The history of Western Canada's settlement is relatively young. During the first half of the 20th century, historians and scholars largely ignored the development of the Canadian West. Grant MacEwan, an educated agriculturalist, was one of the first people to explore the subject and share it with the general public. He believed that Western Canadian history had been ignored for far too long. What he wanted was Canada's history to be a source of pleasure, inspiration, and guidance for the future. MacEwan's narrative is filled with stories about the untamed West, the spirit of adventure, and perseverance. His prairie West is a story highlighted by great successes and disappointments, and his publications establish a Western identity that provides readers with a sense of understanding and belonging. As Fred Stenson states, "[I]f he had had lacked a passion for passing history on - if all of that, how much less we would know about our past and west?"
Grant MacEwan's view of Western Canadian history focuses extensively on how the history of a province or a region was shaped largely by the extent to which its people seized natural opportunities and exercised their own initiative. MacEwan's interpretation of settlement history establishes the human relationship with the land. Farmers, ranchers, pioneers, and visionaries relied on the land to create their own opportunities. The settling of the Canadian prairies attracted people with imagination, initiative, and a willingness to transform an unbroken land into the eventual breadbasket of Canada. MacEwan's account of Western Canadian history emphasizes the strength, determination and adaptability of individuals. His works are often a collection of stories that are very readable and colourful.
His numerous publications cover roughly 400 years of history, shedding light on a number of contentious issues such as exploration and the fur trade, Aboriginal relations, and the establishment of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP). Grant MacEwan believed in the need to recognize the contributions made by Aboriginals and women-subjects frequently ignored by other historians-in shaping the history of the West. They too were an essential part of Western Canada's settlement history.
Agriculture is at the core of Western Canadian history. The West's transformation from an open prairie into a rolling land of farms and ranches could only occur as a direct result of farming and, more specifically, improved agricultural techniques. MacEwan, of course, recognized other key institutions or events that propelled settlement in the old West: establishment of law and order (NWMP), formulation of Aboriginal policies, ambitious rail construction, and immigration.
The select readings found in this section demonstrate MacEwan's profound interest in Western Canadian history. He describes Western settlement as a gradual transformation from a vast wilderness to a land of pioneers, innovators, ranchers, and farmers. The old West was filled with stories of cowboys, horses, and courageous individuals who sought progress and responsibility, and Grant MacEwan spent a lifetime telling those stories.
MacEwan, J.W. Grant. A Short History of Western Canada. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
MacEwan, Grant. Grant MacEwan's West: Sketches from the Past. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1990.
-----. Between the Red and the Rockies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1952.