Many tiny traces: Antimodern anxieties and colonial intimacies in the Canadian North

photo: CC Gierszep

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Deline, Great Bear Lake. CC mattcatpurple
Deline, Great Bear Lake. CC mattcatpurple

This chapter investigates the phenomenon of antimodernism in the interwar Canadian North. It does so through a close reading of records produced by two contemporary fieldworkers, the surveyor Guy Blanchet and the mining engineer George M. Douglas. Antimodernism, as defined by the cultural historian Jackson Lears, is a rejection of the “overcivilization” brought about through modernity and industrialization and a concomitant yearning for more intense or authentic forms of physical or spiritual existence believed to reside in “Oriental,” medieval, or primitive cultures. Yet antimodernism’s relationship with modernity was fundamentally ambivalent: even as its adherents demonstrated strong attachments to historical or exotic modes of being, they expressed enthusiasm for the material progress of Western society. Antimodernism has been recognized as a fundamental aspect of the twentieth-century experience, but its precise constitution differed widely across time and space. Ian McKay and Sharon Wall have studied Canadian variants in early twentieth-century Nova Scotia and Ontario, respectively; this paper extends their insights northward.

The back-to-nature movement was a key component of North American antimodernism around the turn of the century. Middle- and upper-class city dwellers, concerned that their strength was being sapped by the stresses of modern urban life, sought therapeutic relief in outdoor activities enacted in rural and “wild” environments. This chapter interprets Douglas’s and Blanchet’s northern expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s as admittedly vigorous examples of this trend. Their assigned fieldwork doubled as an opportunity for leisure in a region that they, along with other Canadians, perceived as only lightly touched by modernity. The lands surrounding Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes, where much of their work took place, became pre-modern zones of physical and psychological retreat in which they could have rejuvenating experiences unavailable in the course of their quotidian lives in southern Ontario.

Each man drew upon different aspects of antimodern discourse to frame his activities in the North. Motivated by the “strenuous life” famously modelled by Theodore Roosevelt, as well as the widespread societal fear of racial degeneration through overcivilization, Blanchet cultivated an active, martial, and playfully “Indian” engagement with the northern environment. Inspired by several of his elderly aboriginal guides and by traces of past indigenous activity on the landscapes of his travels, he imagined a historically vigorous aboriginal lifestyle which he sought to emulate. His foil to this performance was the region’s “degenerating” Chipewyan peoples, whom he believed had fallen into physical and mental decay through their own contact with southern civilization. Meanwhile, Douglas attempted to assuage his feeling of alienation from the present day by creating a private and static northern temporality anchored to several beloved places and relics which seemed to change little over the years, and to which he made regular pilgrimages. As signs of modernity multiplied throughout the North in the 1930s, Douglas’s careful control of space and time began to disintegrate, as reflected in the disturbance and destruction of his nostalgic microspaces.

The central paradox of antimodernism is that, in its discontent with the present, it simultaneously looks to the past and the future for remedy. Blanchet and Douglas worked toward and believed in the rational development of northern resources and societies, but they simultaneously mourned the loss of older modes of northern experience predicated on increasingly obsolete relationships between places, people, and technologies. Historians are beginning to consider the implications of modern northern colonialism and its impersonal, distant gaze, so often signified by the aerial camera that captured and codified the landscape and rendered it visible to those in faraway centres of calculation. They have less often dwelt upon the nostalgic, sentimental, and intimate relationships that explorers and travellers could have with northern terrain, as epitomized by material traces of their interactive, imaginative, and antimodern engagements therein. This chapter highlights the traces significant to Douglas and Blanchet and demonstrates how quickly they became anterior in the rapidly modernizing North of the interwar era. As these men felt increasingly displaced from a region that Blanchet had once considered a primitive paradise and Douglas a nostalgic haven, their colonial intimacies could easily turn into antimodern anxieties.

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