- Race, Nation, and Reform Ideology in Winnipeg, 1880s–1920s by Kurt Korneski
This is a remarkable little book. Although coming in at just slightly over 200 pages – including endnotes – it manages to pack a brief and theoretically sophisticated précis of Canadian and Winnipeg history, four de facto biographies, and much new analysis of seemingly well-known subjects into a coherent and eminently readable whole.
Korneski's analysis is rooted in a keen appreciation of the ideologies and discourses related not just to reform but to reform within the context of 19th-century British Imperialism and white settler colonialism/nationalism. What many readers may find most striking is this: the author brings together a seemingly unlikely quartet of "reformers" who were operating out at the edge of [End Page 257] the Imperial frontier – Winnipeg – from the 1880s until the 1920s. Indeed, at first glance, the dramatis personae do not seem to mesh. First there is the deeply religious social gospel minister and bestselling novelist Charles Gordon (aka Ralph Connor). Then comes the doyen of Winnipeg's Tory establishment, an Anglophile of note and eventual head of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, Minnie Campbell. She is followed by the hard-headed and influential Liberal (and sometimes Progressive) newspaper editor, internationalist and western Canadian nationalist, John Dafoe. Finally, readers encounter the writer/editor, social feminist, suffrage campaigner, and sometimes pacifist, Francis Marion Beynon. All, of course, are well-known characters who have drawn the attention of scholars before, but other than this similarity, they would seem to have little in common. Campbell and Beynon, for example, although linked by gender, are a study in contrasts – separated as they were by social status, age, beliefs regarding suffrage, politics, pacifism, and many other "hot button" issues of the day. Indeed, to some it would seem that the differences between the four are as great, or greater, than the similarities. But this is precisely why the author has chosen these four to be representative of major trends in a loosely defined reform movement – actually "reform impulse" would be more accurate - that was firmly situated in a "British world" and the even broader context of a globalized capitalist economy. As for his choice of Winnipeg, while eschewing any simple-minded western exceptionalism or frontierism, Korneski views the city as the "child of the kind of state-building program that underpinned British and Canadian policy for the first fifty years or so of Canada's history." (4) This being the case, Winnipeg was the almost perfect microcosm for studying the "successes, failures, and central tensions" (4) that were at the heart of the larger Canadian project.
At the outset Korneski makes it clear that whatever their other differences might be, "dispossession [of Indigenous peoples] was a central precondition enabling Gordon, Campbell, Dafoe, and Beynon to imagine the west as an empty space on which various frontier myths could be projected." (2) This "emptiness" was the backdrop against which they viewed the inequity, exploitation, and privation that they saw developing in their adopted home (none were born in Winnipeg or the West) and which each sought to ameliorate in different ways.
After setting the stage with a chapter-length summary of Canadian and western Canadian/Winnipeg history – and its place in the 19th century British Empire – Korneski turns to an in-depth examination of his "reformers," offering chapter length biographies – primarily intellectual biographies - of his representative reformers. The first of these, the chapter on Charles Gordon, is particularly fascinating. Here Korneski situates Gordon's reform impulses in a quest to create the perfect Christian society out on the margins of Empire. In his case the ideal society would mirror all of the strengths represented by Highland crofters – a group from which Gordon was not only descended, but had long idealized. Transplanted to the tabula rasa that was the West, this society could flourish without all of the hardship and decay that Gordon believed had set in at the Imperial centre. When he saw people acting in a degenerate fashion out along the...