Reading Race in Space

  • Andrew Baldwin (Editor), Aud Kobayashi (Editor) and Laura Cameron (Editor)
    Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Alana Fletcher

Rethinking the Great White North aims to press theoretical advances in debates about race and racism into dialogue with a concurrent rethinking of nature now under way across the social sciences. The editors’ ascription to the idea of race as a social construct that is, despite its construction, necessary to the understanding of social relations, dovetails with their hold on the ecocritical redefinition of nature as a social construct. Neither of these ideas is new—indeed, the editors refer to W.B. DuBois’s 1935 polemic, Black Reconstruction, to illustrate how whiteness is historically constructed as privileged, while the recent rethinking of nature as socially constructed has been foregrounded by ecocritical approaches since the 1990s in the work of critics such as William Cronon in The Trouble with Wilderness and Uncommon Ground (both 1996). The investigation of the constructedness of both nature and race is applied in the service of deflating what the editors ostensibly present as a still-reigning belief in Canadian racial tolerance and multiculturalism. In light of the proliferation of important destabilizations of Canadian multiculturalism since the 1990s (in the work of Sunera Thobani, Wendy Brown, Neil Bissoondath, Himani Bannerji, Smaro Kamboureli, Eva Mackey, and Daniel Coleman, among others) the editors’ prevarication that to claim, as they do, that Canada is thoroughly racialized and marked by racist ideology. . . may come as a bold, even shocking, statement seems to be over-zealous advertising.

The originality of this edited collection, then, lies in its contributors’ collective demonstration of the ways in which social constructions of the North, or of nature and wilderness more generally, have been enlisted to buttress a hegemonic white national identity in Canada. This being the case, the editors’ omission in their contextualization of Rethinking of both Sherrill Grace’s Canada and the Idea of the North (2001) and Terry Goldie’s much earlier Fear and Temptation (1989) is glaring. Grace’s text overlaps in many ways with the current volume, especially in its critique of the representation of the North by southerners and its overarching concept that the idea of the North is central to Canadian identity. Goldie’s seminal work contains analysis of the semiotic roles played by images of the wilderness and the North in Canadian indigenization narratives, and close readings of numerous Canadian texts that employ the strategy of aligning Indigenous persons with nature to confine them to the past (a strategy noted by a number of contributors to Rethinking).

Contributions which focus most closely on the construction of nature as white are Catriona Sandilands’s investigation of the expulsion of Acadians from the area which became Cape Breton Highlands Park; Jocelyn Thorpe’s exploration of turn of the century travel writing about Temagami, Ontario, as a wilderness getaway; and Luis Aguiar and Tina Marten’s overview of racist labour recruitment policies in Kelowna. These articles investigate the production of tourist and upper-class city spaces in Canada as white, but their discussions do not, in themselves, make a cogent statement about Canadian identity. It is in relation to other contributions that focus on the economic influences, narrative interpretations, and colonial legacies which have informed Canadian identity that the whitening of particular spaces that these essays deconstruct becomes legible as a pattern in which the production of natural space supports a white Canadian identity.

Economic analyses of race and space are articulated most noticeably within the essays dealing with urban space. In Aguiar and Marten’s above-mentioned critique, the racism they uncover in Kelowna is entwined with classism. Phillip Mackintosh’s contribution, which investigates the building of parks and playgrounds in working class, immigrant neighbourhoods of Toronto in the 1910s, similarly draws attention to the economic structures influencing the impulse to naturally beautify overcrowded areas. Often, however, this class critique is not conscious enough. Mackintosh, for instance, tends to substitute immigrant for poor, crowded, or working class indiscriminately and without sufficient support. The economic disparity between racial minorities in Canada is examined most closely by Claire Major and Roger Keil, in a testimony-based examination of how and why visible minorities in Toronto in 2003 became not only the perceived carriers of SARS, but also those most at most risk of contracting the illness, due to the disproportionate numbers of minorities employed in of service work positions.

While nearly all of the contributions include some discussion of narrative representation, the most explicit discursive destabilization comes in the work of Richard Milligan and Tyler McCreary as they explore the contribution of Samuel Hearne’s exploration narrative to the discourse of white innocence. Interestingly, this is proceeded by Emilie Cameron’s actor-network theory-influenced following of copper through both Kugluktukmiut and white stories in Kugluktuk (Coppermine), which, she argues, produces a more specific understanding of the region, its people, and its resources than do discursive analyses. This divergence of methodologies is significant, as it reveals a disciplinary divide. While constructions of race, nature, and identity are primarily understood as discursive in disciplines such as literary studies (where scholars place particular readings within larger networks of meaning), other disciplines such as geography caution against scaling up from the specific to the general, lauding approaches like Cameron’s which examine the particular materials in which stories are carried, so as to reorder these stories without losing particularity by relegating the particular to a facet of discourse.

A thread picked up in many of the articles in this collection is that of the reversals or denials of whiteness: Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks’s notion of whiteness as a master signifier of race that does not participate in the signifying system of racial difference is consistently invoked, as is Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the anti-conquest, the imperial narrative which oppresses even as it asserts innocence. The collection’s two articles on land claim settlements (both focusing on claims in British Columbia) triangulate land and national identity with these reversals. Brian Egan argues that the official reconciliation project undertaken in BC fails to dismantle the assumptions of racial rule upon which first relations between European colonials and Indigenous persons in BC were established. The contribution by Jessica Dempsey, Kevin Gould, and Juanita Sandberg follows on Egan’s outline of the colonial rational for dispossessing Indigenous peoples of lands not used effectively or owned privately to argue that a recent series of papers by Tom Flanagan and Christopher Alcantara calling for the expansion of private property on reserves is a neo-liberal argument rendered acceptable through its negation of the history of colonial dispossession. Overall, this collection is a useful resource for scholars investigating the intersections of space and whiteness in Canada.

This review “Reading Race in Space” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 146-48.

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