W. O. Mitchell, novelist, ex-horse owner, and son of the prairie, says; ALL WESTERNERS ARE SNOBS

May 16 1964

W. O. Mitchell, novelist, ex-horse owner, and son of the prairie, says; ALL WESTERNERS ARE SNOBS

May 16 1964

W. O. Mitchell, novelist, ex-horse owner, and son of the prairie, says; ALL WESTERNERS ARE SNOBS


IT WAS YEARS AGO in the heart of darkest Ontario, Toronto, that my wife and I were first exposed to that odd Canadian passion — Hate Toronto. Hardly a week went by without a suggestion or an incident with this mild antipathy at the heart of it. For almost three years we would meet new people; they would be told that we were from the west; then it would happen. A face would darken imperceptibly, as prairie darkens with cloud passing over sun. “Oh — you’re from the west.” A pause would follow, then, “What do you think of us?” An innocent and almost humbly polite question, except that it was more a sort of automatic flinch like an upraised arm to ward off a slap. It implied that the easterner anticipated criticism from the westerner and what’s more that perhaps he deserved it.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen when a westerner on his home territory is introduced to a visiting easterner. They may ask in Winnipeg how you like the gold-eye but not how you like them. In Saskatchewan the question will most likely be a climatic one: “Ever seen it this dry before? ... I guess you don’t get many sixty-below days down there, do you?” A Calgarian would never ask, “What do you think of us?” rather, “What do you think of our Stampede?” Vancouverites don't actually care what anyone thinks of them. They seem to be under the impression that everyone who comes over the Rockies is Alexander Mackenzie setting foot on the west coast for the first time. This is why they always ask a visitor, “This the first time you've seen the Pacific Ocean?”


More and more in recent years I have felt that the people of the western provinces feel quite secure, even smug; it’s the secure smugness that comes from a conviction of one's superiority. The westerner’s feeling of superiority — strangely and paradoxically — seems to grow out of an awareness of his inferiority: he knows quite well that the east holds political and economic and cultural dominion over the rest of the nation but it doesn’t really matter. Westerners have the edge in other and more important ways. They're more friendly, more generous, more informal, more frank, less pretentious, less conservative (with

a small C). Westerners, who have for generations accused easterners of snobbery, are themselves stunning snobs. I suppose I’ve known this for years — at least thirty. During university days in Winnipeg I was left standing in the centre of the dance floor at the Fort Garry Hotel on the occasion of the 1932 Arts Formal because I’d made a slighting remark to my partner about her great-great-grandfather who’d been one of Riel’s prisoners at the time of the Red River trouble. I hadn’t known it was her great-greatgrandfather at the time but I have known ever since that Manitobans are often historical snobs. Unless you are a descendant of one of those who ran barefooted through the snow from Portage La Prairie to the relief of Fort Garry, came out with Lord Selkirk, was an original member of the council of Assiniboia, you can’t consider yourself one of Manitoba’s elite. First-family snobbery, I suppose it could be called.

I’ve lived here in tne foothills under the jumble of the Rockies long enough to become infected with the Alberta strain of snobbery: horse snobbery. A year ago I did something about it and got rid of our four horses. To be among the select in Alberta one should be a descendant of a fine old ranching family. Failing that, simply be horsey; wear tulipstitched, high-heeled, eighty-dollar riding boots, a white stetson and a string tie. I believe there are Calgary businessmen who wear spurs to their office and eighteen or twenty years ago I was once shaved by an Eighth Avenue barber wearing orange goat-hair chaps. This was during Stampede week and what Calgarians do during that week should not be held against them. Still, the two prestige industries are ranching and oil and, if you want to be in the important swim, you haven't really much choice. You must be horsey or oily.

British Columbians know all this about Albertans, whom they consider the wealthiest people in the world. This does not stop them from looking down on Albertans. In British Columbia snobbery is endemic — a sort of blanket snobbery. Almost without exception people born in British Columbia feel superior to people born anywhere else. The British Columbian feels sorry not only for easterners but for those from Manitoba, Alberta and espe-

cially for those from Saskatchewan. He is a climate snob and with damn small reason to be one.

British Columbians don’t know yet that in 1905 Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces; it is for this reason that they lump all the Canadians between British Columbia and Ontario under one title: prairie people. At first glance this has a nice friendly ring of informality to it, even though the people of southwest Alberta live in rolling foothills and those of northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and most of Manitoba in wooded parkland. Topographical error may be forgivable but the contempt with which British Columbians have stained the words “prairie people” is not.

“Prairie people” has become almost the worst thing that one coast person can call another. B. C. newspapers have done much to make the title libelous. If an epidemic of smallpox, sylvatic plague, yaws or scabies breaks out in Vancouver or Victoria, it is generally reported that the disease is thought to have been brought into the province by “prairie people.” A woman is brutally beaten over the head with a canoe paddle in Lost Lagoon, then strangled, and we learn from the press that the police are busy rounding up a number of suspicious “prairie people.” If there’s an increase in the incidence of bank robberies, shoplifting, floating crap games, strong-arming and alley-rolling of B. C. citizens it’s all due to the mild spring weather which has caused an increased influx during the past week of “prairie people.” Indeed, British Columbia’s anti-prairie snobbery is so overwhelming that it’s the one area in all of Canada where the people of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba lose their firm grip on their own sense of superiority and perhaps even feel some empathy for a minority such as the Hutterian Brotherhood.

Saskatchewan people, of course, reassure themselves constantly that if there is one thing a native of Saskatchewan is not it is a snob. No fancy airs out here; class distinctions were left in the east when the pioneers rolled west. And yet, here in this unkind climate that tortured its people with the terrible, blue-snow winter of 1906-7, that cracked and blew the topsoil through the drought years, here flourishes that most passionate snobbery of all. It is as native as the crocus, wolf willow, or tiger lily — a masochistic kind of snobbery. Saskatchewan people are snobbish about how far below zero it goes in winter, how often blizzards howl down out of the North. There is pride in how hot it gets in summer and even pride that that oven-heat is so free of humidity that only the Sahara and Death Valley can challenge Saskatchewan for desiccation. Anyone in middle-age can recall those dark drought days when the lamp had to be lit at noon, when the wind lifted the topsoil and kept it high for days. I can recall my Uncle Jim, who farmed south of town, standing at the window of the Bluebird Café and saying to Mr. Spafford, “Lot of land in the air. Fellow could pick himself up half a section easy — and for nothing.”

Mr. Spafford took a moment and then he said, “Where in hell would he lay her down?”


The people of Saskatchewan are pest-proud. The locusts on which John the Baptist dined in his wilderness weren't a patch on our grasshoppers; look at our sawfly and our cutworms. Try to beat our smut — our wild oats. Just walk through that rye and you’ll come out with your pants blood-red with rust. We have in Saskatchewan the most gophers, the strongest alkali and, along with B. C., Alberta, and Manitoba, the biggest snobs anywhere west of the Atlantic.