Portrait of a Country: Images for Teaching Canada

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In the first installment of this three-part series, I shared eleven of my favourite images for teaching about Canada’s attempts to acquire the continental interior, particularly the prairie west, in the half-century after Confederation. Now we’re into the second cluster of the class, which is about the wilderness mythology that emerged from behind the rhetoric of settlement and the lens of the survey grid to celebrate “a beauty of dissonance …
when the wind
bends the tops of the pines
and curdles the sky from the north,” as A.J.M. Smith wrote in 1926.

There are four topics here, bringing us from the end of the nineteenth century to about 1970: wilderness as/in national culture, both “high” art as in poetry and painting, and popular culture; wilderness as destination, primarily national parks; the role of wilderness, as place and idea, in aboriginal-settler relations; and “wilderness besieged,” the story of ecological erosions and the environmentalist response.

A major theme in this class is Canada’s environmental schizophrenia, the ability to reconcile our unrelenting harvest of natural resources with a self-image of some kind of people at home in wild nature.

To all of us here, the vast unknown country of the North, reaching away to the polar seas, supplies a peculiar mental background…an hour or two of flight will take me over the divide and down to the mournful shores of the James Bay, untenanted till yesterday now haunted with its flock of airplanes hunting gold in the wilderness.

-Stephen Leacock, “I’ll Stay in Canada,” Funny Pieces (1936)

Our Northern wilderness is, in a special sense, the scene of the poetry of action with its great treasure hunt conducted from the sky, its railways nosing their way through the forest to northern oceans, the harness which is being thrown on rapid and waterfall.

-Vincent Massey, “Art and Nationality in Canada,” Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada (1930)

And, as ever, choosing just ten is nearly impossible.

1. Timber slide on the Ottawa River, circa 1880, LAC


I owe a debt to Peter Coffman, an architectural historian now at Carleton University, for seeing the neo-Gothic architecture of Parliament in new ways, and as part of a wonderful story of attempts to script national identity in architectural design. What I like about this image is that for all the aspirations for a dignified, elegant statement in masonry worthy of the First Daughter of the Empire, the colonies were – and would continue to be – very much hewers of wood. It also lets us get a dig in at the Upper Canadian ego.


It seems like an act of insanity to have fixed the capital of this great country away from the civilization, intelligence and commercial enterprise of the Province, in a place that can never be of any importance.

-Gov. General Lord Monck, 1866

2. Tom Thomson, Old Lumber Dam, 1912, NGC


You’ll hardly be surprised to learn we have a class on the Confederation Poets and the Group of Seven. This painting isn’t my favourite of the Group’s by any means, but it’s a good one for environmental history. It has all the stylistic elements of “Canada’s national school” along with the narrative that the Group was so invested in promoting:  the titular dam is far more apparent in the title than the painting; it’s blurred into the river such that the wood of the dam looks like a natural feature, and instead your eye goes directly to the canoe. The industrial activity (not even yet history) of Algonquin Park is literally a stage for the newly sanctioned use of canoeing.

3. Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, Solid vestibule trains to the sportsman’s paradise, 1917, LAC


To get to cottages and canoe routes up north, the kinds of people who be seeing Thomson’s paintings in city galleries would probably have to take a train. This brochure again shows the cake being eaten: the industrial technology that makes the wilderness accessible, and thus allows a railway company to sell it. (There’s even a bit of Ontario nationalism on the canoe.) The inversion of the sepia image of the train, and the full colour of the aboriginal paddler (a development from an older version of this same brochure), gives a wonderful entrée into discussions about the back to nature movement and its characterization/appropriation of aboriginal lifeways.

4. “Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern,” National Gallery of Canada, 1927, NGC


I like using this photograph because I tend to show paintings, not how paintings were seen. This, though, takes us out of the particular paintings to look, literally, at their context: in this case, Emily Carr and her relationship with the National Gallery, its “national” school, and national/eastern audiences, as well as the interest by both Carr and that gallery in aboriginal artifacts as marking an opening or ancestral chapter to the “national” story.

5. Laying pipeline in Banff, 1951, Glenbow Museum

Laying pipeline in Banff, 1951


It’s easy to see how people – those that could afford it, at least – found “benefit, education, and enjoyment” in a luxury hotel with luxurious scenery. National parks, though, have never been islands of wilderness, not even the “crown jewel” in the national park system (the promotional rhetoric does get a bit wearing). This photograph opens up the history of industrial uses within park boundaries (and the redrawing of those boundaries to permit those uses), as well as the mid-century tilt toward megaprojects like pipelines and seaways.


