Portrait of a Country: Images for Teaching Canada

HMCS Montreal near Nanisivik, DND

Scroll this

You know how they say that just as long as you’re two days ahead of the students, you’re okay? (Who is “they”? I’d like to have a word with them.) (And if you haven’t heard that, you didn’t hear it from me.) Well, right now I feel like I’m about twenty minutes behind; such is the pacing of a new course.

Teaching to Americans is a strange interesting experience for plenty of reasons, but one is oscillating between the teacher’s perennial fear of not knowing [enough about] what I’m talking about, and pretty basic questions about Canada that I can respond to more or less off-the-cuff. With the first two clusters of this class, I felt a bit more confident; I’ve either taught or written a bit on the prairie and concepts of wilderness. When it comes to the third and final cluster, being north in North America, I’m much more hesitant, because I’m acutely aware of how little I know about the north. In that, I guess I’m pretty typically Canadian. I’m also conscious of how little or how inaccurate settler photography might be as a record of the north.

And this cluster has to address north in two ways: what Canadians think of as north, as in north of where most of us are, north of 60; and being north of the United States. We’ll be working through four topics: the romance of the north (from Robert Service to Adam Gopnick, inukshuks and hockey and HBC paraphernalia, oh my); the north as resource territory (focusing on aboriginal/settler dialogue in the era of the Berger Report); defending “the best part of North America” amid American culture flowing north even as we exported Inuit culture southward; and northern sovereignty as a pillar of foreign/military policy. Which brings us up to, well, this image – which happened to be one of the long-list winners for this cluster.


1. Notman Studio, “His Excellency Lord Stanley and snowshoes,” Montreal (1890). McCord Museum.

II-91495 | His Excellency Lord Stanley and snowshoes, Montreal, QC, 1890. Source. McCord Museum
II-91495 | His Excellency Lord Stanley and snowshoes, Montreal, QC, 1890. Source. McCord Museum


I think the students are surprised we haven’t already devoted a class to hockey, and my colleague who is a Leafs fan is clearly disappointed that I’m such a passive, jumping-on-the-bandwagon-in-the-playoffs member of Leaf Nation. But here is Frederick Arthur Stanley, sixth governor general, and bequeather of the Cup. Stanley suits because we can talk the historical landscape of amateur and professional, and the place of “Canada’s game” in the American markets of the sunbelt.

In this photograph Lord Stanley also belongs to a different league, that of well-to-do British men finding in the Canadian northwest “a wilderness of [their] own choosing.”[1] Wearing a blanket coat, sash, and holding snowshoes, looking imperious, and posing in a studio, it sets up a theme for the cluster, which is southerners consuming items and images of the north. It also connects in pose, setting, and accessories, to two other portraits from the nineteenth century that attempt to tie Canada to a northern identity and territory: “Young Canada,” also by Notman (1867) and Scene in the Northwest by Paul Kane (1845-46).

2. Statistics Canada, “Population distribution as of July 1, 2013 by census division,”; and Google Maps, Yathkyed Lake, Nunuvat.


Population distribution as of July 1, 2013 by census division
Population distribution as of July 1, 2013 by census division

A twofer, I admit, but we need a lot of maps in this course; even Canadian students would have a hard time locating most places in the north. This combination is a bit predictable, but necessary to show the divergent demographic and geographic realties of the nation-state. A population clustered in the south (a nice way to review patterns of settlement up to this point), and the geographical midpoint of Canada nowhere near where most of us actually are.


3. Alexander Henderson, “Playing hockey on the skating rink, McGill University” (1884). Library and Archives Canada.


Playing hockey on the skating rink, McGill University. Source: LAC
Playing hockey on the skating rink, McGill University. Source: LAC

Yes, okay, hockey and Montreal again, but this one’s for me. As a former resident of Nova Scotia I can’t really support McGill’s claim to have invented the game. But two winters ago I spent a semester at the McGill Institute for Canadian Studies in a career highlight of nearly-Denmark quality. Montreal is an amazing place for an historian to prowl and unearth a wonderful collection of environmental histories. It can also be pretty damn cold – January 2013 saw some of the coldest temperatures in thirty-five years – which makes thinking about historical climates a bit more concrete.

