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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 1-4
Título: 1997
Sección: Artículos / Articles


Canadian historians developed three broad interpretations of the nation’s past that related in some way to the Turner thesis. Two of these perspectives are Turnerian. The first view Canadian scholar J. M. H. Careless calls “the Environmentalist School, or North Americans All.”  Like Turner, some Canadians wished to demonstrate Canada’s distinctiveness from its European ancestry. For them a focus on the “native North American environment” seemed appropriate.4

The second view, a modified frontier thesis, accepted the importance of both frontier and extra-frontier forces. Writers, often exhibiting a degree of nationalism, conceived Canada’s past as distinct from both the U.S. and Europe. The third view, metropolitanism, posited Canada’s eastern, urban centers as wielding greater influence in the nation’s history than did frontiers. Walter Sage put forth a direct application of Turner in 1928. He erased the boundary between the U.S. and Canada and presented North American expansion as a single great movement. Marcus Lee Hansen and John Bartlett Brebner presented a similar interpretation. The title of their text emphasized the theme: The Mingling of the Canadian and American Peoples.5

In 1935 Frank Hawkins Underhill published a study that placed Canada’s east-west political conflict within a Turnerian framework. Edmund Henry Oliver in Winning the Frontier (1930) traced frontier influences on religion in Canada.6

Many Canadian scholars argued that the history of New France clearly defied Turner’s frontier pattern. A. L. Burt, however, illustrated strong, pervasive frontier influences in New France. He pointed to many factors distinguishing the region from Old France. New France exhibited a weak feudal system, settler defiance of church and state power, and a degree of local political participation. As Burt explained, “In contrast to that of the Old World, which developed out of a mass struggle to gain freedom which existing conditions of life denied, the democracy of this continent has existed because the individual would not surrender the freedom which the very conditions of life conferred upon him. It was the freedom of the frontier.”7

Arthur Lower in “The Origins of Democracy in Canada” (1930) framed a modified version of the frontier thesis. He acknowledged that a certain class leveling, what he termed social democracy, might emerge from any frontier environment, regardless of the ethnicity of the actors. Political democracy, however, arose only in societies with a prior democratic tradition. Unlike Sage, Lower found differences between Canadian and American democracy. He attributed the stronger democratic impulse in the U.S. to Canada’s briefer frontier experience, its stronger European ties, and its parliamentary form of government.8

In his text Colony to Nation (1946), Lower described the “spirit of the New World” in strongly Turnerian language:

While the New World has not had the power to make different things the same, it has had great power to modify, to change old institutions and give them new form and spirit.
In all pioneer agricultural society, where nature was strong and man was weak, social equality was the rule, a sturdy sense of personal values prevailed, an empiric rather than a traditional measurement of men’s value. North American democracy was forest-born.9

George Stanley turned his focus from Old France to the Canadian West. He found major differences between Western Canada and the American West. He argued that the Turner thesis did not fit Canada’s development. Canadian settlement never pushed beyond the reach of government organization and law. Western Canada did not suffer frontier lawlessness and violent conflicts. He concluded that “environment has largely conditioned our economic; tradition, our political ways of life. The history of Western Canada cannot be explained in terms of either of these factors alone.”10

The frontier hypothesis clearly influenced Canadian historiography. Few scholars, however, accepted it uncritically. Most historians pointed to Canada’s closer European ties and to the stronger influence of outside events. Canada had a relatively short frontier experience. French Canada exhibits a cultural background distinct from the Anglo-Saxon. Many Canadian historians stressed “environment” as a major factor in Canadian history. The frontier, however, was only a single element of that environment. Canadians did not neglect, as did Turner, the importance of transmitted tradition and acquired ideas.

In the late 1940s, Morris Zaslow took stock. He concluded that “despite all the criticisms and modifications, something of the frontier hypothesis seems to have entered into the work of recent Canadian historiography and seems destined to leave its mark upon the writing of the future.”11

During the 1940s, scholars increasingly questioned the earlier Turnerian and neo-Turnerian interpretations. Metropolitanism, the third view of the Canadian past, stood the frontier thesis on its head. In The Rise of Toronto, 1850-1890 (1947) Donald Campbell Master emphasized Toronto’s growing domination over its hinterland. Toronto-Montreal competition reshaped the nation’s economic and political face.

Donald Grant Creighton’s The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence (1937) and Dominion of the North, a History of Canada (1944) focused on the attempts of the St. Lawrence metropolitan area to establish its economic control. He denied the applicability of the frontier theory as a general explanation of Canada’s past. Despite his Laurentian emphasis, he did accept the importance of the frontier during certain historical periods.

Canadian historian J. M. S. Careless explicitly laid out the metropolitan view in 1954. He stressed the importance of eastern, urban factors over the forces of Canada’s western and northern frontiers in shaping the nation’s development. Metropolitan centers came to dominate the hinterland by supplying capital, transportation, and markets. “The frontier’s culture, too,” wrote Careless, “originally stems from a metropolitan community; at root, learning and ideas radiate from there.”12

Interestingly Gilman Ostrander pointed out in 1983 that Turner’s doctoral thesis at Johns Hopkins emphasized the centrality of riverain access in shaping Canada’s history. Canada faced no formidable Appalachian barrier that held back inland expansion. Owing to Turner’s early research on New France, river transport, and the fur trade, Ostrander concluded that “Turner may be said to have been a Canadianist before he was an Americanist.”13

Turning from eastern to western Canada, we find that Turnerian thought received other challenges. In 1976 David Breen pointed out that Canada’s western agrarian frontier opened and closed very quickly within the space of two decades. A twentieth-century phenomenon, the settlement process had little of the personal and social isolation that Turner imputed to the frontier.14

Breen also considered the cattle frontier that preceded western farming. Again, he found little evidence to support Turner. The frontier did not alter preexisting class stratification and strong British cultural values.15

Recent decades of Canadian historiography are distinctly anti-Turnerian. In 1977 Robin W. Winks concluded that “the total meaning of the frontier experience for Canada was quite different from that of the United States.” He found no support for Turner’s thesis in any of Canada’s frontiers.16 Turner’s ideas, however, strongly shaped historiographical debate in Canada, as it did in the United States, for more than half a century.