The History of Western North America (Course Outline)

18 04 2010

I’m posting the outline of one of the course I’m going to be teaching between September and December 2010.

49th Parallel at Waterton Lake, Alberta. Image Courtesy of David Derrick.

Note on picture: Governments have removed vegetation along the border to increase their control over the lives of their citizens. The “border vista” extends for three metres on either side of the border and is maintained by the employees of the IJC.  This picture illustrates the highly artificial nature of the Canada-US border and the two “nations” it separates.

From the course outline: “The official title of this course is the History of the Canadian West. However, my lectures will deal with western North America as a whole. It is impossible to understand the history of western Canada without knowing about events south of the border. The 49th parallel transects biomes, traditional aboriginal territories, and natural economic communities. Despite the best efforts of governments based in the eastern time zone to exercise control over the border, animals, drugs, and illegal migrants continue to flow across it.

Many westerners dislike the border and the central government power it represents. Some First Nations regard the border as illegitimate. Anti-Ottawa sentiment is common among the whites of western Canada. In Alberta, many right-wing people believe that they have more in common with their American neighbours than with central Canadians. Some ecologists in BC and the Pacific North West have dreamt of establishing a new nation called “Cascadia”. Separation from Canada remains a topic of conversation in Alberta.


Anti-central government sentiment is also pronounced in the American West. In some cases, this sentiment translates into outright secessionism. Alaska has a political party devoted to independence from the United States. The husband of politician Sarah Palin was once a member of this party. In other cases, dislike of Washington takes the form of hostility to specific federal government policies and strong regional or state identities. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater once said that he would be happy if the whole eastern seaboard of the United States fell into the Atlantic Ocean. During the Presidency of George Bush, it is not unknown for Californians travelling overseas to tell people that they are from “California” rather than “the U.S.”.

The American West has been the birthplace of many protest movements of both the political left and the political right. Some of these protest movements crossed the border and became part of western Canadian political history.

There is a strong libertarian movement in western North America. Western libertarians tend favour policies such as low taxes, unrestricted immigration, the right to carry handguns, and the legalization of divorce, homosexuality, pornography, drugs, gambling, and prostitution.

There are some very right-wing people in western North America. At the same time, the environmental, Native rights, and gay rights movements have also been strong in western North America. The first openly gay municipal politician in North America was elected in San Francisco. Greenpeace was created in Vancouver. Irrigation and other environmental policies are central to politics in the west. Western North America is fascinating to me as a historian because political extremes have clashed there so often. The sheer ethnic diversity of the region is also interesting to study.

Deadwood, Dakota Territory, 1876

Louis Riel after his capture, 1885

Chinese Head Tax Certificate

Garden in Vancouver's Chinatown

Vancouver-based Greenpeace Protesters at Oilsands Facility in Alberta

The course explores major topics in the political, social, and economic history of western North America. As a vehicle for teaching these broad themes, I have adopted a “history through biography” approach, so each lecture revolves around the life and times of an individual. The men and women who are the subject of my lectures come from diverse social groups and historical epochs.”

To see the rest of the course outline, click here.