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Prairie People: A Celebration of My Homeland

by Robert Collins

Veteran journalist Robert Collins has compiled a kind of field guide to the prairie provinces that is both homage and mythology. The book consists of short pieces that are collected in chapters with such titles as “People of the Soil” and “City Lights.”

Collins is very strong on the current state of western agriculture and the death of traditional family farms. He interviews organic farmers, Hutterites, and Saskatchewan farmers with GPS systems and laptops. The book is filled with rich anecdotes about ordinary people, including the pioneer story of Ivan Pillipiw, an energetic Galician farmer who died in old age falling from an upstairs window at an Alberta wedding.

There are a few notable exposés on local history, including the Ku Klux Klan’s brief success in Saskatchewan around 1930 and the legendary tunnels of Moose Jaw, supposedly used by associates of Al Capone for booze smuggling. Collins quotes Ken Mitchell saying that the tunnels are “all recently constructed fakes.”

In what may be a hold-over from an earlier journalistic era, Collins repeatedly describes women with language like “slim and comely,” “soft-spoken,” displaying hair that “hangs becomingly.” Worse still, Collins talks provocatively about the “aboriginal industry” (the public sector infrastructure to support the aboriginal community), and then sets up this moral: “sometimes, happily, [aboriginal] accomplishment has less to do with the aboriginal industry or government dollars than with the individual’s own sheer determination.” Should anyone from the dominant culture be urging self-reliance on a community that has lost almost everything to white society’s theft and pillage industries?

What most weakens Prairie People is Collins’ bias toward Preston Manning and Ted Byfield’s now-defunct Alberta Report. The book would have been more balanced if it had included commentary on the Social Credit, Conservative, and Reform/Alliance parties in Alberta, and how that legacy differs from politics in the other prairie provinces. Collins then gives short shrift to Winnipeg, home of the deepest, most radical political and artistic culture in the region.

Prairie People also completely ignores the north. Writers like Mark Abley, in his 1986 book Beyond Forget, chose to include Churchill as part of a process of “rediscovering the Prairies.” This may not be geographically correct, but it makes cultural sense, since all of us flat-landers are influenced by the vast spaces to the north of the prairie population centres.

Prairie People is still an impressive sketch of an underappreciated part of Canada. Collins, however, is polemical without being very personal.