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History General

Forging the Prairie West

by (author) John Herd Thompson

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Apr 1998
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 1998
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The word "prairie" calls to mind a vista of golden grain, or Red River carts crossing a sea of waving grass. Canadians forget that the provinces sometimes called "prairie" span enormous geographical diversity, from the grasslands to the poplar bluffs of the "park belt," from the Canadian shield to the Rocky Mountains. The human geography of these provinces is equally diverse. Forging the Prairie West explores the histories of the peoples who created this complex region over the past four centuries.

It begins with an account of the First Nations of the region and of the fur trading partnership they established with European traders. After two centuries of co-operation, the Europeans subjugated the native peoples. Despite the determined resistance of the Metis, led by Louis Riel, the Prairie West became part of the new Canada. After the region entered Confederation, the North-West Mounted Police, the Canadian Pacific Railway, farmers and cattle ranchers incorporated into an expanding transcontinental economy.

These topics are followed by a discussion of the Western boom after 1900 when the Canadian Prairies became the "Last, Best West" to thousands of homesteader families from Eastern Canada, the United States, and Europe. Not all the immigrants to the Prairie West were farmers. Class conflict marked the rapidly growing cities that mushroomed along the new railway lines, most dramatic among them the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which focused the eyes of the world on the Manitoba capital. North-West Mounted Police swinging baseball bats rode down the strikers on "Bloody Saturday," leaving two strikers dead and dozens wounded.

Subsequent chapters recount the creation of the massive Prairie wheat marketing pools, the rise of western political parties including the Progressive Party, Social Credit, and the CCF, and the impact of the Second World War. Forging the Prairie West then examines the post 1945 transformation of the prairie provinces, with the emergence of the oil industry, the rise of agribusiness, and the rapid suburbanization of prairie cities. The concluding chapter tells the region's story right into the 1990s, with a discussion of burgeoning regional alienation and the growth of the Reform Party.

The most striking feature of this book are the 166 paintings, drawings, period maps, and photographs. A third of them have never before been published; others have become near-iconic, but are interpreted here in original ways. These images are not simply illustrations but part of the story. They depict everything from the buffalo hunt, fur trade posts, and Mounties to CPR advertising, native parents camped outside a residential school, and a cover from the newspaper of the Saskatchewan Ku Klux Klan.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Professor of History and Director of Canadian Studies at Duke University

Other titles by John Herd Thompson