The Last Best West: An Exploration of Myth, Identity and Quality of Life in Western Canada
November 4, 2013
Review By Ken Favrholdt
The Last Best West is an eclectic collection of chapters based loosely on the meaning and mythology of the advertising slogan used by the Canadian government around the turn of the twentieth century to attract immigrants to western Canada. The chapters reflect the essential themes of historical representation and imagery, but they go beyond a traditional and regional view of “the West” by offering a distillation of current issues pertaining race, gender, culture, colonialism, and politics. Although “the West” is vaguely defined, and is less geographical than metaphorical, the topics are decidedly western. Edited by Anne Gagnon and other faculty at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), with an introduction by Terry Kading, the book is the outcome of an interdisciplinary conference held at TRU in Kamloops in September 2007. The conference was based on the rhetoric of the famous promotional slogan, and its papers reflect an academic audience.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Talking West,” contains three chapters, beginning with the one that is most geographically focused. This is Rachel Nash’s “Are the Rocky Mountains Conservative? Towards a Theory of How ‘the West’ Functions in Canadian Discourse,” which explores the various interpretations of the modern west, particularly British Columbia and Alberta. Tanis MacDonald expands on this theme in “Gateway Politics: West Meets West in Kristjana Gunnars’ Zero Hour,” which, from a fictional work, extracts meanings about the West from Winnipeg to the Pacific Coast. Yajing Zhang, in “What Is the Chinese-Canadian Accent? Ideologies of Language and the Construction of Immigrant Identities,” deals with the ways in which Chinese newcomers to Kamloops integrate into society and how “accent … highlights hierarchy and justifies discrimination.” There is no doubt that ideologies and attitudes permeate “the West” as place.
Part 2, “Peopling West,” includes Kimberley Mair’s “Subjects of Consumption and the ‘Alberta Advantage’: Representation of Wiebo Ludwig in the Theatre and Media, 1997-2005,” which focuses on Ludwig’s opposition to the oil and gas industry in northern Alberta and extends to global issues relating to how multinational corporations have exploited the rural hinterland. It also looks at how the media has portrayed Ludwig as an eco-terrorist, which fits into Alberta’s mythology of being a rogue province – a stereotype that contradicts the dependence of urban Albertans on corporate employment. In “Unruly Alberta: Queering the ‘Last Best West,’” Gloria Filax provides a counterpoint to Mair’s thesis. There are contradictions contained in the image of Alberta as a maverick province made up of a “community of rugged individuals whose very sense of self-interest contradicts the idea and well-being of the collective” (85). Filax argues that the Albertan mythology is split “through competing and contradictory stories” and unified “through dominant narratives” (94). In contrast to these Albertan views, Pamela Cairn’s “Teaching Adventures in Seymour Arm: A Case Study of Rural Education” is a more traditional piece of research that looks at rural education in one-room schools and is based on interviews of teachers from two eras. While spanning almost five decades, teachers from quite separate periods faced similar difficulties, not the least of which was “feeling cut-off from the rest of the world.” Completing this section is “The Roundtable on Defining Quality of Life and Cultural Indicators for Small Cities,” in which a number of academics and planners comment on the ways in which quality-of-life can be measured in small towns as opposed to large cities. “Quality of life is something that defines a community, makes a community distinctive and reflects the uniqueness of the community” (157).
Part 3, “Picturing West,” opens with Kalli Paakspuu’s “Photojournal Rhetorics of the West.” She deals with the interpretation of photographs as text and profiles photographers Harry Pollard and Edward Curtis and their iconic yet ambiguous images of Blackfoot and Blood peoples. Ginny Ratsoy, in “Re-Viewing the West: A Study of Newspaper Critics’ Perceptions of Historical Drama in a Western Canadian Small City,” focuses on plays mounted by Kamloops’ Western Canada Theatre. These plays originate in Kamloops and have “strong local content,” and Ratsoy looks at how they have been reviewed in local newspapers as well as at how reviewers and audiences have responded to them. In “Community Engagement and Professional Theatre in the Small City in British Columbia,” James Hoffman also looks at Kamloops’ cultural scene as well as at those of other BC towns as he analyzes the role of theatre in the life of small cities. The pairing of chapters by Ratsoy and Hoffman clearly relates to the concerns of the Small Cities Roundtable. Finally, Mervyn Nicholson, in “Babes in the Woods: Exotic Americans in British Columbia Films,” discusses the pastoral myth of British Columbia. In doing so, he focuses on The Grey Fox and My American Cousin, two Canadian films with American protagonists who find refuge in the province. This chapter, I think, is a fitting counterpart to MacDonald’s piece.
In the end, the chapters must stand on their own. While “the goal of this edited collection is to provoke and advance thinking about Canada’s West” (83), how each chapter informs the trope of the “Last Best West” is uneven – a common problem when putting together a book from assorted conference papers. The themes in this collection may not hang together as well as they should, but they do create counterpoints to narratives of identities and representation as portrayed in theatre, film, and literature. A theory about the “Last Best West,” as wished for by Filax, is elusive but worth searching for. As Nash puts it, “What we need is not the stabilization of a brand or a regional stereotype offer, but rather flexibility and slipperiness as we continually negotiate the West” (22). Although the end result is mixed, the individual chapters, touching on themes of representation, identity, gender, race, and culture, are thought-provoking and ultimately useful in the attempt to rediscover “The Last Best West.”