Nationalism and Visual Media in Canada: The Case of Thomas Scott's Execution

Article excerpt

From the time of Confederation, the media has generated images of Canada, its constituent peoples and regions, exerting a wide-ranging impact on the country's culture. To study these images, especially in the key period after 1867, is to witness the nation-state in the process of its ideological construction. A case in point is a well-known wood engraving depicting the execution of Thomas Scott at Red River on 4 March 1870. Within weeks of the event, the newly-established Canadian Illustrated News of Montreal published this image on 23 April 1870. (Figure 1) Its modes of representation drew on fictional techniques and racial stereotypes, which helped fan the flames of reaction. Once published, it took on a life of its own and became a prototype for subsequent depictions of the Metis and other Aboriginal peoples in the resistances of 1870 and 1885, and after. Dormant for nearly a century, this image has recently resurfaced in representations of the country's history produced in the national media. Its continuing application in nation-building narratives demonstrates the enduring power of visual reifications to inhabit the consciousness of journalists and their audiences long after the historical contexts of their original production have faded from memory.

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Images of the 1870 resistance are also of note because their publication coincided with the extension across Canada of a new genre of pictorial representation in popular culture. In the post-Confederation era, images became tied to textual representations in mutually-reinforcing combinations in the medium known as the illustrated press, which over time changed the ways in which Canadians processed information about the new country as mediated by popular culture. Images had been present in earlier publications in the British North American colonies, but these were typically stylized representations oriented to specific regional audiences within the respective British colonies. By the mid-nineteenth century, the proliferation of national and international illustrated magazines ushered in new approaches to visual representation, accompanied by technologies enabling their widespread reproduction and dissemination. The union of the British North American colonies in 1867 also generated a new national readership and market across the young country of Canada. Integral to the early emergence of a national media based in Montreal and Toronto, these images presaged the visual culture that would eventually dominate the popular representation of Canadian history and culture. It was in this early period that the central Canadian anglophone media asserted their capacity to construct identities for the new nation according to their values, realized through countless representations of the country's constituent peoples and legitimized through the media's developing status as the principal vehicle of advancing truth about the external world.

Further issues associated with these images include their relationships to larger forces of technology and communications. In his seminal studies on the history of communications, Harold Innis studied the connections between media technologies and the extension of power by groups controlling these technologies. Innis argued that the light, portable character of space-based communications, which he associated with print technology, facilitated military and cultural expansion by nation-states. These contrasted with time-based oral forms, characterized by the face-to-face contacts of local, non-expansionist cultures. (1) Innis was concerned with the social contexts within which new communications technologies emerge, and why a society favours certain forms of media over others at particular points in time. He was particularly concerned with the tendency of monopolies or oligopolies to use their ownership of communications to shape culture to expansionist purposes. A particular focus of Innis's research was the newspaper industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. …