By Michael Wagner
Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau believes that Canada is the “first postnational state’’ and has ‘‘no core identity,’’ most Canadians throughout history have probably believed otherwise. Before the late twentieth century, for example, English-speaking Canada had a notable British flavour to it, whereas Quebec has always had a distinct identity of its own, rooted in French language and culture. There was a concept of national identity, even if it was largely associated with the “two founding peoples.” However, to a certain degree this supposed “national identity” excluded the West.
Someone who has studied this subject is Richard Avramenko, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Originally from Alberta, Avramenko understands the Alberta situation well. He has written about Canada’s concept of national identity, and how that concept fails to include the West. The West, in fact, has its own unique identity.
Loyalists and Anti-Americanism
To a large degree, English-speaking Canada began with the arrival of the Loyalists in the late 1700s. The Loyalists were the colonials who rejected the newly independent United States of America. They were so opposed to the creation of the new country that they came to Britain’s northern colonies to remain under British rule. In today’s terminology, the Loyalists were “anti-American.”
This anti-Americanism was soon reinforced by the War of 1812. The Loyalists and their descendants literally had to fight off American invaders. As a result, they developed what would later be called a “garrison mentality,” whereby they saw themselves as living within the defensive perimeter of Upper Canada (now known as Ontario).
These Loyalists were largely Protestant and frequently anti-Catholic. They were at the core of one of the two “founding peoples” of Canada, the other being the French Catholics of Lower Canada (now known as Quebec). Of course, the English Protestant versus French Catholic conflict has been a central theme of Canadian history.
Anyway, a powerful Protestant fraternal organization called the Orange Order gathered a large membership in Upper Canada (i.e., Ontario), including several top political leaders. With this in mind, Avramenko says that Ontario developed what he calls the “Orangemen Consciousness.” As the new Dominion of Canada expanded and acquired what is now western Canada, this Orangeman Consciousness would essentially evolve into a concept of national identity.
However, the Orangeman Consciousness never really took hold in the West. First of all, the Métis under Louis Riel rebelled against the Canadian authorities. More importantly, however, a vast wave of new settlers from Eastern Europe was brought in to settle the prairies. As Avramenko writes, “These were peasants deliberately recruited from Eastern Europe under the immigration policies of the then Minister of Interior, Clifford Sifton. It was Sifton who saw the great economic potential of a developed agricultural base in the West and therefore opened immigration offices in Eastern Europe with the express intention of finding peoples both hardy and desperate enough to resettle on the harsh prairie” (p. 59).
The Origin of Anti-Western Sentiment
These “peasants” had no connection to the Orangeman Consciousness whatsoever. Furthermore, some people in Ontario considered the immigrants arriving in the West to be lesser beings. Avramenko writes, “The view of the Orangeman towards the immigrants settling the West is summarized by the words of the Right Honorable Sir McKenzie Bowell, ‘The Galicians, they of the sheepskin coats, the filth and the vermin, do not make splendid material for the building of a great nation. One look at the disgusting creatures after they pass through over the CPR on their way West has caused many to marvel that beings bearing the human form could have sunk to such a bestial level’” (p. 49).
Interestingly, Avramenko sees this attitude towards the Eastern Europeans settling the prairies as the origin of anti-Western sentiment in Ontario. As he puts it, “This prejudice continues to this day in anti-Alberta rhetoric” (p. 60).
Because the new settlers came directly to the West, bypassing any immersion into the Orangeman Consciousness, Westerners developed their own way of thinking, distinct from the inhabitants of Ontario and eastern Canada. Avramenko calls this the “Homestead Consciousness.” As he puts it, “In the West one finds what may provisionally be called the Homestead Consciousness. This consciousness, it must be recognized, is not merely a nuanced variation of the Orangeman consciousness. It is an altogether different way of thinking; consequently, it leads us to recognize a distinct society” (p. 59).
He describes it this way: “The Homestead Consciousness is a way of thinking that accords with the landscape—with horizons of legitimacy and political authority based on the freedom, the self-reliance, and the rugged individualism both born of and necessary for the survival of a homesteader on the vast and unrelenting prairie” (p. 59). In short, Westerners have developed a different sense of identity than Easterners.
The West is, therefore, a distinct society, but one that not everyone appreciates. Avramenko recounts that during the 2006 federal election the Ontario establishment trotted out infamous abortionist Henry Morgentaler to condemn the Alberta-led Conservative Party. The message conveyed in doing so was clear: “Not only do these Albertans dwell on a lower moral plane, they are like Americans.” Furthermore, he adds, “During the same election, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was less veiled in his anti-Alberta rhetoric, claiming that a vote for the Conservative party was to cede power to Calgary—it would be un-Canadian to vote for representation outside of the geopolitical sphere of the two founding peoples” (p. 60).
In short, “pointing to the West, and Alberta in particular, as the enemy is de rigueur for Quebeckers as well” (p. 60).
Two Roots of Anti-Albertanism
As Avramenko sees it, Anti-Albertanism is essentially rooted in two aspects of the Orangeman Consciousness: anti-Americanism and disdain for the original Eastern European prairie settlers. As he puts it, “Anti-Albertanism, not surprisingly, is predicated on the same identity-giving premise the Loyalists and Orangemen brought to Upper Canada: anti-Americanism. Americans, after all, are gun-toting, money-grubbing, selfish, religious nuts, are they not? Just like those Albertans” (p. 61).
A residual and unconscious antipathy towards the early settlers is also apparent: “Anti-Albertanism thus has this ring: they are dirty, shtetl-dwelling, money-grubbing, peasants who pose a grave threat to the sanctity of our self-enclosed higher moral reality” (p. 61).
Clearly, according to this account, many Easterners view Albertans as being different from them, and not in a good way. Their view of Canadian identity is not inclusive of the Western experience. Even the Canadian maple leaf flag is unrepresentative of the West in the sense that the sugar maple does not grow in the West.
Avramenko’s analysis includes much more than is described here, but he summarizes his main point as follows:
“To conclude, if we want to inquire into Alberta’s political self-understanding, we must do this vis-à-vis the so-called problem of Canadian identity. This problem, however, is framed only within the narrative of the French-English/Catholic-Protestant conflict that ends long before the 100th meridian, where the great plains begin. The effort to construct a national identity based on problems descending from this conflict is inappropriate for the West. Albertans have an identity—an identity that might very well be symbolized by a cowboy hat. It is not an identity and tradition needing to be invented, nor one for which apology is needed” (pp. 61-62).
When considering the historical development of Alberta and the prairies, then, it is possible to conclude that the unique characteristics of this region make it a “distinct society” in some sense. Alberta’s conflict with central Canada is rooted in more than simply economic matters. Canada drains Alberta financially, of course, but Alberta’s identity also differs from what has frequently been referred to as the “national identity.” With this in mind, understanding and embracing Alberta’s identity could provide further support for the idea of independence.
Avramenko, Richard. 2013. “Of Homesteaders and Orangemen: An Archeology of Western Canadian Political Identity.” In Hunting and Weaving: Empiricism and Political Philosophy, ed. Thomas Heilke and John von Heyking. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press