The souls of Canadian folk: how the wilderness makes us who we are

This is a follow-up to a previous post called “Wilderness and Canadian identity.”

What that post found in our national and provincial parks, this one will explore at a psychical level. If our identities are tied to a particular conception of wilderness, what are the symptoms of this condition? How does the Canadian psyche operate under the influence of this concept?

The diagnosis

To briefly summarize where we got to last time:

A Canadian identity based on wilderness comes from an artistic re-imagination of our territory (around 1920) that fulfilled the ideal of the nation as “true north strong and free” (lyrics from 1908). This nationalist movement puts wilderness in our souls; it puts wilderness at the basis of our identity as Canadians. It does so in two ways: first, the wilderness symbolizes our virtues as a people (like the land, we too are strong, rugged, pure, self-reliant, etc.); and second, the wilderness is hostile to us and makes us develop those same virtues to pass its test (it forces us to become strong, rugged, pure, self-reliant, etc.). There’s an essential contradiction at the heart of this wilderness: it is us, symbolically, and it is against us in order to mould and strengthen that very character. We preserve wilderness as symbol as we prove ourselves by conquering and overcoming it.

The Group of Seven embodied both sides of the identity by participating in a myth of the adventurer artist à la Hemingway. As their story goes, these were the kind of manly men who would trek three days into the bush before setting up an easel in the middle of the wilderness. Thus, fittingly,  a true test of Canadian manhood goes into the production of each painted symbol of it.

(It doesn’t hurt either that there is strong biblical support for this national narrative. In Exodus, the Israelites escape from bondage into the “wilderness” where they are transformed as a nation, receive manna from heaven, and experience the presence of God.)

This wilderness has, as described above, a fundamental paradox when it is called into service to anchor Canadian identity and make us at home in this land. In concrete historical terms, the key to the paradox is the hidden erasure of Indigenous presence. Our image of the “Indian” was racist, but is it any better to have it erased, removed from public discourse and Canadian identity formation, leaving this paradoxical wilderness in its wake? There is, in other words, an “inconvenient Indian” (Thomas King’s phrase) who enabled this voyageuring into the bush in the first place but then must vanish so the Canadian can be rugged and self-reliant and his “untouched” land pure and harsh.

Actually, in King’s analysis, the “Indian problem” has historically been treated in three different ways, or as he puts it there are three different Indians:

While North America loves the Dead Indian and ignores the Live Indian, North America hates the Legal Indian. Savagely. The Legal Indian was one of those errors in judgement that North America made and has been trying to correct for the last 150 years.

An idealized history of the Canadian struggle to overcome – and become – our wilderness hides a fundamental fact about our actual history. We didn’t do this on our own; we didn’t survive here and build this nation by ourselves, nor was there an empty wilderness to build it from when we arrived. We had, and still have, deep obligations to the original people who taught us and shared with us, who objected to and resisted our expansion and clearing of (them from) the land, and on whom we then imposed treaties that we might settle with a clear conscience as we continued progressively to imagine them away – not only from our imagination but from the land, not only from the land but from our memory: we’ve actually been trying to erase them out of existence. To be honest about the full story puts a bit of a damper on the national narrative. Seen truly, the wilderness is the clean slate, the nothingness of the erasure, and the paradoxical forgetting of the erasure itself. It is the year zero of Canada, a zero we actively produce when we passionately preserve our wilderness and patriotically celebrate our land.

Doubtless, everybody’s identity is paradoxical in some ways, and a paradoxical identity isn’t in itself a bad thing, but this Canadian identity based on active production of untouched wilderness does seem to have its downsides – for the Indigenous people it erases, obviously, but its malignancy haunts us from the other side as well.

Clarification: who is a Canadian?

I’m using the term “Canadian,” and I say “our” identity as Canadians so obviously I include myself. But it’s not clear in some places who the term includes and who it doesn’t. Specifically, whether it includes Indigenous people or doesn’t. I can’t promise I’m entirely consistent, or that the term is consistent in its reference – and clearly it’s a term whose meaning changes and is going to change. At least, I certainly hope its meaning is going to change. For the sake of clarity, let us say at the outset that it means here the people of a particular set of stories, including this one about our wilderness. In those terms, it clearly doesn’t include Indigenous people because that story works only if they’re not here. (Actually, it works only if they’re both here and not here …) In any case, it’s a story I’ve been told, more or less overtly, and it’s one I’ve participated in rituals around, like camping in Algonquin Park. Algonquin is a great temple of Canadian “wilderness,” and a textbook concrete instance of loving Dead Indians, ignoring Live Indians, and hating Legal Indians – see “Wilderness and Canadian identity.”

