Comprehensive Exam 2.3

This is the second of three questions that I answered during my comprehensive exam in April. I had one week to write three answers (chosen from six questions). 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!). I did pass this section, but my committee pointed out that my voice was a bit lacking in my responses. (Although they also told me to be a fly on the wall and set the theories in dialogue with each other – I just should have positioned myself within that dialogue more clearly.)

Question the Second

One of the most enduring myths about Canada is the Idea of North as a space of open-minded tolerance; a flexible alternative to the more oppressively radical regime of the Empire to the south. As Rachel Adams argues, “In slave narratives and other well-known documents of North American slavery, it is axiomatic that north is the direction of liberty and enlightenment. Fugitive slaves who crossed US borders went to Canada, not to Mexico, the story goes. Familiar images of the Underground Railroad, the North Star, and the Canadian Promised Land have obscured the fact that slaves from the United States actually travelled in many directions in search of freedom” (61). Discuss how the current fascination with the North in Canadian culture, and especially in Canadian academic circles, represents a contemporary variation on the traditional fetishization of the “North” as the Canadian Promised Land.

Rachel Adams details how the Canadian Promised Land has been touted as a historical safe-haven for runaway slaves from the United States (2009: 61). Sources such as the “Underground Railroad” Heritage Minute, a caption in the Canadian citizenship guide (2011), Internet commentators (2012), and the national bestseller Fire and Ice by Michael Adams (2003) celebrate Canada’s role as the “True North, strong and free.” The scholarly treatment of slavery, immigration, multiculturalism, and so-called race relations (French-English, black-white, Indigenous-colonizer) is a useful point from which to unpack the Canadian superiority complex as a Promised Land vis-à-vis the United States. Canadian scholarship does much to propagate interpretations of Canada as open-minded and tolerant. Canada is often conflated with the North, particularly when posited against “the more oppressively radical regime of the Empire to the south.” As Richard Milligan and Tyler McCreary point out, “[t]he encoding and subsequent decoding of mythologized meanings of the North are activities that have long engrossed Canada’s national icons and intellectuals” (2011: 150). Attendant uppity rhetoric positions Canada as both a haven and “heaven” for fugitive slaves.

Adams explores “how and why the North became a synonym for freedom” (2009: 62). She argues that, by maligning the South and “[l]ocating evil in a single geographic region, slave narratives confirmed the northern reader’s moral superiority and absolved the North of blame for the institution of slavery and its attendant racial logic” (Adams 2009: 67). Carl Berger in turn blames Americans for providing such pro-northern rhetoric to Canada:

Thus to the equation of “northern” with strength and the strenuous virtues, against “southern” with degeneration and effeminacy, was added the identification of the former with liberty and the latter with tyranny…. It was this identification of liberty with northernness that gave such force to the anti-American emotion that Canadian, or ‘British’, liberty, was far superior to the uproarious democracy of the United States. It was a charge taken directly from pessimistic American racists [who]… thought that [southern European] immigration not only destroyed the homogeneity of the American people, but also threatened the very existence of Anglo-Saxon leadership and Anglo-Saxon values. (1966: 15-16)

Berger outlines how Canadians applied this racist framework to undesirable, “ungovernable” immigrants, who were relegated to the melting pot of the United States. He adds: “[t]he Canadian people were thus not only collectively a superior race, but their ‘northernness’ was constantly compared to the ‘southernness’ of the United States” (Berger 1966: 14). Ultimately, Berger concludes that Canadians “are not totally innocent of a tradition of racism and a falsified but glorious past” (Berger 1966: 24).

Will Kymlicka notes how “a race-neutral admissions policy” encouraged “many highly-skilled immigrants… to come to Canada because it was seen as a more welcoming country for immigrants [than Britain or Germany]” (2003: 367). He offers a progressive interpretation of Canadian immigration policy:

In the past, Canada had an assimilationist approach to immigration. … However, since the late 1960s, we have seen a dramatic reversal in this approach [including] … the adoption of a more ‘multicultural’ conception of integration. (Kymlicka 2003: 370)

Stasiulis and Nira complicate this assessment, noting that “we are not aware of the existence of any country having a truly non-racist immigration policy, where meaningful equity exists in legislation, regulations and administration” (1995: 24). Isin and Wood point out that “Canada has adjusted its policies to attract ‘better qualified’ immigrants and has placed stricter limits on family reunification” (1999: 54). Adams adds that“the emphasis on Canada’s reputation for racial equality distracts attention from the persistent realities of race-based economic and social injustice” (2009: 78).

