what i'm reading

I've finally finished Pierre Berton's The Promised Land, which I first blogged about here.

This excellent book completes Berton's tetralogy (one more than a trilogy) about the settling of the Canadian West. Now I've read all four. My next Canadian history project will be - at some future date - Berton's three books about the War of 1812.

In the early days of wmtc, one of the principal readers and commenters was a guy named RobfromAlberta. Rob (he doesn't blog anymore) is a Western conservative with a lot of animosity against Ottawa and Ontario, and an advocate of Alberta secession. There was always a lot of spirited debate between Rob and some other commenters, and through those discussions, I learned something about Western Canadian disaffection and alienation.

When I asked what caused such regional dissension, some people said it dated back to the National Energy Program, or NEP, when the federal government nationalized oil production. Well, reading The Promised Land, I've learned that Western resentment of and animosity towards Ottawa dates back a hell of a lot longer than that. Its roots are in the very beginning of white settlement of Western Canada.

The Western territories were essentially colonies under the control of Eastern Canada, which in those days meant Ottawa and Ontario. Eastern business interests controlled Western resources and the terms of Western labour, and used protectionist tactics to force extremely one-sided trade agreements for Eastern-produced goods.

The federal government had given the settlers free land, and had built the railroad that connected them to the rest of the country. But that railroad was hated beyond measure for its protectionist tariffs, its corrupt land speculation, and its monopolies on farmers' trade.

Even after Alberta and Saskatchewan gained provincial status - after a long, bitter battle - the federal government still controlled their resources and much of their policy. That was already the arrangement with Manitoba. It was, Berton writes, "a status, the Times of London, in a prescient editorial, predicted would sow 'the seeds of future mischief.'"

The hatred wasn't completely one-sided. Folded into the anti-Eastern sentiment, there was also racism: the West was anti-Catholic, anti-French and mostly anti-British, too.

The Western Canadian settlers were bound together by a shared experience: the hardships they endured as they carved a society out of wild land. They didn't have to cope with the kind of violence that raged in the Western US, but they did endure incredible hardships, clearing and farming the land (many farming for the first time in their lives), the harshest of winters (without any modern conveniences), poverty, fires, and terrible loneliness for which no one could have been prepared. This shared suffering bound them together and created a cooperative spirit, which would later help form the roots of Canadian socialism.

Westerners' sense of themselves as a breed apart, more Western than Canadian – which Berton goes to great lengths to illustrate – combined with the perceived oppression from the East gave rise to radical politics. With help from the US agrarian movement and the British labour movement, radical and populist political movements gained traction and strength in the West.

Also, in the Western cities, there was vast poverty, slums and degradation - the underside side of the capitalist expansionist spirit which dominated the land. Here the great Canadian radical reformers Nellie McClung and J. S. Woodsworth enter the scene. It's no surprise that, as in the United States, the Western provinces were the first to grant women the right to vote. This is where the Canadian labour movement was born (which, from what I gather, followed the same trajectory as the American labour movement), the land from which Tommy Douglas would emerge, and where the CCF, the forerunner of the NDP, would be born. If I understand correctly, the NDP still forms the provincial governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

An aside: J.S. Woodsworth's illustrious public career would end in 1939, when he rose in the House of Commons to declare that his conscience could not allow him to vote for a declaration of war.

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