Civilizing the West: The Galts and the Development of Western Canada


395 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88864-071-4




Reviewed by William A. Waiser

Bill Waiser is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan,
and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince
Albert National Park and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western
Canada’s National Parks, 1915–1946.  His


Civilizing the West is a curious though fascinating study of Sir Alexander Galt and his eldest son, Elliott, and their role in the development of western Canada in the late nineteenth century: curious in that the focus of the book is constantly shifting; fascinating in terms of how these two entrepreneurs developed a formidable coal-mining operation in southern Alberta.

The first part of Civilizing the West examines Galt’s concept of the West during his years as politician and later Canadian High Commissioner in London. A man of broad vision who worshipped the virtues of free enterprise, Galt regarded the acquisition of the West as the means to a powerful Canadian nation. The natural resources of the region, however, had to be made “useful” through the application of technology and capital. The book then describes how Galt and his son applied this concept of “civilization” to the coal resources of present-day Lethbridge and, despite repeated setbacks, eventually created a mining and transportation empire in southern Alberta. The final part of the book is devoted to the introduction of irrigation, the early social history of Lethbridge, and the 1906 coal miners’ strike.

A well-documented and well-written study, Civilizing the West reveals how the federal government was obsessed with the economic development of western Canada and how businessmen came to expect and depend upon favourable concessions. The book also demonstrates how the integration of the West into modern, industrial society was a painful, often brutal experience. It is a welcome addition to the literature on the opening of the Canadian West.


Den Otter, A.A., “Civilizing the West: The Galts and the Development of Western Canada,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,