Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in Part II of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.
In 1953, Canada began a profound, consequential, and prolonged administrative practice in the Arctic and its northernmost borders. We know that federal initiatives during this period included paternalistic, high modern, and (neo)colonial attitudes and practices – the dark histories of residential schools and high Arctic relocations resonate in today’s public memory of this federal vision. Also, part of this period of northern governance and administration, and part of an expression of new federal governmentality, were the public, popular, and federal commitments to the health, economic, and social well-being of northern people and space. Relocations, residential schools, social and industrial transformation were imagined and put into practice in Canada’s Arctic and northern spaces, with no small amount of developmental and colonial hubris. Intensified federal administration was imagined as a first and essential shift in attitudes towards solving the problems of health, hunger, and economic collapse in the spaces above Canada’s tree line. Canada’s welfare state emerged in the north and the Arctic as part of its mid-century internal-colonization, producing one of its many ambivalent, contradictory, and complex expressions of post-war government administration.1
To communicate the new paradigm of government administration to urban and southern Canadians – from absence to intervention – the federal government produced a mobile, ethnographic display of domestic, Inuit life. Meet the Arctic, part museum exhibit, part fair attraction, was a visual manifestation of government ideological imaginaries and realities. Like the French, British, and Belgium colonial displays of Indigenous possession, transformation, and preservation in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Meet the Arctic carried an ambivalent and paternalistic message. Part of this message was the promise of federal incorporation, attention, and care. Northern Indigenous peoples and spaces were presented to public audiences as recipients and participants in the post-war “good life,” and as benefactors of consumer, material, and resource abundance underlying much of Canada’s post-war riches. Arctic and northern administrative networks, once managed by the Hudson Bay Company, the RCMP, and different Church organizations, were now embedded in federal administration through the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources (DNANR) and made visible through the Arctic display.
Commissioned by the department in 1955, Meet the Arctic brought southern urban Canadians a domestic, federal, and sometimes ‘campy’ representation of northern life. Crucially, it had to be, as director and federal communications officer Irene Baird would note, “authentic.” Objects collected by museums and federal departments would confer a creative presentation of reality, a living documentary produced for public viewing at fairs. Introduced to the public through the federal display of Meet the Arctic, Indigenous youth worked as docents and presenters. Touring with the exhibition, these individuals were part of government communication efforts and part of the performance of indigeneity. They were used to promote and disseminate information on northern administration and its recipients, and a domestic (and domesticated) vision of northern people and space.
A successor to the nineteenth-century colonial ethnographic display, Meet the Arctic continued a practice employed by France, Britain, the United States and other colonizers to tout the practice and projections of empire building. These imperial displays employed living Indigenous people and co-opted their natural environment to promote a civilizing mission, the mystery of primeval barbarism, and the stages of western ‘scientific’ social and technical development. These were subsequently re-cast in Canada’s own mid-century internal colonization. In Meet the Arctic, villages, homes, tools, and the people of the colonial (dis)possessed were brought, like in other world fairs, to the metropolitan public. Consuming Arctic ‘otherness’ in the 1950’s acted not only as a as means of establishing a Canadian empire, but also popular a Canadian cultural identity.
Communiqués promoting Meet the Arctic proposed both a north that was at once absent (available for settlement) yet also full: full of riches, problems, and opportunities born from neglect and new discoveries. Pamphlets outlining the binaries of primitive and modern, neglected and attended to, offered readers solutions to northern problems: a transition towards a southern facsimile and an Arctic modernity. The display erected a federal “northern vision,” orchestrated by writers, artists, and creatives employed in and by DNANR.
The display toured Canadian exhibitions and fairs for five years, showing in Canada’s major metropolitan centres. Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition, the Calgary Stampede, the ‘Ex’ and others, all met the Arctic. Meet the Arctic did not tour northern Canada. Instead, James Houston, Irene Baird, and Peter Pitseolak, the Inuit photographer and historian who documented his life in the Arctic before and after white settlement, produced the display. They connected government administrators, artists and makers, communicators, and those under the new federal administrative regime. Pitseolak, whose stature in Kinngait, Nunavut, as both a leader and successful artist within the burgeoning federal art and craft industry, was hired to carve the centerpiece of Meet the Arctic, a Styrofoam igloo. An “authentic” igloo had to be made by a real Inuit person.
The plastic snow home garnered much public attention. In the 1950’s, Styrofoam was in its early stages, not the ubiquitous material we now know, but a novel, experimental plastic “stuff.” Made from the runoff of Canada’s petrochemical industries, foams and plastics received much attention from experimental researchers in housing, agriculture, and cold storage.
To carve the centrepiece, Pitsoleak utilized the same construction techniques as those he employed with snow. Using a handheld saw, he shaped the foam wedges and laid down a ring of blocks in a circular pattern. After cutting a slope across three consecutive chunks, he began stacking a second layer. Applied along this first angle, each block spiraled up in a circular pattern. In a regular igloo, the combination of human heat and snow produces a sealed and airtight bonding process; carved inside the Ottawa Forest Services building, and without the melting and binding transformation of snow and ice, Pitseolak used wooden skewers to attach each block to the other. An adhesive was applied by Houston to bind select bricks.