The thread of northern rhetoric underlies many debates about immigration, race relations, and bilingualism in the Canadian context. Although Berger notes “the northern theme, as it was expressed in the first half century after Confederation, must be regarded as a myth,” he also argues that the trope of the North was (and is) used to unify French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians (1966: 22). He explains how a shared Norman (northern) blood strain supposedly united the French and British in Canada (Berger 1966: 3). Kieran Keohane supplies an example of similar northern rhetoric from Brian Mulroney’s tenure as Prime Minister (1984-1993):

On a national unity caravan… Mulroney said that what Canada was became pretty clear during the rescue in Alert. The rescue was conducted in a typically Canadian way – without fanfare, without much ado, quietly and with competence. There were French-speaking Canadians and English-speaking Canadians, neither asking the other where they were from or what language they spoke. Up there, in the Arctic in the wind and cold and the terror of encroaching death they were all Canadians. Pretentious posturing is dispelled by close encounters of the real kind, Mulroney implies. And he may be correct. (Keohane 1997: 40)

Daniel Francis disagrees with Mulroney and Keohane’s assessment of “close encounters” in inclement weather as a source of national unity. His experience as a summer exchange student from Vancouver to Montreal in 1963 contradicts Mulroney’s anecdote:

I got on well with the student with whom I was billeted (though I heard later that he became a separatist at university and have always wondered whether perhaps I was at fault for not making a convincing enough case for the country)…. But the weather was definitely unfriendly, and I decided that there was little point in venturing east ever again…. So much for national unity. (Francis 1997: 89)

Perhaps if Francis had gone to Montreal in the winter, he would have made a stronger connection with his host through winter sports. After all, he considers hockey “a corollary of the northern myth” that “allows [Canadians] to celebrate our northernness” and “one of the rare things that brings Canadians together” (Francis 1997: 166-177).

In their discussion of Samuel Hearne’s Arctic travel narratives, Milligan and McCreary problematize this fixation on the North as a trope of national identity:

The centuries-long development of national identity along these [northern] lines has established a normalcy of racial domination and allowed (white) Canadians to know themselves as “not history-less but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny,” much as Toni Morrison (1992, 52) describes the history race in the United States. (Milligan & McCreary 2011: 150)

Rather than citing any Canadian race scholars in their critique of “(white) Canadians,” or considering Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s claim that Canada has “no history of colonialism” (Ljunggren 2009), they cite Morrison’s analysis of the history of race in the United States.

By way of explanation, Milligan and McCreary offer the following footnote:

Morrisson’s emphasis on the formative role of black-white race relations, and her taken-for-granted assumptions that the American land mass was a blank slate for these developments to play our, unfortunately reflects a significant and all-too-common gap in critical race theorizing south of the border. Canadian race scholars, by contrast, have accorded more significant weight to the ways that whites secure dominance in settler societies vis-à-vis both the Indigenous and the racialized immigrant other. (Milligan & McCreary 2011: 280)

At first blush, this seems like a valid critique of other American scholars. For example, Adams concludes her book with a taken-for-granted emphasis on external intruders:

North America has been fortunate not to have endured the devastating events that helped to turn the warring nations of Europe into a continent. The relative peacefulness of North America’s three nations for nearly a hundred years has had the ironic effect of enhancing, rather than diminishing, their sense of difference from one another. In its most troublesome form, that sentiment leads to the kinds of racism and xenophobia that underlie demands for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border or that see foreign terrorists sweeping into the United States via Canada and Mexico. (Adams 2009: 245-6)

Her commentary ignores the ongoing and historical colonial practices undertaken by the United States as well as the hundreds of First Nations and Native American tribes that seek greater recognition of their rights to self-government. It also side-steps concerns about colonial practices and the racism that has informed and maintained the Indian Act in Canada and Federal Indian Policy in the United States. This is troublesome, but Milligan and McCreary’s choice to denigrate the work of a (black, female) academic in the United States, rather than engage with the highly publicized remarks of a (white, male) Canadian politician is all the more worrying.

