More Northern Indices
- James P. Delgado (Author)
Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Charlene Porsild (Author)
Gamblers and Dreamers: Women, Men, and Community in the Klondike. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- William R. Morrison (Author)
True North: The Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Valerie Alia (Author)
Un/Covering the North: News, Media, and Aboriginal People. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sherrill Grace
The concept of northern indices was first articulated by Canadian geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin. In his 1988 book, The Canadian North and its Conceptual Referents, Hamelin tackled such questions as where North is and what distinguishes North from South in the Canadian context by developing a system for the geographical measurement of the North that he called nordicity indices (or VAPO for "valeurs polaires"). There are two aspects of Hamelin’s work that have always interested me: one is his inclusion of socio-cultural factors in his system of measurement, a system based on geographical and meterological facts of latitude, precipitation, temperature, and vegetation cover; the other is his ability to map distinct northern zones by using these indices: Middle North, Far North, and Extreme North. On the one hand, Hamelin reminds us that defining North is not the exclusive domain of science; on the other, his system illuminates many different norths with distinct identities and specific challenges.
The four books I am reviewing begin, in a sense, where Hamelin left off. These books explore a variety of cultural, social, historical, and artistic indices across a wide swath of the Canadian North stretching from the high Arctic to the southern edges of Hamelin’s Middle North in the provinces. Together, these four new additions to the already vast library of books on the North provide a powerful set of indices on where North is, what it has meant and continues to mean to all Canadians, and how it has been represented over several centuries, but especially during the past 160 years, from the final Franklin expedition to the creation of Nunavut. Gamblers and Dreamers is a story of the Klondike based on the lives and adventures of actual people rather than on the mythology that has grown up around the Gold Rush from the time of Robert Service. True North, a volume in the Illustrated History of Canada series, also tells the history of the Yukon and Northwest Territories from the perspective of northerners’ lived experience. Un/Covering the North traces the history of media coverage of the various norths by southern newspapers and the CBC and by northern, locally operated media and exposes the failures of southern reporting, while describing the successful activities of northerners when they speak for themselves. Finally, Across the Top of the World focuses on the high Arctic and the fabled story of exploration in search of the Northwest Passage that cost so many lives and continues to haunt, tantalize, and seduce readers, artists, and scientists today. If these studies have one thing in common it is not so much the North, for the norths that emerge from these pages differ dramatically from each other. What they share is a pride in and a passion for the particularities, peoples, and places that we can all recognize as northern. Moreover, they are all carefully, usefully, and, in True North and Across the Top of the World, beautifully illustrated.
Charlene Porsild’s purpose is to dispel the myths that have grown up around the Klondike during the last century, so her book, published in 1998 during the Gold Rush centenary, is a timely reassessment of the facts. Through the marshalling of data and statistics, and with the aid of good archival photographs, Porsild argues thai the Gold Rush and Dawson City were not mostly American. She maintains that the actual population was highly mixed, both in ethnicity and nationality, and that a significant number of Canadians, including French Canadians, were active in the Klondike. She insists that the Klondike was not a wild frontier of booze, gunfights, and ladies known as Lou, but a territory quickly and effectively regularized and regulated by the law, the banks, and the church. Instead of a society that was carelessly egalitarian, Dawson City, and the Klondike more generally, were strictly classed, very racist, and intensely sexist; this society, Porsild concludes, was typically Victorian. But the myth that seems most difficult to dismantle, is the notion that women were not part of the Klondike unless they were prostitutes. Porsild argues (and she is not the first to do so) that women, notably First Nations women, were always there, and that families were a part of Dawson life from the beginning. Moreover, there were few exotic dancing girls, and the prostitutes were then, as now, an underclass of working poor who led miserable lives; the people who mined the miners were lawyers and bankers. Although there is much to praise in Gamblers and Dreamers, and I applaud Porsild’s exhaustive research and judicious use of photographs, I found the book itself hard reading. Because she divides her ordinary Yukoners into working sectors, she ends up repeating herself from chapter to chapter, and the final effect is tedious. For example, no one wants to be told on page 158 that Laura Thompson Berton’s parents need not have worried about her going to the Klondike because Dawson City was a place of Victorian propriety; that was established in chapter one. This book may attract fewer readers than its material deserves because the prose itself lacks energy and imagination, qualities which were, after all, intrinsic to the Klondike.
In True North, William Morrison provides a general survey of the history of Canada north of 6oÂ°, and he is especially good on the history of the Yukon. As a volume in the Illustrated History series, this is what the book is supposed to provide, and Morrison does a good job within those parameters. I was especially pleased with his handling of cultural encounter, which he discusses with sensitivity and balance. As Porsild makes clear in her book—and as is clear from accounts of the actual discovery of gold by George Carmack—Yukon First Nations did not prosper during this encounter with Whites. If I fault Morrison in this aspect of his history, it is for reproducing Samuel Hearne’s account of the massacre of the Inuit by his Chipewyan guides. This scene of horror and "stark drama," as Morrison calls it, has too often been quoted without any contextualizing analysis of the historic relationships of Dene and Inuit, relationships which, as Robin McGrath reminds us in "Samuel Hearne and the Inuit Oral Tradition," Studies in Canadian Literature 18.2, must be located within a nexus of mutual hostility and legend.
