Stories and Territories

  • Joan Sangster (Author)
    The Iconic North: Cultural Constructions of Aboriginal Life in Postwar Canada. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Historian Joan Sangster’s The Iconic North examines the complex interconnection between southern representations of the North and Canada’s postwar nation-building project. The book’s central claim is that these southern representations have drawn from manifold colonial influences and created “imaginary spaces” within which audiences could fashion a positive view of cultural and economic progress. Within these spaces, non-Indigenous audiences have been compelled to imagine a vision of authentic indigeneity constructed out of the familiar themes of risk, bravery, hard work, and development. This vision has allowed Canada’s nation-building project to validate capitalist excursions into the North because it has contributed to the notion of northern Indigenous peoples as a nostalgic form of the colonial settler. The Iconic North also adds the nuances of gender relations to its critique of nation-building, considering the ways in which Canada has been storied by the narratives of non-Indigenous women who have written about their encounters with northern Indigenous women, and by narratives that equate masculinity with northern heroism. What unites these assorted representations is that they depict a colonial push to territorialize an open frontier (namely the eastern Arctic and what is now Nunavut, Inuvialuit, Nunatsiavut, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories).

Sangster identifies her methodology as “realist” and “materialist,” and, within this understanding, textual representations are inseparable from material life. For Sangster, representations (images and stories) are necessarily an organic part of settler colonialism’s ongoing struggle for territory. In following the intertwining threads of territorialization and representations, Sangster puts symbols, ideologies, and lived realities into a relational conversation. Sangster cites Sherrill Grace’s work as an influence, and indeed both Grace’s Canada and the Idea of North and Sangster’s book claim that the North is a symbol that contributes to Canada’s national identity. However, Grace makes a firm ontological divide between representations and lived reality, and Sangster goes beyond this strict division. For Grace, symbols are the tools we use to imaginatively access the real world. For Sangster, symbols are a dynamic part of power relations. Sangster’s materialist methodology makes a vital adjustment to Grace’s approach because it acknowledges the porous interrelations between representations and lived experience.

The southern representations that comprise Sangster’s study span three decades, and she tends to shift her own terminology in accordance with the dated expressions of these texts. For example, her analysis of the Hudson’s Bay Company magazine, The Beaver, reads,

Much like American inter-war intellectuals and avant-garde artists who appropriated aspects of Indigenous cultures, The Beaver attempted to create a Canadian national identity by celebrating its links to First Nations history and culture. Yet the magazine also reflected a cultural hierarchy that, by recoding the primitive, strange, and alien behavior of the Eskimo, cast white Euro-Canadian modernity as superior and inevitable.

Here, the term “First Nations” joins with Sangster’s use of the word “Eskimo,” leaving a sense that the two terms are interchangeable. However, Inuit are descendants of the Thule who arrived in the Arctic perhaps as late as the thirteenth or fourteenth century, whereas the Arctic’s First Nations were actually the Tuniit. Sangster says that at times she has chosen to use era-specific designations “to replicate the true flavour of the discourse and sensibility of the time.” These shifting designations add a resonating connotative layer to Sangster’s analysis, but they also risk dislocating or conflating Indigenous identities.

The conclusion of The Iconic North briefly addresses Inuit art and narrative, with readings of Paulette Anerodluk’s photography, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk’s fiction, and Mini Aodla Freeman’s nonfiction. Sangster says that she has included the work of these women in order to avoid “the impression that Indigenous peoples were a tabula rasa,” and she describes their work as “‘looking back’ at non-Indigenous Canada.” Of Aodla Freeman’s Life Among the Qallunaat, Sangster writes, “The book brilliantly makes the South and non-Indigenous life ‘strange,’ reversing the usual exoticization and othering of the Inuit.” Sangster cites the 1978 edition, which is now well known for its heavy-handed editorial interventions, particularly publisher Mel Hurtig’s choice to create a kind of reverse ethnography by focusing on Aodla Freeman’s experiences in the South. Based on the 1978 edition, Sangster perceives this memoir as a kind of looking back. However, the 2015 scholarly edition of the memoir restores the sections that were cut, and the result is a book that is focused on Aodla Freeman’s home (James Bay, Nunavik).

Sangster’s reading of Life Among the Qallunaat leads me to conclude that much like the construction of a reverse gaze in the 1978 edition of Aodla Freeman’s memoir, the ascription of “looking back” is an externally imposed construct. Because of the many forces that feed into our perceptions, such imposed constructs are not always easily recognizable. But Sangster’s methodology of dynamic and organically integrated systems of representation and power relations will help us to interrogate the forces that narrate our perceptions and actions.



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