Shifting Narratives in the Canadian Nation

  • Donald B. Smith
    Mississauga Portraits: Ojibwe Voices from Nineteneth-Century Canada. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Bruce Erikson
    Canoe Nation: Nature, Rice, and the Making of a Canadian Icon. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Beverley Haun

These two books, one tracing Anglo-Canadian narratives about the canoe and one gathering Mississauga Ojibwe narratives about life in nineteenth-century Canada, speak in counter-point to one another. Both begin with early stories of cooperation towards a common goal, the economic advantages of the fur trade. Canoe Nation traces the racialized and gendered Anglo-Canadian mythology of the canoe that begins by honouring the First Nations for their ’gift’ of the canoe to the nation and then proceeds to silence and erase these same indigenous inhabitants from the very Canadian wilderness the canoe invites us now to explore. In contrast, the Ojibwe writers collected inMississauga Portraits protest this same Aboriginal erasure from the forests of Upper Canada as they are repeatedly removed from their lands and the promises made to them, first by the Crown and then by the new nation of Canada.

The Ojibwe belong to one of the largest linguistic groups in North America, the Algonquian, who call themselves Anishinabe, which in its plural form is Anishinabeg, meaning “Human Beings.” The book titleMississauga Portraits comes from the designation “Mississauga” applied by the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the Ojibwe people on the north shore of Lake Ontario. For over forty years Donald B. Smith has collected the written personal records and references in public documents of several Mississauga missionaries who embraced Methodism in southern Ontario in the nineteenth century. Part of the Methodist mission work with the Mississauga was to teach literacy in both Ojibwe and English for purposes of reading the Bible. A consequence of that objective is the rich written record that remains from a Mississauga point of view. The texts that inform Smith’s portraits are important to the Archive as they can be seen as the first body of Canadian Literature in English.

Smith divides his book into eight chapters, each devoted to one Ojibwe missionary: Kahkewaquonaby (Peter Jones), Nawahjegezhegwabe (Joseph Sawyer), Pahtahsega (Peter Jacobs), Maungwudaus (George Henry), Kahgegagahbowh (George Copway), Shawundais (John Sunday), Shahwahnegezhik (Henry Steinhauer and his sons Egerton and Robert), and a devout and politically active woman, Nahnebahnwequay (Catherine Sutton). Because these people were all part of an interconnected Methodist missionary network that ranged into the prairies and the United States, their lives intersected, and throughout the chapters a complex narrative unfolds that speaks their individual and shared responses to their own changing community and to the social, economic and political machinations of the colonizers at the time.

In presenting the stories of each of these historical figures, Smith largely allows their experiences to speak for themselves. But he also suggests reasons for the nineteenth-century success of Methodism taking hold amongst the Anishinabeg in what is now southern Ontario. Their population was decimated by infectious disease and alcohol abuse combined with industrialization causing destruction of their hunting and fishing grounds, especially around the rivers flowing into the northwest shore of Lake Ontario, which became polluted and overrun. In Methodism they perceived shared core values that would help them adjust to and survive in the new world they found surrounding them. In contrast to the Ojibwe who embraced Methodism, Smith emphasizes the lack of success these same missionaries had in trying to convert the more northern Ojibwe to accept this European religion. In the less colonized space of northwestern Ontario, the tightly organized and self-sufficient Ojibwe preferred to maintain their economic autonomy and established cultural values.

In spite of embracing the colonizers’ religion, farming organization, language and dress and crossing the Atlantic on multiple occasions to state their case for retention of their lands to Queen Victoria, the Ojibwe again and again end their accounts by describing the denial of their treaty lands and constrictions of their available territory until their decimated population was concentrated on a handful of reserve spaces.

The remaining wilderness, largely cleared of any First Nation presence, is central to the ideas presented in Canoe Nation. Bruce Ericson interrogates the politics of nationalism in Canada, specifically as it speaks to the role of nature and the canoe. It is a white male European canoe nation he finds constructed through Canadian history narratives that write the canoe as forging intimacy and cooperation between the indigenous population and the colonizers during its fur trade beginnings. Erickson traces this discursive canoe as it moves from a material-economic role to one that also draws in national identity. He organizes his interrogation into four distinct yet interconnected chapters. The first examines the canoe as it is taken up in texts as a colonial product both connected to the land and inseparable from it. Here Erickson finds the emergence of the canoe as a national icon that becomes fetishized and acquires discursive worth beyond its actual material value. He shows how this iconic status serves to obscure the legacy of land usurpation, the disenfranchising of First Nations, and the resulting complex relations between indigeneity and the Canadian nation state embedded within the celebration of the canoe.

Chapter two is shaped around the question (posed by this reviewer inTopia in 2002, as he acknowledges) of “why a particular object (the canoe) or activity (canoeing) moved from being seen and used as a utilitarian tool of explorers, surveyors and traders to an activity that was seen as pleasure to that specific group who adopted it for recreational use.” Erickson concentrates his answer on privileged white male leisure under late nineteenth-century capitalism. He explores state sanctioned, and regulated, fishing and hunting as canoe-based leisure activities where the canoeist was enabled by the same social Darwinism that Smith identifies as having been used to appropriate Native land. Here the virile canoeist performs as different and superior in an increasingly standardized world. Here canoeists seek a pre-modern world in (empty) wilderness to celebrate the past and connect to nature.

Erickson goes on to examine the practices of “Indian” masquerade in the wilderness through Ernest Thompson Seton’s Indian-mimicry camp programs and Grey Owl’s Indian-imposter focus on nature conservation through the lens of a falsely indigenous identity. Nature is produced as an innocent space and entering it, by canoe, a recreational cure for the modern psyche as well as a duty to the natural world, a place to develop moral regulation and manhood. Adult recreational hunting and fishing shift to saving the nation’s youth from soft city living by hardening them in the wilderness, at the same time teaching them to conserve its beauty. This discourse gets transferred onto the canoe as part of the masquerade such that these uses of the canoe in Canada especially as they relate to the politics of conservation are continually haunted by early twentieth century attempts to become Indian.

In his concluding chapter Erickson considers the contemporary production of the nation through the recreational consumption of the canoe and the emerging politics of wilderness. In this discursive space, rescuing the forest becomes a national and personal duty, recreation becomes a site of activism, and green consumerism becomes a strategic place from which to protect nature. The response Erickson offers to the current state of canoe narratives is an interventionist politics of the canoe that can interrogate the colonial encounter that has created Canada.

Canada’s relationship to the First Nations informs both Mississauga Portraits and Canoe Nation. Each traces the narrative reshaping of the First Nations from their initial discursive presentation as economic partners through to the discourse of Social Darwinism and the right to conquest that reshaped them as an inferior and doomed race in a hierarchy of Euro-defined achievement. Both of these books are important voices countering the prevailing national narratives and calling for further interrogation of the Canadian story.



This review “Shifting Narratives in the Canadian Nation” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 182-84.

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