The180·The 180

'Western Canada': A closer look at what that even means

Last week on The 180, we took on some very western post-election issues. But our use of the term "west" caught the ear — and the ire — of some of our listeners. That opened the door to a different conversation, about how we define this part of Canada.
Glacier-fed Moraine Lake, photographed in 1902. Does this look like "Western Canada" to you? (Vaux Family Fonds/Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)

What do you think of when you hear the term "Western Canada?" It's a phrase used often in Canadian conversation, but do we all mean the same thing when we say it? 

The federal government, through Western Economic Diversification Canada, says Western Canada is Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. When the Western Premiers gather for their annual conference, the leaders of those four provinces, plus those of the three territories, are invited. But if you ask regular Canadians, the answers are less clear.

Academics seem to agree that there is something called "Western Canada," but that it is hard to define. The idea often encapsulates an idea of settlement, of adventure, of protest politics and of natural resources. But history professor Adele Perry says that still doesn't help draw geographical boundaries, and it can in fact lead to stereotypes, where agriculture or oil are used to represent the whole region. 

Theresa Garvin, a geographer at the University of Alberta, says we can define the west as a geographic space, as a mythology, or as a colonized region, built to feed resources back to Central Canada. Spatially, she says "Western Canada" often just means the part of the country to the west of the person giving the definition. If we set Ontario as the standard, then "Western Canada" is Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and B.C. But, says Garvin, if you look at it culturally, B.C. stands alone: "there's a very different way of seeing the world between a Prairie province and British Columbia."

Beyond attitude, it could be argued that B.C. has its own history too. Anthropologist Charles Menzies points out that B.C. existed as a colony while the rest of the west stayed as territories throughout the 19th century, and that B.C. wasn't settled by waves of immigrants sent to set up farms, as the prairies were: "This has not been a settler province, it's been a resource extraction, industrial capitalist province." 

So if B.C. is different and the most western province on the map, does that mean that it alone is "Western Canada?" Roger Gibbins, former president of the Canada West Foundation, says Alberta has been the most assertively west in recent history: "Albertans tend to use the term 'Western Canada' in a fairly imperialistic way. That is, they equate Alberta's interests with the region as a whole." 

That very idea has bothered Menzies, a British Columbian, all his life: "How are these Albertans thinking that they're westerners? Really? It's partly tounge-in-cheek, but was always at the base growing up, that kind of sensibility, that if we thought of it, we were obviously The West. Capital T."

After all this, The 180 team has come up with its definition for "Western Canada." It will use the blanket geographical definition, of the four westernmost provinces, but will break that down into two subsets: the Prairies and British Columbia. 

Tell us your definition in the comment section below. 

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