Drawing on the work of Toni Morrison and others, Adams notes that the flight of slaves to Canada was “legendary” and traces the legend through films and novels (Adams 2009: 65). Some artists “draw on the abundant, if scattered, historical evidence about slaves who went north to Canada and stayed there, defying stereotypes about the whiteness and homogeneity of Canadian culture” (Adams 2009: 62). Writers like George Elliot Clarke, Dionne Brand, and Rinaldo Walcott “disclose the contradictions between Canada’s official language of tolerance and its long history of racist practice” (Adams 2009: 80). Adams emphasizes the “complexities of black Canadian experience,” which are often overlooked (2009: 86).

Lawrence Hill worries that “Canadians develop a second-hand, borrowed impression about what it means to be black in Canada from the American experience” (Hill 2000 in Adams 2009: 80). Walcott adds: “many people continue to believe that any black presence in Canada is a recent and urban one spawned by black Caribbean, and now continental African, migration” (2004: 277). He cites the razing of Africville in 1967 and the 1996 renaming of Negro Creek Road to Moggie Road as just two examples of the erasure of Blackness in Canada (Walcott 2004: 277-278). Kymlicka seems to share the concerns of Hill and Walcott, calling for Afrocentric education specific to the Canadian context:

[I]t would be important to ensure that such schools did not rely solely on materials used in American ‘Afrocentric’ schools. Indeed, one vital purpose of the project would be to provide Black youth with accurate information about Blacks in Canada, so that they don’t rely so heavily on American media for their vocabulary and models of race relations, as occurs now. (Kymlicka 2001: 195)

Alongside his call for Afrocentric education and affirmative action in Canada, Kymlicka argues:

A… disturbing trend is the emergence of almost conspiracy-like fears about the police and the courts amongst some Blacks in Canada. This too is imported from the United States, and seems to be as much influenced by American events (Rodney King, O.J. Simpson) as by events here. Whatever the reality of discrimination by police and courts—and it is real—it is clear that some Blacks have exaggerated its scope, drawing on African-American rhetoric about ‘white justice’ and ‘government plots.’ … If these perceptions of injustice and fears about conspiracy are not addressed in Canada, we are in very great danger indeed of falling into the American pattern of race relations. (Kymlicka 2001: 191)

This fear of “the American pattern of race relations” echoes G.R. Parkin’s earlier rhetoric regarding America’s so-called “negro problem,” “which weighs like a troublesome nightmare upon the civilization of the United States” (Parkin 1895 in Berger 1966: 9). Ramsay Cook might dismiss this vitriol as “mere anti-Americanism” (Cook 1971: 209).

Daniel Coleman critiques historical and contemporary banality toward criminalization of Indigenous and Black Canadians (2008: 9). He notes that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights issued a challenge to Canada to “unearth, rather than suppress, the history of White supremacy and colonial racism that are fundamental to the establishment of Canada as a nation” (Coleman 2008: 8). The Commission’s report mentions the imbalanced statistics of incarceration for certain groups in Canada:

A variety of interlocutors have pointed out to systemic racism in policing and in the administration of justice. … [A]ccording to Correctional Service Canada, aboriginal people represent 4.4 per cent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 per cent of the federally incarcerated population (in some provincial institutions, this latter figure reaches 50-60 per cent)…. [T]he Special Rapporteur is extremely preoccupied with the high rate of incarceration of, violence against and deaths in custody of aboriginals and people of African and Asian descent. (Diène 2004: 15)

Citing a “mini-riot” involving the Somali community in Etobicoke, Walcott explains how “racialized discourse, fostered by and emanating out of slavery, is continually fashioned through an ideology that suggests that black bodies can and must be abused, misused, regulated, disciplined, and over-policed” (2004: 278). This challenges Kymlicka’s anecdotal theory about Black Canadians.

