________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 5 . . . . October 28, 2005


Canada Moves West: An Omnibus. (Pierre Berton’s History for Young Canadians).

Pierre Berton.
Calgary, AB: Fifth House, 2005.
244 pp., pbk., $19.95.
ISBN 1-894856-74-0.

Subject Heading:
Canada, Western-History-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

***1/2 /4


As one might expect, the Galicians who arrived in Halifax in Nova Scotia or Quebec City after a month of hard travel presented a sorry and bedraggled appearance. Few had any idea of distance.  They’d never, until this moment, gone more than twenty-five or thirty miles (40 to 48 km) from their homes. They didn’t realize the need for changes of clothing.  Everything was packed away in trunks, boxes, and valises, to be opened only when they reached their prairie homes.

It is important to realize that these were a people obsessed with cleanliness, used to scrubbing themselves regularly. Now, suffering from a lack of washing facilities on train and steamship, they looked and felt unclean.

Canada Moves West is the first in a planned series of four omnibuses, each one collecting four to six volumes originally published by McClelland and Stewart in the series “Adventures in Canadian History.” The publisher intends to release two volumes per year, starting in fall 2005. This omnibus includes the full text of five original volumes that were issued between 1992 and 1994 in the sub-series also entitled “Canada Moves West.” The original volumes: The Railway Pathfinders, The Men in Sheepskin Coats, A Prairie Nightmare, Steel Across the Plains, and Steel Across the Shield included line drawings that are replaced in the new work with five historic photographs positioned as frontispieces for each title. The omnibus includes five separate indexes with updated pagination, but it would have been more user friendly to combine the indexes into one. Also present is a single map, “Map of the Canadian West before 1905, including Fleming’s surveyed route for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the change of the route in 1881,” that replaces all of the maps that appeared in the original works. Astute readers may be surprised to note that, prior to the creation of the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905, Lloydminster was completely situated in the District of Saskatchewan, nowhere near the boundary with Alberta.

     Fifth House is to be commended for reprinting Berton’s lively works for young readers in a larger, more durable format that will reach a new generation of young readers while also appealing to an older audience. The originals were printed on inexpensive stock in small paperback formats that tend to have a short shelf-life.

     Berton’s gift for storytelling and ability to bring Canadian history to life is readily apparent in Canada Moves West. In the first section, “The Railway Pathfinders,” he presents tales of the competitive survey parties that mapped out possible routes through the Rocky Mountains for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Several colourful personalities appear in prose made very real with quotations drawn from diaries and letters written by members of the parties. In “The Men in Sheepskin Coats,” he describes the arrival, in the late 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century, of the Doukhobors and settlers from Poland and the Ukraine who were referred to at the time as Galicians. The challenge of providing temporary shelter and food for trainloads of immigrants was a daunting task assumed by immigration and colonization agents like William McCready and Wes Speers who thwarted disasters. Prejudice and exploitation were just a few of the challenges that the newcomers faced.

     In “A Prairie Nightmare,” Berton presents the story of Isaac Barr and his flawed dream of creating a settlement exclusively for British emigrants. The bungled affair led to the founding of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, that currently straddles the border with Alberta. “Steel across the Plains” illuminates the amazing feat of laying some five hundred miles (800 km) of rail across the Great Plains in the summer of 1882 and the instant birth of towns when the CPR officials selected sites for its railway stations. The final section, “Steel across the Shield,” describes the challenges of railway construction in the Canadian shield of northwestern Ontario where muskeg and bogs could consume hundreds of thousands of yards or meters of gravel and bankrupt a subcontractor. The CPR, itself, came close to bankruptcy until the Riel Rebellion in 1885 provided the incomplete railway with an opportunity to move soldiers from eastern and central Canada to the North West Territories, thereby convincing the federal government to guarantee loans to the company.

     In summation, Canada Moves West is history bundled as first rate adventure.  


Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian and member of the Collection Services Team at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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