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The Changing West

In 1969, Lieut. Gov. MacEwan was a guest of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede and was a popular and vocal participant in their annual parade.

In A Short History of Western Canada, Grant MacEwan describes the transition of the West by highlighting social, agricultural, economic, and urban development. For instance,   Edmonton has its origins in the fur trade. Representatives of both the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company selected locations to establish forts. Prosperity, brought on by the fur trade, facilitated the establishment of the village of Fort Edmonton in 1871. Eventually, Fort Edmonton relocated westward to the city's present location. Meanwhile, after building Fort Walsh near the Cypress Hills and Fort Macleod west of the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, federal troops arrived in the Calgary area in 1875. They built a fort where the Bow and the Elbow rivers crossed, an area where whiskey traders had been operating illegally.

Much of Grant MacEwan's writings on Western Canadian history focuses on the changing West in the late 19th and 20th centuries-how an isolated frontier was transformed into the agricultural heartland of Canada through determination, hard work, and resilience. The birth of Calgary and Edmonton are classic examples of how urbanization occurred at a rapid rate on the Prairies at the turn of the 20th century. The urban proportion of the region's population increased from one-fifth to one-quarter between 1901 and 1911. Five dominant cities emerged by 1914: Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, and Calgary. Each city served a clearly defined agricultural hinterland. All five had major rail connections with central Canada. Politicians, including Canada's first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, recognized the importance of establishing a network of railways that would traverse the country from coast to coast. By the First World War, Canada had emerged with the third largest network of railroads in the world. Settlers, many of them Americans, followed these railroads to settle the open West. The growth of cities, due to immigration and improved transportation networks, spurred the development of the West and changed its identity forever.

In A Short History of Western Canada, MacEwan does not delve into considerable detail (many of MacEwan's other works recall fascinating stories about individuals and their accomplishments). Rather, the book is a sweeping account that covers virtually all aspects of Western Canadian growth in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. MacEwan alludes to the political machinations involved in the plans to build a trans-Canada railroad network. After all, according to him, improved transportation was the cornerstone of development in the West.

MacEwan ascertains that settlers arriving in Western Canada immediately understood that ranching-and not farming-initially represented the best use of land. The harsh soil and a lack of water made farming particularly challenging for homesteaders. Often isolated by considerable distances from major urban centres, ranching and farming communities relied heavily on the local newspaper as a means of receiving communication from the outside world in news on political happenings, market reports, and other current events. MacEwan also sheds light on the political developments occurring in the West, with an emphasis on the establishment of Alberta and Saskatchewan as provinces in 1905. The creation of two new provinces was a product of concerted efforts made by individuals like Frederick Haultain who demanded increased responsibility and provincial autonomy in such areas as natural resources and education.

MacEwan asserts that the West was transformed at such a rapid rate because of an agricultural revolution caused by the mechanization of farming. Developments like the tractor, threshing machine, and seeder changed the landscape by producing more crops at an accelerated pace. Thus, the dramatic increase in wheat production allowed Canada to enter the global grain trade and establish the Canadian economy in the global market. The changing West created feelings of optimism among Western Canadian farmers. Progress was a recurring theme each harvest thanks in large part to technological advancements and the resiliency of the Canadian farmer. A successful farmer, according to MacEwan, used not only his hands but his wits as well. Farmers constantly needed to analyze conditions and adapt appropriately to change.

Progress in the West was intertwined with technology. MacEwan, often drawing comparisons to Europe's Industrial Revolution, cites numerous examples of how the West underwent a complete evolution from the walking plough once used by his own father to the powerful and efficient tractor. The history of Canada's prairie west is indeed that of a changing landscape; MacEwan's numerous publications vividly relate the events that transformed an untamed land into the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.


Francis, R. Douglas, Richard Jones, and Donald B. Smith, eds. Destinies: Canadian History since Confederation. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1992.

MacEwan, Grant. A Short History of Western Canada. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1968.

-----. Between the Red and the Rockies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1952.

-----. Power for Prairie Plows. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1971.

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