Johnny Chinook

…and the invention of Albertan culture

By Aaron Giovannone

Johnny Chinook was hunting in the foothills when he ran out of provisions. Weak from hunger, his pants hanging loosely from their suspenders, Johnny spotted a tree where a flock of partridges were perched all on one limb. He took careful aim with his rifle, loaded with his last remaining bullet… but missed the birds.

The bullet, however, split the branch where the partridges roosted, and as its two halves snapped together, all the birds were caught by the feet! As Johnny went to collect them, he slipped and fell into the nearby river. Struggling his way back up the muddy bank, Johnny noticed his pants, which had filled with water, were now teeming with fish. Johnny was saved! “You never know when your luck’ll change!” he said.

This scene is from Johnny Chinook: Tall Tales and True from the Canadian West, a 1945 collection of folktales, popular history and travel writing by Robert E. Gard. The character of Johnny Chinook, Gard’s own invention, appears periodically in the book, linking its various vignettes. Johnny Chinook is “a muse, or spirit, [a] supernatural being,” Gard writes, “who represents all the good storytellers in Alberta.” Written by an American who only lived in Alberta a few years, Johnny Chinook was nonetheless a foundational and influential expression of official, state-funded Albertan culture.

Much like Johnny’s, Alberta’s luck was changing in the mid-1940s. After a decade of Depression, wartime spending had pushed the economy into the black, and an oil strike in Leduc was about to ignite a boom that would last largely uninterrupted for four decades. More than anything, however, Gard’s book reflected Alberta’s recent Depression-era experience as well as its colonial past. Through its commitment to ordinary people’s stories, Johnny Chinook displays a working-class sensibility, and its humorous, sometimes satiric tone demythologizes the so-called frontier.

Robert Gard was born to a middle-class family in the farming town of Iola, Kansas in 1910. As a young man during the Depression—“a sad time and a bad time” as he wrote in his 1956 book Grassroots Theatre—Gard took to the road with thousands of other itinerant men. He eventually attended the University of Kansas, where he studied drama (against his lawyer father’s wishes), and, with the help of the New Deal-era College Student Employment Program, found his first job as a helper at the university’s theatre. On a scholarship he then shipped off to the prestigious Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to study under A.M. Drummond, a specialist in folk drama. Under Drummond’s direction Gard helped produce and perform plays for popular audiences across upstate New York.

As Gard writes, in Ithaca he put on “country theatre experiments” with the aim of “developing fine original plays authored by the people of the area.” Gard travelled to towns and villages, conducted interviews with residents and incorporated their stories into a play he wrote in collaboration with them. The show was then performed in the town, with roles often filled by the residents themselves. Gard would use similar methods of community engagement to write Johnny Chinook.

Folk culture was an especially influential force in the early decades of the twentieth century, and it continues to appeal today. Fuelled partly by a disenchantment with modern society, folk culture is an attempt to find authenticity in the traditional arts and culture of rustic and rural peoples, those supposedly least touched by modernity and in most direct contact with nature and the land. Urban, middle-class cultural producers selected, collected and purveyed folk cultures to a wider audience, shaping to a large degree what was seen as legitimate.

Unsurprisingly, folk culture is a strong influence on Gard’s Johnny Chinook. The foreword, penned by Donald Cameron, president of the University of Alberta Department of Extension (where Gard worked), indulges in a painstaking description of Alberta’s geography and weather before proffering those as a foundation for an Albertan identity: “The people have become acutely aware of the Alberta sunshine, the hail, the rain and the warm chinook wind with its mysterious arch in the west. Such things have had much to do with the creation of a distinct western spirit, an optimism that is at once hopeful and fearful, a sense of humour.”

For as compelling as folk culture can be, in his book The Quest of the Folk, Canadian historian Ian McKay points out that folk culture was popular in elite institutions partly because it defined “the people” in a way that overwrote class conflict in contemporary capitalist society. The land could be the source of a shared provincial or national identity, encompassing everyone who lived there, whether worker or boss, renter or landlord, papering over more meaningful tensions over ownership, control and distribution of wealth. In colonial societies such as Canada, folk culture tended to erase, belittle or romanticize Indigenous peoples, the actual first inhabitants of the land.

Johnny Chinook represents all the good storytellers in Alberta.

