in him to make an impress upon the new national life now in evolution.

The conclusion of the whole matter is that the West is different both outwardly and inwardly, and despite the points of resemblance. Such differences as are due to the country’s youth will be lessened as time goes on, and the years will bring with them a levelling between West and East. Costs of living, social conditions, and conventions, political sentiments, and business methods are all approximating. Moreover, there are exceptions to the differences. Not all Westerners are living a large life: some are as small and mean as the proverbial village gossip in the East. Not all Westerners are busy: some are loafers. Not all Westerners are hopeful; some are discouraged and disappointed. The West is not all new: parts of it have a history; it is not all rich: there are extremes of luxury and penury; it is not all of any one kind or another, for nature and human nature always vary.

But with all due allowances and exceptions, there is a something left over which constitutes the difference of the West. Its life, its spirit, is different. It gives and takes, makes and is itself made, until a Western type, distinct and unique, is produced from its refining-pot. The influences toward this result are many, intricate, and elusive, and it does not yet clearly appear what the final issue will be; but the process is fascinating. And when all is said and done, the West will still be different.