restricted access Rural Life: Portraits of the Prairie Town, 1946 (review)
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Reviewed by
James P. Giffen. Rural Life: Portraits of the Prairie Town, 1946. Edited with an afterword by Gerald Friesen University of Manitoba Press 2004. 283. $19.95

The main text of this book, written sixty years ago, is an analysis of Manitoba's rural culture in the context of an emerging postwar economy. The author, James Giffen, a University of Toronto graduate student in sociology, had answered the bidding of a blue-ribbon Royal Commission set up by Manitoba's Liberal-Progressive premier Stuart Garson. His task was to be the Commission's field researcher and study four rural Manitoba [End Page 548] districts, identifying the strength of their institutions, social networks, and cultural values, all with an eye to developing a rural adult education program. The ultimate aim of Giffen's report, thus, was to secure nothing less than the 'enhancement of cultural literacy for residents of typical rural communities.' Four distinctive communities – mostly British Canadian, Ukrainian, and French with varying pools of smaller ethnic groups – were initially chosen. Giffen's task to lay bare the state of culture and social structure of these communities proved too controversial. The priest in St Pierre, for example, forbade his parishioners to co-operate and the community dropped from sight; in the end, the study was too much even for the government, and the finely detailed report was placed out of public view, in the Manitoba Provincial Archives.

What made the report controversial in 1946 is exactly the reason readers of today will find it intriguing. The book is nothing short of a rich ethnography of mid-century rural life on the prairies at a critical juncture in North American rural history. The moment, 1946, lies just before technology, science, government intervention, and a vast demographic shift transformed it after the Second World War. The communities are isolated to varying degrees (thanks to a rudimentary road system and nascent electronic communications network) from a broader, urbanizing Canadian society. Their social cohesion rests in the local culture of church, club, and co-op and their tensions are driven by locally shaped ethnic, racial, religious, class, and gender lines. Perhaps the features in this account are distinctly local and Manitoban – curling clubs, Pool elevators, the general store, the mix of 'ethnic' churches – but they illuminate a wider story. The communities represent the 'limited identities,' the fragmented cultures, the dialectic of aliberal and liberal values, and the 'intensely local' culture of mid-century rural Canada.

Giffen details a dynamic, conflict-ridden, rural society. Each of these communities has the powerful and the weak: in Elgin, for example, British-Canadian men of the 'old families' organize informal groups that ban the unfit, while the women struggle in surprisingly formal social networks, and ministers and teachers of all political stripes languish without much influence in low-paid jobs. Each place is shaped by informal codes of conduct: in Carmen social behaviour is scrutinized by inveterate gossip and intricate knowledge of family history, ensuring that conspicuous consumption and youthful promiscuity receive equal condemnation. Each setting produces a locally hegemonic, interethnic culture, marked equally by co-operation and conflict: in Rossburn, British Canadians harbour an openly racist-laden antipathy to the increasingly majoritarian, upwardly mobile, English-speaking, impeccably organized, and selectively self-sequestered Ukrainians. The observant eye and courageous pen of Giffen produce an exquisite exposé of rurality. [End Page 549]

A thoughtful afterword by Gerald Friesen situates the Giffen report in its historical context. It provides the personal history of Giffen, considers Premier Garson's pragmatic and non-populist 'Manitoba' politics, analyses the commissioners' worldviews, and emphasizes Harold Innis's leadership on the Commission. In the process the collision of rural and urban cultures, cultural impact of electronic media, and government's role in shaping a particular kind of cultural citizenship are illuminated and their meanings pondered.

Readers will choose their own response to Giffen's work. For some it will mark an ethnography of mid-twentieth-century rurality, rich enough perhaps to help reinvigorate Canada's languishing rural historiography. Others will see a philosophically charged, timely treatise on the nature of cultural citizenship. Most will see it as much more than its original...


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