[Making Western Canada: Essays on European Civilization & Settlement]

Article excerpt

In 1980 historian J.MS. Careless, in response to a burst of historical scholarship related to his "limited identities," compared himself to a farmer who prayed for rain and ended up with a flood (3). If Careless's farmer were around today he would be heading for high ground because of a tidal wave warning. In the 1990s alone, tremendous advances have been made in historical writing about western Canada. The scholarship being produced by academics is increasingly complex, diverse and wide ranging. It is a collection that demonstrates that the social history revolution, with its focus on gender, class, race, ethnicity and region, continues unabated.

There are undoubtedly those who will continue to argue that in accelerating the trends of the last few years, history is being produced that is too narrowly focussed. Much of the literature, which in reality is more inclusive than the old-style national history, suffers from this potential negative only in the sense of dealing with a particular group in a particular area. In two respects, many of the works discussed herein drift much further afield than the work of previous generations of historians on western Canada: academics are increasingly employing methodologies created elsewhere, and these same writers are looking beyond western Canada in an effort at comparison. These recent works collectively suggest that region, the bulwark variable of so much of what western Canadian historical writing has been about, is becoming repeatedly secondary or potentially irrelevant with an increased emphasis on class and race, among others, as explanatory tools. That is certainly not to say that region is being replaced by nation; it is not. Instead, comparisons are being made across both national and regional boundaries.

These increasingly specialized scholarly works about western Canada have exacerbated the gap between academic and popular history that J.R. Miller alluded to in "Farewell to Monks, Eunuchs, and Vestal Virgins," which appeared on these pages in 1985. It is not all the fault of academics either. Popular history has been slow to accept the social history revolution. Instead the purveyors of broader, rollicking history continue to produce books that promote caricatures and simplicity. Hence writing about western Canadian history is really about two separate and distinct spheres -- the popular and the scholarly.

Over the past 13 years one major influence on academic literature, at least on works about the Canadian prairies, has been Gerald Friesen's The Canadian Prairies: A History, winner of the Canadian Historical Association's J.A. Macdonald prize for the best book in Canadian history. Critics rightly celebrate the book as a major step forward in the writing of prairie history. The Canadian Prairies is a synthesis of secondary sources, a work which, as its author has acknowledged, reflected the scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s. Reviewers have named various weaknesses, largely areas neglected or ignored by Friesen. One of the most significant weaknesses in the Friesen tome, as identified by Ramsay Cook among others, was the lack of material on prairie women (414). Reflecting the available scholarship, the women who appeared in The Canadian Prairies were mainly the great, not the ordinary (Moffatt 14).

Like any good work of synthesis, the holes of The Canadian Prairies inspired others to try to fill them. "Other" Voices: Historical Essays on Saskatchewan Women, edited by Aileen Moffatt and Dave De Brou, is one example of new work on prairie women. This collection of essays surveys Saskatchewan women on the basis of ethnicity, race, class, religion, rural and urban location and even regional (north-south) differences. Specific essays examine Swedish, French-speaking, Jewish, British, working-class, farming and Native women, and three recent immigrant women to Saskatchewan. Moffatt provides a background to historical writing about Saskatchewan women, while both she and De Brou attempt to place the volume into current scholarly trends in Canada focussing on writing about women and gender. …