Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Wilderness and the Canadian Mind

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Wilderness and the Canadian Mind

Article excerpt

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESSES TRADITIONALLY TAKE one of several forms.1 Some review the activities and achievements of the Association or Society over the period of office. This approach would not be difficult here, given the outstanding contributions which our great Association continues to make to the field in Canadian Studies. On the other hand, Presidents of Societies involved with Science or Technology may take the opportunity to present the results of their own latest researches within the discipline. Alternatively Presidential addresses might take a more philosophical and reflective view of the development of their particular subject over the President's career in it. There is clearly no single prescription, and indeed Presidents of bacs have often been Presidents of other Associations and Societies in their own specialist disciplines, and have usually adopted different styles when addressing different bodies.

The present Address builds on some elements from each of these diverse approaches. The central concern is with Wilderness, which is a tangible natural entity, existing out there in the real world. It can be visited, and evokes in visitors a range of feelings from awe to fear. Yet wilderness is much more than this; it is also a perception, a concept, and an inspiration. Or rather, it forms a complex of perceptions, concepts and inspirations, and leads Warecki (2000) to note: 'Wilderness ideas are a tangle of unresolved contradictions.'

The author's long-standing commitment to Canada has been through the discipline of geography, specifically in the sub-disciplines of physical geography (qua environmental studies/sciences) and natural resource studies. It is a journey which has visited the forests of Vancouver Island, the alpine meadows of Kananaskis, the prairie farms of Saskatchewan, the Northern tundras of Rankin Inlet, the Mackenzie Valley and Devon Island, and the farms of southern Ontario and Quebec. However, engagement over the years with annual conferences, colloquia, forums and visiting lectures on Canada, continue to reinforce the conviction that the strength of Canadian Studies lies in its multidisciplinary format. This is the attraction for both faculty and for students. The two academic institutions with which the writer is associated in Yorkshire, namely the University of Leeds and York St John College, both offer multidisciplinary courses on Canada which recruit very well. A major part of their appeal lies in the multidisciplinarity of the courses. Although both are convened by geographers and registered as geography courses, each covers material from history, literature and culture, as one would expect from their subtitle - Environment, People, Culture.

Perceptions of Canada among non-Canadians have been polled recently among both faculty and students, including those who have completed the Canadian Studies course in the University of Leeds, and some who have not. The results are revealing of the major 'strengths' or positive values by which Canada is viewed by outsiders, and are shown in Figure 1. The three major images point to multiculturalism and the way in which Canadian society deals with it, to the environment and its beauty and conservation, and to Canada's role in the world. Thus environment and wilderness rank among the 'big issues'. Some readers will be disappointed that their own personal love ranks lower in the list, or not at all; the writer's predilection for Oscar Peterson and Angela Hewitt will be mirrored in many hearts and minds, but not unfortunately in the 'league tables'!

What is wilderness?

The cultural identity of Canada owes much to 'the wilderness.' It is a central theme in Canadian cinema, conservation, history, literature, livelihoods, music, painting and recreation. Popular images of wilderness abound on television screens, in newspaper supplements, and in travel brochures. Words to express such images might be: 'cold', 'forbidding', 'home of wild animals', 'magnificent sights', 'mysterious', and 'unknown'. …

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