Notes on 53d Text for Reading Field: Zaslow

Canadian History, Week 9

Thomas Mitchell, photograph, “Fast to the floe in Franklin Pierce Bay waiting for the ice to open a water channel. Latitude 79*25′ North,” dated 9 August 1875, Cape Prescott, N.W.T. Source: Thomas Mitchell / Library and Archives Canada / C-052514.


Morris Zaslow. The Opening of the Canadian North, 1870-1914. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.

Morris Zaslow is recognized as having supplied the foundational work for historiography about northern Canada with this study. As the title suggests, the perspective he adopts is Central Canadian – the North was regarded as unknown and undiscovered until it was accessed by individuals who were non-native to the region. The history Zaslow presents is therefore a description of expansion and annexation of a hinterland by the Canadian state.

Zaslow argues that government interest in the North-West, North, and Arctic between 1870 and 1914 coincided with increased awareness or appreciation that these variations of ‘empty’ wilderness wastelands held more resources with remunerative rewards than the fur trade and sport hunting had yet tapped into. Success in the Yukon Gold Rush suggested that these resources were both available and extractible. Zaslow’s tone is celebratory. The explorers, traders, missionaries, police, civil servants, and scientists, who ‘opened’ territory unclaimed or ignored by other Imperial powers and who acted as harbingers of a new Southern way of life are seen as heroic. More especially so, perhaps, because the various Norths that were more northerly than westward proved disillusioning to many would-be developers when the promise those territories held, though open to contemplation, in many cases proved resistant to ready exploitation.

A major contribution of the book is the basic timeline it supplies. Along with establishing chronologies related to what might be regarded, from a Northern perspective, as ‘outsider’ incursions (good descriptions of the progress of the Geological Survey of Canada and the travels of Vilhjalmur Stefansson are furnished for instance), Zaslow charts the progress of Central Canadian politics and programs related to Northern development with an insider’s eye to what Southern historiographical sources have to reveal about past Canadian optimism and ambition.

A good part of Zaslow’s historiography is devoted to the ‘opening’ of the Western Provinces, which is entirely reasonable given his perspective. However, as a Westerner accustomed to thinking of these provinces as south of the ‘true North,’ I found the extended discussion disconcerting and disappointing – more material on higher latitudes about which less had already been written would have been welcome.

If there is little explicit interpretation or historiographical theorizing about indigenous Northern peoples and their perceptions of Canadian and other foreign behaviours on Zaslow’s part, his work nonetheless brings events to life, raises issues, and suggests avenues where further research would be desirable. How suitable are Western European ideas of development in Northern contexts? How determinant are the metropolitan centres of economic systems? If there is more than one metropolis involved, can an economic system be properly described as centred? Do ideas of hinterland and centre work in reverse if distance dictates virtual isolation and limited interaction between two very different regions?

Much has changed in Canada since 1971. Aboriginal lands are no longer perceived as having passed irrevocably out of their possession. Aboriginal peoples do not appear destined to remain mythic, romantic, or symbolic ‘losers’ in Canadian history. The questions I wonder about now, which would not have occurred to me thirty year ago include: if over the long run Southern expansion is limited to supplying technology, funding, and itinerant sojourners to another region – is this truly expansion? Or is this a matter of export? And, are Central Canada and Northern Canadians engaged in an ongoing process of negotiation over what exactly the North is open for? If so, will changes in climate and to the North’s ecosystem change their relation?

Additional Resources:

Video, “Exploration in the Canadian Arctic,” posted to You Tube by MuseeMcCordMuseum, 29 April 2008.

Video, “Off to the Klondike! The Search for Gold,” posted to You Tube by MuseeMcCordMuseum, 24 April 2008.

Video excerpt. “Victories Over Distance,” posted to You Tube by xblack13, 2 August 2008.

Tom Novosel, “Resources,”  Northern Research Portal, University of Saskatchewan website, http://bit.ly/6fnuRU.

Richard Hugh Pinnell, review of The Northward Expansion of Canada, 1914-1967, by Morris Zaslow, ACML Bulletin and Proceedings, http://bit.ly/905SOa, describes the context of producing The Opening of the Canadian North and other volumes in the Canadian Centenary Series.

Gordon O. Rothney, review of “The Frontier Hypothesis in Recent Historiography,” by Morris Zaslow, [in The Canadian Historical Review, XXIX, 2, (June, 1948) : 153-166], Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 2, no. 3 (1948): 454-456, available online from érudit, http://bit.ly/6uSwkN, describes theories of Canadian expansion into hinterlands.

Second City’s Bob and Doug McKenzie with “Great White North – Topic: Great White North,” posted to You Tube by takeoffhosehead, 23 October 2007.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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