Is Canada south?

In 1964, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould took the Muskeg Express, a train that travels north more than 1,000 kilometres from Winnipeg to Churchill, in the upper reaches of Manitoba. At breakfast, he struck up a conversation with a surveyor Wally McLean and was impressed to learn about his ‘craft’ which was ‘to find in the most minute measurement, a suggestion of the infinite’.

Gould subsequently invited Wally to be the narrator for a radio documentary called the Idea of North. The one hour program included five voices in a contrapuntal structure that interwove varying strains of romanticism, cynicism and reflection. The nurse Marianne Schroeder describes her initial fears about the monotony of the North and how she began to identify with its innocent beauty. Frank Vallee criticises attempts at ‘northmanship’ where one seeks to outdo the other in experiences of remoteness.

Gould was notorious for eschewing the concert hall and retiring to the privacy of the recording studio. Accordingly, what interested Gould in the North was the experience of solitude. He identified with austere Nordic composers such as Sibelius, Bach, and Schoenberg.

Out of this isolation emerges a nation. Fellow Canadian composer R. Murrary Schafer stated that ‘All the energy of the world radiates from the Magnetic North Pole.’ One of the prophets of Canada’s north was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Arctic explorer of Icelandic descent. In 1922 he wrote ‘There is no northern boundary beyond which productive enterprise cannot go until North meets North on the opposite shore of the Arctic Ocean.’ This North is Canada’s frontier.

For Jim Lotz, Canada is founded on those parts of the North American continent that few others wanted. The North thus becomes a secret appreciated only by Canadians. Kevin McMahon describes the Arctic as Canada’s own mythological territory, defining nationhood in the same way that the Wild West defined the USA and the open seas defined England.

There have been attempts to broaden this idea of North beyond Canada. In Peter Davidson’s Idea of North, he notes the visit to St Petersburg in 2003 by the Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. She proposed to the Russians a ‘new humanism of the North’ shared to reverse the southern perspective that sees the far North only as a region to be exploited for its natural resources.

Canadian identity is grounded in the North. In her Canada and the Idea of North, Sherrill Grace quotes Henry Beissel’s Cantos North (1982) that the north ‘discovered us / fell upon our vanity / with tomahawks of ice’. Grace describes the Canadian idea of North as a habitus— a deep-seated phenomenological orientation that informs the Canadian sense of self.

It’s an interesting challenge with which to begin a journey to the idea of South. To what extent might the idea of South that we are exploring here be a version of the Canadian idea of North? Both might entail concern for a region that needs protecting from the rest of the world. A sense of inferiority becomes a noble mission.

And on the other hand, is Canada south? If you take colonisation as the common element linking countries of the South, then Canada shares much in common with settler nations like Australia and South Africa. A recent book by Joan Fairweather identifies the common cause shared between Canada and South Africa in the land claims of their Indigenous peoples.

So why couldn’t Canada be South? This question brings into relief the physical sense of South, evident in the weather, the skies and the nature. It points to a problem that an idea of South must resolve: how to reconcile the historical trajectory of the South with its physical reality. Canada puts that question on our agenda.

It also raises the possibility that the division between North and South may not be binary. If South is defined in opposition to a dominant North, then North eventually becomes South when its power wanes with distance in whatever direction. This is the idea of South as periphery. And if for Europeans the South is the realm of sunshine, then in countries like Australia, the northern state of Queensland is more south than Victoria below it.

These complexities prompt a dynamic concept of space. But how elastic can an idea of South be before it loses its meaning? Where does South end? What is the limit of South?


Listen to the start of Glenn Gould’s Idea of North

  • Peter Davidson The Idea of North London: Reaktion, 2005
  • Joan G. Fairweather A Common Hunger: Land Rights In Canada And South Africa Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006
  • Sherrill Grace Canada and the Idea of North McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 2002
  • Jim Lotz Northern Realities: The Future of Northern Development in Canada Toronto: New Press, 1970

3 thoughts on “Is Canada south?”

  1. I have a longstanding argument with Gord Peteran, conceptualist/furnituralist of Toronto, about whether Canada is south from the US; this is because when he used to come visit me in Milwaukee he had to fly slightly north to do so.

    Now I live in London which is well north of Milwaukee I think, but much warmer.

    Glenn Adamson

  2. Talking off and on to the artist Mathew Nuqingaq (jeweller, sculptor, drummer)I am always struck by the fact he refers to where I live as ‘down south’. He lives in Iqaluit.
    In Canada, you are always a northerner, sometimes an easterner or westerner but never a southerner – until you talk to an Inuit.

    Canadians identify with the idea of “north” but we predominately huddle on the southern borders of our country.

    “A sense of inferiority becomes a noble mission” – aptly describes a certain Canadian psyche……..we may indeed be south.

