Notes on 45th Text for Reading Field: Owram

Canadian History, Week 8

buffalo hunters

George Seton, watercolour, “Buffalo Hunters of the Far West, 1858.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1950-63-1.8R.

Doug Owram. Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Image of the West, 1856-1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980. [Limited preview, Google Books,].

Doug Owram identifies imaginings of the West – principally as a source of potential wealth, but also as, potentially, an internationally aggrandizing territorial possession. These imaginings were presented by a variety of like-minded and personally interconnected propagandists (including amateur historians, scientists, and businessmen, some of whom were Westerners and most of whom were bent on remunerative speculation), to non-Westerners who might be induced to either monetarily invest in, or personally inhabit, the West. As well, Owram describes the Canadian process of westward expansion – from impetus to planning, installation, and implementation of governing policy, polity, and political agents.

The underlying idea from which the ‘Expansionist’ movement arose and which coloured non-native (to the region) perceptions of potential would appear to be straightforward colonialism – with all of its economic, utililitarian, and development theory inherited directly from Canada’s European – though in the scope Owram’s analysis primarily British — progenitors. Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon is how non-Western self-appointed champions of Canadian expansion (such as Charles Mair for example), were also prone to becoming entirely disillusioned with the Eastern perspective and resentful of the imperial tone of Canadian policy, once they became Westerners and over the course of their involvement in the expansionist process.

Six months

Octave Henri Julien, “ Six Months in the Wilds of the North West, and a Band of Sioux on the March,” Canadian Illustrated News (3 April 1875): 212. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-3429 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

Owram traces changes in ideas about the West through a course of stages. Initially, prior to filling up readily accessible territory with settlers and having its options for direction of expansion limited by the formal annexation of South-West territory by the United States (the which territory was perceived to be more desirable – even in terms of the fur trade), Canada did not imagine any particular value in the North-West. Thus, up to the 1850s, the image of the West in Canada was one of inhospitality – save perhaps for the solitary oasis of civility in an immense barren wilderness that Red River Settlement offered to itinerant sojourners, adventurers, and curiosity seekers.

st boniface2

William H. E. Napier, “St. Boniface, Red River Settlement,” dated c.1857-8 with note that “accompanied Henry Youle Hind’s expedition to the Red River colony and the Canadian West.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R3523-90.

Subsequently, as pressure on available, farmable land in the Canadas mounted, notions of what the Western wilderness might be capable of producing began to change. The territory appeared amenable to ‘taming’ by those with agrarian know-how. The evaluations of Henry Hind and John Palliser in the late 1850s suggested that agriculture would thrive in a ‘fertile belt’ between the Arctic and the American Desert. Red River thus was imagined anew as a fitting starting point for instituting a new, ordered, and vast agricultural hinterland that would stretch across the Saskatchewan river system and west to the Rockies. Owram notes that is was during this stage that the North West was progressively differentiated from the Arctic – which led to the imagining of the next stage.

prairie flowers

Edward Roper, “Prairie Flowers near Broadview, Assiniboia,” dated 4 August 1887. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1989-446-31.

As the stage marked by the actual expansion process began and the first settlers arrived, fortuitous climatic conditions (a series of unusually wet summers), brought extensive tracts of land into a deceptive bloom, raising expectations (notably of Canadian botanist John Macoun during the 1870s), that an even greater area — including the normally arid Palliser’s triangle — was suitable for agricultural settlement. The owners of the Canadian Pacific Railway made use of this new idea to justify their decision to adopt a more southerly route, arguing it would better access the supposed “garden of Eden” that the West presented. Perceptions of Hudson Bay were also coloured by the ‘garden’ myth. It was imagined as a ‘Mediterranean’ waiting for farsighted champions of commerce to install steam propelled rail and water transport systems that would reach from grain fields to markets (and facilitate vacationers as well).

By the 1880s disillusionment began to set in. Westward migration slowed. Rebellion broke out in 1885. The East appeared perversely, and powerfully, set against allowing northern transportation improvements. The final – and persistent – Western Canadian vision (an altered version of what had been the Central Canadian National Policy vision), emerged: the West was a hinterland unjustly exploited by selfish powers in Central Canada.

For the most part, the various Wests that Owram describes have been (and continue to be) described elsewhere – as have attitudes (contemporary and historiographical) formed about the original inhabitants. Likewise, Owram’s suggestion, that Canadian expansionism really only manifested in Ontarians who were largely Protestant, nationalist, and intolerant of anyone who was not of their ilk, is not strikingly new. What he provides is a synthesis, arranged as a useful overview, bringing together details scattered throughout Western Canadian historiography.

last best

Poster, “The Last Best West. 1907.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2837956, 2 items.

Additional Resources:

“The Canadian West,” Collections Canada, Library and Archives Canada,


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 8 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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