Gard came to Alberta in 1942 to teach at the Banff Extension School, the predecessor of the Banff Centre for the Arts. There he taught playwriting to summer students, and in 1943 he settled in Edmonton at the University of Alberta, where he became head of the Alberta Folklore and Local History project, establishing the short-lived Alberta Folklore Quarterly. This and later work was funded by numerous grants Gard received through the Rockefeller Foundation.

Gard quickly became a prominent public intellectual, “the Mark Twain of Alberta” as he was labelled by the press. He lectured across the province, at the same time collecting material for his folklore initiative, “asking people desperately about their yarns, materials about themselves and their places.” This material would be the basis for Johnny Chinook. Gard even read some of these stories on air at CKUA radio in Edmonton on a popular show.

Gard was a key member of the earliest cultural institutions in Alberta. The Banff School was one program of the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension, which offered informal adult education across the province. Established with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation in 1933, U of A’s was the country’s largest such program, reaching some 380,000 Albertans in the 1930s. Teachers travelled to far- flung towns and villages to offer free lectures in community halls, church basements and barns. As academics PearlAnn Reichwein and Karen Wall write in their book Uplift, public arts education in Alberta promised students “a higher quality of life, moral uplift and shared citizenship.” It was during these years also that the CBC and NFB were established, with mandates to educate, inform and entertain the public.

It wasn’t a coincidence, however, that such programs, funded both by governments and by wealthy philanthropists, were launched in midst of the Great Depression when popular support for capitalism was being deeply shaken. Political parties such as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Communist Party of Canada provided free education to their members on topics including arts and culture. Amid the intense class conflict of the era, state- and philanthropist-funded public education programs sought, as Reichwein and Wall emphasize, to promote “social harmony” by “align[ing] popular taste and knowledge with elite, conservative values.”

Whatever the higher goals of these institutions, art does not always lend itself to such instrumentalization, and Gard himself was primarily interested in the development of local culture. “I have wanted the arts,” he wrote, “to come into their own as a vital force in community life.” Because Johnny Chinook is interested in the stories of ordinary Albertans, the book ends up criticizing capitalism and colonialism.

Gard’s books display a fondness for the working class and outlaws—who are often the same people. In Fort Macleod, Gard hears the story of Jeff Davis, an ox-cart teamster who, after the arrival of the southern branch of the railway, is ordered by his employer to deliver the oxen to the slaughterhouse. Davis is so attached to the animals, however, he can’t bear to do it. Gard writes: “You can imagine how Jeff felt. He sat on his wagon seat and thought the matter out. The oxen symbolized his whole life, the plodding, the twelve-miles-a-day treks across the prairie, the camp at night[…] It seemed to Jeff that his life had ended.” Taking it upon himself to save the oxen, Davis hides them in a distant pasture, claiming that they had wandered off and gotten lost. Still attached to the beasts, however, Davis visits them every night under cover of darkness until one evening he’s discovered and the oxen are repossessed.

In Lethbridge Gard hears the tale of Dave Cochrane, a well-known character who squatted on various properties, resisting all attempts to dislodge him. In the meantime Cochrane lived frugally. In one anecdote he steals a stove from a detachment of the nearby North-West Mounted Police. Cochrane ingeniously makes off with one piece of the stove at a time, while hauling away other junk, then reassembles the pieces at home. “Not long after this,” as Gard retells it, “[a] police officer paid a visit to Dave’s cabin, and saw the fine-looking stove. ‘Where did you get that new stove, Dave?’ asked the Mountie. ‘Why,’ said Dave, ‘it was amongst the junk you told me to haul away from behind the Barracks!’

Later in the book the author travels to Waterhole, Alberta (now a community in Fairview, in Peace Country) to interview John Sweeney, a retired agricultural labourer and amateur poet known as the “Bard of the North.” “One thing that does make me good and mad,” Sweeney says, “are these fellows who set out to make a lot of profit out of the man who doesn’t have anything anyway. I speak my mind about this whenever I get a chance, and as a result some people call me a communist.” Gard reprints Sweeney’s verse at length:

In Heaven I never want a seat,

If I have got to shovel wheat.

To tell the truth upon my soul

In Hell I’d rather shovel coal,

To keep old Limbo good and hot

And burn the whole infernal lot.

That owns a damn old threshing rig

And tries to make their profit big.

Sweeney adopts the traditional social hierarchy on earth, in this satiric version of the afterlife, with bosses on top and workers below, only to invert it when the worker stokes the furnace so hot that he exacts revenge on his exploiters above.

