Tag: Canadian West

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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Fashion Authenticity

In my continuing quest for authenticity, I’ve been looking at photos from the late nineteenth century in British Columbia.    Here is a sampling.

This is a photo of Mrs. Friend of Atlin. B.C. taken near the turn of the twentieth century. High necked blouses and flared skirts were the order of the day.  Note the detail in the lace of the blouse shown on the right, and the decoration on the skirt on the left.  There is an almost “mannish” appearance to these two women, but the feminine touches are there if you look.

This photo of the Esquimalt Ladies Cricket team is in the B.C. Archives and dated 1890. Can you imagine playing cricket laced up that tight?

This one of women gold seekers in the Yukon in 1898 shows more work-a-day clothes than the cricketers, but those long skirts would be caked with mud and heavy.

Cecelia Spofford had her picture taken in 1890. Notice the puffs at the shoulders.  Of course, these professional photographs would show women in their best attire, not what they wore in the kitchen or the field.  Also, only persons of wealth and standing were likely to have a formal portrait taken.

This one of Windimere Pioneers is dated 1890. I find it useful because Windimere is off the beaten track – not a leader in ladies fashions.  Still, the women are well-dressed and out numbered.  When writing of this era in the interior of British Columbia it is well to remember that men grossly out-numbered women.  If a girl had a yen to marry, she’d not be short of proposals if she headed for the hinterland.

Finally, here is a page from the Eaton’s catalogue of 1897. Since women in even remote situations could order from a catalogue and expect the goods to be delivered, even if it took weeks to reach them, those with enough money could dress like this.  Note that Eaton’s is now selling attire for more active young women like those who rode a bicycle.

Still laced tightly at the waist, but those puffed sleeves would allow for a little more movement than the narrow ones of a few years previously.

Ginger Rogers is famously believed to have said, “I do everything a man does only backwards and in high heels.” Well, in the Canadian west, women did everything men did, only they did it in corsets and long skirts!

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The Not-So-Wild West

Writing historical fiction requires lots and lots of research. Since I love history, research is actually a treat and not a chore. However, writing about the Canadian West in the nineteenth century presents some unique challenges. If I do research under “Victorian,” I’ll get lots of references to Victorian England. If I try “Western” I’ll get reams of information on the American West. Thanks to Hollywood, most people perceive “Western” from the American perspective, i.e. lawlessness, range wars, famous outlaws, dangerous Indians. Those qualities make great fiction, but they do not hold true for the Canadian west. Oh, we had our share of criminals, but the westward expansion of white settlement in this country followed a different pattern that our southern neighbours. In Canada, the law and government, preceded the settlers.
The fur trade that brought the first whites into the hinterland of British North America was governed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. These “gentlemen adventurers” were obsessive record keepers. They established forts, wages, trade routes, and their own form of law and order. Factors and clerks and agents brought with them the same standards of conduct that held sway in London, England. There were no glittering salons or evening parties, but respect for order and allegiance to the Queen were part of their make-up.
Early attempts at settlement, such as the Red River Colony  were organized and controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company and interested parties in England.  Although the Selkirk experiment failed, the method or organization was ingrained in the Canadian landscape.
When the gold rush brought the next wave of immigrants to what is now British Columbia, there was already a functioning government in place. Sir James Douglas, chief factor for the HBC and Governor of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, took steps to prevent an American takeover of British territory there. He lobbied the British crown and used a garrison of soldiers and engineers to establish British sovereignty and the rule of law throughout the territory. Miners expecting a repeat of the California experience, found instead a court system staffed by itinerant judges, a police corps and a tax man waiting for them.
      Barkerville, popularly viewed as a rough and tumble mining camp filled with saloons and brothels, quickly became a civilized town with all of the amenities. Gold was discovered in 1862, by 1863 the miners had built a hospital and raised the money to run it. Within a few years there were seven doctors practicing there. The Roman Catholic church was already established a few miles down stream in Richfield. By 1863 the Anglicans and Methodists had built churches, joined by the Presbyterians in 1864.
Also in 1864, a Library was established with 70 books brought to the town by its first librarian, Miss Florence Wilson. In the next few years Governor Seymour donated 100’s more books. There were evening classes for the miners to study Greek and Latin and History and English and band and chess among other subjects. Music was highly prized. Miners formed choirs within the community and sponsored visiting troupes from Victoria, the U.S. and Europe. There was a Debating Club, Glee Club, Masonic Lodge, Cariboo Benevolent Society and a Literary Society, as well as a Miners Association that acted like a municipal government.
This is not the popular image of a gold rush town, but it is an historically accurate one. As an author I see it as my responsibility to present historical truth in an entertaining, yet accurate manner.  Writing about the Canadian West means I have to overcome certain stereotypes in the reader’s mind, but that means I get to talk about a place and time that fascinates me.  As a commenter on this page once said, “what fun!”

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