Canada Has Mild, Mild West; Province of Alberta Is Subject of Smithsonian Folk Exhibit

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 7, 2006 | Go to article overview

Canada Has Mild, Mild West; Province of Alberta Is Subject of Smithsonian Folk Exhibit


Byline: Kelly Jane Torrance, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The American West was won. The Canadian West was negotiated. Or so an old saying goes. Though Americans are familiar with the first half of that story, interested Washingtonians can savor a part of the Canadian West on their home turf. The province of Alberta is featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this month, with a host of related events - from art exhibits to music shows - around town. The Canadian Embassy also is exhibiting "All About Alberta" in its art gallery.

Yet despite the interest, perhaps the most striking thing about the Canadian West is its lack of representation in popular culture, especially in contrast to its American counterpart.

The American West was a rowdy place, a vast territory filled with gunfights and barroom brawls. There were plenty of heroes and villains, sheriffs and outlaws. It was only tamed, ironically enough, through sheer aggression.

At least that's what I learned as an Alberta schoolgirl. My teachers always contrasted the United States' assertive motto of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" with the more sober Canadian slogan, "peace, order, and good government."

The story of the Canadian West was different. There were no shootouts at the OK Corral for us. The simplified story is that Westerners went from being under the control of the Hudson's Bay Co. to being part of the Dominion of Canada - and somewhat peacefully, at that.

Westerners, in both the U.S. and its northern neighbor, are an independent bunch. In Canada, though, independence somehow didn't manifest itself politically - the Canadian cowboys allowed themselves to fall directly under federal control.

These historical differences may explain why representations of the West in popular culture are so different in the two countries. America, of course, has the long and proud tradition of the Western. John Wayne personified the tough, independent cowboy in more than 200 movies. Cowboy culture also helped inspire one of the great American vernacular music traditions, country and Western. The cowboy spirit of self-reliance is inextricably tied with the American spirit itself.

The American cowboy is so iconic - and still relevant - that director Ang Lee caused the biggest Hollywood stir in years with "Brokeback Mountain," which subverted cowboy archetypes.

The Canadian West doesn't have such a film tradition. There are no Canadian cowboy stars on stage or screen. In fact, the quintessential Canadian Western figure isn't a vigilante or renegade. Instead, it's the Mountie, a figure of law and order.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police began life in 1873 as the North-West Mounted Police. The red-suited men on horseback are a particularly Canadian institution; the American frontier had nothing remotely similar.

Unfortunately, a bureaucracy of lawgivers isn't quite as romantic as an independent brotherhood - even if, like the cowboys, they also did their work on horseback. The Mounties never inspired great art. The most famous Mountie in popular culture is probably Dudley Do-Right from TV's animated "The Bullwinkle Show." The Mounties' unofficial slogan might be that they always catch their man, but Dudley never seemed to get hold of archnemesis Snidely Whiplash.

It's no surprise, then, that Canadian authorities banned "The Bullwinkle Show" because they didn't like the portrayal of a character whose man always got away .. even after he was caught.

The modern update of Dudley, Constable Benton Fraser - the central character of the 1990s Canadian TV series "Due South" - wasn't much better. Seen on CBS, the program was the most popular Canadian series ever shown on American television at the time. Constable Fraser (played by Paul Gross) was the stereotypical Canadian: polite, thoughtful - and kind of boring.

Maybe history isn't the only problem. …

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Canada Has Mild, Mild West; Province of Alberta Is Subject of Smithsonian Folk Exhibit
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