Along with its appreciation of working-class heroes, Johnny Chinook displays a populist disdain of the professional classes, including lawyers and doctors. Gard retells a story of a Dr. McMurder and Dr. Slaughter who perform unnecessary surgery on their patients just so they can charge them more. “I wonder if I’ve given him an overdose of chloroform,” says Dr. Slaughter. Then, “with his ears against the patient’s chest, Dr. Slaughter laughed heartily,” before rushing off to spend his windfall on a lucrative bit of real estate, his patient still unconscious.

The oil industry receives a relatively brief treatment by Gard. He was writing in the years before the discovery of major reserves at Leduc in 1947. But of the earlier strike in Turner Valley, Gard writes, “Calgary’s staidest citizens engaged in an orgy of speculation which reached such fantastic heights that some brokers used waste baskets as temporary containers of money eagerly offered by purchasers of oil stock—most of it entirely worthless.” Having lived through the carnage of the Great Depression, Gard was understandably critical of this kind of rampant speculation.

To my mind, the funniest section of the book is about “remittance men,” what we might call today “trust fund kids.” These younger sons of well-to-do British families arrive in Alberta intent on setting up a ranch or a farm, but mired in incompetence and bad habits, they don’t get very far. Gard retells the story of an unnamed Britisher who spent all his allowance in the bar at High River. When surprised by an unannounced visit from his family, the young man gave his father a tour of a friend’s ranch, pretending it was his own. Satisfied with his son’s progress, the father left his son an extra 1,000 pounds—which he spent on drinks for his friend.

Alberta’s “country western” identity proves adaptable to the uses of swaggering corporate executives and working-class people alike.

Johnny Chinook includes many stories about Indigenous people, some of them containing offensive tropes common to the era. While no one should treat Johnny Chinook as an authority on Indigenous culture in Alberta, the book does in its way attempt to include Indigenous perspectives. Gard retells a lengthy story offered to him by Chief Mike Mountain Horse of the Blood Tribe, whom he met in Lethbridge. One story is the epic of Charcoal, a member of the Blood who became a fugitive from the RCMP after killing his wife’s lover and who was executed by hanging in 1897.

In Rocky Mountain House Gard writes about the nearby O’Chiese First Nation, which refused to sign Treaty 6 until 1950, five years after the publication of Johnny Chinook. Gard adopts the O’Chiese’s point of view in reporting the issue: “In refusing the offer the Indians argued that this was their country and had been theirs long before the white men arrived[…] They said that the white man was the intruder and should leave them in peace on the land that had been theirs since the world began.”

The same year Johnny Chinook was published, 1945, Gard left U of A for a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he spent the rest of a storied career. He wrote dozens of plays, essays and books, becoming a dynamic administrator in community arts and working in educational initiatives at state, national and international levels. Gard passed away in 1992 at the age of 82. In 2003 a foundation promoting Wisconsin community arts was created in his name and continues today.

Despite his brief tenure in Alberta, Gard did leave a legacy. While at the Banff School, he taught drama to Elsie Park Gowan, who would pen many stage plays and CBC radio plays in the 1950s and 1960s. The work of influential Albertan poet, novelist and academic Robert Kroetsch, especially his 1967 book set in the Great Depression, The Words of My Roaring, seem particularly indebted to Johnny Chinook’s tall-tale style.

Johnny Chinook was a key contribution to official Albertan culture, shaped by folk notions as they were imagined for Alberta. As the postwar welfare state developed at both the provincial and federal levels, financial and institutional support for Albertan cultural production grew, as recommended by the 1951 Massey Commission. Johnny Chinook was republished by Mel Hurtig in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, a nod to its importance in official Canadian culture as well. That edition was illustrated by Walter Phillips, another icon of Alberta culture.

Over the ensuing decades, cosmopolitan values such as multiculturalism and diversity have mixed with Alberta’s folksy, western image, sometimes ingeniously, sometimes uneasily. Clearly Alberta’s “country western” identity is still powerfully resonant, proving remarkably adaptable to the uses of both swaggering corporate executives and working-class people. To my mind, however, Johnny Chinook’s sympathies are with the latter.

Aaron Giovannone is a Calgary poet, podcaster and professor published in Maclean’s, Jacobin and The Walrus.



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