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CHA Reads: Sean Carleton defends Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies

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Sean Carleton defends Sarah Carter, Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016).

This year’s shortlist for the CHA book prize is impressive and features five excellent titles. While each book is worthy of recognition for different reasons, I have been asked to speak to the strengths of Sarah Carter’s latest book, Imperial Plots: Women, Land, and the Spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies. The book is “a project of unravelling the profound entanglement of colonial and metropolitan histories, and of discovering how the colonial culture of prairie Canada was constituted through a complex interplay of the local, the region across borders, the national, and the imperial” (19). The book at once grapples with the global and local and displays an incredible breadth of focus without sacrificing detailed precision. Imperial Plots, in short, showcases the skill of Carter’s historical storytelling in spades.

Carter has previously published such landmark studies on women, colonialism, and Western Canada as Lost Harvests: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy (1990), Capturing Women: The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada’s Prairie West (1997), and The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (2010). Building on her previous research, Imperial Plots breaks new ground by combining Carter’s many interests to offer a rich examination of the inequities of Canada’s land laws that denied many women the chance to work the land, or homestead – the right to a grant of 160 acres – in prairie Canada from the 1870s to the 1930s. But the book is about more than (mostly white) women’s failed attempts to secure homestead rights.

Imperial Plots begins by situating women’s agricultural aspirations in the wider matrix of imperial thinking and the practice of settler colonialism on the Canadian prairie. Carter explains how many people in England hoped that women would relieve Britain of its “surplus” population by travelling to overseas colonies where, as farmers, they could tend to “imperial plots” and contribute to the “spade-work” of the British Empire. Like other studies in the field (for example Adele Perry, 2001), Carter shows that this imperial ideal did not match colonial reality. In prairie Canada, classed, gendered, and racialized rhetoric shaped government policy, and state officials actively sought to prohibit women, especially “British-born” women, from working the land. Carter argues that, in practice, “gender roles became embedded in the landscape” (4) and the state fought to keep farming a “male preserve” (3) and confine women to domestic work. British women, it was argued, should not to toil in the fields like “foreigners”; white women were to be models of domesticity and gentility and “vessels to transport and perpetuate British culture and identity” (9).

Yet, Carter also highlights the various tactics and strategies that some women used to negotiate and even subvert ridged gender expectations and official government policy concerning the land. As a result of Carter’s detailed research (undertaken on three continents), Imperial Plots serves to uncover a number of forgotten farming and ranching women of the prairies (from Indigenous women such as Buffalo Bird Woman to gender-benders like Isobel “Jack” May to promoters like Georgina Binnie-Clark). It is important to emphasize that Carter’s work, while focused on women colonizers, does not erase Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous women in particular, from the land. Instead, like Anne McClintock (1995), Carter draws attention to how settler women were “ambiguously complicit” (17) in settler colonialism. She argues that women homesteaders played an active role in colonial dispossession but also points out that their participation in this project was significantly circumscribed. While this line of argument can be further engaged, Carter skillfully argues that, regardless, it was not inevitable that women, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, would be restricted from the land; it was the intended outcome of the settler state’s patriarchal policies.

Overall, Imperial Plots is a significant book that contributes to a number of fields and, as such, is worthy of recognition and wider engagement.


Sean CarletonSean Carleton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of General Education at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Treaty 7 territory. His historical research examines the relationship between settler colonialism, capitalism, and the rise of state schooling in Western Canada.


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  1. Thanks for this!

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