blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Stereotypes of Canada

What impressions and prejudices have people had in the past, as regards Canada? What are our own fixed ideas about this country, and should they be questioned? This was the theme of a year-long exhibition held at the National Library as part of the Canada's 150th anniversary: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? which I only got to see during its last few days. It proved to be thought-provoking, worth visiting, and worth mentioning in my blog.

Jacques Cartier was the first to use the word Canada to designate the territory he discovered on the shores of the St-Lawrence River. The name comes from the Huron-Iroquois word kanata, i.e. village, incorrectly interpreted as the native word for their surrounding landscape and of the (St. Lawrence) river itself; Canadiens was Cartier's name for the Iroquois people he had met. Thereafter, Canada became the name for the French colony on the shores of the St. Lawrence, French colonists being known as Canadiens until the mid-nineteenth century, when the name, anglicised to Canadians, started to refer to the loyalist colonies on the Great Lakes as well, later to all of the British North Americans.

Samuel de Champlain, the early 17th century French explorer, saw Canada's potential, his maps reinforcing the "daydreams" of the court of King Henri IV and then of Louis XIII, whose chief minister was Cardinal Richelieu. A surprising number of official maps and their surrounding illustrations (such as Champlain's maps of New France, published in a book, Les Voyages, in 1613) depict wishful thinking, rather than actual facts.

In the 18th century, France and Britain fought over the possession of these territories. Voltaire, perhaps representing the scorn or misgivings of the French intelligentsia, clearly doubted whether this struggle was worthwhile:
J'aime beaucoup mieux la "paix" que le Canada, et je crois que la France peut etre heureuse sans Quebec. (1762)
(I saw this in Voltaire's original letter, on display at this exhibition.)

Later, in the 19th century, Krieghoff's paintings: frozen river, red sleigh, settlers' log cabin--reinforced the way in which Europeans envisioned this part of the world. The canoe and the beaver became defining symbols. Champlain reappears in 19th century paintings / sculptures as the conqueror, with Canada (often a female figure) as his conquest; other artwork depicts Canada as a wilderness in need of taming, where hunting is a metaphor for colonisation. Paul Kane's pictures of native settlements reflected the period’s idealising style.

Also displayed at our National Library was Catharine Parr Traill's journal of 1837. She lived to the age of 97, having spent most of her adult life in Upper Canada, as it was then known (Ontario), and is well known for her writings. Her sister, younger by less than 2 years, Susanna Moodie, emigrated here likewise after her marriage, living next door to Catherine, and did delicate paintings of Canadian flowers to mitigate her cabin fever while "roughing it in the bush" during the cold seasons; she referred to Canada's woodland as "the prison house".

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According to the curator's notes, the Dominion of Canada's first Parliament buildings (erected in the 1850s) were a tour de force of Gothic revival. This was the architectural style of British parliamentary democracy and colonialism. The translation of the National Anthem in 1912 demonstrates the 20th century utopia that Canada was meant to be, despite the lines about felling the forest domes with steadfast hand, which environmentalists of today would frown upon.

Transatlantic settlers were encouraged. The front cover of a “Canada West” immigration atlas published in 1923 by the Ministry of Immigration and Colonization (sic) shows romantically golden curtains of grain and a British, idealised, inaccurate vision of Canada in the background, based on a faith in agriculture, trade and (not so romantic) industry.

The Mounties, needless to say, became the world's heroes, throughout the 20th century and beyond.

Canada’s first peacekeeping mission, encouraged by the Minister of External Affairs, Lester Pearson, was in response to the Suez Crisis. Because Great Britain was deeply involved, critics saw Canada’s role as a betrayal of the “mother country”.

How is Canada seen in the present day? What does Canada stand for, nowadays? Peacekeeping is still one of those things. And according to the blurb at the exhibition "many Canadians" would also mention the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, multiculturalism, diversity, Canada's official bilingualism. In this exhibition I found multiple references to contributions to Canada by first nations people. Who Do We Think We Are? was of course created under the supervision of our present government and could be seen as modern propaganda. We are probably still creating and promulgating stereotypes.

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