Portrait of a Country: Images for Teaching Canada

Plan of River Lots in the Parishes of St John, St. James and St Boniface (1874)

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A few weeks ago Alan MacEachern asked the twitterverse for a “great, all-purpose Canadian #envhist image.” (He’s good for easy questions like that.) At the same time, I started teaching my Canadian-history-as-environmental-history survey here at Bucknell.

My classes tend to have too many images (but, hey, according to our Teaching andLearning Center, that puts me right alongside our students, who tend to be visual learners). Teaching to Americans has me wondering what are the absolutely essential things non-Canadians should know about Canadian history, let alone Canadian environmental history. So I thought it’d be a fun exercise to play “if I was stranded on a desert island (or Pennsylvania) and could only bring 10 images / topics with me, what would they be?”

So I started going through the collections I have, and … totally cheated.

Instead of 10 images for the whole survey, I made it 10 images for each of the clusters in the class: continental expansion, myths of wilderness, and the north.

So I thought I’d share these as the semester progresses (and the powerpoints get finished). These are images that I find myself coming back to, seeing big themes and small details in every time, and ones that generate good discussion.

So, for continental expansion:

  1. Map of North America. Drawn by J. Arrowsmith.

On this map, the territories claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company in virtue of the charter granted to them by King Charles the Second, are coloured green the other British territories, pink & those of Russia, yellow. (1857). A really helpful graphic of Rupert’s Land, and by extension North American watersheds, to convey a scale of continental space that eludes most of us. The hubris/ambition of “Canada” in 1867 huddled at the mouth of the St. Lawrence but prepared to acquire this vast territory.

 

Map of North America. Drawn by J. Arrowsmith.
Map of North America. Drawn by J. Arrowsmith.

 

  1. British North America, Presented to Subscribers of the Globe (1857)

A great illustration of Canada West’s thinking approaching Confederation: the thick, dark, vaguely threatening line of the American transcontinental railroad; the ridiculously optimistic line “below which wheat can be grown,” and projections of Canadian railroads; and the fact that lakes and rivers are still the most prominent natural feature.

British North America, Presented to Subscribers of the Globe (1857)
British North America, Presented to Subscribers of the Globe (1857)

 

  1. “Uncle Sam Kicked Out!” (1869)

When John Bull says, “an empty house is better than such a tenant as that!” it bespeaks the anxieties about sharing a continent with a neighbouring state who, not to put too fine a point on it, was rather interested in getting most of that continent for itself; and the resulting strategies designed to “hold” the west for Canada. (And the telling characterization of the west as “empty,” neatly erasing the First Nations and Métis.)

McCord Museum, Print | Uncle Sam Kicked Out ! | M994X.5.273.46

 

  1. Plan of the River Lots in the Parishes of St. John, St. James, and St. Boniface, Province of Manitoba (1874)

I struggled to choose an image for the Métis story, but settled on another map. The juxtaposition of river lot with town and settler grid. The context of the new province of Manitoba, and the Métis negotiation for political, territorial, and cultural rights. An early image of Winnipeg, which itself encapsulates so much of the continental story.

Plan of River Lots in the Parishes of St John, St. James and St Boniface (1874)
Plan of River Lots in the Parishes of St John, St. James and St Boniface (1874)

 

  1. Two boys cutting hay, St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, Duck Lake, Sask. Undated.

How to encapsulate the meeting of plains cultures with settler colonialism and a European agricultural ideal? (A close second: the Qu’Appelle Residential School, with the heartbreaking barrier).

Cutting Hay at St. Michael's Indian Residential School, Duck Lake, Saskatchewan
Cutting Hay at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, Duck Lake, Saskatchewan

 

  1. Bridge over Mountain Creek, British Columbia (after 1885)

One of hundreds of photographs of the CPR’s technological efforts, promoting the grandeur of engineering so celebrated by Victorian Canada, and a complement to the Last Spike.

Bridge over Mountain Creek, British Columbia 1885-1900
Bridge over Mountain Creek, British Columbia 1885-1900

 

  1. CN Yard and Elevators, Hanna, Alberta (1920)

The finished product: the interdependent system of rail, elevators, town; the incongruity of this vertical infrastructure on the plains; a complement to the satellite image of Rouleau, below.

Grain silos along Canadian National Railways (CNR) lines - Hanna, Alberta
Grain silos along Canadian National Railways (CNR) lines – Hanna, Alberta

 

  1. Canada: The Most Fertile Country in the World (1909); Canada: The Right Land for the Right Man (1920-35)

Two wonderful statements of the model of ownership imagined by settler colonialism, in gesture and perspective, with so much to say about dynamics of power in gender and race (“the right man”); showing an established pattern of productivity and export, even with a remant of frontier beyond; a myth of multicultural tolerance in “welcome, stranger.”

It's Mine Canada - The Right Land for the Right Man. Canadian National Railways - The Right Way
It’s Mine Canada – The Right Land for the Right Man. Canadian National Railways – The Right Way

 

  1. Making treaty at Providence, N.W.T. (Treaty 11, 1921)

The numbered treaties, aboriginal response and strategy, treaty and legislative language and results, the practice of treaty-making following Ottawa’s interest in resources (first, arable land; in this case, oil).

Indian Commissioner Conroy making treaty at Providence, N.W.T. (Treaty 11)
Indian Commissioner Conroy making treaty at Providence, N.W.T. (Treaty 11)

     10. “Grain Field, Saskatchewan” (ca. 1922)

One of endless promotional photographs of heads floating above wheat fields; promises of apparently effortless and endless bounty; horizontal potential mastered by the human vertical: “On the land he was master, he knew just how to act,” as Frederick Grove wrote in Settlers of the Marsh (1925). Shelterbelts visible in the background, signs of the psychological and environmental adaptation.

Grain field in Saskatchewan, 1922
Grain field in Saskatchewan, 1922

     11. Google Earth, Rouleau, Saskatchewan

I show endless numbers of maps of the prairie grid, but this contemporary image does a great deal to bring the history into the present. An amazing image about the transformation of the interior. Grid and river, resilient. And for a bit of levity, well, first you tell me that your dog ran away ….

Whoops. That’s eleven. I know how much is left out – and how much more there is to show. What are your choices?

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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