Canadian Wilderness Myth

Author:  Loch Brown

Teaching Notes:  This learning activity is meant to accompany other class material on the social construction of Nature, in particular a reading by William Cronon entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness”,  and asks students to explore this concept in relation to the Canadian context.



Is there a distinctly Canadian Wilderness Myth and what does it look like?

Canadian identity is wrapped up, to some extent, with the notion of a “great white north” filled with vast expanses of untouched pristine wilderness, rugged beauty, and endless boreal forests. Take for example this beer commercial.  This add intentionally draws on stereotypes of Canadian wilderness and what it means to be Canadian, and is in turn reinforcing these stereotypes, in order to sell beer.  Apart from being incredibly (cis)gendered (notice how it is all men involved in the “rugged” outdoor activities, yet the women show up primarily when its time to socialize with a beer in hand; a great example of why ecofeminist perspectives can bring a lot to our current understanding of patriarchal relations of domination in nature and society), if we look at it through Cronon’s lens of the wilderness myth, we can start to identify a Canadian wilderness myth.


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I still feel disturbed on may levels, and yet also a little unwillingly patriotic (and like opening a beer), every time I watch it.  This is precisely, at least the latter part, the power of effective advertising.  Another way we can get a feel for the imagined geography of Canada is to enter key terms such as “Great White North” or “Canadian wilderness” into google images and see what comes up.  While this is mediated by google algorithms, it gives sense of what images get tagged by people, within Canada and beyond, as representative of these ideas.



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But to fully understand Canada’s wilderness myth we need to dig a little deeper and shed some light on the how this myth emerged, how it has changed over the years, and how it continues to change today.  We need to ask questions that will help us to understand the social processes (or rather socio-environmental processes) that underlie or drive the ever evolving Canadian Wilderness Myth.  We also need to explore the implications of the wilderness myth for shaping both popular and policy discourse in the Canada. Some questions we could ask are:

  • Do we, like the US have a lasting wilderness myth or legacy associated with a Canadian “Frontier”?   Or does our wilderness myth have its roots in other historical processes?  How did the myth initially emerge and how has it evolved and spread spatially over time?
  • Do we still have a wilderness myth in Canada today?  What does it look like?  In what ways, through what means, is it performed and circulated?  Is it the same everywhere in Canada, and if not how does it differ in different parts of the country and why?
  • How does this shape how we think of ourselves?  How does this influence individual or group behaviour?  How does this influence policy and decision making processes?
  • Whose idea of the Canadian wilderness dominates?  Which people are represented in this idea of nature, which are not?  Where and how do people fit into this idea of nature, or do they?

A productive way to begin might be to consider the political and material economy of Canada throughout its short settler-colonial history, bound up initially with trade in natural resources such as fur and forestry products (voyageurs and lumberjacks!), Canadian territoriality (the mounted police!), valuable minerals, the emergence of hydro-power around the great wars, and finally the leisurely pursuits of many Canadians from both the past and today (canoeing, camping, mountain climbing, skiing, snowmobiling, etc… the great outdoors!).  This would make a great term paper for those who are interested in this topic!  It also makes a great lens through which to look at environmental policy and decision making as a basis for writing an op-ed.  Take this op-ed for example, written about the recent creation of a wilderness area in Western Australia.



Cronon, William (1996). “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”. Environmental History. 1 (1): 7–28.

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