With the completion of the centerpiece, Baird organized the remaining aesthetic details. She requested and was granted access to objects from the then National Museum in Ottawa, whose collections of Inuit objects consisted of a wide range of hunting, domestic, everyday life tools. A Winchester rifle rested at the side of the igloo’s entrance, which was cut into halves to produce a menagerie style view of the interior. Wolf, caribou, seal, and polar bear skins adorned the floors and benches, while NWT and Yukon license plates and photos of the Arctic (likely Pitseolak’s) hung from the foam interior. Three Inuit carvings were brought into the cozy interior, and copies of the federally printed magazine “Eskimo Art” were laid out like magazines on a living room floor.
Qulliqs, bone tusks, and furs worked alongside, but in productive tension with, the plastic igloo and fair-based performances of Inuit ‘authenticity.’ Communicating an ambivalent message to urban Canadians were Indigenous and Inuit youth, recruited from northern and southern communities, to be the face of federal Arctic administration and provide expertise on their domestic sphere. Wearing sealskin parkas, holding spears, and offering samples of Arctic foods in summer fairs, their labour as performers bolstered the federal message of good governance and introduced the Arctic to Canadians as a place both familiar and strange.
Federally employed docents and performers like Paulette Anderoluk and Mary Panegoosho may have had little choice but to participate in the display, a condition of their employment being to perform and interpret. But during the four years of demonstrating pre-modern northern domestic life, opportunities to play with notions of federal coherence and public presumptions about Inuit indigeneity were ample. Both Anderoluk and Panegoosho used their federal connections towards political organizing and activism; others, like docent Jimmy Wingnek, toyed with public perceptions of ‘real’ indigeneity. The Arctic display facilitated both opportunities for, and exposed the limitations of, federally sponsored presentations of Inuit and northern Indigenous identity.
Meet the Arctic provided urban fair-goers with a past, present, and future dialogue with what the North and Arctic was and could be, but did so in environments focused on play, artifice, and entertainment. It complicated and obscured northern Indigenous sovereignty movements, presenting the Arctic and its people as recipients of Ottawa’s directed social services, economies, and cultural production.
Curiously, the foam igloo carved by Pitseolak for the Meet the Arctic display would later become a real home. At least two different Inuit families in Kinngait lived in Styrofoam igloos inspired by the display, from 1956 to 1961. Federal and consumer enthusiasm around plastic snow homes reached its zenith alongside its promotion at fairs and exhibitions, and federal administrators employed the structure built for the fair as a potential solution to housing demands among a newly sedentarized population. Federal tourism initiatives too, seeking to popularize real-foam igloos as adventure experiences for tourists, hunters, and voyeurs, promoted the foam igloo as livable. Underpinning the relations between resources and post-war good life, plastic igloos were the hybrid object bridging the North and the Arctic and the domestic demands of the urban south.
Meet the Arctic ceased touring in 1959. Public tastes and federal cultural initiatives shifted from a celebration of the domestic sphere and the inclusion of ‘everyday’ northern Indigenous presenters to a growing popularity of contemporary Inuit art. Styrofoam homes, both as display and as homes, were abandoned. Subsequent federal housing initiatives in the Arctic, introduced in the 1960’s, are remembered by names like the Rigid Digit and Matchbox; they too failed to address the complex needs of the Arctic environment or meet the same standards of living expected by urban, southern Canadians.
Today, the collective imaginaries of the Canadian North and the Arctic are no longer framed by federal visions of administration and domestic bliss, but rather seen through the increasing presence of extraction and the urgency of climatic and environmental change. This is both progress and and a problem. Plastics, oil, and even Styrofoam, continue to underpin what is meant and what is made possible within generally held notions of ‘the good life.’ Housing in the north persists as inadequate, and diesel disproportionately fuels the energy demands of northern Arctic communities. Grappling with both the shape of the snow home, its material body, and its function as a simulacra or a ‘real’ home, offers an ambivalent but necessary starting point from which to consider the challenges of Arctic environments and the malleable human environments of everyday life.
1. Scholarship on this topic spans decades. See Frank James Tester, “Serializing Inuit Culture: The Administration of “Relief” in the Eastern Arctic, 1940-1953”, Canadian Social Work Review, Vol 1. (1993); Tina Loo, Moved by the State: Forced Relocation and Making a Good Life in Postwar Canada (UBC Press, 2019); and and Morris Zaslow, The northward expansion of Canada, 1914-1967, (Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1988).
To learn more about Meet the Arctic, read Andrew Candela’s MA Thesis: “Meet the Arctic : the authentic, domestic and federal north, 1955-1959”, University of British Columbia, 2022. https://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0418560
Feature image: Construction of Meet the North, Library and Archives Canada, National Film Board of Canada Fonds, Box 100, Item 73501, June 1955 “Eskimos Exhibition Commission”
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- Meet the Arctic: The Authentic, Domestic, and Federal North, 1955-1959 - February 2, 2023