No doubt, there are degrees, too, of Canadianness. For my purposes here, that would mean degrees of identification or participation in that story. Or, in the other direction, degrees of real experience of the land other than as wilderness.

First symptom: ignorance of the land

Of course we think with our concepts or ideas, but sometimes an idea hinders rather than helps our understanding. Labelling land as wilderness seems to produce a particular ignorance of it. Perhaps it is not ours to understand the workings of the land where Nature is left to her own devices, any more than we can question God. Or perhaps it is not worth knowing much about the land until it gains some productive purpose. Perhaps it would diminish the courage of our conquest if we were venturing into known terrain. Or perhaps it would diminish our symbolic identification if it were knowable, as if the depths of our souls would thus become fathomable or the seasons of our hearts predictable.

In any case, listen to Russell Willier, A Cree Healer (2015), describe ecological issues that affect his obtaining his medicinal plants in the bush in Alberta. He does not come out against Canadian conservation or resource development per se, but he certainly has some telling troubles when he tries to talk to oil companies or conservation authorities about the land:

Sometimes they will put a pipeline right through the herbs that you use. They figure the same plants are everywhere. They don’t care. (A Cree Healer, Chapter One,  “Collecting Plants”)
This spring of 2010 June, we saw a great big smoke in the swamp at Grouard. We went racing over there. The grass was on fire. We asked around what’s going on. They said we’re training water bombers to put out fires. I said there are millions of bird eggs there right now: ducks, geese, blackbirds, seagulls, blue herons, all kinds of birds. They’re just starting to hatch. Some are still in the eggs. They can’t escape. Now this fall, when we tried to hunt, there were very, very few ducks until they came from the north. They stayed only three days and left. They flew south for the winter, but not many came back because their young had died. Every time we talk about things like that, we are treated as troublemakers. (A Cree Healer, Chapter Two, “Ducks”)

Fires can jump forty feet off the tops of tall trees. When they put the firewall against the tall trees, the fire seems to stop when it runs out of trees. Then they say the fire is under control. I told them it is not under control, since it will continue to burn underground. It will burn every root. The trees will start falling and domino each other, and the fire will run right across the clearcut area or the road and pick up again on the other side.

I worked for them for forty days north of Slave Lake. I kept telling them what to do and they wouldn’t listen. We were getting directions from Edmonton, which is so stupid. The one giving directions should be right there with the fire, not in an office in Edmonton. I said this fire is going to make it to the lake. When the fire appeared to stop, we got orders to take out the big equipment and work the other direction. I told them that as soon as we leave, the big trees will fall and the fire will continue to the lake. Sure enough, it made it right to the lake. When the fire comes, the moose run into the lake and wait like a hippo. When the copter comes with a bucket to get water from the lake, the moose run back into the fire. Why not go to a bigger lake not far away and leave the moose in the water? (A Cree Healer, Chapter Two, “Fires”)

lost domain
Frank Polson Lost Domain (2012)

When they clearcut, they take all the trees out. Not long ago, they decided to take roots out as well, so they take in a big machine after the area has been clearcut that pulls out the roots, leaving a big hole. They don’t replant. … They clearcut in winter and spring. When summer comes, the birds come and the frogs start to move around. Baby birds, mice, and frogs fall into the holes and can’t get out. …

I told them, you’re making booby traps for everything. … I told Forestry and whoever makes the rules should go look for themselves. They say that if they want a permit, it has to be done this way since it’s in the rules. They say they will look into it, and that’s the end of the matter. We should get all the birdwatchers to take pictures of dead birds. Maybe that would start a commotion.

We Indians can’t get anything going. We see it and tell them but they don’t pay any attention. We’re called shit stirrers. It’s a waste of time. (A Cree Healer, Chapter Two, “Clearcut”)

observations of the astral world
Norval Morrisseau Observations of the Astral World (1999)

I’ll stop quoting Russell Willier now. Actually I’m a little concerned that my excerpts give a misleading impression of the book. On the whole, his project is optimistic rather than critical, and it carries out positive collaborations on a number of different levels. There’s no denying, however, that the official managers and protectors of the land in Canada come off badly in the book. As a group, they have no dynamic sense, no sense of time or place on the land, no foresight or judgement. They are arrogant and won’t listen, etc.

