How to Remember Canada

Reviewed by Margery Fee

Exhibiting Nation examines some of the ways “ethnic minorities” and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people are represented in three museums: the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM), the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM), and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The overarching frame of “multicultural nationalism” is explained as a perspective that allows for the inclusion of groups that do not fit the dominant norm, as long as this inclusion does not “challenge the unity or authority of the national state,” which allows “these groups a certain amount of sovereignty, but only up to a point.” Caitlin Gordon-Walker notes the limits of the apparently expansive and welcoming multicultural frame and then moves to a detailed analysis of particular exhibits, such as the Old Town in the RBCM and its belatedly added Chinatown. Her account of the RAM’s “cultural communities” program precedes her analysis of a travelling exhibit, “Chop Suey on the Prairies: A Reflection on Chinese Restaurants in Alberta.” She notes that chop suey, an “adamantly inauthentic dish,” was invented to please white settler-Canadian palates. These inventions disrupt any idea of a fixed, authentic culture, although she points out that no museum curator can predict how audiences will interpret any attempt to shift the notion of a monolithic and inclusive Canadianness. Gordon-Walker’s examination of the ROM connects its founding exhibits of the exotic and the strange to a present where the people whose cultures these exhibits display are living in Toronto. She concludes that these museums

produce and reproduce a hegemonic understanding of national identity and cultural difference. But they also challenge these understandings and provide opportunities for visitors to articulate their own interpretations.

Although the book is grounded in museology, students in other disciplines (history, cultural studies, Canadian studies, visual arts) would find it a useful model for a way of working through and with spaces, objects, and histories that is revealing, flexible, and undogmatic.

Commemorating Canada contributes to the series Themes in Canadian History, which aims at undergraduate readers by filling the gap between specialist monographs and textbooks. Cecilia Morgan pays careful attention to the ways particular communities have fronted their versions of history, from Roman Catholic francophones in Quebec, to First Nations, to African Canadians. She is also attentive to gender roles. I found the book informative, but Morgan appears to have been constrained by the series guidelines to omit much analysis, not to mention direct quotations, specific examples, close readings, and images, which makes for rather dull reading. (I agree with Alice: “what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”) I have read articles by Morgan that are far more interesting; the press and the series editor should reconsider the assumption that dull surveys will help undergraduates understand history.

Landscapes and Landmarks of Canada also deals with the intersection between memory and national identity construction. How are landscapes turned into landmarks? The collection discusses how a unifying narrative about Canada has been constructed in relation to “wilderness” and northern landscapes. Articles on specific people and their texts (Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Gabrielle Roy, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) connect to those about particular places (the “Highway of Heroes,” Greater Sudbury, wilderness landmarks in 1970s Quebec, Grosse Île) and particular forms of celebration (Irish traditional music, the contemporary powwow in eastern Canada). All these are assessed in relation to a homogenizing and reductionist narrative of the nation. Édith-Anne Pageot examines how LGBT and Two-Spirit artists have queered the dominant heteropatriarchal notion of landscape where heroic men take charge. Rachel Killick looks at how “the myth of an endless northern wilderness” has obscured mining and logging companies’ destruction of the northern landscape and their neglect of workers’ health and safety. She makes her point in an analysis of two documentaries about northern Quebec by singer-songwriter Richard Desjardins and Robert Monderie. Finally, Shauna Wilton examines how images of the land were deployed in fifty-nine television advertisements during the 2011 federal
election. Not every reader will find every article salient, but I was inspired to cite or recommend several; others definitely added to my understanding of a wide range of memory sites. My only complaint is the book’s retina-detaching tiny font.

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