A close second here: William Notman’s photograph of the first CPR Hotel at Banff, from 1887. The contrast between the workers’ tents and the hotel, both exposed on newly-logged earth, makes so apparent the act of constructing a park experience, and the different experiences of the same landscape depending on where you lay your head.

6. Camp Hurontario brochure, Georgian Bay (ca. 1955)

Camp Hurontario brochure, Georgian Bay, c1955


We spend a couple of classes on the phenomenon of getting back to nature, but also the material elements of that culture made mainstream and marketed at home and abroad. (The hit-you-over-the-head nationalism of HBC, Roots, etc.) This is a more personal version of the photograph of the Centennial canoe race leaving Rocky Mountain National Historic Site and other images of childrens’ camps: I think that’s my dad second from the left.

7. Map design submission, W.D. West, 1964, LAC


When Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s government asked for designs for a new flag in 1963, Canadians actually got really into it. The national archives has digitized hundreds of hand-drawn submissions sent in from across the country, by schoolchildren and adults, from A.Y. Jackson to the … less talented. Some are hilariously oh-so-sixties, most are pretty unsubtle in their symbolism, and most include some reference to nature: 60% contain maple leaves, and 11% contain beavers. Some, perhaps fearing their designs were too avant-garde, also included explanations, as in this one. It’s not about wilderness per se, but its stylized map of Canada captures beautifully the way post-war and particularly Centennial-era culture spoke of “the land” in a very mythic way.

8. Highway 400 northbound from Toronto, Dominion Day weekend, 1967, Archives of Ontario


Where are they all going?

And where does there look like when they get there?

9. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on the Nahanni River, 1970

Trudeau on Nahanni River, 1970

Canadian Press/Peter Bregg, in Bruce Erickson’s Canoe Nation (2013)


Hey, finally an image not from southern Ontario. Demonstrating the turn to the north in the national park system, a foreshadowing of the next cluster in the course, and a mark of the concern over the status of wilderness in the overused southern parks; an entrée into the man in buckskin’s ode to the canoe (part of the culture noted in image #6); and, you know, Pierre. Who else would have the élan to wear white pants on a canoe trip? Twelve years ago, there was a proposal to rename Virginia Falls after Trudeau; the Dene didn’t jump at it.

10. Hudson’s Bay Company, “We were made for this” (2010)

HBC We were made for this, 2010

We used to begin our introductory class in Canadian Studies with the Molson Joe “I am Canadian” commercial. That doesn’t work in the U.S., in part because it’s almost entirely predicated on the we’re-so-great-because-we’re-not-American motif that Americans just shrug at. It’s also 14 years old (eeep). This ad, though, is whirlwind tour of an amazingly anachronistic version of Canadian history (white guy lands on shore triumphantly! we’re modern-day voyageurs at home in the boreal forest!) that pushes our place in the wilderness to the foreground. It’s also a nice reminder of how frequently expressions of “Canadian culture” have been authored by corporations for commercial gain.


I’m cheating again, because I’m adding two corollaries: National Film Board productions that I find work really well in the classroom. Well, they’re still images, right?

National Film Board, Log Driver’s Waltz, 1979One is The Log Driver’s Waltz (1979). Kids these days – they won’t know it from their childhoods, as many of us do, but it makes them laugh. It also lets us talk about the predominance of masculine heroes of resource extraction in Canadian culture; and the juxtaposition of the “doctors and merchants and lawyers” with her true love the log-driver (her father’s matchmaking fits with Graeme Wynn’s 1980 article on “deplorably dark and demoralized lumberers,” about the relative respectabilities of different occupations, which students have really gotten into). There is also the reassuring message in that the log-driver and the beaver happily coexist (indeed, partner in a stepdance) on the log.



Haisla Gpsgolox Pole, Folkens Museum Etnografiska, StockholmThe other is Totem: The Return of the G’spgolox Pole (2003) and its sequel, Totem: Return and Renewal (2007), both directed by Gil Cardinal. The first, in particular, is a moving story of a mortuary pole offered to the Swedish government – without the knowledge or, obviously, approval of the Haisla people; their discovery of the pole in Stockholm’s folk museum seventy years later; and their efforts to have it returned to Kitamaat. It’s a good case study for a lot of big issues: the politics of museum collecting and the controversies involving aboriginal items, the status of land claims in British Columbia especially, and the history of this people’s relationship with a piece of land and how that differs from settler society.

How is the teaching going, NiCHErs? Has NiCHE had an effect on undergraduate education? How? Share your stories.

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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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