Jeff Oliver University of Aberdeen, Scotland Ágústa Edwald

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Oliver, J. & Edwald, Á (in press). Between islands of ethnicity and shared landscapes: rethinking settler society, cultural landscapes and the study of the Canadian west'. Cultural Geographies. DOI: 10.1177/1474474014561576

Between islands of ethnicity and shared landscapes: rethinking settler society, cultural landscapes and the study of the Canadian West

Jeff Oliver

University of Aberdeen, Scotland

Ágústa Edwald

University of Aberdeen, Scotland


This paper reviews and rethinks the study of cultural landscapes in the context of western Canadian settlement history. The historiography of scholarship on the colonial period, across a broad array of disciplines, follows themes central to the study of continuity and change in settler societies, including assimilation, cultural revivalism and transnationalism. Influenced by historical conditions particular to the region, namely the creation of migrant block settlements and a legacy of multiculturalism, research has had a longstanding commitment to an ethnic history paradigm, which tends to orient our understanding of the cultural landscape in terms of what Brubaker and Cooper have called ‘identity history’. We argue that by focusing on relationships rather than boundaries, future research on the cultural dimension of settlement might move beyond ethnic history through investigating the possibilities of shared landscapes and communities of practice, built on the back of finding common material solutions to the problems of agrarian life.


Canadian prairies, communities of practice, cultural landscapes, ethnicity, historiography, settler society, shared landscapes


One of the early crucibles for modern cultural diversity was the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century landscape of the Canadian prairies. Spurred by the promise of land, economic opportunity and social enfranchisement, a tide of Ontarian, British and American migrants began to colonize the Prairie region from the 1870s. The incomers set the stage for a new cultural order, precipitating the decline of the fur trade, the dispossession of native lands and the rolling out of a new system of property holding ruled by the grid. Populating the prairies with the ‘right class’ of people, namely migrants of British descent, proved to be an impossible task and before the nineteenth century drew to a close, government efforts to attract settlers extended to a wider pool, to include not only Americans and Britain’s near Northern neighbours, notably Scandinavians, but also those from more exotic parts of the continent: central and eastern Europeans. While immigration policies would eventually regain their more conservative tone, they nevertheless hastened the establishment of a diverse cultural landscape. Many parts of the prairies developed a patchwork of ethnic enclaves or block settlements, the result of sustained chain migration of kith and kin; and less commonly, planned group emigration schemes. If late 19th century colonial policies can be said to have begun a process of social segregation, which in many places saw Indigenous peoples increasingly marginalized to the corners of the settlement landscape, by the mid twentieth century emigration patterns had carved up the recently surveyed checkerboard of townships into a sea of ‘cultural islands’, which spread all the way from southern Manitoba to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

It is the peculiar character of this landscape that sets the Canadian prairies apart from other cultural geographies of settler experience. While broad comparisons can be made, for example, with the patterns of settlement south of the American border, the sheer number and diversity of the migrant communities, combined with extremely different policies of integration – the melting pot in the US and multiculturalism in Canada – has not only served to give the northern prairie region its own historical identity, but also encouraged a disproportionate amount of scholarly attention.1 The rooting of different peoples to particular locales meant that groups as disparate as Ukrainians, Mennonites, Icelanders, and Scots left an enduring imprint, as much on the prairie landscape, as on prairie academia.

It is with these thoughts in mind that the present paper sets out to review the more salient contours of what we might refer to as the cultural history of settlement. Any attempt to deal with this history must acknowledge the complex role of a range of peoples and interest groups, including indigenous peoples, who were effectively resettled within the context of their own cultural islands: Indian Reserves2. While not ignoring their contribution to the remaking of the Canadian west, our focus here emphasizes the complex relationships between different immigrant groups, which grander narratives might term ‘colonizer’ on ‘colonizer’, that played a more dominant role in altering its social fabric and, consequently, in shaping its historiography. Influenced by prevailing popular and academic paradigms, lines of questioning and theoretical frameworks almost as complex as the history of settlement itself, academics – including historians, sociologists, geographers, and more recently anthropologists (notably historical archaeologists) – have viewed the Canadian west, as a space of assimilation, a source of cultural persistence and a medium of transnationalism. While a number of reviews exist on the scholarship of the region,3 limited attention has focused on how disciplinary specialisms have shaped research contributions or how common points of interest have engendered the cultural landscape with particular valences of selectivity. In seeking to highlight the contours of this historiography, we note how the regional immigration history, combined with the legacy of multiculturalism, has tended to favour a form of identity history focused on ethnicity, which through historical processes of reification has served to structure much cultural analysis in the region. Current work on the politics of identity casts doubt on the prioritization of strong forms of identity like ethnicity or nationality,4 instead seeing such categories as outcomes of historically contingent social tensions. Reprising earlier calls to establish more holistic studies of the wider landscape,5 we seek to encourage a more sophisticated engagement with the nature of social life that allows for other idioms of lived experience and cultural belonging. In particular we argue for research that looks to the possibilities of shared landscapes and communities of practice, which might unsettle the more indelible ethnic histories we have become more accustomed to.

In the first half the paper, we present a brief historical synthesis of thinking on the cultural landscapes of settler society across a range of disciplines. Given the significant challenges of integrating diverse disciplinary histories into a more or less unified field of assessment, rather than undertaking an exhaustive review, we focus on major trends that have defined historiography. Naturally, as with all synthetic overviews of this nature, there a degree of chronological overlap between the different traditions of scholarship, and where possible we attempt to point these out. In the second half of the paper, we examine the principal reasons for the dominance of ethnic history, and present an outline for future work that seeks to decentre it.

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