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Divided landscapes: the emergence and dissipation of "The Great Divide" landscape narrative Open Access


Other title
"The Great Divide"
Continental Divide
Rocky Mountains
height of land
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Atkins, Sean
Supervisor and department
Dr. Gerhard Ens
Examining committee member and department
Munro, KennethJ. (History & Classics)
Fletcher, Christopher (Anthropology)
Ens, Gerhard (History & Classics)
Irwin, Robert Scott (Adjunct History, Macewan University)
Colpitts, George W. (History, University of Calgary)
Mills, David C.L. (History & Classics)
Department of History and Classics

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Heights of land are, in a North American context, geographical boundaries—defined by the division of waters and a certain degree of elevation that sets them apart from the immediate environs. Heights of land are also landscaped places. Indeed, the hegemonic narrative that frames the height of land idea—the intertwined processes of division, separation and opposite movements—is challenged when one applies a measure of literary criticism and the nature of political ecology to the landscape perception. Cultures (and other living systems), move along, across or over the height of land as a matter of course. Heights of land are not simply primordial geographical entities but culturally conditioned ways of making sense of spaces. This study takes as its starting point the idea that the imposition of a specific Rocky Mountain height of land reading—“The Continental Divide/Great Divide”—was the medium by which social groups expressed relative power over others through spatial practice. The route that this narrative has taken since nationhood reflects the geographic meaning invested by the Canadian state into the process of nation building at the end of the 19th century. In the decades between 1840 and 1900, a specific landscape vision was gradually established and imposed over people who did not necessarily express a similar understanding of the importance of the height of land as a continental-wide boundary making system. The consequences of such an imposition were profound. The “Great Divide” interpretation of the Rocky Mountain height of land remained predominant through the Second World War, largely as a result of nation building and its attendant processes. The supposed universal consensus of “The Great Divide” established in the wake of this imposition began to fragment, however, as cultural and social groups from both within and outside the region began to challenge the “Great Divide” idea. Indeed, at the dawn of the 21st century, “The Great Divide” idea remains a powerful icon of the Canadian Mountain West, but is now used as an identifiable frame of reference for groups pushing their own interests in ways markedly different from earlier times.
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