The strengths of Morrison’s survey are his splendid illustrations and his last two chapters. The illustrations include clear maps, archival and ethnographic photographs, reproductions of some paintings, and inserts of well-produced colour plates. Almost every page has an illustration and they provide, not just an accompaniment to the narrative, but a companion text that brings various northern peoples and places alive. I was somewhat troubled by Morrison’s focus on the Yukon in his early chapters and the comparative neglect of the NWT and the eastern Arctic, but the last two chapters establish a better balance and bring both territories forward from the end of World War 2 to 1995 in a brief but fascinating overview of the challenges and potential facing this vast part of the country.
Valerie Alia’s study of the representation of northern First Nations and Inuit by the media of this country is a book that has been badly needed. For this reason alone I was pleased to see Un/Covering the North. I have long felt that southerners just don’t get it when it comes to understanding or caring about the northern half of this country, and Alia proves that the various news media have much to answer for. I, for one, was disgusted by the Globe and Mail coverage of Nunavut. In articles leading up to 1 April 1999, Canada’s self-styled national newspaper itemized the problems with Nunavut and implied that southern tax-payers would end up footing the bill; nowhere did journalists acknowledge or analyse the immense benefit that southern Canada gains from the North in culture, hydroelectricity, mining and oil extraction, tourism, and so forth. Alia has documented, in detail, the failure and ignorance of southern media in reporting northern news. She has also described the various ways in which northerners have seized control of the media to represent themselves to themselves, often in their own languages and in the face of repeated federal government cutbacks.
Alia’s findings are impressive: southern coverage is biased, limited to crises, and inaccurate; northern self-coverage is vibrant and innovative, with Indians and Inuit anything but passive receivers of southern (read American) largesse; Canada’s ANIK satellite and the CBC make us world leaders in northern communications systems; there are striking differences in success and philosophy among the different media and in their operations across the norths; and, finally, Canadians must learn about the North in order to grasp its importance for the past and future of the country and to the larger sphere of circumpolar issues. My criticisms of Alia’s book are that she resorts too often to listing names, rather than selecting and analysing events, that she provides little analysis of media as a means of communication (what characterizes southern reporting of northern news often typifies southern reporting of any news), and that she neglects a broader cultural sphere of the arts and historiography, disciplines which have contributed greatly to our understanding of ourselves and our country without over-simplifing or neglecting the North. Here is one example of what I mean: although Alia refers to Alootook Ipellie, she does not describe his art, his book Arctic Dreams and Nightmares, which has been well-received in southern Canada, or his cartoon contributions to Inuit Today. All caveats aside, however, this is an important consideration of a major aspect of modern representation of the North and a warning about the irresponsibility of the Fifth Estate in Canada.
Perhaps I am an incurable romantic, but my favorite of these books is Delgado’s Across the Top of the World. I like it in part because it is so well-written; Delgado’s prose is lively, clear, and sharp. But I also like the subject. Although I have read widely in Arctic exploration and thought much about representations of Sir John Franklin, I am always hooked by the next recitation of his story, as of other stories about men braving the high Arctic to advance science and pursue dreams. Delgado knows the temptation of this material and is in love with it himself; like me he has heard Stan Rogers singing about the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea.
But of all the treatments of Arctic exploration that I know, this is by far the most succinctly written and splendidly illustrated. The pictorial record is stunning, and Delgado and his publisher stint nothing in producing history as a coffee-table book. Moreover, Delgado knows the music, poetry, fiction, and visual art that has captured and constructed Arctic exploration for us over four centuries. He reproduces paintings, maps, archival and contemporary photographs, and drawings by the explorers themselves in a visual record of the Arctic that moves from a familiar 1577 illustration of Frobisher battling the Inuit to John Collier’s moving, imagined, portrayal of Henry Hudson set adrift with his young son after his men mutinied, to one of Owen Beattie’s forensic photographs of John Torrington from Frozen in Time, to a 1990s photograph of tourists examining ice from the safety of a dinghy. Delgado is right when he concludes that the Arctic is "one of the great landmarks of the human heart," and in this book he has reached mine by giving me the facts in elegant prose reinforced by a wealth of illustration. As I reflect on these books and on the work published about the North over the past fifteen years, I have one general conclusion, which is that any truly convincing consideration of the subject will be multi- or interdisciplinary. Historiography or geography or newsmedia studies alone will not suffice because to understand the North one must appreciate all its indices. To grasp its importance for us at the beginning of a new century, we must heed Louis-Edmond Hamelin who, geographer though he was, passionately loved the North and traced its shape in charts and metaphors by indexing the interaction of art and science, culture and nature.
- Making Space by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade by Robert S. Nelson and Margaret Olin and Urban Encounters by Helen Liggett
- (Re)collecting Urban Culture by Maia Joseph
Books reviewed: The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century by Birk Sproxton and The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto by Jonny Dovercourt, Christina Palassio, and Alana Wilcox
- Women and Religious Tradition by Maryann Tjart Jantzen
Books reviewed: The Hidden Thing by Dora Dueck, The Octave of All Souls by Robert Eady, and The Practice of Perfection by Mary Frances Coady
- Queer and Now by Stephen Guy-Bray
Books reviewed: In a Queer Country: Gay and Lesbian Studies in the Canadian Context by Terry Goldie
- Making Places Happen by Charles Dawson
Books reviewed: Landscapes of the Heart: Narratives of Nature and Self by Michael Aleksiuk and Thomas Nelson and The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest by Laurie Ricou
MLA: Grace, Sherrill. More Northern Indices. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 134 - 137)
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