Manitoba History: Book Review: Misao Dean, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle: The Canoe in Discourses of English-Canadian Nationalism and Canoe Nation: Nature, Race, and the Making of a Canadian Icon
by Jamie Morton
While most Canadians probably can identify a canoe as a common form of light recreational wa-tercraft, and many have paddled a canoe, these two recent books extend beyond discussion of the material canoe and its use. Rather, they examine the canoe’s role as a powerful symbol conscripted to support a particular vision of Canada. Erickson’s stated intent was to “interrogate the colonial imagination” as represented by the canoe, in order to understand the “production of Canada” (p. 3). Dean’s study started with the death of her father, who left her his canoe paddle. For her, the material object, a symbol of loss on a personal level, led in turn to a questioning of the “narrative of nationality” underlying Canadian identity and its link to colonialism (pp. 9-11). Dean and Erickson, as professors of literature and geography, respectively, ap-proach their studies differently, but both examine how the utilization of the symbolic canoe by the state and by cultural elites provides insight into certain aspects of Canadian society, nationality, and identity. Starting with Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities and Edward Said’s model of nations as narratives, Dean and Erickson move the discussion forward into post-colonial literature, as they analyze how the canoe has been utilized to support a certain construct of Canada.
Dean, in her first chapter, “Paddling the Uncanny Canoe,” notes a prevalent sense of dislocation or uneasiness found in Canadian literature, and suggests that the canoe provides a metaphor for that motif. The canoe often acts as a symbol of a desired “material and experiential” nation, but analysis and deconstruction of the symbolic canoe “disrupts, troubles, and denaturalizes” the wish for such a simply understood Canada (Dean, p. 39). In his introduction, Erickson emphasizes the role of the symbolic canoe in connecting the “wilderness”—seen as an essential part of what defines the settler understanding of Canada—with the construct of the nation. Following the post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha, Erickson notes that the “production of the nation” rests on two narratives. One recounts the origin of the nation, and the other represents the “temporal performance of the nation in the daily lives of its people” (Erickson, pp. 26-29, pp. 12-13).
Both authors contend that examining the meanings contained in the canoe provides a key to understanding constructions of Canadian identity. The canoe, as a symbol, has been perceived by the cultural and political hegemons of the country as a device which contributes to the construction of a unified national narrative. The political entity “Canada” is the product of strategies of resettlement—approximately 97 percent of its population comprised of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. For four centuries, people have been attracted from other parts of the world by the economic and cultural “pulls” of the regions which now constitute the nation.
With such a heterogenous, immigrant-based population in a physically enormous and diverse country, constructing a unified national identity—and a sense of belonging or inclusion—provides a significant challenge. Central to the process of nation-building has been an ongoing effort to make the population believe that it is engaged in a common project: the development of the imagined community, “Canada.”
Inventing an inclusive national identity—implying a level of cultural unification or homogenization—rests on the construction and naturalization of an origin myth. Such narratives typically explain how a specific group of people came to use and occupy a homeland, to legitimize the group’s presence and hegemony. Legitimacy can be achieved through the actions of supernatural forces, through the defeat of another group, or through proving worthiness by successfully meeting certain challenges. Naturalizing a distinctively Canadian origin myth is complicated by the influence of a much larger and more powerful settler-immigrant neighbour nation, the United States. Both nation-states were resettled by, and for, newcomers, in a manner that did not acknowledge the legitimacy of pre-existing indigenous economic, social, and political structures. Resettlement was intended to create new nations, which would provide, within a framework of capitalism and liberalism, opportunities that would attract more newcomers. Within such broadly similar trajectories, how may a distinctly Canadian origin myth be created?
Both Dean and Erickson contend that for more than a century Canadian hegemons have turned to the canoe as a key symbol in the construction of a distinct origin myth. Following Marx, they suggest that while the canoe has lost its use value, thus having less economic power (Dean, p. 17; Erickson, pp. 6-8), it has acquired greater symbolic and cultural power. Both scholars use the term “fetishization” to describe this transformation. This follows the observations of Daniel Francis who, in his 1997 book National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History, described the power of the canoe as symbol, calling it “the mother image of our national dreamlife.”  These authors appear to follow Francis in privileging the canoe above other Canadian icons: the maple leaf, the beaver, the moose, the toque, the snowshoe, hockey, and Canadian beer. All have been imbued with special meaning as signifiers of Canadian identity, but the integral role of the canoe within the origin narrative seems to have given it greater power.
The power of the symbolic canoe, for these authors, lies in its ability to mediate between contemporary Canadian identity and the origin myth, which is set in the past, and in the wilderness. Following Bhabha, Erickson contends that the two narratives required for what he terms the production of the nation—the origin story, and the contemporary performance of “national” themes—can both be situated and experienced in the canoe. The “past” and “wilderness” aspects of the origin myth is inhabited by symbolic ancestors, both indigenous people and “pioneers,” who, through their cooperation in the fur trade, transformed the wilderness into the nation. One of the interesting points brought forward by Dean (pp. 14, 62), and echoed by Erickson, is that the contemporary Canadian population has, through devices such as the fetishizing of canoes, appropriated historic First Nations populations as its “folk” or “volk.” They suggest that while lacking the legitimacy provided by indigeneity—the continuous occupation of a region—immigrant populations have attempted to acquire such status by participating in “traditional” First Nations activities. Canoeing is linked symbolically to indigeneity, and so participation in the activity permits members of immigrant society to share, symbolically, in the nation’s origin myth.
