Notes on 52d Text for Reading Field: Friesen

Canadian History, Week 9

Unknown artist, poster, “ Thousands Have Answered the Nation’s Call, But You May Be the One to Turn The Scale at a Critical Moment, Do You Realize This?” dated 1914-1918. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-434.

Gerald Friesen. Citizens and nation: An essay on history, communication, and Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. [Google Books preview:]

Gerald Friesen supplies an extended, ambitious, and challenging essay that seeks to synthesize a number of disparate theoretical, ideological, and epistemological threads in Canadian historiography and thereby “weave” a comprehensive and inclusive paradigm that would enhance the relevance of history for present day Canadians.[1]

At an immediate level, Friesen’s argument is organized around a single theme – the nature of the Canadian nation. The theme is illustrated through instancing individual experiences, largely as recorded in mediated texts (as opposed to strictly first person accounts). These experiences are analyzed within a system of periodization that is determined by ‘dominant’ modes of communication. The periods progress in stages, but manifest as phases.

At this immediate level the material presented is well ordered and fairly easily comprehended. At epistemological and ontological levels, however, the theories that Friesen mentions, borrows from, or builds upon, combine in a manner that is in places ambiguous and sometimes tenuous. For example, associations are made among aspects of dimensional, perceptual, and theoretical time and space across conceptual space(s) and time(s), and resolutions are implied without explanations as to how (or, in some cases when) such resolutions were brought about. I would expect that those who are comfortable working according to poetic logic (common in literature appreciation and literary theory circles), will find Friesen’s text enjoyably thought provoking. Those who prefer to work from a more empirically grounded form of logical inquiry might, however, find the presentation of theoretical threads without securely tied-off ends somewhat frustrating.[2]

The first period Friesen describes is the “oral-traditional.” Its temporal boundaries are not entirely clear – it begins at some point in ‘time immemorial’ but may perhaps extend into the present. He characterizes the oral-traditional period as conceptually North American, pan-Aboriginal, and pre-historically normative. While (or where) orality was a dominant mode of communication, apparently any scribed representations that did exist are assumed to have been pictorial but not textual. Time and space are assumed to have been understood as cyclical rather than linear, and fluid as opposed to fixed — whether conceptually or incrementally. In Friesen’s view, the role of the representative Aboriginal of this period has not been integrated into the Canadian national historiography.

The second period is the “textual-settler.” Friesen sees this as a period marked by the combination of oral and written or printed communication introduced by European arrivals (pictorial communication is not discussed). Textual-settler[ism?] was much in evidence through to the 20th century. The people who communicated in both modes acted as cultural ‘bridges.’ Friesen describes time as having been perceived as both cyclical and linear while space was perceived both as numinous and as a collection of materially and political-economically distinct places with mappable dimensions.

The third period Friesen describes as “print-capitalist.” During the period, society was understood as national in scale – an understanding invented/imagined and elaborated in the commercial press. The literate immigrant experience is considered normative. Time and space were formalized — standardized by the state to reflect technological innovation, and to allow greater efficiency and profitability to industry. Yet, in Friesen’s view, historiography which emphasizes economic trends during this period misses a more important topic, the cultural experience. He argues this experience was one which included individual participation in the shaping of Canadian consciousness, and is one which must receive greater attention if history is to be meaningful to a Canadian audience.

The fourth period is “screen capitalist.” Friesen applies the term while describing the recent past. In his opinion, unprecedented technological changes in the human experience of time and space virtually conflated the two dimensions — either effectively annihilating or fragmenting them (depending on one’s perspective). Friesen posits that, at the very least, the changes made it difficult for individuals to maintain a secure sense of place, perhaps in part explaining the intensely consumerist behaviour in the almost present (the time at which his essay was completed – apparently about 1999). There was, in his view, an impulse to surround oneself with material evidence of stability in what was perceived to be an increasingly unstable global environment (politically, economically, socially, culturally, and, presumably, ecologically). In the face of such uncertainty, Friesen suggests that Canadians adopt an available national and political four-part response: acceptance of a common framework for debate; adopting an orientation to the past that recognizes it was communally determined; adapting to changes within the nation; and committing to reside in Canada – in short, being Canadian.

Friesen sees an important aspect of Canadian historiography as its potential to support Canadian nationalism by being Canadian in the manner outlined immediately above and, thereby, helping others to appreciate being Canadian. With his essay, therefore, he seeks to point to a common ‘middle ground’ between divergent historiographical camps (the one approaches history from a top-down perspective, and the other takes a bottom-up view) in the hope that Canadian historians might be persuaded to share this middle position. However, in my opinion, depending on how ardently divergent opinions are held, ‘middle grounds’ may also at times be characterized as ‘no-man’s lands.’ And, as Friesen himself notes, there are other historiographical trends staking out culturalist territory: the decentred approaches of post-modernity. His version of cultural history, because centred, cannot be expected to easily displace, from the discursive space they have occupied, all of those who are interested in analysing the energy in and of the outer margins, historically and historiographically. Further, as alluded to above, there are empirically minded researchers, for instance among anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists, who examine culture and cultural issues and whose stances and findings must also be contended with. I suspect it will take much more than one essay to establish and hold the position that Friesen has outlined.

Additional Resources:

Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates, review of Citizens and nation: An essay on history, communication, and Canada, by Gerald Friesen, Labour History 82 (May 2002), History Cooperative database website,

Gaile McGregor, review of Citizens and nation: An essay on history, communication, and Canada, by Gerald Friesen, Canadian Journal of Communication 26 no. 2 (2001), pdf,

See also:

Margaret Conrad, “How Historians Complicate Things: A Brief Survey of Canadian Historiography,” article, Research and Practice, Historica website

Sarah Corse, Nationalism and literature: the politics of culture in Canada and the United States (Cambridge University Press, 1997), Google Books preview

Allan C.L. Smith, Canada–an American nation?: essays on continentalism, identity, and the Canadian frame of mind (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1994), Google Books preview

[1] Gerald Friesen, Citizens and nation: An essay on history, communication, and Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 7.

[2] Time and space, for example, are deceptively simple words. Though easy to understand in everyday conversation, they signify exceptionally difficult concepts that are as complex as multi-dimensional Mandelbrot sets when subjected to extended contemplation. Below, just for fun, is an example of one past look at ‘time references,’ and ‘time compartments.’

“What Lies Beyond Our Own Space-Time Continuum Video,” posted to You Tube by rosaryfilms, 9 November 2007.


“Gerald Friesen (1): The University History Classroom and Canadian History,” posted to You Tube by thenhier, 5 August 2009.

“Gerald Friesen (2): The University History Classroom and Canadian History,” posted to You Tube by thenhier, 5 August 2009.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 9 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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