Review of Canoe Nation

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Reviewed by: David Neufeld, Independent Scholar

Bruce Erickson, Canoe Nation: Nature, Race and the Making of a Canadian Icon (Vancouver: UBC Press 2013). 252 pp. $32.95 (paperback). ISBN: 9780774822497.

Bruce Erickson’s Canoe Nation begins with a query about the appropriation of an Indigenous North American technology as a symbol of Canada’s colonial past/present. He develops the point in a series of chronological chapters before moving into a reflection on how Canadian use of this icon has conflated nation and nature resulting in the disastrous contemporary commodification and consumption of the environment. His selected subjects – romantic canoe literature, late-nineteenth-century hunting and fishing interests, the Indian-making of Ernest Thompson Seton and Grey Owl, and the use of canoes by contemporary environmental organizations – clearly describe the transformation of historical reality to a social imaginary. The minimal presence of Indigenous voices focuses the discussion on a Western perspective. Nevertheless the text powerfully, if not always in a straightforward fashion, “illustrates the mobilization of power and politics through nature, nation and leisure” (p. xiii). Erickson argues for a more generous culturally plural re-visioning of the multiple futures, both past and present, always before us.

The structure of Canoe Nation is reminiscent of Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, each chapter addressing an aspect of canoe literature and thought using a different analytical approach. This brings an interesting range of historiographic perspectives to bear on the central question of Canadians’ understanding of their relationship with the original elements, human and non-human alike, of the space now identified as Canada. In a lengthy introduction Erickson identifies the modern canoe and its use as leisure product as an outcome of a national narrative conflating nature and nation (pp.4, 7). He suggests that this comforting national story values and promotes the thoughtless destruction of both culture and environment for material plenty.

The first chapter investigates the literature of “forced intimacy,” the constructed history of Canada built upon the Indigenous/Newcomer accommodation rising from their mutual dependence in the early days of military alliance and fur trade. Effective use of Richard White’s The Middle Ground both undermines this romantic Whig history and highlights the presence and power of the social imaginaries explaining our present. The next chapter develops this idea by reviewing the hunting and fishing journals of late-nineteenth-century urban elites. The analysis demonstrates the close relationships between the state’s fostering of individualism and the consequent dependence and reliance of these individuals upon the state to protect their outdoor interests. Touching upon his own youthful summer camp experiences in northwestern Ontario, Erickson then investigates the creation of the modern emasculated “Indian” through the education and conservation activities of Ernest Thompson Seaton and Grey Owl. This co-creation of conservation and a national identity conflates nature and nation into an imagined set of social relations where the environment is a resource set for national stewardship and development. The final chapter is a complicated critique of the re-creation of canoe trips, especially the 2003 Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Boreal Rendezvous project. Closely analyzed using Marxist and psychoanalytical frames, Erickson shows how protected areas, their promoters and participating Aboriginal communities are subsumed within the social imaginary of modern capitalism. In an interesting conclusion Erickson applies queer theory, using Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, to challenge “the pervasive normalization” (p. 190) of the unquestioned narratives of a colonial nation and to call for an escape from a “linear idea of the future.”(p. 197)

The diverse methodological approaches and coherent outcomes of Erickson’s Canoe Nation make the book an excellent read for senior undergraduate classes in historiography. However this same complexity may compromise its comprehension by the environmental movement it seeks to address. Driven by discourse, the text broadly implicates the Canadian environmental movement as an irremediable element of neo-liberal capitalism. However my experience suggests that the cutting edge of Canadian environmentalism rests on the periphery where people work together, across cultural lines, to find ways of escaping the overbearing boundaries of meta-narratives. Certainly this is the whole point of the book.

The near total absence of Indigenous voices may limit the book’s reach. How have First Nations responded to the imposed limitations of the social imaginary? The text is vague on outcomes here with only a few limited and anecdotal remarks. To be fair Erickson is addressing the Western appropriation of history and artefact and the social and cultural penalties that befall the propagators of colonialism, a generally overlooked self-inflicted wound. In my own experience in suggesting the importance of community healing, my First Nation colleagues have been quick to point out that “we’re not the ones who are sick.”

A challenging read, perhaps a little more portage than paddle, Canoe Nation offers significant rewards to the diligent with interesting new ways to approach a critical study of Canadians’ relationship with the place we now call Canada.

David Neufeld, Parks Canada’s Yukon historian for three decades, has paddled many of the Yukon’s rivers, participated in numerous First Nation cultural research projects and is a board member for the Yukon Conservation Society. He never attended summer camp.

Citation: David Neufeld. “Review of Bruce Erickson’s Canoe Nation: Nature, Race and the Making of a Canadian Icon (Vancouver: UBC Press 2013).” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (March 2015).

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David Neufeld is an environmental historian in the Yukon. He studies the intersection of knowledge and practice in both Western settler approaches to Canada's North and Yukon First Nations' ways of life in their sub-arctic boreal homelands. His reflexive research approach is grounded in 40 years as a cultural researcher engaging with Indigenous communities on their traditional lands. His complementary travel with both “hunters” and “miners” has made him sensitive to the character of the contact between Indigenous and Newcomer through the 20th century and their changing expectations of each other. He sits as the community representative on the Yukon University Research Ethics Board and previously taught Canadian Northern history and protected area management. He also supports Yukon-based internships of M.A. and PhD. candidates (Univ. of Alaska - Fairbanks, Northwestern University, Ludwig Maximillian Universitat, University of Cambridge, University of Vienna) in Yukon research.

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