Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Prairie virtues always changing

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PINCHER CREEK, Alta. -- Wandering around a bric-a-brac-laden dude ranch house this summer in southern Alberta, I came across a weather-beaten sign, hanging next to a pair of early figure skates and some harness.

On it was the Code of the West: "Write it on your heart. Stand by the Code, and it will stand by you. Ask no more and give no less than honesty, courage, loyalty, generosity and fairness."

Rich guys in the early days of the Prairies loved the Code. Oil and cattle magnates in Calgary's posh Ranchmen's Club settled multimillion-dollar deals on the strength of a handshake. Real estate tycoons in Winnipeg's Manitoba Club, built because its members hated the city's rakish taverns, operated the same way.

No more. Lawyers have taken over. Agreements and contracts are now drafted, redrafted and signed in triplicate.

You'll notice the Code doesn't mention helping the poor. Early Prairie business people were mainly interested in boosterism and growth. The huge slums in Winnipeg and other cities didn't bother them much. With the rise of a middle class, who had interests other than just making money, the Code became a curio.

The first Prairie virtue I can remember growing up in Winnipeg's West End came from the street, from the feelings of the many different peoples who made up the city. It was: "I'm as good as you are."

Roger, an urchin who lived at the end of our street, loved the phrase.

"How can that be?" I asked my father. "Roger has no father at home; he's stupid; he's failing at school and, aside from the times you take him to Assiniboine Park, he never gets to go anywhere."

"People are not born equal," said my father. "But they are equal in the eyes of God."

I doubted that would be of any interest to Roger. But defining equality can be a tricky business. As the old French saying goes: "Both the rich and the poor are free to sleep under bridges."

Samuel Freedman, of the Manitoba Appeal Court and a leading Canadian jurist, wrote: "There is no greater inequality than the equality of unequals."

What Roger was trying to say is best expressed in the masthead of the Winnipeg Free Press. We should be pressing for "equality of civil rights." As the Prairie society has matured, these rights have been expanded to include such matters as a good education and affordable housing.

Good goals, but how do we achieve them?

The businessmen of the 1880s had their limitations, says historian Gerald Friesen in The Canadian Prairies: A History. But they did pass on to us Parliament and the courts as an expression of popular democracy.

Multiculturalism is a well-promoted advantage to Prairie people. What's sometimes forgotten is that it is possible because of the British culture of governance and justice. Only these flexible systems have allowed people of different cultures, religions, ethnicity and wealth to work to develop themselves and to work with others for the common good.

An example is the issue of whether the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly on wheat and barley marketing should be replaced by a free market. The issue has the attention of the House of Commons and Manitoba's legislature. Meetings and news conferences have been held. The Free Press is full of in-depth stories, including pro and con opinion pieces. The Federal Court has been asked to judge whether Ottawa's plan to scrap the monopoly is legal.

"Damn," says a friend, "they are all arguing again." That's not the point. Prairie people will always argue. It shows they are alive. What is important is our systems of government and the courts can help them resolve issues.

The Prairie philosophy isn't fully developed yet. It includes a range of ideas such as the free market, the social gospel, the policies of the old CCF and, yes, parts of the Code of the West. But thanks to our basic systems we are sorting it all out.

Tom Ford is editor of the Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2011 A12

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