Wilderness and Canadian identity

This exploration of what “wilderness” means and why it’s significant to us as Canadians is the second in a series on mapping territory (see “A map the size of the world“).

The oldest and most famous

Let us take Algonquin Park as the concrete starting point for a conceptual mapping of the contemporary Canadian “wilderness.” From the outset, it gives us plenty to unpack:

  • Algonquin is Ontario’s oldest (est. 1893) and most famous provincial park, and it receives over half a million visitors each year. This is not as many as Canada’s Wonderland (over three million) or even the Toronto Zoo (1.2 or 1.3 million), but then again nobody’s trying to claim that Canada’s Wonderland is primeval or “untouched” in any sense.
  • Anomalously for a park, Algonquin has always allowed industrial logging within its confines, generally out of sight of most visitors.
  • To add some macabre historical intrigue, the park was the site, in 1917, of the suspicious death of the painter Tom Thomson, a key figure in the birth of the Group of Seven.
  • And finally, it is named Algonquin, but where are the Algonquins? (In fact, as of a 2015 agreement in principle, the  Ontario government now recognises 36 000 km² of traditional Algongquin territory this side of the Ontario-Québec border – a  region about five times the size of the park and including nearly all of it.)

algonquin sign.png

Has the term fallen out of use?

Park authorities in fact no longer speak of “wilderness” to describe their conservation efforts; instead, they articulate the natural side of the park’s value in terms of biodiversity, scientific research, and “ecological integrity.” A quick survey of commercial enterprises in and around Algonquin, however, turns up wilderness trips and travel, wilderness quests and adventures, wilderness canoe camping and wilderness first aid – ample evidence that the term is far from having fallen out of our contemporary Canadian vocabulary, and indeed that it remains important in the public perception of the park, especially in describing its recreational purpose.

Art born of wilderness

Rewind to the early twentieth century (c. 1920) when the Group of Seven was a revolutionary art movement against European modes of painting popular in Canada at the time: Canadians, they argued, were a “transplanted people” who needed to “draw spiritual nourishment from the new soil” and to abandon European styles “totally inappropriate to the expression of the character, the power and clarity, and rugged elemental beauty of their own land” (Lawren Harris).

baffin island
Lawren Harris Baffin Island (1931)

The Group of Seven was at one point known as the “Algonquin group,” and many of its various members ventured into the interior of the park led by Tom Thomson. In his accounts of such ventures, A.Y. Jackson remembers that Thomson’s “specialty was making bannock and flapjacks,” and he relates that Thomson “paddled like an Indian. Using the weight of his body more than his arms, he could keep going all day with no sign of fatigue.”

After Tom Thomson’s death by drowning in Canoe Lake in 1917, the members of the group no longer returned to sketch in Algonquin. Instead, they expanded their horizons to paint the nation. Many worked in Georgian Bay, and Lawren Harris, for example, famously painted the north shore of Lake Superior, Baffin Island, and the Rocky Mountains – under an increasingly abstract conception.

While styles and conceptions of their movement varied among the members of the group, each artist felt that he was painting in the style that the land required. And by doing so they helped to establish the Canadian mythos of wilderness: indeed, “to them it seemed that any real Canadian art would be born of that wilderness” (Roger Boulet, The Canadian Earth, 1981).

summer pangnirtung
A.Y. Jackson Summer Pangnirtung (1930)

The idea of north

Boulet relates the group’s ideology to Robert Grant Haliburton’s idea (late 1860s) that “Canada would share the destiny of northern races to dominate southern ones.” For Haliburton, it seems, climate was destiny (to paraphrase Freud): i.e., it is our northern climate that makes us one of these great northern races. “The cold, pure air made people hardy,” Boulet explains, “and the emotions of ruggedness, strength, virility and self-reliance were associated with it.”

toronto street winter morning
Lawren Harris Toronto Street, Winter Morning (1920)

Looking at the paintings themselves, what does the Group of Seven show us about this “rugged” land they celebrate? First of all, as is frequently noted, they generally paint the land empty of humans and animals. If this is not true of every Group of Seven painting – see A.Y. Jackson Summer Pangnirtung (1930) or Lawren Harris Toronto Street, Winter Morning (1920), above – these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

And a portrait of a pine tree

Contrast Tom Thomson’s The Jack Pine (1917) with Paul Kane’s The Surveyor (c. 1845), done  in the “European” style of the previous century. In the older style, artists typically painted pastoral scenes, Dutch windmills, etc. In the Canadian context, Kane depicted Ojibwa camps, Assiniboine buffalo hunting, etc. Here he portrays Englishman John Henry Lefroy, the man who found the magnetic north pole.

