Alberta's Foremost Storyteller
by Donald B. Smith
In the spring of 1966 the Historical Society of Alberta honoured Grant MacEwan for his "outstanding contribution to Alberta's history." The newly-appointed Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, then sixty-three years old, appeared to have reached the high point of his career as a western Canadian popular historian. But appearances can be deceiving. Thirty plus years, and thirty plus books, remained ahead. He had only begun to make his contribution to our understanding of ourselves and of our region.
Grant's extraordinary energy and organizational skills help to explain his success in popular history at a time when he had numerous university, community, and later political commitments. Born in 1902 he grew up on a pioneer farm just north of Brandon, Manitoba. After several years in Brandon itself, he spent his teenaged years on the family's new farm in the Carrot River valley near Melfort, Saskatchewan. Early in his life he developed work habits of long hours, marked by efficient use of time.'
Grant's knowledge of western Canada's rural past came from his farm upbringing, as well as from his university training and teaching. In Saskatchewan he walked two miles each way to school. En route the teenager studied the flora and fauna, acquiring the deep knowledge and appreciation of nature which appears throughout his work.) He knew intimately of what he wrote. On the family farm he lived through the entire early twentieth century prairie experience, from breaking virgin sod with horse and plow, to the full mechanization of agriculture. His years of study at the Ontario Agricultural College, in Guelph, Ontario, and graduate work at the Iowa State College of Agriculture, as well as his teaching at both the Universities of Saskatchewan and Manitoba deepened his understanding of western Canadian agriculture.
The future historian of prairie Canada knew how to communicate easily with the public. While at the Ontario Agricultural College one summer, he sold nursery stock throughout southwestern Ontario. He sold as much as the average experienced salesman his first week, and every subsequent week his sales went higher. Meeting and talking with strangers came naturally to him. Later, as a professor of animal husbandry at the University of Saskatchewan, he loved giving community talks, and judging at cattle shows. By the early young 1930s the young professor had established a reputation as a gifted and popular speaker on agricultural topics, and on others as well. But when the University of Saskatchewan decided to emphasize scholarship and pure research, rather than contact with the public, Grant's interest in the institution declined. He seized the chance in 1946 to become the Dean of Agriculture at Manitoba with the assigned task of taking the university out to Manitoba farms.
Grant had all the necessary attributes needed for recording and writing on western Canada's past. But the agricultural specialist only began to write on human historical topics when he was in his forties. Like many Canadians, before and since, he had a negative experience with history in school. His Ontario-born father and Nova Scotian-born mother had brought him up with tales of stamina and courage in the pioneer period of Canada's past. But in public school his teachers deadened rather than deepened his interest. Years later Grant told his son-in-law, historian Max Foran, that his teachers actually made him "hate history": "The only history I got in my school years was English history. There was no such thing as a recorded Canadian history. There was no text-book. The teachers didn't know anything about Canadian history."; Dates of kings and faraway wars had little appeal to him.
Arthur Silver Morton, a distinguished Canadian historian at the University of Saskatchewan, awakened Grant's interest in western Canada's past. A diary entry in 1938 refers to their joint search for the sites of old fur trading posts in Saskatchewan. Grant wrote: "I have this year been favored with the opportunity of acting as the chauffeur of the grand old man of history, Prof. A.S. Morton."6 Years later he dedicated his book, Cornerstone Colony: Selkirk's Contribution to the Canadian West, to his friend, who had kindly acted years earlier as his "self-appointed private tutor in western history."7 History now became the young professor of animal husbandry's hobby. Western Canadian history became the subject of more and more of his after-dinner speeches. Ideas received from Professor Morton took shape, leading Grant to prepare several CBC radio broadcasts.
As a teenager Grant kept a diary. He enjoyed writing. On trips he recorded logs of the day's events. While working in Ontario selling nursery stock on commission he collected short character sketches in a journal, a habit which he continued for the rest of his life.' Under Professor Morton's influence, he began in the late 1930s gathering notes on historical events in western Canada and on interesting people in the region. One of the first individuals he began to research was the Alberta cattle king, Pat Burns, whose biography he eventually wrote forty years later.
Donald B. Smith, is a professor of history at the University of Calgary and the author of numerous books and articles on the history of Canada.