Canada: A Land of the Greatest Superlatives EVER!

"Blondin Outdone" in Punch, or the London Charivari, October 8, 1859

“Blondin Outdone” in Punch, or the London Charivari, October 8, 1859.

For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month.  This is the my February 2011 paper from our class on Niagara Falls. [Footnotes in brackets.]

The title of this post (and the paper) comes from a map on the wall in the PhD student office (fondly referred to as “the Batcave”) at Carleton University (in Ottawa, which is the capital of Canada) that seems relevant to this months’ issue of defining ‘place:’

canada superlatives

“Canada: A Land of Superlatives” from Geomatics Canada

According to Creswell, “things have socially constructed meanings without which it is impossible to talk about them but the things themselves are there whether we construct them or not” (32-3).  This seems tantamount to inquiring, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  My scientifically-inclined partner answers, unequivocally, “No, because sound is the product of perception.  It’s what happens when your ear interprets vibrations as noise.  If no one hears it, it’s not a sound.”

Setting aside the anthropocentric assertions implicit in this claim but using an analogous grammatical structure, if “[n]amingi s one of the ways space can be given meaning and become place” (9), and place is “a way of understanding the world” (11), but you don’t name or notice or ‘socially construct’ mountains (Creswell’s example is the Tlingit, 9), are the mountains still there?  Do they have independent value, or are they “designate[d] as unimportant” (11) because naming and seeing (or “interpretation and representation” [37]) are tantamount to perceiving?  Furthermore, Creswell notes that “glacial moraines” are not social constructions.  How would Cruikshank respond to this claim (see “Do Glaciers Listen?”)?

Just as Harrison points out how renters do not fit in to “cottage culture” because of specific neighborly expectations and implicit understandings of class (83), Shields notes that the prestige formerly associated with an excursion to Niagara Falls faded as accessibility increased (124).  Similarly, if everyone gets a BA, then the designation become less prestigious, and so on through the levels of academia.  If this type of standardization is so widespread, if “[f]ast food outlets, shopping malls, airports, high street shops and hotels are all more or less the same wherever we go” (Cresswell 43), should we lament the postmodern condition of mobility, the growth of transnational corporations, the pervasive Western culture of capitalist consumption (Cresswell 45), hybridity, and alienation (Cresswell 49)?

How do we renegotiate such types of social interaction to build a “sense of place” (Cresswell 70), making them tolerable and palatable (in Urry’s sense of “consuming places”)?  Is it enough to be self-reflexive and critique what we ‘see’ (and I do not use that word lightly)?  What is our social responsibility as empowered actors, “the ones sending and receiving the faxes and the e-mail” (Cresswell 65)?

Some examples of ‘place’ include New York (Creswell), Kilburn (Massey), Baltimore (Harvey), Stoke Newington (May), Haliburton county (Harrison), Georgian Bay (Campbell), and our ‘place’ of focus, Niagara Falls (Dubinsky, Sheilds, McGreevy, NFB, PBS).  However, many of the arguments and analyses about Niagara apply to other ‘places.’  From its liminal position as a sublime, difficult-to-access tourist destination for explorers, elites, and honeymooners to the harnessing of the powerful waterfall and its overtly kitschy ambiance today (Shields), the Niagara Falls experience is mirrored by other ‘natural wonders’ as European expansion took hold in a westerly manner.

[At Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, the situation is uncannily similar; it used to take many days to access the falls at the park, it was a favorite of honeymooners, and it is now home to a dam, an eagle reserve, and Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Lodge and Resort.  Likewise, Hawai‘i used to be accessible only by water, but is now home to international surfing competitions and about seventeen billion souvenir shops.]

Niagara Falls is situated on the Canada/US border, but so is (are?) International Falls. [Mys grammatical uncertainty reflects the theoretical discussion of ‘place!’  Niagara Falls is a place (singular) of waterfalls (plural), so I’ll stick with this self-reflexive aside as an out.]  How does a discussion of Niagara Falls inform our understanding of other ‘places’ in the world around us (in Canada, the US, or elsewhere)?  Is this case study explicitly generalizable, or are these discussions limited to their main example and social context?

Shields discusses a journey (of a tourist or explorer) to the peripheral—“outside the geographic borders of civilization and the cognitive borders of reason”—as a space where separation, marginalization, and reaggregation occur (Van Gennep 122).  As Joseph Campbell in Hero With One Thousand Faces (1949) explains “[t]he standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero” as a rite of passage that includes separation, initiation, and return (23).  Is this mythical process available to contemporary travelers, or do disneyfication, urbanization, and vacation resorts (which are only available to a limited elite, an elite subdivided into categories like “First Class” and “economy” on airplanes) make this an impossibility, leaving only ‘real cottagers’ with a place to call ‘home’ (Harrison)?

While Campbell demands a deeper analysis and conceptualization of “central Canada as a region” (6), she may also seem to reinforce the center / periphery dialogue with phrases like “near North” and “far North” (7).  [One may ask “near and far from what?!” but we already know (it’s Ontario!).  The frequent “Central Canada” focus of Canadian Studies will come up in other posts.]

Cameron suggests greater inclusivity in heritage practices.  The type of commemoration she mentions (such as monuments for Irish immigrations) at first seem like straightforward state tactics for recognizing, integrating, and silencing uncomfortable histories into compartmentalized areas and moments, but their inclusion in her discussion speaks to the difficulties of balancing the demands of a pluralistic society.  What would Lecker say about this type of canonization of specific historical moments?  How would Connerton explain this process of commemoration?


Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction. 2004 Oxford: Blackwell.

Claire Campbell, Shaped by the West Wind: Nature and History in Georgian Bay. Vancouver: UBC Press. 2005.

John Urry, Consuming Places. London: Routledge, 1995.

Rob Shields, “Alternative Geographies of Modernity,” in Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity. London: Routledge 1991.

Christina Cameron, “The Spirit of Place: The Physical Memory of Canada,” Journal of Canadian Studies 25, 1. 2000, pp. 77-94.

Julia Harrison, ‘Belonging at the Cottage’ in Thinking Through Tourism. J. Scott and T. Selwyn (eds.) London: Berg. 2010, pp. 71-92.

Karen Dubinsky, The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991. (Ch. 1, 3, 4)

Rob Shields, “Niagara Falls: Honeymoon Capital of the World” in Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity. London: Routledge 1991, pp. 117-161.

Patrick McGreevy, Imagining Niagara: the Meaning and Making of Niagara Falls. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Patrick McGreevy, “The Wall of Mirrors: Nationalism and Perceptions of the Border at Niagara Falls.” Borderlands Monograph Series #5 The Borderlands Project The Canadian-American Center University of Maine, 1991, pp. 1-18.

“The Falls: A Cautionary Tale” (NFB) 1991

“Niagara Falls” (PBS) 2006

It seems like I am missing some citations, but I don’t know where they are, so please accept my apologies, and I will respond to any emails requesting clarification as best I can (particularly for Massey, May, and Harvey.)

PS On the topic of vacation destinations, I recommend the poem “Canada” by Billy Collins in The Art of Drowning  (1995).

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One Response to Canada: A Land of the Greatest Superlatives EVER!

  1. Pingback: A Uniquely Canadian Post | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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