I also show Graeme Patterson’s short animated film “Lafleche vs Woodrow 1972” from his terrific Woodrow series, but I think it’s funnier for kids who grew up playing hockey (even in city rinks). To non-hockey-types, it just looks unsettlingly kooky.


4. Klondikers camping at Bennett Lake (June 1, 1898). Library and Archives Canada.


Klondikers camping at Bennett Lake, June 1, 1898. Source: LAC
Klondikers camping at Bennett Lake, June 1, 1898. Source: LAC

Unlike the image of the Klondike gold rush seen more often – hapless would-be prospectors hiking up the Chilkoot Trail – this aerial view seems at once more remote and more familiar. More remote because we can’t see the profiles of struggling individuals, the kind of human actors usually featured in frontier history, intrepid and resolute. But for an environmental historian the aerial view is more telling, because it gives a glimpse of the collective impact of dream-chasers and frontier myths … the boomtowns and company towns and hydro plants and mines. That’s why this perspective seems more familiar. It presents an industrial landscape, not a frontier one; an occupied north, not an unknown space. It’s also a nice entrée to talking about scale, whether in the photographic record (what is framed, what is cropped) and the environmental one.


5. Leo Manning, manager at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, lists the items exchanged for. Coppermine, N.W.T. [Kugluktuk, Nunavut], (1949). Library and Archives Canada.

Leo Manning, manager at the Hudson's Bay Company trading post, lists the items exchanged for. Coppermine, N.W.T., [Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine), Nunavut], 1949. Source: LAC
Leo Manning, manager at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, lists the items exchanged for. Coppermine, N.W.T., [Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine), Nunavut], 1949. Source: LAC

Changing planes in Pearson last month I stopped by the new HBC store, which was selling everything from mugs to bikinis in the trademark stripes. (I bought a mug.) The HBC still profits quite skillfully from its image as a heroic actor in Canadian history: as a Company of Adventurers, not a corporation of shareholders. For most Canadians, the useful but unsexy department store of today fronts an exciting, rakish, wilderness persona – perhaps how many of us wish to see ourselves.

But for northerners, the corporation’s dual role as territorial agent and dispenser of consumer goods is less benign. Photographs from northern posts through the second half of the twentieth century are a disquieting reminder that the fur trade here is neither an historical phenomenon nor a culturally neutral one. Despite the image of exchange between these two men, the staging of the photograph invited a discussion about the relationship between resource harvest and settler colonialism, dietary changes and disruptions in food practices, introduced dependencies and inequities, and the viability of “modern” consumer, health, and education practices in northern communities. As a new mother, I find myself staring at the can of Pablum; it may be why this image was a close second choice.

We also talk about the way that the Company’s history is marketed and consumed by southerners along with other artifacts of the north as a proxy or statement of belonging to a “northern nation.” Like, uh, my mug. It is a constant exercise in this class to discuss the origin and function of national images and stereotypes without merely reinforcing them.


6. Pudlo Pudlat, Jets, Boats, and Birds in Formation (1977). National Gallery of Canada.

Pudlo Pudlat, Jets, Boats, and Birds in Formation. Source: National Gallery of Canada
Pudlo Pudlat, Jets, Boats, and Birds in Formation. Source: National Gallery of Canada


We’ll spend some time on Inuit art and artifacts (the Cape Dorset workshop, Aline Chretien’s weapon of self-defence) as well as the militarization of the north, especially after the Second World War. This image speaks to both themes, and unlike more dispassionate state accounts (useful though they are), it is an alarming testimony to living in and under a new kind of technological regime. The scale is also interesting: human technologies are about the same size, whether settler or Inuit, air or sea, but the birds and hills are significantly larger.


7. Chief Jim Antoine talking to Judge Thomas Berger, Trout Lake (1975). Canadian Press.


Judge Thomas Berger talking to Chief Jim Antoine in 1975
Judge Thomas Berger talking to Chief Jim Antoine in 1975

We’re going to devote about two classes to the Berger inquiry. That’s in part because it encapsulates so much of what this course is about: environment as territory, resource, homeland, symbol. Aspirations for a place little understood, on a scale seldom imagined; a project that mobilized a fascinating and – I think – unparalleled public discussion about environmental protection on the one hand and aboriginal land rights on the other.

