Sarah Carter, Lesley Erickson, Patricia Roome, Char Smith, eds. Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West through Women's History. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005. x + 420 pp. $44.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-55238-177-9.
Reviewed by Angela Wanhalla (Department of History, University of Otago)
Published on H-Canada (October, 2006)
Gendering the Canadian West
Sara Riel lived a life full of contradictions. The first Metis Grey Nun and missionary in the Canadian Northwest, Riel was both colonizer and colonized. Her remarkable life as a "cultural mediator" is recounted by Lesley Erickson in Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West through Women's History and lives up to the editors' claim that the personal and the intimate can fracture and complicate traditional histories of the Canadian West. Sara Riel, argues Erickson, was a "cultural mediator," but unlike her more famous brother, chose accommodation instead of resistance, and devoted her life to the Catholic Church where a measure of independence and status could be achieved. Multiple identities--Catholic, Metis, sister, and daughter--are woven through a personal story in which gender, race, class, and religion are explored, and in which narratives of contact and encounter are unsettled through her ambiguity.
Unsettled Pasts offers a perceptive and intriguing insight into the history of the Canadian West through a diverse range of women's lived experiences. The value of book lies in its diversity, as well as the willingness of the authors to produce a scholarly work dedicated to complicating Canadian history through multiple stories, and to connect these histories to transnational perspectives. The editors are to be congratulated on producing a book that is highly readable, informative, innovative, and well grounded in the scholarly literature related to gender, place, colonialism, and nationhood. At its heart, however, the collection is about gendering the "West"--an approach that has been undertaken in U.S. scholarship since the 1970s--by interrogating femininity and masculinity alongside race in order to "complicate traditional narratives of Native-Newcomer relations" (p. 4).
The nineteen essays that make up the collection have their origins in a 2002 conference at the University of Calgary designed "to discuss, debate, and explore the history of the region from the vantage point of women and with an awareness of gender as a category of historical analysis" (p. 2). The goal of the collection is to explore the complications and complexities that underlay the relationship between gender, place, and the diversity of women's experiences, both native and newcomer. This interest in multiplicity, complexities, and diversity is underpinned by the range of methods employed by the authors as well as the authors themselves, who range from "scholars, activists, artists, and writers" all immersed and engaged in "exploring how women negotiated their lives and identities within the imposed and restricted structures of colonialism and nation-building" in the "Canadian West," defined as Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia (p. 4).
Attention to place and its intersection with gender is an important theme of the collection, and the authors implicitly understand that women's experience in the Canadian West, whether native, newcomer, or Metis, has been, and continues to be, shaped by the region in which they live. At another level, the collection indicates the diversity of experience within and across the prairies between women, highlighted through the exploration of religion, health, work, and family in both urban and rural areas.
Separated into five thematic and chronological sections, Unsettled Pasts interrogates the history of the Canadian West through individual experience and interdisciplinary approaches that draw on letters, diaries, federal archives, photographs, oral testimonies, interviews, and creative writing. Part 1 deals with women as "cultural mediators": Sara Riel, the Metis Grey Nun who had a complicated and fraught relationship with the Metis population in the Canadian Northwest because of her dedication to the Catholic Church; the first-wave feminist Henrietta Muir Edwards and her relationship with Aboriginal peoples on the prairies, particularly her role as collector and photographer of Aboriginal culture, a maternal feminist and a sometime critic of Department of Indian Affairs policy in the early twentieth century; and British artist and sculptor Claire Sheridan?s travels in North America, notably her six-month stint with the Blackfoot, and a woman who epitomized, argues Graham Macdonald, the "cross-cultural, cross-border and transnational experiences" of many women of this era (p. 80).
Part 2 interrogates colonialism through the writings of male Methodist missionaries, the imposition of colonial terms and their meaning, and recipes as symbols of whiteness. Innovation is the theme in these writings, drawing on new insights into the Canadian West and the gendered history of colonialism--a history that is intimately connected to the colonial project elsewhere. Kirstin Burnett draws a clear link between the mission in Canada with its role, as in other colonial societies, as a gendered zone of contact, pointing to the role missionary writings play in constructing gendered images of Aboriginal peoples. Muriel Stanley Venne's beautiful essay about the stigma of racial terms speaks to the meaningful nature of colonialism and its impact on everyday lives, while Mary Leah DeZwart proposes that "domestic spaces [were] sites for colonial agendas" where imperial and nation-building projects played out in the everyday domestic world of wives and mothers. Recipes, she argues, act as metaphors for the education of white women in Canadian identity, finding that they "reflected prevailing class and race relations, assumptions and biases" (p. 131).
The intersection between family, region, and nation forms the theme of the chapters in part 3. These essays move seamlessly from the macro to micro interpretations. Sarah Carter's chapter on the Federal administration of conjugal relations amongst First Nations illuminates the intimate history of colonialism on the prairies and in British Columbia. As Carter highlights, federal policy, while invasive, was ambiguous and fragmentary, leaving space for women and men to resist monogamous models of marriage. A substantial literature has already shown that non-Aboriginal women in twentieth-century Canada were also subject to domestic regulation through the education system and advice literature. As Nadine Kozak explains, the experiences of childbirth and motherhood amongst rural women were rarely the same as the urban and middle-class lives on which the scientific literature was based during the 1920s. Georgina Bye's story of family life in rural Saskatchewan, details the domestic, economic, and intimate relationships within one family during the Great Depression. Kin and family were important means of support in a time of economic need, but as Bye points out, these ideals were based on internalized views about masculinity and the male breadwinner, despite the centrality of women in maintaining a family economy.
In part 4, the feminine "frontier" is interrogated as a region of multiple stories and experiences. The authors pay tribute to the survival of their mothers and grandmothers through years of trial and struggle. Oral testimonies, material possessions and visual images are used to interpret the history of Black women, Chinese laundresses, nursing education, family poverty, and survival in years of economic depression during the early twentieth century. Part 5 continues to pay tribute to individual women, examining the role of a range of leaders in the twentieth century.
Innovative and beautifully written, Unsettled Pasts is a welcome addition to the literature on the Canadian West. It builds upon a large literature about the "frontier" in North America, complicating it through the lens of race and gender. It is a tribute to the editors that the collection defies its origins as a set of conference papers, emerging as a set of chapters that are integrally linked by a strong structure and central themes, as well as being innovative in approach and methodology.
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Angela Wanhalla. Review of Carter, Sarah; Erickson, Lesley; Roome, Patricia; Smith, Char, eds., Unsettled Pasts: Reconceiving the West through Women's History.
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