Comprehensive Exam 1.3

This is one of the questions I actually answered during my four-hour, no-notes nightmare exam in November. I wouldn’t say that I am particularly proud of these answers, and I am a bit reluctant to share them in their unpolished state, but I think it will be useful for others to see what I generated in the time available (and plan accordingly for your own exam, should you choose this torturous route!).

Real Question The First:

The North has been an important trope in Canadian studies for decades. Scholars from across various disciplines have addressed how the ‘idea of north’ has been used to define and contain notions of Canadian identity. Write an historiographical outline of scholarly treatments of the north since the 1960s. Broadly trace the trajectory of scholarship within Canada and discuss four or five key scholarly works in some detail.

My Answer, In All Its Resplendent Non-Glory:


First, I will geographically trace scholarship on the Canadian north to show how Canadian scholarship (on my list) has travelled from international presses to Canada. Then, I will thematically trace scholarship on the Canadian north to show how research ideas have changed (and stayed the same) over time. Finally, I will explain why the ‘idea of north’ is important in current scholarship.

There and Here

One of the earliest pieces of scholarship (on my list) that addresses the notion of the Canadian north is Rob Shields (1991). He included the Canadian north as one chapter of his book on imagining marginal places,[1] which he wrote and published in England. A few years later, Margaret Atwood (1995) gave a series of lectures in the UK about the Canadian north and published the collected lectures with Oxford UP. Later, Derek Rasmussen published “Quallunology” in the Canadian Journal of Native Education (2001), and Sherill Grace and Renee Hulan published books on the north with McGill-Queen’s UP (2002), followed by Michael Evans (2008). Peter Geller published a book on photography in the north with UBC Press (2004).

From this overview, it would seem that Canadian scholars (or at least those found on my list) first presented notions of Canadian nordicity as chapters and lectures in the British context, and then began to analyze the myth(s) of the Canadian north more fully in books from the Canadian context, perhaps showing more intense interest after the establishment of Nunavut in 1999. Some of these works are part of the growing McGill-Queen’s Northern Studies book series. Others, like Rasmussen, call for self-reflexive critique of around Canadian involvement in northern communities, and would likely challenge the parameters of the Northern Studies series. They all recognize the constructed nature of (southern) Canada’s fixation on “the true north, strong and free.”


While Shields outlines the historical construction of the Canadian north as a frontier hinterland, Atwood describes the traces of northern fixation found in Canadian literature and how the northern context has created a legacy of Canadian fear of the elements and fascination with failures (since at least Franklin). By providing a comprehensive overview of notions of the north in government policy and nationalist sentiment (Shields) and literature (Atwood), they both focus on how the Canadian north has been constructed as a mythic space for Canadians rather than delving too deeply into why.

Hulan and Rasmussen focus on critiquing the accounts of northern Canadians provided by southern Canadians. Rasmussen’s critique stands as a call to action, while Hulan considers why Canadians lend such authority to writers who have been to the north and why authors like Farley Mowat seem to capture the Canadian imagination so thoroughly. Through archival work, Payne (2006) and Geller consider the effects of southern Canadian photographers in (and on) the north. They are interested in how such archival footage came to accumulate in southern institutions and personal collections as well as why images and depictions of the north are so prevalent.

Evans is an interesting case study, both in terms of his work with Isuma and his inclusion in this present discussion. In his work, he is careful to self-reflexively justify his involvement in a northern community as an anthropologist.[2] This stands in contrast to earlier work by explorers and anthropologists (Franz Boas leaps to mind) to remove themselves from their accounts, but Evans still cites accounts by earlier explorers in his work alongside translated interviews with Inuktitut speakers.[3] However, he provides an example of how to accommodate multiple voices, a postmodern project that is well-suited to the needs of current research.

Similarly, Grace presents accounts of northern Canada from a northern perspective by giving voice to certain Inuit artists and cartoonists in her book, alongside the work of southern Canadians like Rudy Wiebe. However, she has been criticized[4] for providing a not-quite-comprehensive overview of the north in the Canadian imagination, particularly in terms of the interplay between northern and southern voices.

Conclusion: Current Scholarship

In 2004, Caroline Rosenthal wrote an article about the Canadian north for a German journal and, in 2006, Carol Payne wrote about projects underway in Inuit communities to reclaim the NFB photographic archives in the internationally distributed journal Visual Studies. Although all of the scholarship I have covered is written in English, to me these articles (Rosenthal & Payne) exemplify the close analysis that the myth of the Canadian north needs as well as the international scope of the project. Shields and Atwood initially published in the UK, and subsequent scholars published in Canada, but these two articles show how nation-building myths like the Canadian north are now being deconstructed on a global scale in international forums.

My point is not that university presses do not distribute books outside of their domestic markets, but rather that, as seems to be so often the case with Canadian culture, the notion of the north as a subject of study was first broached in the British context, then refined in the Canadian context, and finally re-disseminated internationally. The idea of deconstructing national tropes is not a new one (Billig, Anderson), and neither is ‘the idea of north,’ but it is promising to see how the nationalist treatment of the Canadian north has been redressed in the scholarly context from a variety of perspectives.

[1] Such as Brighton (UK) and Niagara Falls (Canada).

[2] Although not on my list, Nancy Wachowich does something similar in Saqiyuaq.

[3] Here, I want to insert the name of the Icelandic explorer, but it eludes me. I think it’s something like Von Rasmussen.

[4] I can provide the citation for this book review, but I don’t know it off hand.

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One Response to Comprehensive Exam 1.3

  1. Pingback: Comprehensive Exam Advice, Part 1: The List! | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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