the surveyor
Paul Kane Scene in the Northwest: Portrait of John Henry Lefroy (c. 1845)
the jack pine
Tom Thomson The Jack Pine (1917)

Why do Group of Seven landscapes not show people on the land? Jonathan Bordo, in “Jack Pine – Wilderness Sublime or the Erasure of the Aboriginal Presence from the Landscape,” argues that the pine tree symbolizes the individual Canadian. Indeed, in the two paintings paired above, the jack pine seems to replace the main figure, Mr. Lefroy. Rather than paint figures on the land, Group of Seven paintings showcase the land itself in an impressionist style that suits the nationalist symbolism of the movement and lends itself to symbolic identification.

[Listen to Steve Martin discuss why he loves Lawrence Harris as he curates a July 2016 AGO exhibit, “Idea of North.” Evidently, this imagery still holds its appeal.]

By now it should be clear that the Canadian ideology of wilderness is two-sided. On the one hand, the untouched nature, represented more or less abstractly, is Canadians’ spiritual soil, our true north strong and free, our strength, our virtue, our potential as a nation, etc. At the same time, the actual wilderness, like the cold climate of Haliburton’s northern nationalism, is a testing ground for our lumberjack or courrieur de bois virility. The wilderness is a gym, and the land itself makes us strong. (Recall the infatigable physical prowess of Tom Thomson, who worked as a guide and fire ranger in the park.) In fact, one of the original purposes of Algonquin was to give young men a place to be outdoors in the summer so they wouldn’t go soft.

Under this logic, today’s parks are torn between two contradictory poles: to quote a recent title, are they preserves or playgrounds? Even within the conservation side of the parks’ mission, the same duality of wilderness repeats itself. Do we leave it alone or actively manage it? Restore it to a former state or find a new equilibrium in a contemporary context?

Everywhere and nowhere

One point not to be missed in Jonathan Bordo’s analysis of Thomson’s Jack Pine, is that it is not just people who are erased from the land, but specifically Indigenous people. (Jim Logan, an artist of Métis descent from Port Coquitlam, BC, has several works in which he  “Indianizes” master paintings, adding back the missing Indigenous presence.)

going down to the lake
Jim Logan Going Down to the Lake (2008)

Thus, in the concept of wilderness, as a construct of national identity, the core of the paradox lies with (to borrow Thomas King’s phrase) the “inconvenient Indian.” Tom Thomson shows his virility by successfully embodying “the Indian in his canoe” – A.Y. Jackson even goes so far as to claim that “to the few natives, Thomson’s name was like a password.” But then Tom Thomson’s iconic paintings show a landscape emptied of this same Indigenous presence.

The paradox of Indigenous presence in Canadian wilderness, a presence that is everywhere and nowhere, is incarnated in the very name of the park. If “Algonquin” honours the great Algonquin people in whose traditional territory it lies, it also replaces and erases them. (After the establishment of the park named in their honour, it was considered a bad idea to locate them anywhere in the vicinity of the park: “you know the predatory habits of these people, how they roam about, and how difficult it is to keep watch of their movements in the forest” – see Marijke Huitema’s “Historical Algonquin Occupancy.”)

Just as Algonquin becomes the name of a park instead of a people, visitors to Algonquin take on the paradox of living in the park “like an Indian,” while maintaining that there wasn’t ever anyone there. Or at least hardly anyone. According to the “Cultural History” section of the Friends of Algonquin Park website:

For most of Algonquin’s history, human settlement was not a very important element.

Scattered family groups of aboriginal peoples came to fish, hunt and pick berries, but their numbers were never large. It was not until the 1800s that big changes came to the rugged Algonquin highlands. …

Note also that in this brief mention of their presence, “Algonquin” already names the place (even before it became a park in 1893), not the (apparently nameless) “aboriginal peoples.” And does the fact that an area is a hunting ground, or doesn’t have permanent settlements, mean that it is empty of human presence? That the human element is “not very important” to the land, or the land to the people? (Especially given that the Algonquin and Nipissing first nations repeatedly petitioned the colonial government for decades starting in the late 1700s about encroachment on their territory, the ruin of their hunting grounds, and the “depraved men” who harassed and threatened them while logging in their territory – see, again, “Historical Algonquin Occupancy.“)

What, frighted with false fire?

