This fall, readers confront a rare embarrassment of riches in histories of the Canadian West. Pierre Berton’s The Promised Land has already appeared to critical praise. Now, Gerald Friesen, a history professor at the University of Manitoba, offers The Canadian Prairies, a massive work of scholarship chronicling the stories of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta from pre-European conquest days to the 1980s. For the average reader, Berton’s vivid book, which covers the opening of the West between 1896 and 1914, will prove considerably more entertaining. By contrast, Friesen is more concerned with compiling truthful records than making vivid scenes. Although a clear writer, he sometimes fails to be an engaging one. Despite that shortcoming, The Canadian Prairies is a must for any student of the region. It provides the first major synthesis of western Canadian history in 20 years and draws on the latest findings in social and ethnohistory as well as political science.
Most impressively, it treats prairie Indians from their own point of view, rather than relegating them to the peripheries of European experience. Friesen debunks the image of Indians as helpless innocents who bartered away their land for liquor and beads. In fact, before the 19th century, trading sessions between white men and red featured stateliness, hard bargaining and a high degree of respect on both sides. It was only after the irresistible advance of large white populations had destroyed native culture that historians could rightly call the Indians victims.
In taking that viewpoint, Friesen is reporting what other scholars have known for years. But, although he ventures few original interpretations, he has a lively sense of controversy and likes to point out how scholarly research alters widely held views. He shoots to rags the notion that the settlement of the Canadian West was a peaceful affair. In one of his rare anecdotes, Friesen recalls the horrendous 1873 massacre of Cypress Hills, where drunken whites mowed down 20 Indians. Even more important, he points out that although that incident was an isolated one, violence among Indians soon became tragically common. By the mid19th century the Cree and Blackfoot
fought viciously over the remnants of the dwindling buffalo herds, with as many as 340 dying in a battle in 1870 near the Oldman River in Alberta.
After a lengthy treatment of the Indians, Friesen moves competently through the obvious high points of prairie history, from the Riel Rebellion through the arrival of European farmers to the Winnipeg Strike of 1919 and the Great Depression. Occasionally, he inserts a subjective speculation that nicely relieves the grey march of facts. His treatment of the Northwest Mounted Police, formed in 1873 to patrol the newly opened prairie, is particularly insightful. Contrasting the decorous Mountie with the gunslinging American lawman, Friesen points out that the Canadians’ “strength was not an individual accomplishment but the gift of an invincible culture.”
Often, the most rivetting moments in Prairie stem from Friesen’s presentation of history’s darker episodes. He
dispels Canada’s image of racial tolerance by reporting that by 1929 the Ku Klux Klan had between 10,000 and 20,000 members in the Dominion. Unlike their U.S. brethren, who lynched blacks, prairie Klansmen targeted Jews and Roman Catholics. Despite such startling revelations, much of Prairie is hard to get through. Friesen has a tendency to get tangled in tedious general descriptions of events rather than making vivid, specific pictures. As well, he omits certain fascinating figures of Western history altogether, including pioneering Calgary newspaper editor and wit Bob Edwards.
Clearly, the immense scope of Friesen’s book has made it necessary to deal briefly with many of its topics. Still, the fact remains that The Canadian Prairies is the most comprehensive volume on the vast open regions that have inspired so many of the country’s dreams and rooted so many of the country’s accomplishments.
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