THE CANADIAN PRAIRIE WEST AND THE RANCHING FRONTIER. 1874-1924
David H. Breen
Volume 11 Number 5.
Settlement studies of the prairies have paid but scant attention to the range cattle industry that dominated the land use pattern for a thirty year period. This neglect is surprising, since for a brief period after Confederation the grasslands of Alberta constituted a region of considerable geo-political significance.
In this long overdue book, Breen dispels the popular myth that equates the Canadian ranching frontier as simply an extension of the picturesque cattle kingdom of the United States or the homestead era in Canada.
The book is divided into three chronological periods beginning with the era of the open range and the beginnings of the large cattle companies. Breen views the Alberta ranches more as estates transplanted from the east and the shires of Britain than as of American origin or as extensions of the agrarian frontier. He clearly defines the distinct character of the Canadian ranching frontier, which developed from the different social/cultural composition of the ranchers, the law-and-order presence of the NWMP, and the government's promotion and control of the cattle industry. In the second period (1896-1911), the author outlines' the confrontation of the cattlemen with the government's program of mass settlement that severely threatened their economic viability and intensified the social tension with encroaching homesteaders. In the last period (1912-1922), Breen shows how a severe drought and changed government policy stayed the advance of the agrarian frontier. He discusses how organized cattlemen's associations and improved beef markets further assisted ranchers in recovering their dominance in southern Alberta.
Well researched and written, this fascinating study has much to recommend it. That, however, is not to say it is perfect. In a substantive sense, the author closely restricts his coverage to the business and politics of ranching. He chooses not to delve into the distinct social character that he stresses did exist. Some non-academic anecdotes about social conditions could possibly have enlivened the account and given more insight about places, people, and culture. This shortcoming may be because of the book's academic nature. Much of it seems to be an extension of Breen's master's (1962) and PhD theses (1972), which were on the same subject.
These considerations aside, the book is still one of the most valuable accounts of the rancher's unique place in western Canadian history. The author achieves his stated goals of pointing out the differences between the Canadian and American ranching experience and showing the powerful political and economic forces that the industry exerted in Canada during the period.
The book tells us much about an important element in prairie life and does it in a fashion that unites good research, good writing, and good history. Thirty-nine pages of notes and references indicate its solid foundations.
Carol MacDonald, Canadian Plains Research Centre, University of Regina, Regina, SK.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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