Gerald Friesen, “The Canadian Prairies: A History” (1984)

Published in 1984, the synthetic work that is Gerald Friesen’s The Canadian Prairies incorporated hundreds of books, articles, and government reports to give readers a glimpse of the long historical processes — Fernand Braudel’s longue durée — that unfolded within the western interior of Canada from 1600 up through the middle of the twentieth century. The book begins with a general introduction of the geology that shaped the region’s physiography, an area that is organized into three parts. In the east is the prairie, and west of that is a step (or steppe) up to the parkland, and then higher yet the forest. The prairie is the area of the Red River Valley and Lake Agassiz basin, and as Friesen says it rolls “seemingly without end north and west.” The parkland region is composed of gentle rolling hills and valleys, with prairie potholes and fertile soil. Further west of the parkland is the northern extension of the Rocky Mountains and the Boreal Forest. This area has outcroppings of rocks, frigid lakes, and a portion of forest that is part of a broader network of spruce and pine that extends from Newfoundland to Alaska. (Friesen, 1984: 3-9)

"Fur trade posts of the west." (Friesen, 1984: 96)

“Fur trade posts of the west.” (Friesen, 1984: 96)

Throughout the narrative, culture constantly interacts with the natural world. The year of 1840, however, provides an industrial point of demarcation within this synthesis, and within the history of the Canadian interior. Prior to this, human inhabitants relied much on the broad and gradual swings of nature. Rivers served as transportation routes, and river courses often influenced the direction of trade flows and Native American diplomacy. Rivers, lakes and potholes also provided vegetation with a permanent water source, and where there was vegetation, bison would certainly gather. The global industrial revolution, though, eventually made available such things as steamboats, firearms, agricultural implements, and railroads, and by the latter half of the nineteenth century, the interior of the Canadian west had been altered as never before. The Canadian government favored settlers, and Native American nomads became “wards of the state — put bluntly, they would be treated as children.” (Friesen, 1984: 129)

Two of the passages in Friesen’s work that explain this cultural change come in the form of primary and secondary sources. As a primary source, Friesen quotes Isaac Cowie and his wagon-train experience when maneuvering through a herd of bison. Cowie said in,

…the midst of the herd, which opened in front and closed behind the train of carts like water round a ship… the earth trembled day and night… as they moved… over the inclinations of the plains. Every drop of water on our way was foul and yellow with their wallowing and excretions. (Friesen, 1984: 8)

First Nations and Native American boundaries circa 1820. (Friesen, 1984: 94)

First Nations and Native American boundaries circa 1820. (Friesen, 1984: 94)

Further in Friesen’s work is his own anthropological understanding of the furious alteration of old ways that were increasingly giving way to global industrialization. Commenting on the Cree, and placing the reader in that perspective, Friesen said,

A typical Cree youth might have been hunting buffalo and raiding for horses in the 1860s just as his grandfather had done sixty years before; in the 1870s, he might have succumbed to the whiskey trade or been struck by an epidemic; almost certainly he would have been removed to a reserve and perhaps even taught the rudiments of agriculture. In the 1880s, some of his children might have been attending school, and he, having faced starvation for three or four years in succession, might have participated in the violence associated with the 1885 uprising… the buffalo had disappeared, trains and fences and towns now dominated the plains, and the old ways had disappeared beyond recovery. (Friesen, 1984: 130)

Further thoughts on this induce a reader to consider how global population movements before and after the 19th century industrial revolution shifted and altered indigenous customs and habits with a rapidity never before seen or experienced. Localized accounts of this come in the form of Fort Whoop Up, and the expansive network of railroads that eventually eclipsed the smaller fur trade forts. Friesen is good at explaining this in a way that leads readers to envision themselves as individual Native Americans looking at endless waves of non-Natives and invaders colonizing their traditional lands. This, indeed, is the epitome of good history: it is not elevating one side at the expense of another. Rather, the good and excellent historian allows the reader to understand all sides, and how conflict and disorder came about and what resulted from it.

By the first half of the twentieth century, immigrants had flooded into the Canadian interior, and the result was cosmopolitan chaos. Again, Friesen’s prose shines as he places the reader into Winnipeg circa 1900.

To descend from the train at the CPR [railroad] station in Winnipeg was to enter an international bazaar: the noise of thousands of voices and a dozen tongues circled the high marble pillars and drifted out into the street, there to mingle with the sounds of construction, delivery wagons, perambulatory vendors, and labour recruiters. The crowds were equally dense on Main Street, just a block away, where shops displayed their wares in a fashion more European than British North American: fruits and vegetables, books and newspapers, coats and jackets stood on sidewalk tables and racks, even on the outer walls of buildings when weather permitted. (Friesen, 1984: 243)

This continues, as Friesen remarks on the smells of fresh earth and milled lumber from the Boreal Forest resulting from localized construction projects in downtown Winnipeg. He tempers the progress of nostalgic development with smells of “beer and whisky and sweat and horse manure” so that a reader does not get lonesome for a manicured past that never was.

Friesen’s synthetic narrative is a likely starting point for that long duration of the history of the Canadian west. In his introductory and concluding remarks, he chose to celebrate rather than chide the “superficial friendliness that makes daily contact between people of very different backgrounds not only possible but likely.” (Friesen, 1984: xiii) In 1984, Friesen looked kindly on the culture of the Canadian plains and prairie, and this is a marked difference from how Wallace Stegner portrayed it in 1955. For Friesen, curling represented “a most democratic sport,” while all Stegner could see in curling was the absence of tennis. In a large way, Friesen checked any kind of disappointment or snobbery at the door. This is not to throw Stegner under a bus or bison stampede. Rather, it demonstrates that throughout time, perceptions change, both for individuals who are direct participants in the past, and individuals who study and interpret their behavior. This, in a large way, is just as much a reflection of the culture the historian is studying as it is as the culture that the historian comes from.


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