Notes on 23rd Text for Reading Field: Careless

Canadian History, Week Four

J.M.S. Careless. Frontier and Metropolis: Regions, Cities, and Identities in Canada before 1914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

J.M.S. Careless supplies a description of the developmental growth patterns following Western European settlement in Canada to 1914. The description is abstract, in that although the existence of individuals with distinct motives is acknowledged, what is of interest to Careless is the cumulative effect of their behaviours. He describes the impetus for expansion as initially generated in metropolises (cities, characterized as a relationship, in which political economic power is concentrated). Exploratory expansionists then move into hinterland regions, following a sort of ray pattern. The new territory is occupied – sparsely to begin with, but increasingly organized over time. Typically agricultural settlement fills available, arable land. Often a new metropolis is formed within the region – sometimes exhibiting a new concentration of political economic power, sometimes acting as a nodal point for channeling political economic directives from the original metropolis. In either case, according to Careless, the history of Canada suggests that the pattern of expansion is likely to begin again so long as uninhabited hinterlands are available. Careless regards the relation between occupied hinterland and metropolis as reciprocal – even symbiotic – and as promoting diffusion of the original culture. At all times however, the metropolis is dominant. As it is the source of effective decision making, it is protective of its own growth, absorbing profit while deflecting loss back to the country-side. (Depending on one’s perspective, the description he provides is either unfortunately, or rightly, suggestive of a pattern of mould growing in a petri dish.)[1]

Identity is treated as an ancillary, but enabling aspect: a consequence of diffusion of an original culture into new places, illustrative of adaptation and conducive to maintaining the ability to expand. Careless defines identity as “bonding structures and perceptions, which came to mark – or identify – the major regional communities that formed in Canada.”[2] He emphasizes the collective aspect of identity, arguing that, generally, Canadian conditions “favoured neither the economic nor social independence of ordinary individuals.”[3] He includes perceptions of opportunities and constraints presented by geography and climate as shapers of identity. As well, he regards identities – including the regional demarcations that may define them — as historically constructed, not natural. Communication – verbal and physical — is central to the process of construction. Thus, Careless holds that Canadian identity “is not just some sort of incidental aggregate. The whole is more than the sum of its regional parts.”[4] Further, he finds identities to be multiple, juxtaposed, interrelated, and mutually limiting – the reason, presumably, that “Canada might aspire to world records for the longest running identity crisis.”[5] Although Careless does not dwell on the point, it is clear that according to his conception, claims to discrete identities arise in response to contest. For example, with respect to the Maritime Rights movement, he states, “over the years, a group image of resilient, pragmatic resistance to external power became embodied in the Atlantic identity.”[6] Metropolitan areas, as concentrated sources of information dissemination are viewed as particularly responsible for heightening awareness of the existence of distinct identities.

Careless succeeds in tying together a number of historiographical ideas to provide a workable, because clear, descriptive framework. However, while he admirably captures the effect of Western European development in the Canadian portion of North America, he does not interrogate cause. This is not a failing because it was not his intention, but it does place limits on how useful his conception may be to achieving historical understanding.


Intriguing, blend in visions: from Careless’s metropolis, to Rachachah’s mould, to Francis Ford Coppola’s Koyaanisqatsi:

[2] J.M.S. Careless. Frontier and Metropolis: Regions, Cities, and Identities in Canada before 1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 16.

[3] Ibid., 42.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 72.

[6] Ibid., 78.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 4 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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