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.

Images of the West: Responses to the Canadian Prairies

R. Douglas Francis

  • R. Douglas Francis, Images of the West: Responses to the Canadian Prairies (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1989).

In Images of the West: Responses to the Canadian Prairies, R. Douglas Francis attempts to tell the story of how contemporary western Canadian identity was shaped. “A region becomes over time more than a product of environment or even the perception of the environment. It becomes a “mental construct,” shaped by the attitudes, beliefs, and stories of its people,” he writes. The totality of this mental construct is the mythology by which individuals envision their “reality.” In Images of the West, Francis analyzes five major eras in western perception and provides the reader with literary, historical, and visual embodiments of these perceptions. Like Anne Farrar Hyde’s analysis of western perceptions in the United States in An American Vision, Francis charts a similar trajectory, on which Canadian perceptions of the west changed from negative to positive.

The first era of perception was 1650 to 1850, during which time the west was believed to be cold, barren, desolate, and inhospitable. Like the explorers and travelers in Hyde’s American west, the individuals that initially traveled to the Canadian west were greatly affected by their European roots. They carried a European enlightenment viewpoint, in which the west was a place where one could conquer nature, discover and claim new land, and study ecological subjects. It was not a place where one took up residence. Also similar to Hyde’s Americans, Canadians had a European understanding of landscape and aesthetics. The apparent monotony of the prairie landscape was displeasing. Furthermore, farm land was supposed to appear abundant, be covered in trees, and be moist in climate—all of which the west was not. Supporting Harold Innis’ assertion that the fur trade was anti-settlement in The Fur Trade in Canada, Francis attributes lack of migration largely to the Hudson Bay Company’s control of Rupert’s Land, as they were able to stop competition to its monopoly by dissuading others to move there due to its inhospitality. The second era was from 1845 to 1885 and was characterized by two main movements: romanticism and nationalism. Romantics fixated on the pristine quality of the West’s wilderness. These individuals endorsed the same brand of rugged individuality that excited Turner and Theodore Roosevelt. Civilization made a man weak and impure; only nature could restore man’s innocence and strength. Nationalists, still tightly drawn to Britain, hopes that a transcontinental nation would lead to increased prosperity and power in the British Empire, as good fortunes for Britain also meant good fortunes for Canada. These two movements led to the third era, that of the Promised Land from 1880-1920. During this time period, the government and railroads undertook a massive propaganda campaign to draw immigrants to the interior. The West was presented as an agrarian paradise sitting in the middle of a fertile belt. The climate was said to have positive effects on the character, and the soil was said to be top-notch. This utopian image promised a land of plenty and moral and civic virtues, and was destined to eventually cause disillusionment. This disillusionment was strongest from 1880 to 1940 or the era of western realism, as Francis refers to it. Once the West proved not to be as spectacular as the posters, individuals acted one of two ways. The first group, such as those who participated in agrarian protests, tried to modify reality to the ideal that they still had in their imagination. The second group embraced the reality of their situation and mustered pride in the face of adversity. By 1945, Francis argues, the West had become more than its geography, it had developed into the “mental construct” that is the fate of all, long-standing regions.

Francis draws heavily on Doug Owram’s analysis of the Canadian West in The Promise of Eden. Like Owram, Francis traces the ways in which businessmen and politicians changed the country’s entire perception of the West in order to fend off American encroachment and in order to develop a distinctive Canadian identity. The lure of the agrarian utopia myth in both Owram and Francis’ works is similar to the myth of “the garden of the world” that Henry Nash Smith discusses in Virgin Land. Francis discusses the arrival of photography in creating western perception and states that the photographs added an extra level of authenticity to the claims of western propagandists. This is dissimilar to how Martha A. Sandweiss presents the arrival of photography in American western art, as it was largely unaccepted amongst those in the east because they were too realistic, and evidently did not mold properly to their preconceptions of what the West should be. One must wonder if the introduction of photography met a more favorable reception in Canada or if Francis simply missed this part of the story whilst researching.

Feature Image: Une route des Prairies, ca. 1862, William George Richardson Hind collection. Crédit: Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, no d’acc 1937-279-1

 

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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