Unsettling “Belonging”

Reviewed by Jeff Fedoruk

Upon receiving an invitation to be an onboard writer on a Russian icebreaking vessel travelling through the Northwest Passage, Kathleen Winter’s first thought is towards the Passage’s storied colonial history:

I thought of Franklin’s bones, of the sails of British explorers in the colonial age, of a vast tundra only Inuit and the likes of Franklin and Amundsen and a few scientists had ever had the privilege of navigating. . . . I thought of my own British childhood, steeped in stories of sea travel. I thought of Edward Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. I thought of Queen Victoria and Jane Franklin, and of the longing and romance with which my father had decided to immigrate to Canada. I thought of all the books I’d read on polar exploration, on white men’s and white women’s attempts to travel the Canadian Far North.

And while the journey she subsequently takes unsettles this to an extent—through the teachings of Inuk guide Bernadette Dean and Greenlandic-Canadian guide Aaju Peter, as well as from the land itself—Winter ultimately struggles to shake the colonial roots from which she was raised. Boundless is nevertheless a rewarding rumination on the challenges that settler-Canadian writers and readers face in the current cultural moment of decolonization in Canada.

Decolonization is not so much a theme as an undercurrent in Winter’s writing. She maintains a narrative open-mindedness throughout her travels, allowing the voices of the various guides and experts to speak for the places and people that she is encountering. From Aaju Peter, she learns the Indigenous names of animals, plants, and rock formations, along with the pedagogical desire for resurgent Indigenous Knowledge in Nunavut. From Bernadette Dean, she learns of Inuk cultural traditions and of colonial appropriations of these cultures that manifest in museums across North America. The most enduring lessons, however, seem to come from the land itself—the synthesis of Winter’s various experiences gestures towards land-based epistemologies. After various historical, geological, and cultural tours, and while on the deck of the vessel, Winter begins to feel that “[t]he land is a body, and . . . it has something like speech,” acknowledging the “elemental force” that “had begun to exert and influence.” That Winter’s narrative ends with a trip to Ottawa to support Chief Theresa Spence’s 2012 hunger strike in protest of Northern Indigenous living conditions is certainly a testament to the influence of Indigenous Knowledge. But while she concludes that “[a]ll land is sacred,” she still cannot shake the colonial impulse with which she began her voyage. For all the decolonization she undergoes, she remains fixated on retracing the storylines of John Franklin’s failed Northwest Passage expedition, and is positively bubbly when she learns that his logbook was being kept in one of the settlements that she passes through, Goja Haven. Her uncritical stance on the “national and international headlines” that follow the logbook’s reveal is at odds with her prior realization that “[n]o matter how well-meaning the passengers, could we claim to stand apart from questions of invasion, privilege, and trespass?” Winter’s narrative retains its pedagogical potential if such ambivalence is read critically. Otherwise, Boundless comes across simply as an addendum to the colonial exploits that Winter initially cites, or as a memoir featuring the land as an agent of self-discovery.

Whereas Boundless often reflects back on Winter’s British childhood and Newfoundland youth, Stan Dragland’s volume of essays in Strangers and Others continues to dwell in the colonial and literary present of Newfoundland, within a familiar Canadian literary context. Here, Dragland provides detailed readings of standout works in contemporary Newfoundland literature that speak to what he considers to be a lack of national attention towards these texts. This volume features a broad literature review in its first chapter, followed by closer readings of Paul Bowdring’s novel The Night Season, poet Agnes Walsh’s In the Country of My Heart, Wayne Johnston’s historical novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, visual artist Vicki Tansey’s St. John’s installation House of Clouds and Other Ephemerals, and Lisa Moore’s February. The content of these works differs greatly, but as Dragland asserts in his introduction, all concern an “insider/outsider tension that is not felt only by the resident stranger”—indeed, part of the inspiration for Dragland to write these essays in the first place is to build on the literary impulse he felt when moving from Southern Ontario to Newfoundland. In studying local literatures as an “outsider,” he has found a locus of cultural expression unique from the rest of the country.

Most compellingly, Strangers and Others offers a formulation of Canadian literary identity that is not quite local, nor post-national, nor regional. As the last “province” to join Confederation, Newfoundland has developed its literary tradition somewhat independently from the canonical thrust of the nation’s more central forces. Dragland is the first to admit that he comes from the school of literary studies in Canada that strove to formulate a definitive Canadian cultural identity in the 1970s, and in relocating to Newfoundland, he feels “an impetus for asking the old questions with a new enthusiasm.” Even in this “new unsettled context,” however, his perspective remains primarily white and primarily settled. In his reading of Johnston’s novel, for example, Dragland draws attention to the term colony as it appears in the novel’s title, but the idea of “colony” throughout Strangers and Others appears solely with regard to Newfoundland as a colony of Canada. This is problematic because Canada is itself a colony; such colonial trappings overwrite the cultural production of the Mi’kmaq and other peoples who are indigenous to the territory now known as Newfoundland (Dragland’s references to Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear fall outside of this collection’s primary focus). It is therefore a risk for settler writers to take up the question of belonging in Canada today without fully acknowledging Indigenous and diasporic relationships to the land—especially when national and international movements such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter are reframing Indigenous-settler and diasporic relations on multiple scales simultaneously.

This review “Unsettling “Belonging”” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 239-241.

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