- The Early Northwest
This volume is the first of a planned History of the Prairie West Series to be published by the Canadian Plains Research Center (CPRC). Each volume will consist of articles previously published in Prairie Forum (a journal also published by the CPRC), chosen and arranged by Gregory Marchildon, a Canada Research Chair in Public Policy and Economic History at the University of Regina. This first volume features an introduction, followed by seventeen articles dealing with the history of the Canadian plains (few articles are focused on the subarctic) to 1885. Given the number of articles published, and that all of the articles have been previously published, no analysis of individual articles (apart from the introduction) will be attempted here, but the volume will be assessed as a collection. In that regard, the collection, though useful, is little more than the sum of its parts.
The articles are arranged into four sections centred on early Aboriginal history, the fur trade, the Hudson's Bay Company and Red River Colony as imperial/colonizing forces, and the 1870 and 1885 uprisings. The collection reflects the ebbs and flows in the historiography of the Canadian plains. Of the seventeen articles in the collection, eight were originally published before 1987, and only four after 2000. The field has languished for two decades. (Still, some of the older articles have been superseded by more recent scholarship.) The introduction offers slight added value because it does little more than briefly summarize the contents of the volume. The editor missed an excellent opportunity to stimulate the field by assessing the scholarship overall and identifying possible avenues of future research. The value of the collection is, however, somewhat enhanced by the inclusion of some illustrations that were not included in the original articles, and of an index to the entire collection.
The goal of the publisher as explained in the preface - of showcasing the 'very best of Prairie Forum' - does not fit perfectly with what I would assume would be the desires of most potential readers and university instructors: a collection of the best articles on western Canadian history, regardless of where they were originally published. The very aim of the collection means that it is inevitably uneven in quality and coverage. Although the fact is particularly noticeable in the section on the Red River Resistance (1870) and the North-West Rebellion (1885), some of the most influential articles on any number of topics are published elsewhere. The collection is very reasonably priced, but the selectivity of the collection means that it is unlikely that many university instructors will choose it as a textbook.
Any number of specialists will also question whether the articles featured in this collection were in fact the 'very best' published in Prairie Forum over the years. If I had been asked to pick the best articles, I [End Page 493] would have chosen ones different from those that Marchildon did, but likely so would every editor. Rather than engage in a useless second-guessing of Marchildon's selection, I prefer to suggest to the publisher that it is entirely consistent with the aims of the series to include in future volumes a list of all relevant articles (perhaps including abstracts) that were not selected for inclusion in that collection. That (short of changing the goal of the series), together with the inclusion of long and incisive introductions, holds the best potential for ensuring that future volumes in the series make more than a minor contribution to the field of western Canadian history.
Ted Binnema, Department of History, University of Northern British Columbia