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.

Some Aspects of the Frontier in Canadian History”

Walter N. Sage

  • Walter N. Sage, “Some Aspects of the Frontier in Canadian History,” in Canada from Sea to Sea (Toronto, Canada: The University of Toronto Press, 1940), 17-32.

Walter N. Sage (1888-1963) was a Canadian historian at the University of British Columbia, who specialized in Pacific Northwest history. In “Some Aspects of the Frontier in Canadian History,” Sage discusses the story of Canada’s westward expansion and frontier experience. Openly channeling Turner’s Frontier Thesis, Sage believes that the American and Canadian frontier narratives are “obvious parallels” (17) and that “the story of the Canadian frontier is closely interwoven with that of the westward movement in the United States.” (17) This comparative study had been overlooked by historians before Sage due to the fact that Canada’s western expansion had occurred later than in the United States and because Canada at the time Sage was writing (1928) still had a frontier line, beyond which civilization gave way to wilderness. Sage presents his argument through a discussion of the interconnectedness of American and Canadian frontier lines through the years starting in the 18th Century with the fur trade and ending with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881-1885.  

The main concept that Sage is trying to disseminate in “Some Aspects of the Frontier in Canadian History” is that of a shared North American point of view. Sage rejects Turner’s emphasis on an American-only narrative and believes that too much scholarship has focused on individual colonies, provinces, etc. This collective North American experience both celebrates and undermines Turner’s theories. Like Turner, Sage accentuates the role of destiny in Canada’s westward expansion; it was the Canadian’s fate and right to conquer and tame this unknown territory. Additionally, Sage embraces Turner’s portrayal of the mountain man and the fostering of a shared hardy sense of independence and democratic fervor. Sage goes as far as to say that westward expansion has had the same effect on both the American and the Prairie Provinces, where “as in the western states it has been a case of debtor west and a creditor east. The result has been the same; the rise of agrarian political parties and the formation of co-operative societies.” (31) Sage also spends a great deal of time emphasizing the way in which frontier settlement often times crossed borders between Canada and America. In fact, Sage believes that “this interlacing of the frontier is most important” (32) when studying the effect of westward expansion in North America.  

Despite admitting that Turner’s theories are not fully relatable to Canada’s experience, one must recognize that Sage is in large part claiming Turner’s theories for his own country. This is problematic, firstly, due to the fact that Turner intended his Frontier Thesis to pertain only to the United States. The characteristics that the frontier cultivated, according to Turner, were unique to the United States and were what made Americans special. If the Canadian frontier movement was a result of American impulses, such as the loyalist migration during the Revolutionary War, then does that suggest that Americans and Canadians are indeed part of one North American cultural conglomerate? One would expect that a majority of citizens from both countries would balk at that suggestion. Or, even more dubious, does it imply that Canadians are merely the lackeys of an imperialistic and dynamic American culture? Perhaps this last question is a bit too alarmist. However, Sage’s treatment of the intertwining wests of America and Canada brings a great deal of borderland issues into the limelight.

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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  1. Hi, Jessica. I found this note really impressive and helpful. I am researching a nature history doc series involving the concept of frontier theory and am trying to find the Canadian versions of the frontier concept. Thanks for the note!


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