'It Was Canadian, Then, Typically Canadian': Revisiting Wilderness at Historic Sites

By Campbell, Claire | British Journal of Canadian Studies, May 2008 | Go to article overview

'It Was Canadian, Then, Typically Canadian': Revisiting Wilderness at Historic Sites


Campbell, Claire, British Journal of Canadian Studies


A culture of wilderness - academic, artistic, and popular - that idealised the heroic age of the fur trade so dominated historic site selection in Canada that our idea of wilderness became married to a particular point in time. Along the old routes of exploration and trade, on the rivers of the Canadian Shield spilling out onto the northern plains, Canada has preserved and reconstructed fur-trade sites to convey a sensibility of wilderness. Rocky Mountain House, York Factory, Old Fort William and others remain the flagship sites at both the national and provincial levels. However, these sites face significant dilemmas in terms of managing their environmental and historical resources. Choices of location, reconstruction and interpretation are essential to constructing an illusion or memory of wilderness.

IN 2003 THE NEWLY RENOVATED Ottawa International Airport reopened to the public, with a new addition: a birch bark canoe built in 1971 by Algonquin elder Patrick Maranda of Lac-Barrière, Quebec. Maranda had built two; the other was given by the Liberal Party to Pierre Elliott Trudeau as a wedding gift. In the airport, next to the canoe, is a quotation from Trudeau's now-famous 1944 essay 'Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe': 'I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism, but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land, and the greatness of those that founded it.' Canada's capital chose to represent itself in the twenty-first century with an artefact that evokes a seventeenth-century past. This is not surprising, for the birch bark canoe is one of the most potent of Canadian icons, enwrapped in generations of rhetoric about nationhood and wilderness. To Canadian and international audiences alike it has come to symbolise the opportunity to reconnect with a particular historical moment, to travel across a continent and across time.

The romance of the canoe has shaped quite definitively the ways in which Canadians present our history and the ways in which we manage our landscape. Both popular and academic versions of history have long viewed wilderness as historical, synonymous with certain chapters and characters in the national narrative. Now we appreciate that wilderness has meant different things to different parts of the country at different times, but the continental fur trade was so central to nationalist historiography and to the popular myths of wilderness, and so dominated historic site selection in the twentieth century, that it serves as the best example of how our idea of wilderness is wed to a particular point in time. The most recognisable icons of Canadiana - the canoe, the voyageur, the beaver pelt - were selected from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century movement along the lakes and rivers of the Hudson Bay watershed. Historic sites were designed to evoke a kind of wilderness in miniature, a period piece, to cater to public expectations of 'what the past looks like'.

Along the old routes of exploration and trade, across the Canadian Shield and the northern prairies, certain places were chosen to convey this particular memory, or moment, of wilderness to the public. Studying the selection of those sites is critical to understanding how Canadians fashioned a recognisable and resilient historical identity for wilderness over the course of the twentieth century. Examining the ways in which these sites represent wilderness, and the reasons they have done so, helps to explain the astonishing persistence of wilderness in Canadian culture, and in popular and academic history. It also exposes the limits of that wilderness: that is, the specific kind of wilderness we have usually favoured. Finally, it gives us a sense of the role of the state in sustaining national myth and identity outside the usual cultural institutions.

This article will focus on fur-trade sites, for they dominate the (known) historic resources in the northern parts of every province in central and western Canada, and they remain the flagship sites in terms of resources and visitors.

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