Jeff Nowers

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 2 (Spring 2010)

Roger Epp. We Are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008.

Roger Epp, a political scientist and dean of the Augustana campus of the University of Alberta, has written a thoughtful compendium of ten essays, many of which have appeared in prior incarnations, grouped together under the general theme of rural Canadian prairie life. Though displaying an idiosyncratic style, it is an instructive and at times deeply moving book.

The first three chapters are of a personal nature. Epp offers nostalgic descriptions of the Battle River, whose surrounding countryside lies in the heart of Treaty 6 territory, the area demarcated by the momentous 1876 agreement between the Crown and Cree First Nations. Next, he takes us on a journey to Oklahoma, recalling how his maternal great-grandfather, a farmer and pastor, moved from there to Saskatchewan in 1918 after his homestead had been claimed in the expansion of Indian Territory allotted to the Cheyenne. Epp then turns his attention to Hanley, Saskatchewan, a lonely little town where he was raised in the 1960s. Canada has lived off “both the economic and cultural capital” of places like Hanley; the country as a whole “will be impoverished by their decline and disappearance” (50).

Prairie politics is a recurring theme in the fifth, sixth and eighth chapters. Epp longs for a revival of agrarian tradition of the sort that Kentuckian Wendell Berry represents, which would empower farmers to act and reclaim their own history. Many prairie farmers today come from ancestors who were deeply suspicious of socialist tendencies that sprang from Rousseau’s notion of the people as a single entity with a common will. Consequently, they supported “the pluralist Canada, the one that promised an undisturbed, side-by-side home for diverse peoples” (118).

This pluralist vision, however, has recently been impeded by a farm crisis that extends to abandoned railway lines and grain elevators, diminished government services, and a general lack of leadership. Here Epp’s historical analysis sheds light on why many prairie farmers are reticent to cast their vote for the New Democratic Party, reticence stemming in no small measure from their forebears’ disillusionment with homogenizing socialism. Alberta constitutes another key theme of the book. In the fourth chapter Epp explains how the United Farmers of Alberta became one of the greatest Canadian populist democratic movements, unexpectedly winning a majority of seats in the 1921 Alberta general election and subsequently paving the way for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Saskatchewan.

Today’s Alberta is actually “two Albertas” (chapter 9), one urban and one rural. Though the latter is no longer at the center of Albertan life, Epp opines, urbanites nonetheless mimic the ranch lifestyle of cowboy boots, pickup trucks, and country music. Rural Alberta has become the “other Alberta,” but it has survived in the Conservative dynasty through a patronclient relationship: oil revenue is exchanged for voter support. The reality of two Albertas has prompted Epp to think about the rural situatedness of the institution where he teaches (chapter 10). He concludes that a rural university should possess its own local pedagogy and curriculum that would encourage graduates to enter the rural workplace.

The seventh chapter, bearing the same title as the book, was provoked by the Canadian government’s 1998 response to the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Canadians at large must be disabused of the myth of terra nullius, which views pre-contact North America as a land belonging to no one. It is just this myth, the author argues, that allows many Canadians to view treaties as historically inconsequential with no meaning in perpetuity.

However, based on their “birthright” (a concept borrowed from political theorist Sheldon Wolin), “most Canadians exercise a treaty right simply by living where they do” (133). This is an arresting argument deserving careful pondering. What does it mean, say, for a Mennonite settler to “exercise a treaty right”? Could this become a barrier to healing and reconciliation with First Nations peoples? Or, if Canadians finally recognize that “we are all treaty people,” are we then one step closer to reconciliation? Epp is to be commended for raising the issue of treaties in a candid, unrestrained manner.

Altogether, the ten chapters present a full account of Epp’s own political vision, which stems from his identity as a treaty person from the rural prairies. Though the rationale for the ordering of the essays and the conceptual links between them are sometimes not obvious, each essay is readable and illuminating. The book is well annotated and contains a helpful index of names and subjects. I recommend it unreservedly to political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, scholars of literature, theologians, and anyone interested in the meaning of rural Canadian prairie life.

Jeff Nowers, PhD candidate, Emmanuel College, Toronto School of Theology