But it’s also because of the fantastic digitalized primary sources available, which allow us to access some of the indigenous voices while talking about the nature of the historical record. This photo comes from the epilogue of the inquiry report. Unlike many of the photos taken of the hearings, here we have simply two men – and two of the most important – outdoors in the land that would be affected by the pipeline. I like the optimism of the photograph, and of the story of the inquiry itself: the southerner who came north genuinely intent on listening and trying to understand what the Dene and others knew and felt. It’s a tense moment – Antoine’s face speaks volumes – but it was a process that seemed to work. At least for a while. That Antoine later serves as premier of the Territories during the creation of Nunavut carries our discussion about title, resources, and self-determination forward to this century.


8. “Call of the Wild,” Due South (1999).

Due South

Where to start with popular (film and television, specifically) depictions of the Great White North? Here as in other moments in the class, I’m conscious of my distance from my students, both in age and nationality. Insider jokes like Bob and Doug Mackenzie won’t work very well, in part because they come across as affirming stereotypes rather than satirizing it – something I mentioned earlier. Posters from mid-century Hollywood movies about Mounties are another option, but the series finale of Due South is really terrific, not least because the American finds himself in Canadian territory, and we really see for the first time how at home Benton Fraser is in the north.


9. Camp Julien, Kabul, Afghanistan (29 November 2005). Department of National Defence.


Inukshuk at Camp Julien, Kabul, Afghanistan
Inukshuk at Camp Julien, Kabul, Afghanistan

When Canada transferred Camp Julien to the Afghanistan government in 2005, a CF doctor piled rocks into an inukshuk. Far from the Arctic, yet not that far off its actual purpose: a marker “so the people will know we were here.” When Canada hosted the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 (Vancouver, for God’s sake – the Olympics for which organizers had to truck in snow due to mild temperatures), the logo was an inukshuk. It is a form and practice now exported into thoroughly un-northern places as a symbol not of the north, but of Canada. Why don’t we find it odd? What does it say about our relationship with indigenous peoples; our desire to be of this place; how we wish to be thought of by others?


10. HMCS Montreal near Nanisivik, OPNANOOK10 (22 August 2010). Department of National Defence.


HMCS Montreal near Nanisivik, OPNANOOK10 (22 August 2010). Department of National Defence
HMCS Montreal near Nanisivik, OPNANOOK10 (22 August 2010). Department of National Defence

Apparently, “Nanisivik” means “the place where people find things” in Inuktitut. Its history encapsulates much of the southern agenda in the north: as a resource hinterland and a base of strategic defense. Ore was identified here early in the twentieth century, and Nanisivik was built as a company town for a nearby mine operating from the 1970s. But it is better known today as the anchor of the Conservatives’ Arctic strategy, since the announcement in 2007 that it would be converted to a refueling port for a new generation of naval patrols designed to troop the flag in an Arctic ever more marine and more trafficked. (These plans were scaled back in 2012; I was in Halifax when the dockyard won the bid for the icebreakers, and the place went bananas, but that construction hasn’t started yet either. That may say something about how southern ambition and southern capacity fares in the north.)

As with all these images, there is plenty to discuss: the history of military patrols and bases in the north, the geography of navigable waterways and the Northwest Passage, and other nations’ claims on the north; the rather astonishingly inappropriate (to an historian, anyway) choice of codename for the annual joint operations; and, as the Coast Guard and naval frigate sail calmly past an ice floe, the complicated and scary realities of climate change, when southerners feel more interested in, aware of, and aggressive towards the north in ways that can only accelerate the same warming trends that invite us in the first place.

One postscript: flying back from Charlottetown in October, what did I find in that month’s issue of En Route?  A view of a relationship with the north that is idealized and yet not ideal: no tourism operator wants you to actually get that close to a polar bear. Kind of sums it all up, actually.

Manitoba Tourism - InFlight Magazine
Manitoba Tourism – En Route Magazine, October 2014.

I know there are many NiCHErs who are much more versed in teaching about the north. (It turns out that there are two scholars of the Canadian north here at Bucknell: Andrew Stuhl, in Environmental Studies – this year’s recipient of the prize for the best dissertation from the American Society for Environmental History – and Ned Searles, in Anthropology. Who would have thought?) What are your suggestions?

[1] Michael Bond, Way Out West:  On the Trail of an Errant Ancestor (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001) 43-44.

The following two tabs change content below.
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.


Leave a Reply to Claire CampbellCancel reply