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 the following beer commercial. This advertisement intentionally draws on (ie leverages) stereotypes of Canadian wilderness and what it means to be Canadian in order to sell beer. If we look at it this commercial through Cronon’s lens of the wilderness myth, perhaps we can start to identify elements of a distinctly Canadian Wilderness Myth, and start to think about whose worldviews (ontologies), and therefore whose values and interests this myth reflects (and serves).
I still feel disturbed on many 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. Clearly this advertising company has carefully constructed this commercial to appeal to a specific customer demographic: young men. Things we can note right off the bat is that this vision of Canadians and their relationship with nature is incredibly (cis)gendered. Notice how it is primarily (young) men involved in “rugged” or “extreme” outdoor activities, yet the women show up when its time to socialize with a beer in hand. An ecofeminist perspective, one which examines widespread patriarchal relations of domination within society and how these shape our understanding of, and relationship with, the natural world, could help us further unpack this. This commercial also reflects a distinctly “settler colonial” vision of nature (pristine, majestic, rugged, and extreme), what nature is used/good for (recreation/a personal playground), and by extension reflects a settler colonial imaginary of what it means to be Canadian. By performing these stereotypes, this advert is (intentionally or not) reproducing and reinforcing them within our shared and collectively imagined national identity.
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 a sense of what images get tagged by people, within Canada and beyond, as representative of these ideas.
click on image for full resolution
But to fully understand Canada’s wilderness myth, or perhaps myths, we need to dig a little deeper than a beer commercial or google images, and shed some light on the social processes (or rather socio-environmental processes) that underlie how Canadian society views and values nature, both historically and today. 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 is wilderness or nature valued, what is it valued for?
- 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? Does this serve to advance the interests of any particular groups? Does this serve to undermine the interests of any particular groups?
- How does this shape how we think of ourselves? How does this influence individual or group behaviour?
- What are the implications of a Canadian Wilderness Myth for shaping both popular and policy discourse in the Canada?
A productive way to begin might be to consider the political and material economy of Canada throughout its settler-colonial history (and before!), 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, ATVs, 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.
Cronon, William (1996). “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”. Environmental History. 1 (1): 7–28.