"While There Is Still Time.": J. Murray Gibbon and the Spectacle of Difference in Three CPR Folk Festivals, 1928-1931

By Henderson, Stuart | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

"While There Is Still Time.": J. Murray Gibbon and the Spectacle of Difference in Three CPR Folk Festivals, 1928-1931


Henderson, Stuart, Journal of Canadian Studies


Between 1928 and 1931, a series of 16 Folk music and handicraft festivals were staged across Canada under the auspices of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The principal architect of the festivals, John Murray Gibbon, would later popularize the now-ubiquitous and immeasurably influential phrase "Canadian Mosaic" to explain his vision of a united Canada comprised of distinct identities. This article establishes the foundational role played by the category "Folk" in Gibbon's construction of the mosaic metaphor for Canadian cultural identity. It examines the construction of three major festivals and interrogates the very category "Folk" around which they were designed. It establishes connections between the structures of the festivals and the race, class, and gender-based cultural assumptions and ideologies that informed their organizers and participants. Finally, it explores the relationship between Gibbon's emphasis on antimodern Folk identities and an increasingly intricate Canadian cultural matrix under the conditions of modernity.

Entre 1928 et 1931, une série de seize festivals de musique folklorique et d'artisanat ont été organisés à l'échelle du Canada sous l'égide du Canadien Pacifique. Le principal architecte de ces festivals, John Murray Gibbon, rendra plus tard populaire l'expression très connue et de grande influence « mosaïque canadienne » pour expliquer sa vision d'un Canada uni qui comprend plusieurs identités distinctes. Le présent article explique le rôle fondamental qu'a joué la catégorie « folklorique » dans la formulation de la métaphore sur la mosaïque de M. Gibbon pour décrire l'identité culturelle canadienne. L'article examine la mise sur pied de trois festivals importants et analyse la catégorie « folklorique » qui est le fondement de ces festivals. L'article établit des liens entre la structure des festivals et les hypothèses culturelles ainsi que les idéologies fondées sur la race, la classe et le sexe qui ont influencé les organisateurs et les participants. Enfin, l'article examine les liens entre l'accent que M. Gibbon place sur les identités folkloriques antimodernes et une matrice culturelle canadienne de plus en plus compliquée visée par le modernisme.

What they took out of the air were ghosts.... Their presence is undeniable; to most it is also an abstraction, at best a vague tourism of specters from a foreign country.

Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic (1998, 86)

This is a revelation to me.... I always looked upon the Poles as husky, dirty labourers whose chief entertainment was drink, but these are delightful, cultivated people.

Ralph Connor to J. Murray Gibbon (1938, 277)

Between 1928 and 1931, a series of 16 Folk music and handicraft festivals were staged across Canada under the auspices of the Canadian Pacific Railway.1 Largely the conception and design of enterprising CPR publicity agent J. Murray Gibbon, the festivals were structured in such a way as to reflect a deliberate vision of Canada and Canadians. A great believer in the power and primacy of the Folk, Gibbon conceived of the festivals as a means to promote cultural communication among immigrants and French and British "natives" in Canada.2 The category "Folk" operated for Gibbon on the level of primary, essential identity-he believed in particular racial groupings, or categories, and contended that the essential expression of any racial category was evident in its Folk culture. In developing the series of festivals, Gibbon was reflecting his growing concern that Canada (as a nation comprised of many racial categories) suffered from a paucity of cultural communication and interconnectivity. What was worse, the essential Folk practices and beliefs of each far-flung racial group were seen to be under sustained and concentrated assault as modern Canada moved away from its agrarian beginnings. The fear was thus two-fold: not only were racial groups failing to interact with one another and engage with a cohesive national identity, but the essential identities, the very meanings of each group, were disintegrating through the relentless process of modernity.

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