I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West, 1856-1900

Doug Owram

Promise of Eden by Doug Owram is a study of the development of the perception of the West in the Canadian psyche. Owram examines two main transitions that defined the Canadian expansionist movement; the progression from disproportionate pessimism to disproportionate optimism and the movement from a centralized view of the west to a regionalized viewpoint. Originally most Canadians viewed the vast expanse of Rupert’s Land to be infertile and not fit to live in. It may be fine for the few sorry individuals that chose to spend their lives as a fur trade peon, but it was not meant for hardworking, reputable farm families. However, upon the declaration of the 49th parallel as the border between the United States and Canada in 1846 and the development of the Pacific Railroad, which opened the west to easier exploration, Canadian attitudes toward their massive tract of wilderness began to change. Furthermore, Canadian fear and jealousy of the United States added additional fuel to the winds of change. Instead of representing the west as an uninhabitable wasteland, Canadian rhetoric and commercialism swung the opposite way. The west was declared to be the keystone of future Canadian prosperity, a land of immense fertility and unlimited opportunity. This garden paradise attracted many the naive go-getters, who were eager to start a life based, not on reality, but on the sunny messages of propaganda that were bombarding the public. This land boom and inevitable bust caused many western Canadians to reevaluate the East’s role in their predicament. The East did not emerge from this reevaluation unscathed, but instead was now seen as an exploitative force in the west, that had taken advantage, and would continue to do so if allowed, of the west’s landscape and people for the sole purpose of raising capital. The perception of the west as the country’s bread basket did not entirely dissolve in the late nineteenth century, however it had, as Owram phrases it, inverted. It was now an internalized pride on the part of the westerners.

Owram’s account of Canadian expansion makes it remarkably parallel to the story of American expansion that Frederick Jackson Turner presents. This similarity is not surprising if one believes Owram’s assertion that Canadian westward expansion occurred largely as an effort to emulate the American experience. However, unlike Turner, Owram is fully aware that this story is largely a myth, and that in its falsehood lays its true power. Perception is key in Owram’s narrative. A man’s preconceived notions of a place can be more powerful than the realities that face him once he gets there. At the center of the narrative is the story of the evolution of Canadians’ perception of wilderness. Before the mid-nineteenth century, wilderness was viewed as a dangerous and powerful force that had the ability to bring man to his knees. The Indian was the ultimate representative of wilderness life, and it was believed that the wilderness was principally to blame for the Indian’s miserable, savage state. Slowly this perception evolved to heroicize the individual that was able to his resourcefulness to adapt to the environment, like the rugged individuals in the Frontier Thesis. Once the west began to become attractive for settlement and farming, the idea of wilderness once again had to change in order to fit the mold needed at that moment. As always, the wilderness did not have value on its own, but was something that man must conquer and civilize. As the nineteenth century progressed towards its end, wilderness took on a much less dangerous character so that it did no longer had the authority and strength to hold back progress. Canada’s folly, according to Owram, was that it blindly followed the lead of these myths and perceptions without taking into account the realities that were staring them in the face. Canada’s expectations for the west were unreasonable, and thus they “sacrificed meaningful and stable development for sheer population growth.” (222)

Feature Photo:  Library and Archives Canada, Canada. Ministère de l’Interior / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / PA-048331

 

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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