  3. Canada is South?! Well, okay, I’ll take the bait and bite. If, on this sphere hurtling through Space, you start a journey northwards, at some point you will be traveling southwards. I acknowledge that, if you start in one location on the planet and circumnavigate the globe you will end up back where you started, having changed direction twice. This would seem a pretty straightforward parlor game of Cartesian slight-of-hand. To carry the previous fishing metaphor a step further, I think that you have ‘opened a can of worms’. What interests me is, if you set off on a round-the-world journey, would you be the same person when you returned as when you departed. As a teenager, I was sent off to summer camp in Ontario, Alberta or British Columbia with the positive reinforcement, “If you don’t go away, you can’t come home.” And I did return, always somewhat changed by the experiences acquired. When my wife, Trudy Golley, returned from two uninterrupted years pursuing Graduate Studies at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, the Canada Customs officer at the Vancouver airport scanned her passport and, handing it back to her, said, “You’ve been away for a while! Welcome home!” For me, Canada is not a fixed Cartesian point, it is a work in progress, an adventure—it is a journey.

    When, in the summer of 1534, the French adventurer Jacques Cartier landed on the shore of the Bay of Gaspé, the Iroquoian Chief, Donnaconna and the First Nations inhabitants of the New World greeted him with great conviviality. Asking where he had arrived at, Cartier, the explorer, misunderstood Donnaconna’s offer of hospitality, should he and his men wish to return to “the Village”—Kanata, as the place where he had arrived. That the Iroquoian word for village came to be used as the name of our country would seem appropriate to me. At the outset, it established that the “New World” was already the home—with all the aspirations and intrigues that the word entails—of many cultured peoples.

    Perhaps it was to the admonishment, ‘Go West Young Man!’ that my ancestors left Europe to pursue better opportunities in Rupert’s Land. Employing the idea of ‘six degrees of separation’, and usually closer than six, one is never far removed from those first Europeans who relocated to Canada permanently. My Great Grandmother’s own transformational journey provided a second-hand memory that has come to me across the generations. She remembered when, as a little girl, her family crossed the Prairie by Red River Cart from their disembarkation point on the Red River at Morris, Manitoba to reach their homestead at Miami (pronounced My-am-Muh, I was corrected by my Grandmother) some fifty miles distant. The massive wooden wheels ran red, as though dripping with blood, due to the volume of highbush cranberries being crushed under them—a startling image for the young immigrant. My own travels have been primarily East-West. First to Toronto, Ontario to attend Sheridan College’s School of Craft and Design, established as the national craft school on the occasion of Canada’s centenary in 1967, then on to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, which was founded as the Victorian School of Art by Anna Leonowens (of The King and I fame) on her departure from Siam. Then back to Winnipeg, Manitoba; then to Nelson, British Columbia; then to Red Deer, Alberta. It might be said that the history of discovery and adventure, from the Fur Trade right through to today’s migration of job seekers, runs East-West: Colonialism runs North-South, or indeed, South-North.

    Not unlike Marcel Duchamp’s series of Standard Stoppages— Canada is a long, thin line. I was born in 1961, the year that the Trans-Canada Highway, at 7,821 km (4,860 miles) the third longest road in the world, was opened. In a country where approximately 90% of the population lives within 160 km of this connecting device, it can be said, along with the trans-Canada railway system initiated by our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. McDonald, to be the main artery of the country. That both of these lay within 160 km of our border with the U.S.A.—the longest undefended border in the world—might lead one to think that, culturally, we were more American than anything else. When asked what it meant to be Canadian, actor Michael J. Fox stated, “To be as Canadian as possible, given the circumstances.” For us hegemonic dominance derives from the south—the mouse sleeps with the elephant, wary not to get crushed should the elephant decide to roll over. I do not believe, however, that this leads to a sense of inferiority. While mindful of our stewardship of the region, it is an integrated pluralism that we celebrate—but not without the inherent challenges. The other challenge is the Anglophone/Francophone question. Imagine if you will a country divided (but not split) by language, religion and common law.

    Canada is South?!! Penned by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908, and quoting from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s description of Canada, the English words of our national anthem assure us that we are, indeed, “The True North…” In The True North, survival, if not Shakespeare’s ‘misery’, “… acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” While walking to my high street office/jewellery studio on ‘banker’s row’ a number of years ago, I was captured and held transfixed by the gaze of an Aboriginal (Cree) Elder. Looking me in the eyes, he greeted me with a gait arresting “Hello!” In that single moment on the urban streets of Winnipeg, I think that I came to understand something of the social nature of The True North. That, on the path, you greet the ‘other’ as an ally, because, should the weather turn vicious and a blizzard start to blow, you may have to backtrack and remain holed up together indefinitely. Is it not through making the strange familiar that ‘otherness’ is overcome and personal growth is achieved?

