Regionalism Lives!

  • John Warkentin (Editor)
    So Vast and Various: Interpreting Canada's Regions in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. McGill-Queen's University Press
  • Alvin Finkel (Editor), Sarah Carter (Editor) and Peter Fortina (Editor)
    The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region. Athabasca University Press
Reviewed by George Melnyk

Canadian geographer John Warkentin (Regional Geography of Canada: Life, Land, and Space) has collected the works of seven prominent Canadians who wrote about the regional realities of Canada from 1831 to 1977. Beginning with excerpts from Joseph Bouchette’s The British Dominions in North America (1831) and ending with Thomas Berger’s Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (1977), Warkentin has collected significant historical texts about Canada’s geographic diversity. His selection is meant to inform the reader of how Canada has been constructed as a regional entity over a century and a half. In his introductory essay Recognizing Canada’s Regions, he asks how the designation of Canada’s regions came into being. One source is the historical evolution of colonial jurisdictions which gave rise to formal political identities; another is natural geographic diversity and its resulting socio-economic diversity; a third is based in both popular and intellectual cultures that sought to distinguish peoples and places; and finally, there is the scientific impetus to generate geographic knowledge by scholars.

The writers that Warkentin selected are important interpreters of Canada’s regional identity. For example, he describes Bouchette’s 1831 book as a break-through in regional writing. While most editors would be satisfied to provide direct excerpts with a brief introduction, Warkentin provides insightful summaries and commentaries throughout each selection. As a leading geographer he knows his predecessors and so guides the reader through their worldviews. George R. Parkin’s The Great Dominion: Studies of Canada (1895) represents a Maritimer’s perspective committed to Imperial Federation in the late Victorian period. It also reflects the then-current belief in the determining role of environment in forging national character. Parkin wrote that Canadians were a people whose northern vigour will give them weight in the world. This viewpoint was part of British imperial ideology of the day.

This nineteenth-century British colonial framing of national identity gave way in the twentieth century to greater intellectual rigour and scientific theory. Harold Innis’ 1927 A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (his Ph.D. thesis) is described by Warkentin as an amazingly concentrated interpretation of where power lies in the Canadian political economy, presented in a spatial/regional reading. As one goes through Innis’ text one enters the realm of modernism and its innate confidence in its own clarity. The annotated excerpt serves as an excellent entrée to the remaining texts, especially the journalist Bruce Hutchinson’s The Unknown Country: Canada and Her People (1942) and Canada, Tomorrow’s Giant (1957). It is only with Berger’s Report that we finally move into an early phase of postmodernist thinking in which formerly discounted traditional knowledge is given significant weight.

Warkentin has provided a solid overview without burdening the reader with too many minor texts or writers. His extensive excerpt/commentaries offer substantial depth for the reader to explore. The only regret I have is that he failed, no doubt for reasons of modesty, to include something from his own Canada: A Regional Geography (1997) or some other of his important works. By placing his own thoughts in a historical continuum and commenting on its arguments more than a decade after they first appeared, he could show us the evolving nature of geographic thought within the lifetime of a great scholar.

While Warkentin has provided a pan-Canadian reading of regionalism, the editors of The West and Beyond are specifically western Canadian in their topic. Their book is the sixth volume in The West Unbound: Social and Cultural Studies series published by Athabasca University Press. The book grew out of the The West and Beyond: Historians Past, Present and Future conference held at the University of Alberta in 2008, which marked the rebirth of a series of Western Canadian Studies conferences which had been held regularly between 1969 and 1990. This collection reflects the inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary ethos of that tradition, as well as its strong historical focus. The book begins with a synopsis of Western Canadian historiography outlined by the eminent historian, Gerald Friesen, in his keynote address Critical History in Western Canada 1900-2000. The book contains eighteen essays divided into five parts beginning with Frameworks for Western Canadian History and ending with Cultural Portrayals of the West. In The Aboriginal West section an essay by Matt Dyce and James Opp presents a thoughtful analysis of the role of early Western photographers in creating an imagery of the North for southern audiences. The essay makes a strong claim for photography as a particularly modern discourse.

The section titled The Workers’ West begins with Jeffrey Taylor’s study of capitalist formation using a classic example of a historical materialist analysis. A particularly intriguing section is Viewing the West from the Margins with essays on African Canadians in Alberta and queer identity in the region. The concluding section on culture has essays on W.L. Morton and Margaret Laurence as literary icons of Manitoba and the role of Calgary oilman and collector, Eric Harvie, as a model in Robert Kroetsch’s novel Alibi.

As with all such volumes, diversity and eclecticism are the norm. What The West and Beyond demonstrates is the continuing appeal of the West as a scholarly subject for social, economic, and cultural research. There seems to be no dearth of historical material worth exploring. What this volume says about the West is markedly different from the historical texts presented by Warkentin. Its postmodernist focus on class, gender, aboriginality, and sexual orientation re-creates regionalism in a new idiom for a contemporary generation of scholarly readers. It is surprising how small a role geographic consciousness plays in these essays. It seems to me that the multi-faceted defining of region from within as done in this volume remains more inventive than earlier historical texts whose external definitions were based on broader, comparative categories. In The West and Beyond we tend to see the value of individual trees, while in So Vast and Various we tend to see the importance of forests.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.