The American West was won. The Canadian West was negotiated. Or so an old saying goes. Though Americans are familiar with the first half of that story, interested Washingtonians can savor a part of the Canadian West on their home turf. The province of Alberta is featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this month, with a host of related events — from art exhibits to music shows — around town. The Canadian Embassy also is exhibiting “All About Alberta” in its art gallery.
Yet despite the interest, perhaps the most striking thing about the Canadian West is its lack of representation in popular culture, especially in contrast to its American counterpart.
The American West was a rowdy place, a vast territory filled with gunfights and barroom brawls. There were plenty of heroes and villains, sheriffs and outlaws. It was only tamed, ironically enough, through sheer aggression.
At least that’s what I learned as an Alberta schoolgirl. My teachers always contrasted the United States’ assertive motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with the more sober Canadian slogan, “peace, order, and good government.”
The story of the Canadian West was different. There were no shootouts at the OK Corral for us. The simplified story is that Westerners went from being under the control of the Hudson’s Bay Co. to being part of the Dominion of Canada — and somewhat peacefully, at that.
Westerners, in both the U.S. and its northern neighbor, are an independent bunch. In Canada, though, independence somehow didn’t manifest itself politically — the Canadian cowboys allowed themselves to fall directly under federal control.
These historical differences may explain why representations of the West in popular culture are so different in the two countries. America, of course, has the long and proud tradition of the Western. John Wayne personified the tough, independent cowboy in more than 200 movies. Cowboy culture also helped inspire one of the great American vernacular music traditions, country and Western. The cowboy spirit of self-reliance is inextricably tied with the American spirit itself.
The American cowboy is so iconic — and still relevant — that director Ang Lee caused the biggest Hollywood stir in years with “Brokeback Mountain,” which subverted cowboy archetypes.
The Canadian West doesn’t have such a film tradition. There are no Canadian cowboy stars on stage or screen. In fact, the quintessential Canadian Western figure isn’t a vigilante or renegade. Instead, it’s the Mountie, a figure of law and order.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police began life in 1873 as the North-West Mounted Police. The red-suited men on horseback are a particularly Canadian institution; the American frontier had nothing remotely similar.
Unfortunately, a bureaucracy of lawgivers isn’t quite as romantic as an independent brotherhood — even if, like the cowboys, they also did their work on horseback. The Mounties never inspired great art. The most famous Mountie in popular culture is probably Dudley Do-Right from TV’s animated “The Bullwinkle Show.” The Mounties’ unofficial slogan might be that they always catch their man, but Dudley never seemed to get hold of archnemesis Snidely Whiplash.
It’s no surprise, then, that Canadian authorities banned “The Bullwinkle Show” because they didn’t like the portrayal of a character whose man always got away … even after he was caught.
The modern update of Dudley, Constable Benton Fraser — the central character of the 1990s Canadian TV series “Due South” — wasn’t much better. Seen on CBS, the program was the most popular Canadian series ever shown on American television at the time. Constable Fraser (played by Paul Gross) was the stereotypical Canadian: polite, thoughtful — and kind of boring.
Maybe history isn’t the only problem. American actors, directors and musicians have fallen in love with the West time and time again, but Canadian artists seem discontented with the very place that might have inspired them.
As proof, consider “All About Alberta,” a collection of fine crafts on display at the Canadian Embassy through Sept.16. Walking through the rooms, one easily could get the impression that these Alberta pieces could have come from anywhere in the West — whether in the U.S. or Canada.
Upon first glance, there’s nothing that clearly cries “Canadian.” There are beautiful sterling silver and brass chalices by Calgary artist Crys Harse with elegant, decorative wild horses. Glass blower Julia Reimer encases her work “Ascendency of Nature” in a cylinder of steel, symbolizing the universal Western desire to tame nature.
However, a closer look reveals that these works could not have come from the States. (Not just because the exhibition notes are in both English and French.) Brian McArthur’s terra cotta “Trojan Beaver,” with curling stones “walking” out of its opening, is a witty piece of wishful thinking, poking fun at Canada’s lack of cultural hegemony.
Why the Canadian West hasn’t reached the iconic status of its American counterpart might be better illustrated through a comment made by one of its artists, Darren Petersen, a glass blower from Red Deer, Alberta. “Silver Trout,” his entry in the exhibit, is a simple but striking statuette of the popular fish.
His comment, though, is far more interesting. “Alberta has been home for my whole life,” Mr. Petersen writes in a placard accompanying his work. “Although I care little for its politics and the way the land is abused, I feel a strong connection to it and to its natural inhabitants.” Please note: Not the “unnatural” inhabitants — people — with whom Western Canadian artists often are out of touch.
Artists in general tend to be a progressive bunch, supporters of government social programs and concerned about environmental degradation. However, the average Westerner, particularly in oil-rich Alberta, is more conservative. Like his Texas or Montana brethren, he believes people should rely on themselves and their community, not the government. He also believes that natural resources should be used to bring prosperity.
It’s a tension that might not make for friendly bedfellows. While the independent cowboy spirit shares much with the American ethos, things are different in Canada. The Canadian cowboy, detached in many ways from the feelings of his countrymen, is somewhat resentful. Proceeds from the natural resources the Albertan sees as his birthright often have been confiscated by the federal government; Easterners complain about burning fossil fuels even while they benefit from Alberta’s booming oil industry.
The result is dissatisfaction with confederation: A poll last year commissioned by Western Standard magazine found that 35.6 percent of Western Canadians believed the region should seriously consider forming its own country.
That’s why Western Canadians have been at the forefront of political reform in the nation. They have tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to move the country to an elected senate with equal representation from all over Canada, for example.
Maybe divergent histories aren’t the sole reason the cowboy is so well-loved here and practically nonexistent in Canada.
Maybe the Canadian cowboy is too busy agitating for political change to worry about making art.