    Canada’s legacy on the world stage as a peacekeeper and mediator is held, in part, in the stewardship of the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier. While the current action in Afghanistan sits uneasily with many Canadians, more so as the result of how the Canadian military got drawn there than in the meeting of the needs of the Afghan people, I believe that, if anyone has the authority to speak on behalf of the soldiers in the field regarding the job they believe they are engaged with, it is this supremely competent Canadian. I decided to call him personally. Not just because that’s what we do as Canadians, but because his telephone number is published, …and I can.

    Some have crafted their national psyche from a confrontation with the ‘other’. Binary thinking, as exemplified by North vs. South, Black vs. White or Us vs. Them, only seems to lead to more grief. Perhaps a useful academic tool to establish your current orientation, but I prefer the words of I believe that Canada’s stems from a confrontation with the environment. Where else, than in the coldest country in the world, whose First Nations (Inuit) culture has thirty-one names for snow, could a notion such as the Wind Chill Factor be worn like a badge of honour? The First Nations (Pukatawagon) people of northwestern Manitoba employ the ‘spit test’ to gauge the outside temperature. If spit reaches the ground and freezes within a second, it is minus 40° Celsius. If it freezes before it hits the ground, it’s -80°. Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba—affectionately known as Winter Peg—with, legendarily, the coldest urban street corner in the world (but the acknowledged coldest midwinter temperatures for cities over 500,000), it was not uncommon to hear the weatherman say, ‘It’s going up to a daytime high of minus 30° Celsius, but with the Wind Chill it will feel more like minus 40°. Exposed flesh will freeze in minutes, so you better bundle up!’ It’s not just bad… it’s better than bad! Written in 1964 by Gilles Vigneault, Mon Pays (My Country) is the Québécoise song whose opening phrase, ‘Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver’ (‘My country is not a country, it’s winter’), speaks of Canada’s close relationship with wind, cold, snow and ice—and the solitude and cultural isolation that Winter can bring—while, at the same time, remaining true to a long established sense of hospitality. Vigneault’s song concludes with his personal offering, ‘It is for you that I want to possess my winters.’ We maintain an uneasy peace however. Last winter, forty-four people died on Edmonton’s city streets alone. Only last week, here in Red Deer, twenty-seven-year-old Tarik Abdenebaoui, a newly arrived Moroccan citizen who was in Canada on a work visa, froze to death when, dressed in blue jeans, shoes and a light winter jacket, he became disoriented in the blowing snow during his walk home in -50° weather. But this only addresses our confrontation with winter. There are also those sublime encounters with, from west to east, The Ocean, The Forest, The Rocky Mountains, The Prairies, The Canadian (or Boreal) Shield, The Great Lakes (especially, given the number of shipwrecks, Lake Superior), The Ocean (again), and, to the north, The Tundra.

    I would agree with Sherrill Grace’s description of Habitus as “a deep-seated phenomenological orientation that informs the Canadian sense of self.” But, this is an orientation more than a location. In the indomitable words of Yogi Berra, “No matter where you go, there you are!” With a population density similar to that of Australia, one major difference that I can see is that of ‘penetration’. My impression is that Australia is primarily comprised of ocean-facing urban centers dotted around the coastal perimeter like the rim of a wheel. By the time you end up on the Prairies (just east of Winnipeg), at the longitudinal centre of the continent, you know that there is not even the remotest chance that the boats will be coming back for you. Then there is the obvious difference between the Red Heart of Australia and the lush green ‘underbelly’ of Canada. Imaginations are kindled and led forward by such external features as the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis (from Boreas, god of the North Wind in Greek mythology). For me, it is Canadian artist Tom Thompson’s painting, Northern River (1914-15), that both sums up and transcends personal experiences of the cool and pungent mossy shade of the Boreal Forest on a hot summer afternoon, the buzz of insects, the slap of an industrious beaver’s tail on water, and the haunting, far off call of a loon. I’m sure that French philosopher Gaston Bachelard would have formulated a term for this kind of reverie—La Tourbe, perhaps.

    From the French lyrics to our national anthem, written twenty-six years before the English version, comes the sentiment, ‘Ton histoire est une épopée des plus brillants exploits.’—‘Thy history is an epic of the most brilliant exploits’. As much as Canada is represented to itself and to the world through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s weekly Hockey Night in Canada, the mytho-poetic rendering of Roch Carrier’s Le chandail de hockey—‘The Hockey Sweater’, or a Saturday morning breakfast of bacon and pancakes with maple syrup, the products of our efforts are also seen in Space (I won’t mention the Avro Arrow) as with the Space Shuttle’s Canadarm, and in the deepest Oceans as with Dr. Phil Nuytten’s revolutionary Newtsuit. But again, Canada is a work in progress—an experiment in the development of both our ‘village’ and our identity. Perhaps the secret is held a tangible expression of our willingness to take a place alongside the ‘others’ on the path, rather than out-front. To lend a helping hand so that all might arrive. In a post-colonial and therefore post-Cartesian present, maybe it is simply enough that Canada is!

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