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Easterner puts western spin on resource alienation

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JUST because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Just because you’re paranoid western Canadian doesn’t mean everyone else isn’t out to steal your natural resources.

Mary Janigan has done all Canadians a service with her exhaustive, but never exhausting, dissection of the fight for control of land and natural resources in the West.

Having written for the Toronto Star, Maclean’s magazine and the Globe and Mail, Janigan uses her first book to put modern political arguments in their proper historical perspective.

The veteran Canadian journalist explains the West’s traditional grievances with more of a western spin than you might expect to hear from someone living in Toronto.

Using examples from recent federal and provincial elections, including the Alberta election earlier this year, Janigan traces every thread of modern resentment and alienation back to its historical antecedents.

Janigan goes back before Confederation to illustrate how decades-long manoeuvring by the Hudson’s Bay Co. and the British government permanently influenced the conditions under which the Bay’s vast land holdings — known as Rupert’s Land — were transferred to Canada at the time of Confederation.

While the other provinces retained control over their land and natural resources when entering Confederation, Ottawa asserted its jurisdiction over the land and natural resources of what would become the Prairie provinces.

Louis Riel, as most Manitobans know, led an armed rebellion against the federal government in 1870.

He became the first of a string of territorial and provincial leaders insisting that the rights to land and natural resources should be put under local jurisdiction, just as they had been in the other provinces.

Janigan chooses a particularly futile federal-provincial first ministers’ conference in November 1918 on which to hang her narrative.

All the demands by western premiers in the 50 years leading up to the conference are seen as prologue and context, while the results that continue to swirl and eddy today are portrayed as inevitable consequences.

Janigan has done her homework assiduously, poring over old federal cabinet briefing papers and discovering marginal notes likely made by the prime minister of the day.

The myriad western premiers who march across Janigan’s stage are fleshed out with physical descriptions and explanations of whose side they were really on in the fluid world of partisan politics in early 1900s Canada.

Most important, Janigan intersperses her account of political elites with fascinating glimpses of what real pioneers were suffering through while their leaders bickered.

Particularly poignant are the letters home from Clyde Campbell, a farmer in the Peace River district, who noted "it takes a wagonload of profitless hogs to buy enough groceries to fill a shoebox. We all love this country, its breadth, its fertility. But one cannot subsist on snow-capped mountains."

After decades of federal-provincial conferences that went nowhere, the Prairie provinces finally won control of their land and resources in 1927.

But as Janigan confirms, even with the major irritant resolved, the patterns of western alienation and grievances became so firmly ingrained that they continue today.

The book’s title derives from a bumper sticker popular in Alberta during the 1970s and 1980s, when federal Liberal policies again put control of the province’s oil industry in dispute.

Janigan has produced a good read for every westerner who wants to know more about this region’s history. Let’s hope some of those Eastern bastards read it, too.

 

Donald Benham is the director of hunger and poverty awareness at Winnipeg Harvest.

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