The Canadian North – A Literary Homeland or Frontier
by Philip Goldring, Philip Goldring and Associates
Canadians give the name "North" to many regions. It can include the farms of Alberta's Peace River Country, Maria Chapdelaine's Saguenay, and even cottage country near Toronto. More conventionally, the North has two great divisions separated by a wavering "tree line:" the boreal forest and the tundra.
Sledging over hummocky ice, by Samuel Gurney Cresswell, 1854
Culture, not geography, gives the literary North its character. As a homeland-the older view in the North itself-it is a beautiful, challenging but nurturing place; as a frontier, it is tempting but harsh. These opposed ways of looking at culture and environment have become familiar to Canadians since the publication of Thomas Berger's report Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1977).
Physical landscapes dominate writing about the Canadian North, from the Northwest Passage to the Klondike Gold Rush. Natural hazards create psychological moments for writers to exploit. In a typical northern story, travellers follow swift, dangerous rivers; and struggle fearfully through forests or across the tundra, in the summer under the midnight sun or during the endless night of the winter.
Inuit people watching the arrival of the Eastern Arctic Patrol vessel C.D. Howe, Pangnirtung, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut), July 1951
As renowned archaeologist Robert McGhee warns, Canadians receive so much information about the North from outsiders that it remains an imaginary place. Landscapes are perceived differently by the peoples of northern homelands, who for centuries recorded stories through memory and oral tradition. Julie Cruikshank's books on Yukon women, the Inuit traditions that Susan Rowley and John Bennett present in Uqalurait (2004), and Zacharias Kunuk's film Atanarjuat (2001) all give vigorous expression to the importance of the land in Aboriginal narratives.
Until recently, southern writers generally overlooked northern peoples. Missionaries, who provided Canadians with much of their information about the North until the 1950s, were more forthright, but still reinforced negative images in books such as Archibald Lang Fleming's Dwellers in Arctic Night (1928) and Perils of the Polar Pack (1932). As Sherrill Grace illustrates in Canada and the Idea of North (2001), southern writers now recognize the "homeland" perspective and encourage northerners to "write back" against the idea that their homeland is empty. The two visions will continue to compete because the North is as much a literary frontier of exploitation as an economic one.