Notes on 54th Text for Reading Field: Abel and Coates

Canadian History, Week 9

A.A. Chesterfield, “Inuit couple seated,” dated c. 1901-1904, Quebec, with notation: “a vintage silver gelatin print showing an Inuit coupled seated side by side, on a box covered with a piece of fur, and against a plain white backdrop. Such approach highlights the details of their clothing, while the neutral backdrop prevents them from being as closely identified with the location of the post at Great Whale and Fort George as their Cree counterparts are.” Source: Library and Archives Canada / e008299869.

Kerry Abel, and Ken S. Coates, eds. Northern visions: new perspectives on the North in Canadian history. Peterborough, N.: Broadview Press, 2001. [Google Books preview:]

Kerry Abel and Ken S. Coates supply an essay collection that responds to a paradox they discern in Canadian historiography. In their view, the North has been presented as defining the Canadian identity, yet historians have largely ignored the experience of the vast majority of people (particularly the Inuit), who have inhabited the Canadian North (as opposed to the Canadian south below the 48th parallel, and the ‘middle north’ that extends to approximately the 60th). They note that both the North that is Canada (the territory above the United States), and the Canadian North have been romantically and mythically conflated as cold, vast, isolating, and central to Canadian ‘character building’ on an individual and group scale.

Abel and Coates, and the other authors presented in this text, argue that the North deserves examination that takes it on own terms, in order to take into account the people who have most consistently dealt directly with those terms. With this approach, the authors believe that the North as a place and Northern peoples will be recognized as having discernible and concrete — as opposed to ambiguous and ephemeral — importance within Canadian history.

The overall consensus (or thesis), of the book is that little of the work that is necessary for a truly Northern historiography to emerge has been done. Much of the material presented is, therefore, forward looking and suggestive of research potential. These are not essays that draw on already completed research, polished into what might be regarded as comprehensive revisionist representations or descriptions of the past. The authors do not argue that historical interpretations need to be revised so much as they need to be devised – and committed to paper — in the first place.

Several themes are explored to make the point outlined above. Coates and William R. Morrison examine the historiography of winter and its impact on human life to argue that it may be regarded as a discrete, and important, factor in the North. In their view, winter is determinant of political economic, cultural, and social aspects of Northern and Canadian history. They point out that for northerly community groups, counter to perceptions generated in geographically removed regions to the south, in the past “winter was not simply a time of hardship and peril; it could also be a time of ease and opportunity.” Among Aboriginal peoples, technology and society developed to the point where in fact spring and fall tended to be the more difficult times of year. Thus the experience of native Northerners of North America diverged greatly from that of the newcomers. Although accounts of newcomer experience and perception predominate in current historiography, the most prevalent pattern of newcomer behavior was — and, Coates and Morrison argue, remains — one of fleeing from winter, acting in a limited capacity as seasonal sojourners to the North.

Walter William May with J. Needham, engraving, “H.M.S. Assistance and Pioneer in Winter Quarters. Returning Daylight,” dated 1855. Source: Library and Archives Canada, online MIKAN no. 2837864.

Bill Waiser examines how “the tyranny of distance,” which W.L. Morton described as fundamental to Canadian regionalism, has been understood with respect to the North in Canadian historiography. He argues distance is not just a spatial dimension; it is also a mental construct. As such, in his view, distance deserves to be employed as an analytical tool. He suggests that distance and ideas of distance may be analyzed with an eye to determining what Canadian constructions of distance reflect(ed) about various social and cultural groups in a variety of regions over time.

David Neufeld looks at Parks Canada and the ways in which aspects of the North have been evaluated as worthy of commemoration. In distinguishing between ‘history’ (meaning abstracted, because non-locally generated, historiography), and ‘heritage’ (meaning indigenous voicings of local traditions), he finds that, until comparatively recently (beginning in the 1990s), a distinctly Northern sense of valuation had not been applied to the selection process of commemoration sites. In consequence, Neufeld argues, the criteria for site selection is more illuminating for the way it charts southern Canadian hopes for, and interests in, progress and development over time – a circumstance he would like historians to change.

Mary-Ellen Kelm reviews the historiography about the First Nations of the North to argue that seeking to illustrate evolutionary stages of development is not an adequate means of addressing the impact of economic systems on Northern peoples, because it does not adequately differentiate between what is economic and what is human. Speaking of stages therefore serves to generate, or maintain, stereotypes rather than insights.

“The Pas – Life in a Northern Town,” posted by ctreber, 15 July 2009, who describes the video as “Some impressions of The Pas, Northern Manitoba, Canada. A bit of winter, a bit of summer, some glimpses of the (not so far away) past… “.

Kelm suggests that historians need much greater understanding of how Inuit and Dene, for example, were able to “contain, resist, and subvert” outsider impositions. In her view, a greater awareness of how oral history can be utilized is a first step that researchers of the past ought not to overlook. Similarly, Shelagh D. Grant points to a paucity of available historiography shedding light on Inuit perspectives. In addition to pointing to cultural differences in the way that history is presented and interpreted, she notes that this lack of existent work can not be overcome without adequate support – especially financial — to researchers wrestling with the very real barriers that distance presents.

Region as it relates to various social paradigms is also addressed in this collection — particularly as it defines the middle and provincial Norths. Nancy M. Forestall argues that gender and region is a theme that could be explored in greater depth. For her part, Charlene Porsild notes that regions are populated by a wide variety of distinct communities and more work needs to be done to distinguish between communities if commonalities, and most importantly, transfers between them are to be fully appreciated. Abel supplies a historiography of Northern Ontario and concludes that not enough is known about self-definition among those classed as hinterland dwellers. Stephen Hayes argues that undertaking comparative east-west history between northern regions (for example the Alaskan and Canadian Norths) is needed to balance the tendency to only consider north-south interplay. Aileen A. Espiritu, on the other hand, compares Russian North historiography to Canadian and similarly suggests that such comparison at the very least might inspire new topics of interest. Bill Hodgins closes off the text with a personal testimony to just how rewarding researching the North while in the North can be.

Overall, the most resounding message of this book is that historians would render a greater service if they tried finding “what is Canadian in the Canadian North, rather than trying to describe what is northern about most of Canada.”[1]

[1] 35.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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