Kymlicka does note that “Canada’s vaunted contribution to peacekeeping – singled out by the UN for a special honour – has been dramatically eroded by scandal and budget cuts” (2003: 359). However, he sees fit to relegate such “scandal” to a footnote that reads: “Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia tortured a boy to death” (Kymlicka 2003: 359). Discussing the same incident, 16-year-old Shidane Arone’s murder and torture by the Canadian Airborne Regiment, Sherene Razack prominently (and centrally) provides this quote in her book:

Many times I wonder at nights whether she screamed ‘Canada, Canada’ like that Somalia kid that was killed by the Airborne Regiment.” – Morning Child, commenting on the death of his daughter, Calinda Waterhen (Razack 2002: 128)

According to Wikipedia, Kymlicka’s approach has won him awards from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Canadian Political Science Association, the American Political Science Association, and the Royal Society of Canada, while Razack’s scholarship does not even merit an entry in the ubiquitous “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” (as of April 2012).

Like Kymlicka, Michael Adams offers a dim view of American race relations, as well as a rosy depiction of Canada’s abolition of slavery:

The Canadian economy had little use for slaves or indentured workers on plantations for cotton or any other crop. As a result, the gradual abolition of slavery by Upper Canada’s first governor, John Graves Simcoe, after 1793 and later by the British government was a non-issue for Canada, except to make this country a refuge for American slaves who were able to escape their servitude via the Underground Railroad prior to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The American Dilemma… continues to express itself today—often tragically for the large proportion of African-Americans who live in poverty and under the threat of violence even amid the affluence of the world’s richest country. (2003: 105)

This Promised Land narrative complicates Ian Angus’s assertion that “the rhetoric of salvation tends to remain within immigrant ethno-cultures themselves and has, perhaps unfortunately, not generally influenced English Canadian national identity” (1997: 142).

Rachel Adams agrees that slavery in the Canadian context was “unprofitable,” but offers a challenge to Michael Adams’s reading, noting:

Canadian treatments of the history of slavery and black culture… tend to be limited by a compulsion to affirm the nation’s role as a harbor for fugitives from the United States. What gets left out of these accounts is the century and a half during which British Canada participated in the slave trade, until it was abolished by the Imperial Act of 1834. (Adams 2009: 68)

Rather than reinscribing the dichotomy of troubled Americans and tolerant Canadians, she points out that fugitive slaves encountered hardships and anti-black sentiment in Canada and, furthermore, “absent the frisson of black-white relations in the United States, Canadians have largely neglected to consider the Africanist presence within their own history and culture” (Adams 2009: 78). Citing the protests around the 1990 Royal Ontario Museum exhibit Into the Heart of Africa, Linda Peake and Brian Ray argue that “[a]t the heart of African-Canadian political struggles and challenges to liberal conceptions of rights and justice is a desire to represent their experiences in ways that place them as producers of signification and not just signifiers” (2001: 184).

As many examples from media and scholarship demonstrate, there is a persistent, pervasive myth of the Canadian Promised Land as superior to the variously-termed “neighbours to the south” (Kymlicka 2003: 359), the land “south of the border” (Milligan 2011: 200), Canada’s “southern neighbour” (Bodroghkozy 2002: 566), and “the Empire to the south.” The North continues to be a symbolic, fetishized space, embodied in the rhetoric of academics, politicians, and members of the Canadian public. After all, Canadians are so nice that Santa Claus sees fit to call Canada his home. However, as Kymlicka footnotes, when non-imaginary “immigrants have a choice between Canada and the United States, they typically choose the US” (2003: 377). This ambivalence of Canadian inferiority / superiority vis-à-vis the United States has provided fodder for many academic treatises (such as Bodroghkozy 2002; Kymlicka 2003; Thompson & Randall 2008).

