An Innis, Not a Turner

By Kaye, Frances W. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

An Innis, Not a Turner

Kaye, Frances W., American Review of Canadian Studies

Comparative Historiography of the Canadian and U.S. Wests

The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.

Frederick Jackson Turner

The Northwest Company was the forerunner of Confederation and it was built on the work of the French voyageur, the contributions of the Indians, especially the canoe, Indian corn, and pemmican, and the organizing ability of Anglo-American merchants. (262)

Harold A. Innis

During the last decade and a half, the New Western Historians and a growing turn to regional studies have made the history of the U.S. West a particularly vital part of the profession. Meanwhile, extraordinary strides in Canadian western women's and, particularly, Aboriginal history have revised and revitalized the history of the Canadian West. During the same period, first the Free Trade Agreement and later NAFTA have focused both Canadian and American attention on continental issues and the differences and similarities between the two enormous land masses that make up the bulk of North America. Yet nowhere have all these interests coalesced into an overall, synthetic study of the U.S. and Canadian Prairie Wests.

On one hand, there is no difference between the Canadian and American Wests. There is one unbroken geographical entity (though it may be called Prairies or Great Plains) that changes gradually from North to South and from East to West, and that includes a vast range of microclimates and micro-geographies. For thousands or tens of thousands of years, various peoples traversed; avoided; hunted over; gardened river valleys; gathered roots, seeds, fruits, and leaves; and were vouchsafed sacred places throughout the area. Nations moved on or were driven out; followed game or fled glaciers.

The "United States of America" and the "Dominion of Canada" have divided this region between them for less than two centuries, but the impact of their citizens upon it has been great and largely similar. In both countries, the slaughter of the great bison herds led to land treaties with Aboriginal peoples. Domestic cattle replaced the bison, and railroads brought thousands of commercial agricultural settlers who ploughed the land and planted cereal crops. The newcomers used the federal government and the courts to separate even more land from Aboriginal peoples--for farmland, mineral development, urban growth, and hydroelectric and irrigation dams. Both north and south of the forty-ninth parallel, almost all of this region is now commercially cropped grasslands, producing grain or meat. In both countries, this agriculture is one of boom and bust, fewer and fewer people on the land, and more and more relocating outside the region or to cities that, except for Saskatchewan and Texas, are only on the fringe of t he region.

On the other hand, the two Wests are so different in the context of their current political identities and intellectual histories that there is almost no comparison possible. To find a true parallel, we would have to discover that Sitting Bull was George Washington's primary antagonist, or that Americans still hotly debated whether Mexican general Santa Ana should be called a Founding Father or a vicious renegade. Canada needed its West to bring about Confederation; the eastern United States claimed its West as Manifest Destiny. Canada's West is separated from its eastern population centers by a thousand miles of the rugged Canadian shield, while the United States deployed a continuous frontier of Amer-European settlement--despite Webb's contention that it toppled over for a moment at the one-hundredth meridian. Euro-North American traders traversed Canada for centuries via the empires of the St. Lawrence and Hudson Bay, working in a symbiotic relationship with Aboriginal trappers and fur preparers. Euro-Amer ican traders in the Mississippi basin gave way to American trappers, Mountain Men, who wiped out the beaver as far as they could reach and supplanted the Aboriginal trappers with whom they were not unusually at war. …

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