There must be some truth to this assessment of Canadian conservation efforts, such as they are. And it does not seem like a stretch to think that if a contradictory image of the land, not to mention static and ideal, is part of the basis of your identity, then it might not be easy to learn about the concrete dynamic geography of that land.

Second symptom: touchy subjects

Another consequence of the particular paradox of our Canadian souls is a specific kind of touchiness, or a specific limit to our famous tolerance. There’s a strange Jekyll-to-Hyde switch when we read an Indigenous-related news story: the “nice” Canadian suddenly becomes hateful – even tyrannical. I want to call this attitude, Canadian “seriousness,” but in a very specific sense.

Simone de Beauvoir calls a person “serious” when they have an unwavering allegiance to a ready-made fundamental value, and on her analysis the “serious man” is indeed dangerously close to becoming tyrannical.

The serious man puts nothing into question. For the military man, the army is useful; for the colonial administrator, the highway; for the serious revolutionary, the revolution – army, highway, revolution, productions becoming inhuman idols to which one will not hesitate to sacrifice man himself. Therefore, the serious man is dangerous. It is natural that he makes himself a tyrant. Dishonestly ignoring the subjectivity of his choice, he pretends that the unconditioned value of the object is being asserted through him; and by the same token he also ignores the value of the subjectivity and the freedom of others, to such an extent that, sacrificing them to the thing, he persuades himself that what he sacrifices is nothing. The colonial administrator who has raised the highway to the stature of an idol will have no scruple about assuring its construction at the price of a great number of lives of the natives; for, what value has the life of a native who is incompetent, lazy, and clumsy when it comes to building highways? The serious leads to a fanaticism which is as formidable as the fanaticism of passion. It is the fanaticism of the Inquisition which does not hesitate to impose a credo, that is, an internal movement, by means of external constraints. It is the fanaticism of the Vigilantes of America who defend morality by means of lynchings. It is the political fanaticism which empties politics of all human content and imposes the State, not for individuals, but against them. (Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity)

Does this describe Canadians? Do we take the myth of wilderness, the idea that ours is a more or less empty or unpopulated land, both harsh and beautiful, barren while rich in resources, as much to be conquered as preserved, blasted through as sacrosanct, cleared and tilled as untouched and untouchable, etc. – so seriously that we ignore the subjectivity of others who see the land differently? In the case of some individuals, do we impose Canada not for, or even alongside them, but against them?

Of course, much of this allegiance is unconscious. Only this can explain such active hostility on the one hand, while on the other hand we turn around, totally forget, and say something like:

We also have no history of colonialism.

Why would our Prime Minister say that? Is this a further case of the serious attitude Beauvoir describes? Is she right that “in sacrificing them to the thing, he persuades himself that what he sacrifices is nothing”?

You can fault or excuse Stephen Harper’s 2009 G20 comment (or again Justin Trudeau’s 2016 NYU comment) in its specific context, but it’s clearly been a huge blind spot for us as Canadians. I remember when Canada was an important ally of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. US support for the movement at the same time was seen as at least somewhat hypocritical, given that they’d had legal and open segregation only twenty years previously, but Canada, it seemed, had no such history. (Japanese internment, perhaps, but it was the exception that proved the rule of our overall lack of any large-scale subjugation of others.) Americans had slaves, not us, and we helped free them. Britain had colonies, not us – and we should know, we were one.

In this era of Truth and Reconciliation, Canada has started looking in this blind spot, started examining our colonial past, and so Trudeau’s comment did not go unnoticed; indeed, it was widely criticized. To make political hay, perhaps. It doesn’t mean that the PM (either time) was trying to be some sort of Holocaust denier; maybe he just forgot. As Canadians, we all like to imagine ourselves back in the “sunny ways” of the 1960s to 1990s, from Lester Pearson to before the mission in Afghanistan, when we were peacekeepers in the world, naïve folk who saw the good in everyone, simple but rugged canoe paddlers like the Native people who lived here before us. [This last part of the story, understood but not usually spoken in public, indicates what I mean by hidden erasure: the Indigenous population is erased insofar as they were here only before us, not now; then the erasure is hidden insofar as we avoid bringing up the unpleasant or insensitive topic; then, because we don’t talk about it, we forget it, and a further erasure occurs.]