Many Canadian scholars and media commentators seem to share a fear of the threatening imperialism, civil disorder, and general chaos of their oft-unnamed neighbo(u)r, the United States. However, this fear seems largely misplaced. After all, although Adams mistakenly refers to Harper as the president of Canada (2009: 242), she also reminds readers “how different from one another Canadians, U.S. Americans, and Mexicans continue to be” (2009: 246). This is a change from Berger’s interpretation of scholarship after the 1920s, with “its dominant preoccupation[] [with]… the definition of Canadian character in terms of North American experience, to emphasize the similarities between Canada and the United States” (1966: 22). However, he notes the persistence of “the effort to explain Canadian uniqueness in terms of the north” (Berger 1966: 22-23). This fetishization of the North allows for a reinscription of Canada as a unique Promised Land, which has implications for contemporary Canadian scholarship and for interpretations of the federal policy of multiculturalism in Canada.

Works Cited

Adams, Michael. Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values. Penguin Canada. 2003.

Adams, Rachel. Continental Divides: Remapping the Cultures of North America. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Angus, Ian. A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality and Wilderness. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University, 1997.

Berger, Carl. “The True North Strong and Free” in Nationalism in Canada. Peter Russell (ed.). Toronto: McGraw-Hill Company of Canada, 1966: 3-26.

Bodroghkozy, Aniko. “As Canadian As Possible…: Anglo-Canadian Popular Culture and the American Other” in Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuck (eds.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002: 566-589.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada Study Guide, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Canadian Citizenship, 2011.

Coleman, Daniel. “White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada.” White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Cook, Ramsay. “Nationalism in Canada” in The Maple Leaf Forever: Essays on Nationalism and Politics in Canada. Macmillan of Canada, Toronto. 1971: 197-214.

Diène,Doudou. “Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and All Forms of Discrimination: Mission to Canada.” Commission on Human Rights. 1 March 2004.

Institut Historica Dominion Institute. Heritage Minute: “Underground Railroad.”

Jiwani, Yasmin. “On the Outskirts of Empire: Race and Gender in Canadian TV News” in Painting the Maple: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Construction of Canada. Strong-Boag, Veronica, Sherrill Grace, Avigail Eisenberg and Joan Anderson (eds.). Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998: 53-68.

Keohane, Kieran. Symptoms of Canada: an essay on the Canadian identity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Kymlicka, Will. “A Crossroad in Race Relations” in Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001: 175-199.

Kymlicka, Will. “Being Canadian.” Government and Opposition, 2003: 357-385.

Ljunggren, David. “Every G20 nation wants to be Canada, insists PM.” 25 September 2009.

Milligan, Richard, and Tyler McCreary. “Inscription, Innocence, and Invisibility: Early Contributions to the Discursive Formation of the North in Samuel Hearne’s A Journey to the Northern Ocean” in Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada. Andre Baldwin, Laura Cameron, Audrey Kobayashi (eds). Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011: 147-168.

Peake, Linda and Brian Ray. “Racialising the Canadian Landscape: Whiteness, Uneven Geographies and Social Justice.” The Canadian Geographer 45(1), 2001: 180-86. Post: “America, I am disappoint.” Message board excerpt. 9 Mar 2012.

Razack, Sherene H. “Gendered Racial Violence and Spatialized Justice: The Murder of Pamela George,” Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002: 122-156.

Stasiulis, Daiva, & Nira Yuval-Davis (eds.). “Introduction: Beyond dichotomies – gender, race, ethnicity and class in settler societies” in Unsettling settler societies: Articulations of gender, race, ethnicity and class. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995: 1-38.

Strong-Boag, Veronica, Sherrill Grace, Avigail Eisenberg and Joan Anderson (eds.). “Constructing Canada: An Introduction” in Painting the Maple: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Construction of Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1998: 3-15.

Thompson, John Herd and Stephen J. Randall. Canada and the United States: ambivalent allies. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.

Walcott, Rinaldo. “‘A Tough Geography’: Towards a Poetics of Black Space(s) in Canada” in Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Cynthia Sugars (ed). Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2004: 277-288.

Wikipedia. “Will Kymlicka.”

NB “–” indicates material supplemental to the exam list.

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One Response to Comprehensive Exam 2.3

  1. Pingback: O Globe & Fail | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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