The book delivers on what it promises, an explanation of the roots of western alienation in Canada. But its a very one-sided story that plays fast and loose with its narrative. More “popular” than “history,” Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark; the West Versus the Rest Since Confederation just rehashes the same old perspectives on its topic, and ultimately reaffirms the Canadian State, rather than sounding a note of caution about how it may choose to handle future conflicts involving western resources and national economic development.
Thoughts about the book
The book touches on more contemporary times and offers a perspective on the future of regional tensions in Canada, but the main thrust of it covers the period from Confederation of the remaining British colonies in North America in 1867 up to the depression. A crucial period of consolidation for today’s Canadian state.
Mary Janigan writes a readable book which, in places, connects her big picture with the lived experiences of individuals. The diary and letters of one Alberta homesteader were a nice counterpoint to her main story. That’s one aspect I really enjoyed. Despite that, the story of western alienation that Janigan tells is a “history” that is told despite the people of the west. Or, a story of how history was done to them. For this reader, her account was disturbingly boring.
I was disappointed at the lack of insight. Some of the context she provides is quite interesting. As for any struggle at the heart of western alienation, her version is more a matter of accounting than anything else. According to Mary Janigan the westward march of Canada, the introduction of colonialism, and the extension of capitalism into the region sparked little more than tussles over accounts receivable.
The problems with this perspective are numerous, ultimately her conclusions are idealistic and fall prey to the same old myth making that characterises the received histories of Canada. She does pull in First Nations, Metis, and the working class; but they are little more than window dressing. The logic of Imperialism and the annexation of the west are never critically interrogated. The main action is that of the men responsible for the administration of that annexation. The economic and political logic which propelled them is left unchallenged. The system they sought to extend over the west is assumed to be innocent while their attitudes and personalities of the men in charge of its implementation is elevated into the spotlight.
To accomplish that she falls prey to a revision of history that is current amongst Canadians, the appropriation of Louis Riel. She places Riel uncritically next to colonialist leaders whose main job was to assist in the extension of Canada west to the Rockies. This completely obscures history in favour of a narrative which fits well within the mythology, albeit in updated 21st century form, of the Canadian nation.
Riel advocated for Provincial status within the federation; and fought for the right of local control over local resources like the others on Janigan’s continuum of western leaders. But no one else on Janigan’s continuum ever faced assault by the armed forces in their pursuit of that objective. Nor did they face a bloody reaction as did the Metis after they won Manitoban recognition. And nor were they executed by the state for their agitation as was Louis Riel.
Colonisation would have to occur on the terms dictated by Canada, otherwise unfettered access to the west could not be guaranteed to its investors. The Metis and First Nations were the first in the west to experience the struggle against the logic of Canadian Imperialism, and alienation from the project of building the Canadian nation. They were an obstacle to be cleared. The settlers who came after annexation and their leaders were never an obstacle to colonisation, we were, and (one has to admit) still are, the tools of it.
Louis Riel, on the other hand, took a stand against the unilateral annexation of western territory. His leadership was concerned with achieving an agreement that would bring the Metis into Confederation on equal terms with the rest of the Dominion. He wanted the same deal that the other Provinces got. If the Dominion would not accept this, or in the event that the Dominion were to betray its agreement, Riel was willing to shed blood in order to ensure the rights were honoured. It may not have been a struggle for “national liberation,” but it was about as close as the Metis would come. Obliterating the nuances which characterize the Metis struggle in favour of fitting it into a Canadian narrative is problematic at best. Riel is a complex figure, but if there is one thing he was not it was a collaborator with the Canadian State.
In addition to this, it is strange that she would appropriate Riel and the Metis resistance for her narrative, yet leave First Nations resistance as little more than a bit of colour to dramatize the expansion of Canada west with.
First Nations in the west had their own episodes of armed protest against the Canadian state, such as the multi-national gathering in 1881 of Indigenous people to protest at Fort Walsh. Perhaps more significant, the fact that there was a historic move by Cree leaders at the time of the 2nd Riel Resistance to reach a rapprochement with their counterparts amongst the Blackfoot needs to be acknowledged as part of the genuine continuum of struggle against Canadian Imperialism.
The Cree and Blackfoot people were traditional enemies whose history of conflict eased the road for Canadian annexation, but through experience they were able to set aside historical differences in order to present a unified front in defending themselves against the encroachments of the Canadian Imperialists. Such a setting aside of differences that had become secondary would be echoed just a few short decades later, on a much larger scale, by working people not just in western Canada, but across the entire country.
The Winnipeg General Strike is the high water mark for western Canadian opposition and struggle against the logic of Canadian Imperialism. The great mass of working settlers stepped on to the stage of history. Their solidarity rendered as secondary much of the regionalism and prejudices between settlers of different ethnic origins. At Winnipeg, much like at Red River, the people began to take the reigns of state into their own hands and impose their vision of how society should function. Their action was a direct challenge to the unfettered access of the Imperialists.
Imperialism, put in context, is a developmental stage of Capitalism. An advanced stage, where there are no more new colonies and the great powers must take them from each other when seeking new markets and sources of wealth for its ruling class. This captures the essence of how Canada came to “own” the vast Northwest territories, as part of a financial transaction with Britain. Imperialism as such is elaborated by one of histories most successful anti- Imperialists and one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin, in his “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.”
While sounding empathetic to the ‘oppressed masses’ cast into struggle by Canadian Capitalism, its obvious where her real sympathies lay. Janigan does little more than shake a metaphorical head at the inability of the Government to deal with the economic circumstances that were drawing western Canadian workers, farmers and veterans into active struggle against the State during the latter part of the First World War, and the decades leading to the Second. Direct confrontations in the west, unlike anything since the armed conflicts at Batoche, Red River, or Ft. Walsh were on the agenda. The army and police would once again, as they had against the Metis 40 years before, use machine guns to assert State power against an insurgent people.
While she nicely points out how sympathy strikes drew workers together across the country in common cause, she doesn’t bother to point out how this is the best example, of Canadians being able to superseded their regionalisms and prejudices on a massive scale. She discusses something of the challenges facing the working class, unemployment, housing, working conditions, wages, etc. But rather than connect them to the political and economic logic under pinning the Canadian State, all too often she uses it as a means to expound upon the prejudice of one section of the working class against another.
Perhaps I expected too much from this book. For me the story of western alienation, if we are to understand it as anything more than just a bourgeois bickering match over the spoils of conquest, needs to approach the topic from a more genuinely historical perspective. The assumption that the antagonisms of the past are now “residual” is fatal when confronted with the inevitable challenges of Canada’s near future. After all, the Canadian state that coalesced in 1867 is the same one with which the modern ruling class proposes to approach our future. Even Justin Trudeau’s “Sunny Ways” are nothing new, just a rehash of Wilfred Laurier’s tactic for placating western politicians and easing a fractious and divided Confederation back at the turn of the 19th century.
Much has changed, yet more has not. The fatal flaw of this book is that as a consequence of obscuring Canada’s history, leaving untouched the broader issues such as the political and economic logic which underpins the Canadian State, we learn nothing about how to deal with the challenges ahead.
A list of material that I have read and found interesting and relevant to the topic. By no means authoritative, or exhaustive.
The Battle of Batoche: British Small Warfare and the Entrenched Metis.
Loyal to Death. Indians and the North-west Rebellion.
Capitalism, the Highest Stage of Imperialism
Why Does Canada150 Give Canadian Historians a Headache
@ UnwrittenHistories.ca (I’m hoping to have a p0st giving my take on this excellent article)
The Reign of Terror Against the Metis of Red River