For Simone de Beauvoir, the worst thing about the serious man is how easily he becomes a slave to tyrannical forces.

As a nation, we are now acknowledging and uncovering Canada’s recent Residential School era (approx. 1875-1975 or even later, especially if you look at the same policy pursued by other means). There were highly organized medical experiments on children (research on the effects of intentional nutritional deprivation), child-sized handcuffs, a child-sized electric chair, children’s unmarked graves – not to mention the overall genocidal or assimilationist goal of the institutions and the widespread physical and sexual abuse within their walls.

Each of us needs to take a long look in that mirror. If the mere mention of Indigenous peoples in Canada, or historical wrongs by Canada, irks you in that place Shakespeare’s Othello describes (4.2.66), when he says he has patience for affliction and is able to bear scorn,

But there, where I have garner’d up my heart.
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there,
Patience, thou young and rose-lipped cherubin,—
Ay, there, look grim as hell!

– then maybe we need to reconcile the paradoxes of our own national identity, and rethink, for one thing, what we’re doing with our wilderness – which I truly believe to be one of those profound “fountains” of our Canadian being where we have garner’d up our glowing hearts.

Moving on: Reconciliations

If “preserving untouched wilderness” is a fiction that involves removing Indigenous people from the land, not only now but retroactively, truth and reconciliation today must mean, at the very least, facing this truth and reconciling ourselves as Canadians to a different national identity, telling a different story about ourselves.

manitou stone
Aaron Paquette Manitou Stone (c. 2009)

As that story has been told, is being told, and still needs to be told, two things at the very least must be included in it:

First, we must include relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples when we tell our history. Whether exchanging goods or cultural values, whether as adversaries or allies, on the land or in court, as equal nations under sacred treaties or as oppressed and oppressor under a genocidal colonial administration, Canada has been in relationship with Indigenous nations through its whole history, still is, and always will be. The whole range of these relationships needs to be acknowledged, with agency and divergent points of view on both sides. Certainly, Canada has a colonial past – and indeed continues to work within a colonial legal and policy framework in the present, with an Indian Act and an Indian Affairs department. Whether it can work its way out of that framework and on to something else in the future remains to be seen.

Second, Indigenous communities have been in relationship with the land since the dawn of time. There can be no ecological history of Canada and no Canadian ecological movement today that is not also a conversation with Indigenous peoples and their traditions. In other words, Canada does not have and never has had a wilderness. Even in sparsely populated areas (and densely populated areas are not just a post-European arrival phenomenon either), there is everywhere – and there always was – an important human presence.

gathering beaverskins
Shirley Cheechoo Gathering Beaverskins (1982)

Furthermore, to the extent that Canadians have become the rugged northern people we like to consider ourselves, and humble at the same time in relation to others because we are humble first to this harsh and beautiful land, it is because we have always had Indigenous guides and technology, always learned their ways and followed their routes, etc. Our story is woven through their stories not only in the early days of this nation, but right up to today.

Denying or forgetting this interwoven history is more than a gross insult; it continues the violent attempted erasure of whole peoples from this place. To the extent that we have failed in this reconciliation and are continuing to be in the wrong on this, we will continue to show the symptoms: touchiness or false fountains at the core of our being, personally and politically, and a decided ignorance of the land in which we dwell.

These may seem a small and insignificant price on our side, given the degree of suffering on the other side: trauma passed on through Indigenous families and violence still experienced by Indigenous children and adults at the hands of Canadian institutions and individuals today. But first, that depends on the scale of the ecological consequences. A false image of the land as a wilderness fulfilled symbolically by the nation that clears and conquers it, one that we cannot avoid insofar as it makes us who we are as Canadians, may yet lead to environmental disasters we will deeply regret only when it is too late to “right the ship,” too late to realise we can’t eat money. And second, any consequence at all, no matter how soft its voice, if it can be acknowledged as a real fact about Canadians today, must be a telling reminder that this history is not just something that happened long ago, but something that still forms us and shapes us, still calls to us from the depths of our being here and now.

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