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Reviewed by:
  • Challenging Frontiers: The Canadian West
  • David John Hall (bio)
Lorry Felske and Beverly Rasporich, ediitors. Challenging Frontiers: The Canadian WestUniversity of Calgary Press. vii, 375. $44.95

How are we to understand the concept of 'frontier'? The editors of this volume adopt a definition from Paul Voisey: 'the process of building communities in areas where none existed.' They understand that communities are constantly being constructed and reconstructed, so that 'making new connections and creating new understandings of western experience' become the theme which is intended to unite an otherwise disparate collection of essays. The eighteen authors, all but one from the University of Calgary, view the regional experience in widely differing ways. The focus of the book is mostly on the prairie provinces, often from the perspective of southern Alberta - although British Columbia occasionally intrudes.

R. Douglas Francis ably summarizes the standard ways of conceiving of regions - formal, functional, mythic (mental construct), and postmodern [End Page 358] - and illustrates them effectively for the prairies as a whole from the work of William Francis Butler. Yet the rest of the book affirms that western communities are, on the one hand, limited in scope, geographically, ethnically, and economically; and, on the other hand, so globally connected as to compromise regional identities. Given space limitations, only a few highlights can be mentioned.

One innovation is the attention paid to the fine arts and the ways in which artists are shaped by, and attempt to represent, region and specific locales. Ann Davis analyses the art of Paul Kane, Hoñgeeýesa, and Emily Carr, while Beverly Rasporich examines the rural folk art of Irene McCaugherty and the urban postmodernism of Esther Warkov. Brian Rusted demonstrates that Hank Snow's 'western music' had very little to do with western Canada, while Marcia Jenneth Epstein capably illustrates the regionally rooted nature of the interesting and listenable music of Allan Gordon Bell.

A second innovation in a collection of this nature is two articles addressing Asian immigration to western Canada (Madeline A. Kalback), and Chinese-language media in the West (Lloyd Sciban). Both articles cover the four western provinces and demonstrate a lively and growing Asian community which challenges traditional stereotypes of the region.

No myth is greater than the archetypal cowboy and ranching. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the location of most of the authors, the archetype sometimes seems to represent the essential West. Aritha van Herk wittily skewers westerners' fascination with the myth, but also outsiders for comprehending neither the intricacies of the chuckwagon race, nor the saskatoon. Robert Seiler and Tamara Seiler, in a strongly theorized article, show how the Calgary Stampede became 'a powerful vehicle for negotiating ... tensions' in the society: 'It has "mediated" the symbolic experience of the West and harmonized the discourses of progress and nostalgia, and it has done so largely via the commodification of an American icon: the cowboy on horseback, the very symbol of the American West.' Emma LaRocque, among other things, denounces the entire myth as an affront to Native peoples. Max Foran, the leading authority on the modern phase of the ranching industry in western Canada, shows how that industry has changed radically and modernized, while retaining its enormous value to the western economy.

Lorry W. Felske contends that the mining communities of Alberta have been largely missing from cowboy-and-ranching portrayals of its past, and that their stories have more to tell us about the origins of health care, multiculturalism, and environmentalism than we have previously believed.

David Taras argues that the Reform and Alliance parties succeeded in getting the federal Liberals to adopt a large part of their agenda, and that westerners need to decide whether they will continue to support a federal party that will press its interests from the outside, or elect more members [End Page 359] to the governing party to influence matters from the inside, or adopt a 'firewall' approach, seeking to acquire more power for the region.

Finally, Geoffrey Simmins writes sensibly about the disappearance and transformation of the iconic grain elevator, while Michael McMordie comments on the globalization of architecture, concluding that 'the nation made visible through its architecture has largely disappeared.'

Whence, then, the...


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pp. 358-360
Launched on MUSE
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