Month: June 2021

The Not Wild West

I have always subscribed to the theory that the American west was the stuff of gunslingers and range wars, while the Canadian west was orderly, hard-working and a bit dull. 

My latest reading has shaken that idea into the gumbo of Saskatchewan mud. Red Lights on the Prairies by James Grey is a study of the “social evil,” in Canada’s prairie provinces from the late 1880’s until the end of WWII.

James Grey, a son of the prairies, had a successful career as a newspaper man before retiring and turning his hand to writing books. His work is littered with references to various newspapers of the period, along with police reports and first hand accounts from old timers. The result is an entertaining and readable history of Canada’s west that never appeared in my social studies classes in school.

He begins his account in Winnipeg, the first of the prairies cities to achieve city status. The development of this city was mimicked in large part by other centres like Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon. The railway arrived first and the town grew around the station. The town-sites had virtually no infrastructure so hotels, shops, livery stables and houses were thrown up willy-nilly in close proximity to the station. Travellers getting off the trains were met with an abundance of bars and con men, and a dearth of lodgings. 

Since the vast majority of new arrivals were single men, prostitution was not only tolerated but regarded as necessary. The prevailing attitude was that with 200,000 men without female partners, brothels were just another business. Politicians and police tended to turn a blind eye to the madams and their girls provided they kept the noise and brawling to a respectable level. They were more inclined to take action against the houses-of-ill-repute on liquor offences than on moral grounds.

In all the cities of the prairie provinces, the argument around brothels centred on the question of segregation. Some notable police chiefs left the prostitutes alone so long as they stayed in their own area of town, Annabella Street in Winnipeg, River Street in Regina and Nose Creek in Calgary. When the “ladies” paraded around town in their finery, insulting the sensibilities of decent women and reforming clergy, the police were wont to “run them out of town.” The latter was a fruitless exercise as the women simply re-established their houses beyond the city borders but near enough for the cowhands, miners, railway workers, and farmers sons to find them on payday. 

When the reformers and Temperance workers were able to persuade a city to close down a red light district*, the police would reluctantly comply, knowing full well the prostitutes might set up shop in the downtown district or in a back room of a hotel and the “social evil” would continue unabated. Some time later, the protests over public morals would come full circle and the women would be moved into a segregated area where they were less apt to come into contact with respectable women.

In some cities the brothels were treated like community centres. They were usually larger and more luxurious than the hotels. Town council might meet in the living room of a friendly madam. Fraternal organizations would enjoy a good dinner and music in a bordello during their monthly meeting. 

It wasn’t unusual for one of the girls to grow tired of life in the brothel and marry one of her customers. The stigma attached to prostitution in our day was remarkably absent in the early 20th century. Mind you, the wife of a miner or other labourer could be a misery–a tiny shack, limited means, and hard physical labour. If the husband drank his wages the new wife might drift back to her former profession just to keep herself fed.

Back to my original perceptions — it is true that the Canadian west was less lawless than its American counterpart. The Mounties preceded the settlers in Canada. In the US settlement often came first and law and order came later. But the notion that the vast expanse of the Canadian prairie was peopled by, as Grey puts it “monks, eunuchs, and vestal virgins” has been completely overturned. Booze, broads and brawls were as much a part of settlement in Canada’s west as sod shanties and one room schoolhouses.

*There were no actual red lights in the brothels on the Canadian prairies. The term is an Americanism, no doubt imported along with the thousands of American settlers who flowed north to Canada.

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5 Pitfalls in Research

As a writer of historical fiction I am beset with questions of historical accuracy and attitudes of the times vs the ultra-sensitive world of today. As I child, I read “The Plains of Abraham” and “The Loon Feather” with an open heart and an uncritical eye. Even though the books were fiction it never occurred to me that they were not “true.” But in the 21st century, history is fraught with cultural traps. Can we use the word “Indian?” That’s how Indigenous people were referenced in the nineteenth century. If my story is set in 1890 and I use the term First Nation, it is anachronistic. I think I need to be true to the facts of history, but it is difficult to discern what is fact and what is opinion.

Here are a few warnings I’ve picked up along the way. 

  1. Don’t trust Hollywood. I watched a classic movie the other day and, even without being a scholar of Indigenous culture, I could tell that the movie-makers had picked bits and pieces from various First Nations and thrown them all together into a pastiche of what would seem authentic to their audience. I’m not slamming the movies. They were producing a visual extravaganza to be projected on big screens in cinema-scope and Technicolor. Mountains and totem poles and natives in war paint served that purpose well. But, if we want historical accuracy, we need to look further.
  2. Eye witnesses are unreliable. That is a fact every police officer and every courtroom lawyer can verify. Ask five people to describe a car crash and you’ll get five very different versions, some even contradictory. Not the fault of the witnesses. They are describing what they saw, but they saw the event only from one physical perspective and through the lens of their own belief system. I’m reading a book about brothels on the Canadian prairies in the first third of the 20th century. It is well researched and written by a respected historian. He relies heavily on newspaper accounts of the day. Yet, in those newspaper accounts the prevailing attitude of the times –live and let live–colours even the simplest facts, like the number of houses of ill repute on a given street.
  3. Fine Arts of the day are more likely to depict the artist’s impressions and the saleability of a piece than actual fact. Galleries throughout North America are hung with paintings depicting Indigenous peoples capering naked through the snow. There is no historical evidence of this style of “undress” in the Indigenous peoples of this land. Apparently artists and their customers couldn’t differentiate between native populations of warm south seas islands and those of snow covered northern climes.
  4. Photographs likely are more accurate than art works, although, Hannah Maynard (1834-1918) was able to create all kinds of effects in her pictures, like the one showing her at a tea party, pouring tea over her own head! She had no need of Photoshop. 
  5. Original Sources, the gold standard for historical research, still need to be tested. Francis Dickens of the North-West Mounted Police is an example. By his own account he was an heroic stalwart of a storied police force. His father, the author Charles Dickens, considered him bumbling and incompetent. In histories of the Mounted Police, charges against Officer Dickens include drunkenness, laziness and recklessness. Later histories conclude he was just an ordinary man, no better and no worse than his contemporaries.

So, where do we look for truth? I think historical research requires the same kind of diligence we use in analysing the news of today. What’s the source? Is it reliable? Do various reports reinforce the facts? Are we reading in our own echo chamber or are we truly exploring other points of view. 

Finally, remember that historical “fiction” is not a scholarly treatise. Tell a good story and use the time and setting to add colour and authenticity. Be true to indisputable facts, like dates and laws of the land. Visit museums and troll the archives to support your understanding of the age, then tell your story in the best way possible.

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