Comprehensive Exam 1.5

This is the last 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 Third:

Turner saw the West as the crucible of American individualism, a Darwinian environment in which macho frontiersmen were free to make their own way in the world, counteracting the regrettable old world ways of an effete eastern establishment. Canadian nationalists liked to think that the Canadian west was different—there law and order came first, demonstrating a distinctive national identity. Does the North serve as Canada’s Tunerian frontier? Has it been gendered in similar ways?

I actually really liked this question, and I have lots of things from my answer to Reconsider for my second exam and my dissertation:


At the risk of adapting an Anglo-American theory to the Canadian context, I will argue that the North does serve as Canada’s Tunerian frontier and that it has been gendered in important ways. First, I will compare the Canadian North to the American West and draw parallels between the two. Next, I will discuss some differences between the two. Then, I will explain how the Canadian North has been gendered as both masculine and feminine. Finally, I will point out how the similarities outweigh the differences and how both regions have been problematically exploited to the detriment of the original inhabitants.

Cold North = Wild West

Some Canadian political cartoons[1] (see The Hecklers) draw sharp distinctions between the violent American frontier[2] full of rouges chased by sheriffs and the peace, order, and good government that the RCMP brought to the Canadian west to stamp out American whisky traders. The myth in the Canadian north, however, cannot follow this model, because the RCMP followed the Hudson Bay Company, and American whisky traders were less of a problem than starvation and tuberculosis.

Northern Canada has been of interest to Euro-Canadian individuals (such as artists and explorers), missionaries, and government for purposes of inspiration, exploitation, and control that are comparable to the American ‘wild West.’ Like the ‘fencing in’ of the so-called American frontier that established Native American reservations and privatized property as military forces, land surveyors, sheriffs, and wagon trains moved west, efforts by certain Canadian agents has led to the relocation of Inuit communities and creation of settlements in the north (Grace).

Through a series of geological research and resource extraction projects in the north as well as the commercial efforts of the Hudson Bay Company (Geller), Euro-Canadians have frequently taken a frontier-as-exploitable-hinterland approach to the North.[3] Like the American west, which was ‘settled’ to enable ranching, farming, and the proliferation of capitalism, the Canadian north has interested those seeking the Northwest Passage (Atwood), furs (HBC), and sovereignty[4] (RCMP convoys).

Members of the RCMP and missionaries worked to corral Inuit into settled communities for various purposes, such as improved health care services and greater access to HBC products. Similarly, the US cavalry pushed Native Americans onto reservations (ostensibly for improved access to health and educations services, and to dispossess them of their lands). Like the sheriff’s badge and other ‘civilizing’ forces in the US, the Canadian government has sent (and continues to send) health care workers, anthropologists, and other Canadians with specific agendas to the north.

Cold North vs. Wild West

The ‘settlement’ of the American west is not mirrored in the Canadian north. Even south of 60°N, most Canadians remain clustered in urban centers along the US border, perhaps reflecting what Gaile McGregor calls the Wacousta syndrome. While the United States west of the Mississippi River consists of several states that are full members of and participants in the Union, the Canadian north consists of only three sparsely populated territories. However, despite the smaller population density of the Canadian north and the American prairies states when compared to places like Toronto and New York City, respectively, these frontier environments seem disproportionately represented in popular culture (such as John Wayne movies, books by James Fenimore Cooper, Isuma productions like Atanarjuat, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, 49th Parallel, Nelvana of the Northern Lights).

Canadian North as Masculine / Feminine

The Canadian environment has often been gendered as feminine because it is overpowering (McGregor) and swallows up (certain) Canadians (Frye). However, Eva Mackey notes that this gendering of the Canadian landscape, particularly the North, is flexible to accommodate various nationalist ends. To distinguish themselves from effete, lazy Americans, members of the nineteenth-century Canada First Movement (and others since then) have touted Canadian resilience and hardiness, especially in the face of longer winters and more ice and snow, symbolized by the emblematic ‘true north, strong and free.’ Despite the deployment of this notion of Nordic prowess for Euro-Canadians, when necessary for sovereignty claims, the Inuit have been considered child-like and in need of the paternalistic care of the Canadian state (with the bonus of being expendable, as demonstrated by the relocation of Inuit families to uninhabitable places in the far north and the placement of the Distant Early Warning stations across the Arctic by the US military) (Evans).


Although the Canadian north is different from the American west in many ways, including environment, population density, and geographic and temporal distance (since concerted efforts at settlement in the Canadian north began almost 70 years after the US frontier supposedly closed), the place each region holds in the historical mythology of each country is roughly comparable, if scholarly (Hulan, Grace, Atwood, Shields – see Question 2) and popular interest are any indication. Both regions have been exploited by settler-invaders to the detriment of the original inhabitants, but some recent scholarship (Chamberlin, Rasmussen, T. King) is calling for a paradigm shift in the narrative of frontiers as hinterlands for exploitation to homelands for preservation.

Because erasure of the Indigenous presence has taken place in literature, art, and popular renderings of the American and Canadian landscapes (Bordo), the increased inclusion of Indigenous voices in the frontier narratives is promising for greater understanding and potential for reconciliation in the future (Ryan, Evans). Understanding the American west and the Canadian north as parallel pieces of a legacy of colonialism, rather than drawing sharp distinctions between experiences in the two nationally bounded regions, can contribute to the postcolonial project (Brydon).

[1] John Herd Thompson is not on my list, but he wrote an article that includes some of the cartoons I am thinking of.

[2] Although it is not on my list, I read an article about how the Wild West was not as violent as myth may have it.

[3] And done likewise in BC – see Turkel, Sparke, and Williams.

[4] The shared US-Canadian concern with borders is reflected in the Alaska boundary dispute, which took place around the same time as the alleged closing of the American frontier (c. 1898).

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One Response to Comprehensive Exam 1.5

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

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