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Reviewed by:
  • British Columbia: Land of Promises
  • Robert McDonald (bio)
Patricia E. Roy and John Herd Thompson. British Columbia: Land of Promises Oxford University Press. viii, 216. $36.95

British Columbia: Land of Promises is the fifth of six regional histories that make up the Oxford Illustrated History of Canada. The underlying assumption of the series is that Canadians define themselves through a number of 'limited identities.' The one explored here is region. The title of the book reflects the authors' conclusion that what has drawn so many people to British Columbia, and lies at the heart of British Columbians' sense of place, 'is not "splendour" in itself but the promise of it – the promise of wealth, the promise of a better life.' The story is organized in a traditional fashion along 'the contours of the chronology of "great events"' such as the creation of the colony, the building of the transcontinental railway, and key elections. While themes such as demographic change, racial attitudes, and resource industry cycles are woven through the text, they serve mainly to provide the economic and social underpinnings for the book's principal storyline, 'high politics.'

This stimulating overview of British Columbia history is distinguished especially by its excellent use of visual sources. Patricia E. Roy and John Herd Thomson have treated the visual component of their 'illustrated' history, including photographs, paintings, maps, and political cartoons, in a critical manner much as historians routinely do with textual documents, and the result is a carefully selected set of images that both inform the reader and, through extensive and thoughtful captions, raise important questions about the nature of historical evidence. Who produced the images selected, what explains their creation, and how we might 'read' them are some of the questions asked. The discussion of one photograph especially caught my attention. It is an often-reproduced picture from [End Page 352] 1884–85 of a saloon at Donald in the Rockies, an image that 'has been used repeatedly to portray a "wild west" of "whores" and hard-drinking navvies.' The authors suggest that this interpretation takes on new meaning when we come to understand that the very next – but never published – photograph in the Glenbow collection in which the two were located is of a similar log building that served as the police detachment in Donald. In other words, a systematic examination of the larger collection suggests that perhaps the west was less 'wild,' and a great deal more law-abiding, than historians who have published the 'saloon' photo have led us to believe. As the narrative moves through the twentieth century, photographs and paintings become less prominent features of the text, replaced by excellent reproductions of political cartoons. My favourite is a Len Norris cartoon from 1966 that shows an Anglican priest explaining to the Archbishop of Canterbury: 'our problem in bc, Your Grace, is the widespread local belief that this is Heaven.' Yes, British Columbians are a smug lot!

This very accessible history successfully integrates a large amount of material into a concise yet engaging narrative. The balance between 'high politics' and other aspects of the province's history seems right in the first half of the book, though less so in the second, especially in the final chapter when the authors' politics-as-history approach starts to lose its way in unwelcome detail. In addition, I would have liked short but informative descriptions of some of the major trends that have shaped the province's development since the Second World War, trends that Roy and Thomson touch upon but do not fully develop. Among these are the polarization since the 1940s of provincial politics along left/right lines, with a series of centre/right coalitions organized in opposition to the political Left becoming a distinctive feature of British Columbia's political culture; the partial detachment of Vancouver from its hinterland as the city's historic role in managing bc's resource economy declined and its Pacific Rim connections expanded; and the changing place of women in bc society and politics.

Land of Promise offers both general readers and university undergraduates an informative, well-written, and visually engaging introduction to British Columbia's past.

Robert McDonald...


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pp. 352-353
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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