Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies, 1910 to 1945


400 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-6681-X
DDC 971.2'02




Reviewed by W.J.C. Cherwinski

Joe Cherwinski is a professor of History at the Memorial University of


The cover of this volume shows a cartoon of a Prairie farmer
single-handedly swinging a plow, with a team of horses attached, in
angry reaction to an elegantly dressed easterner (Prime Minister R.B.
Bennett?) while the latter mouths platitudes. The prospective reader may
anticipate an equally angry polemic. Instead, the book offers important,
careful analysis of the contribution of western Canadian frustration to
the development of Canadian political thought.

This is the first attempt to systematically scrutinize the agrarian
protest movement before mid-century since the appearance of W.L.
Morton’s The Progressive Party in Canada in 1950. While Morton’s
book was a conventional political history, Laycock has carefully
analyzed and dissected the rhetoric of the movement as revealed in its
newspapers, its convention proceedings, and its leaders’ speeches and
election statements. He concludes that populism was not a unified body
of thought based on regional discontent or class conflict but a variety
of approaches depending on the leadership, the background of the people
involved, and the special concerns they sought to address.

Laycock discerns four different patterns in North American populist
thought since 1910. Crypto-liberalism (as espoused by the likes of
Robert Forke and T.A. Crerar) was closest to the mainstream of Canadian
political thought and action. Meanwhile, the U.F.A. wing of the
Progressives (as personified by Henry Wise Wood) espoused a radical
democratic populism structured around occupation and function. Social
democratic populism placed greater emphasis on the role of the state in
achieving the objectives of “the people” (the Farmer-Labour Party
and later the ccf serve as examples). Finally, Laycock singles out the
unique emphasis and approach of the Alberta Social Credit movement,
labelling it plebiscitarian populism. Laycock argues that these markedly
different groups shared a number of populist ideas on democratizing
Canadian politics.

While this book’s structure is clear and logical, the amount of
analytical data presented makes for hard slogging. Readers willing to
apply the necessary care and attention to following Laycock’s argument
will find it worth the effort, however, for the light he casts on the
unique position of western Canadian behavior in national political
thought. If similar analyses of groups that appeared before 1900 and
since 1945 (the Reform Party, for example) materialize, our
understanding of the complexity of Canadian political ideology will be


Laycock, David., “Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies, 1910 to 1945,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 7, 2023, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/30145.