True North: Inuit Art and the Canadian Imagination

By Pupchek, Leanne Stuart | American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

True North: Inuit Art and the Canadian Imagination


Pupchek, Leanne Stuart, American Review of Canadian Studies


A walk through Canadian souvenir shops, crafts galleries, art galleries, or museum stores affirms that, in the world of tourist art, the terms "Canadian," and "Inuit" or "Eskimo," are synonymous. For most of the second half of this century, Inuit art has been "appropriated by southern Canadian society... [and] proudly shown off as one of the brightest jewels in our cultural mosaic" (Hessel 1991, 6). In fact, Inuit art has been an important resource in the construction of Canadian identity. In many contexts, Inuit imagery has become a synecdoche, symbolic part-for-the-whole, of Canadian identity. While the synecdoche may seem problematic in the twenty-first century, not to mention inauthentic, the acceptance of Inuit art as a marker of Canadian identity remains popular and unquestioned.

Increasingly since 1949, the Canadian government has borrowed the rhetorical power of the identification between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal peoples to help establish a general body of identifications that express the country's national identity. That is not to say that every Canadian responds to indigenous images as representing national identity. Canadians have access to other discursive resources. Mounties, Hockey, Northern-ness, the Railway, and the Maple Leaf are competing examples. Nevertheless, for Canadians who allow it, indigenous art serves as a discursive resource, effectively symbolizing the national community. The striking graphic power, recognizability, and attractive themes of carving and prints, especially, have served institutional as well as individual identity needs, performing for the federal government as expressive symbols (which create a willingness to follow)" (Habermas 1989, 275).

This paper traces the rhetorical history of how Inuit art has come to encode the connection between Canadians and the Northland, culminating in the period after the Second World War when international assumptions linking art with nationalism and linking an authentic "Folk" with a place converged with Canadian self-consciousness to catapult the art of the Inuit people into the image-making mechanisms of Canada's cultural producers.

Constructing Nationalism

Since Confederation, successive governments have recognized the construction of a unique Canadian identity as an important part of their mandate. To retain its constituency, a Canadian government always has had to distinguish Canada from other countries by means of something other than a line on a map. While the U.S. galvanized (an increasingly questioned) national identity in its Revolution, Canada did not have the same opportunity to cohere against a common enemy. Internal divisions such as language, ethnicity, and regionalism have conspired against unity. Nevertheless, Canadian nationalists strive to separate themselves from the United States and other countries by describing an identity that characterizes the country genuinely and effectively on the world stage. Canada's identity has been constructed by the constantly shifting rhetorical processes of identification and division (Burke 1950/1969) that work both to bind communities together and to separate communities one from another. History reveals how C anadians have tried to negotiate the nature and expression of the country's core values. Such negotiations are grounded in attitudes shaped by the discursive resources developed over the course of European settlement in Canada. These discursive resources fund a set of identifications from which Canadians draw feelings of belonging.

An ability to designate material objects as markers to support a sense of nationalism results from the conscious rhetorical project of associating pieties--the "sense of what properly goes with what" (Burke 1935/1984, 74)--with material objects. A broad group of cultural producers either creates appropriate material objects that evoke the national community or interprets such objects to deem them attitude-forming cultural equipment (McKay 1994, 4). …

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