Finally, when wilderness becomes an object of ecological protection, we run into the paradox of the “inconvenient Indian” yet again from another angle. The inconvenient truth in this case is that the land was always already being managed before the European arrival. [E.g., “pre-European settlement activity appears underrated as a factor influencing modern tree species distributions” (see this 2016 article).] In other words, the state of the land that European settlers found when they arrived was not “wilderness” (nature without any impact of human presence) as they actively sought to conceive it.

Take controlled burns, for example. In “The Ecological History of Forest Fires in Ontario” (2013), Dan Johnston recognizes that

Aboriginal peoples traditionally used fire for a variety of reasons and to varying extents across Ontario. For example, burning was done to create favorable habitat for edible plants or for hunting purposes. This use of fire affected the vegetation composition and frequency and types of fires, altering the fire regimes of the areas.

Then European settlers arrived, viewing fires as “unnatural and dangerous”:

Over the last century, fire suppression activities have resulted in large areas of even-aged, over-mature, blown-down, or pest-killed forests that normally would have burned periodically and been renewed. Policy makers identified that a shift in fire management was required to recognize the important ecological role of fire.

Paradoxically, attempting to protect the land with a one-sided view of fire has had the opposite effect. But beneath this paradox is another irony: forest managers and policy makers slowly “identified” what Indigenous traditional knowledge already understood and practised.

Even Pa in Little House on the Prairie knew what a prescribed burn was for. (“He said the Indians had always burned the prairie to make green grass grow more quickly, and traveling easier.”) Why did Ontario resource managers have to wait until they had already over-matured the province’s forest for 80 to 100 years to see that the forests would then become weaker: more at risk of uncontrollable fires, more susceptible to insect infections, and more vulnerable to wind damage? As we try both to leave the wilderness alone and to protect it, we are doing neither. Our “protection” has in fact changed the nature of the forest, and not in a positive direction.

Jasyn Lucas Quiet (2011)

The call of the wilderness

The necessary and impossible Indigenous presence in the heart of our wilderness, both from our side and from the land’s side, is like Wittgenstein’s ladder, which we want to get rid of once we  have climbed up.

And try to get rid of it we did: keeping the “vanishing race” apart  from us until they would disappear, or forcing them to join us and erase their differences, have both failed. What displacement and segregation (e.g., reserves and prisons) could not control and keep out of sight, and what destruction and assimilation (e.g., Indian Residential Schools and “adopting out” policies) could not absorb into the general populus, still asserts itself as firmly as ever in the movements of contemporary Indigenous resurgence – but also speaks from the confused wilderness within our Canadian souls: unresolved problems in relationship to First Nations lead to unresolved problems in our identity as Canadians, which are both hidden and shown by our concept of wilderness.

Touching a nerve

Fastforward to today. Canada seems poised to take important steps towards acknowledging our nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples. The courts continue to uphold inherent and treaty rights (the right to meaningful consultation on land use [see the recent overturning of the Northern Gateway pipeline approval] , the right to carry on traditional practices in a contemporary context, etc.) And politicians at least say they are prepared to adopt and implement a new policy framework through the proposals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Yet a large section of the Canadian population is decidedly not on board.

To out it mildly, a recent (2016) Environics study concluded that “the public remains divided on whether Aboriginal peoples have unique rights and status as first inhabitants or are just like other cultural or ethnic groups in Canadian society.”

More pointedly, the comment section under Indigenous news items on CBC had become so hateful last November that CBC decided to disallow comments not in general on their posted articles, but specifically on Indigenous-related stories. Here is their explanation:

While there are a number of subjects and groups of people who seem to bring out higher-than-average numbers of worrisome comments, we find ourselves with a unique situation when it comes to indigenous-related stories.

We’ve noticed over many months that these stories draw a disproportionate number of comments that cross the line and violate our guidelines.

Returning to Algonquin, where the land claim agreement in principle has raised alarm bells among the fishing, hunting, and conservationist groups, an article in Outdoor Canada states that the deal “could restrict access, and devastate fish and game.” Further, the article explains that outdoor stakeholder groups have not been properly consulted, while their legitimate objections are immediately labelled “racist.”

What Canadian nerve do news reports on Indigenous people touch? Why such “unique” viciousness specifically in response to these stories? And are conservationists’ fears of a “free for all” in government-recognized Algonquin territory, racist? What is going on here?

To be continued … [see “The Souls of Canadian Folk“]

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