Both authors consider the canoe to be central to the historical construction of a Canadian origin myth. Dean, in her second chapter, “Canada is a Canoe Route,” and Erickson, in his first chapter, “Pedagogical Canoes,” examine the ways in which the symbolic canoe figures in the metanarrative of the origins of Canada. Rather than American-style conquest, this rests on a transcontinental fur trade, which demonstrates the self-ascribed modern Canadian values of multiculturalism and inclusion. British managers oversaw Quebecois voyageurs and labourers, who exchanged manufactured goods for commodities—principally furs—from First Nations producers. All three “founding nations” participated voluntarily in the fur trade, with roles defined by their ascribed attributes. This proto-capitalist economic and social enterprise required a complex transportation system—often relying on canoes—extending across the northern half of the continent, later equated with the geo-political construct “Canada.”
After framing the central role of the canoe in the Canadian origin myth, each author presents evidence for its subsequent fetishization—the evolution of the watercraft into a culturally significant symbol or icon. For both, this process begins with the growth of recreational canoeing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For participants, the aesthetically-driven appreciation of the experience superseded the practical or functional role of the vessel itself. Recreational pleasure was intensified, because canoeing could be linked to a central trope of the Canadian imaginary in this era of capitalist optimism, expansion, and nation-building. In a variation on the concept of the “trial in the wilderness,” those who challenged and overcame Canada’s environment in the origin narrative legitimized their claim of being “true Canadians.” By sharing in experiences redolent of those described in the origin narrative, recreational canoeists also could share in experiencing the pioneer virtues of the ancestor figures. The recreational version of the trial in the wilderness would transform them, and make them feel more fully engaged in the project “Canada.”
Dean’s examination of the process of fetishization identifies some of the aesthetic and conceptual aspects contributing to the power of the symbolic canoe, then outlines efforts to mimic and recreate the experience of the origin narrative. This is followed by an overview of the conventions of the “wilderness canoe trip” in literature, and then the rise of environmental romanticism in the work of author and filmmaker Bill Mason. Dean presents the Canadian Canoe Museum as a material representation of some of the themes she raises—the primary narratives, as well as the contradictions and stresses inherent to them. Finally, she closes with “De-colonising the Canoe,” a discussion of how indigenous Canadians have utilized the symbolic power of the canoe as a way to invigorate cultural values, and to challenge and resist the unitary construction of Canadian identity.
In his discussion, Erickson incorporates aspects of the material canoe with ideology and attitudes, with ongoing reference to the issue of race. He emphasizes the role of hunting and fishing in the development of recreational canoeing, and how aspects of these activities created inherent stresses along racial, cultural, and class lines. He describes a sometimes uneasy relationship between canoe tourists, often privileged men from dominant social groups, and guides, usually members of indigenous societies. This is further developed as he examines the importance of racial identities and constructions of wilderness, and the role of “Indian surrogacy” in reaffirming hegemony for national elites. Erickson then looks at the role of recreational canoeing in reaffirming a certain vision of the nation, by linking the “production of an ideal national subject” to the goals of the environmental movement. He contends that through such efforts, wilderness space is integrated, as a recreational commodity, more fully into the orbit of the capitalist system and the authority of the Canadian state (Erickson, pp. 181, 184). Erickson concludes his study, somewhat like Dean, with reflections on resistance to the national narrative as represented by the symbolic canoe, although focussing on sexuality in addition to race, as an example of how a particular icon, or fetish, may be utilized in different ways by those who do not conform.
The central role of the canoe in this process, while convincingly argued by Erickson and Dean in their respective studies, can be debated. Both authors may have been influenced by the cultural values of central Canada, where the summer idyll—involving lakes, cottages, summer camps, and canoes—has great resonance. For Canadians from other regional societies, the canoe might not hold the same central cultural location—or fetish value. For example, on BC’s west coast, kayaks are the ubiquitous personal recreational watercraft. It could be more difficult to frame an argument that the recreational paddlers enjoying their carbon fibre vessels are performing an “Inuit masquerade.” Although combining wilderness and a vessel loosely based on an indigenous prototype, there is a much less direct link to a universal origin narrative, and the construction of Canadian identity.
However, the power of both of these books lies in their thoughtful analysis of the process whereby historical experience and material objects are transformed into powerful symbols that may be used to support, or sometimes resist, naturalized values and identity. Whether or not one accepts the canoe as a metaphor for a certain cultural uneasiness, as suggested by Dean, or as a tool used by hegemons to legitimize power expressed along political, racial, and sexual vectors, as presented by Erickson, these books present some real insight into the historical construction of national identity.
The fetishizing of a certain material object, such as the canoe, is naturalized further through its use, following certain prescribed scripts. By following a similar process, people, places, and events, as well as objects, can acquire great symbolic power—elements of our collective past transformed into ideological tools. Fetish objects, when incorporated into cultural production, provide potent and easily understood symbols carrying meanings concerning the attributes and values central to constructing, and to explaining constructions of, Canadian identity.
1. Daniel Francis, National Dreams: Myth, Memory and Canadian History, Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1997, page 129.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 2 April 2020