Pioneering myths of struggle

By James Keller

The Albertan pioneer is a complex character. Independent and resourceful, he trekked west in hopes of finding promise and prosperity. When he arrived (make no mistake, he is unequivocally male), he was instead met with a host of struggles, from the infertile land to a harsh climate.

In the end, he overcame. He won.

This mythologized ideal is a part of Alberta’s culture, but is just a small example of the images that saturate our history. Cultural myths like this one shape and inform the way we view the world. Myths contribute to our values and ideals, and they influence our politics. They determine how we see ourselves and how we are viewed by others. They are the stuff identities are made of.

Perhaps more importantly, myths are fluid, constantly changing and reinventing themselves. They require deconstructing, and they should be looked upon with a discerning eye as much as they are celebrated. Even so, the image of the pioneer–one of independence, struggle and triumph–is still partially rooted in fact.

"For any myth to have any staying power, it has to have some elements of truth in it," explains Dr. Don Wetherell, Communication and Culture professor at the University of Calgary. "Pioneering was indeed a struggle, and more people lost that struggle than won it."

This sense of struggle is in many ways central to how we’ve come to recognize and celebrate the pioneer. Because this figure is primarily an agent of settlement, much of the mythology depicts a people starting anew in a different world.

"There’s this myth of Alberta as a place for a fresh start," continues Dr. Wetherell.

This motivation to uproot and move west had a lot to do with beliefs about the land.

According to U of C Canadian Studies professor Dr. Max Foran, assessments of the land’s potential may have been true at the time, but in reality this prosperity didn’t last. Still, the pioneer as farmer is ingrained in the Albertan psyche.

"You got this idea that Alberta was a wheat basket waiting to be dug up," Dr. Foran says, although much of this agrarian potential was magnified by unusually favourable conditions, like increased precipitation. "There was unbridled belief in the unlimited agricultural potential of Western Canada, and I think people at the time believed it. Part of it was promotion, but it was unproven and no one knew the long-term cycles."

This miscalculation of Alberta’s potential, and a subsequently unfortunate emphasis on farming, held the province back. By the 1920s and ’30s, the province fell on especially hard times–a stark contrast to the vibrant and economically strong Alberta of today.

"It took Alberta a long time to disprove the myth of wheat-growing," Dr. Foran explains, noting the shift to cattle ranching addressed some of these problems. "As long as this rational held, you have Alberta behind Saskatchewan. We bought into it, and it took the depression and emergence of cattle farming to realize the only way to make money on the land wasn’t solely through agriculture."

According to the prevailing stories, Alberta’s pioneers battled with the land, with the climate and, to certain degrees, with Eastern Canada. As far as myths are concerned, Albertans rarely, if ever, battled with each other. There was no Wild West, and there was no violent frontier. Albertans were, so the story goes, a peaceful lot.

"The older version was that there was a substantial difference between the American and Canadian Wests, and that in Canada because of the RCMP there was a much greater degree of order," explains U of C History professor Dr. Donald Smith. "But the current wave of scholarship is that perhaps there were more similarities than apparent before."

Dr. Smith isn’t suggesting there weren’t important differences (the lynchings in Montana, for example, don’t seem to have a Canadian equivalent), but we might not have been so different from our southern neighbours. The American West was likely not as violent as its narrative and the Canadian experience not as peaceful as we think.

Dr. Foran agrees.

"[The violent American frontier] suits their myth," he explains. "We want to be thought as law abiding and institution abiding so we don’t cultivate myths that fall outside of that.

"We’re making extremes."

Regardless of where the sites of struggle lay, we believe the pioneer–and, by extension, Albertans as a people–persevered and won. The scores of settlers and pioneers who didn’t make it, who had to turn back or otherwise failed to sustain themselves, are conveniently forgotten. These sorts of tales don’t make for good myths.

Generations after settlers shaped the Albertan landscape, we are left with this shallow version of the pioneer. Not only is the image overwhelmingly positive, it seems dominated by today’s cultural and political ideologies. According to U of C Communications and Culture professor Dr. Tamara Seiler, we’ve since adapted the myth of the pioneer into the image of the cowboy–an amalgamation of the rancher, farmer and pioneer. This is a fitting version to fit contemporary Alberta.

"The cowboy emerges as triumphant because he is an empty image, and you can put anything you want into it," Dr. Seiler says. "Dominant mythology tends to stick around in ways to support the dominant economic structure."

Dr. Wetherell also thinks the mythical ideal of the pioneer has contemporary ideological uses. It is from this history of struggle and individual perseverance that Alberta developed many of the traits–for better or for worse–seen as central to our ideology.

"Today, we still see that notion of Alberta as a place made up of stalwart, independent individuals," he explains. "We see this certainly reflected in the kind of economic policies that the Alberta government follows, that private needs outweigh public needs."

How we use myths and historical narratives will certainly shape how they evolve and change in the future. Even with Albertan urban life moving further away from the rural image of the pioneer, and even from the cowboy, these myths will likely continue to flourish, even if the specifics continue to change.

"We forget our history so quickly and there is a way that it disappears and is remade," says Dr. Seiler. "But, mythologically, I would say what happens is that certain elements of these historical periods get picked up and used, and others get erased."

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