Columns

Identity Crises

Daniel Francis

Are there more books to be written about the fabricated images of our provinces that obscure a darker reality?

Several years ago Ian McKay, a Queen’s University history professor, published a book called The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia (McGill-Queen’s University Press) in which he argued that the image many of us have of Nova Scotia as a tartan-wearing, bagpipe-squealing mini-Scotland is pretty much a fabrication. According to McKay, this imaginary identity was invented, kilt and caboodle, by the provincial tourist industry, abetted by the folklore/handicrafts crowd. For the sake of attracting tourism, and providing work for local rug hookers and basket makers, Nova Scotia was reduced to a tartan cliché. McKay describes the “army of metaphors” deployed during the 1920s and ’30s to reinvent the province as a simple, pre-modern cultural landscape populated by unspoiled “fisherfolk.” A grizzled sea captain whistling “The Squid Jigging Ground” became the avatar of Nova Scotian identity.

One of the delights of McKay’s book was the skewering he gave to the many “come-from-aways” who still migrate to Nova Scotia from other parts of the country, don their cable-knit sweaters and wax lyrical about its rural charms. Meanwhile, as tourist brochures and transplanted Ontarians extolled its innocent lifestyle, the traditional economy of the province was gutted. Coal mines closed; the fishery collapsed; industries withdrew.

After finishing McKay’s provocative book, I thought surely someone would be inspired by it to perform the same meta-analysis on another of Canada’s English-speaking provinces. But to my knowledge such a book has not appeared, at least until now.

At first blush, Tim Bowling’s new memoir, The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture (Night­wood), is nothing like Ian McKay’s academic analysis. The Lost Coast is the work of a poet and an elegist. Bowling is lamenting in rueful prose the end of a way of life, not parsing the language of tourist brochures. Still, it seems to me that the poet is engaged in exactly the same exercise as the historian: he is holding up to ridicule and anger the fabricated image of a province, an image that obscures a darker reality.

Bowling was born in 1964 and grew up in Ladner, a community on the Fraser River south of Vancouver, during what he describes as the twilight years of the commercial salmon fishery. Both his father and his elder brother were fishermen, and young Tim learned to set nets in the river when he was barely in his teens. One hundred years ago the Fraser River boiled with salmon, a dozen or more canneries operated near the mouth of the river and thousands of boats went out in all weather and all seasons to harvest fish. Now the industry appears to be on its last legs. Bowling’s book is about the demise of the salmon fishery and the life that went along with it, what he calls “the dying culture of the coast.”

To Bowling, it is all the more tragic that no one seems to care. “The truth is,” he writes, “we’re going to wipe out the wild salmon in my lifetime and most of us won’t notice.” The fishermen slip away into other jobs; the wild salmon are replaced by farmed fish. “I am not saying this group or that group is to blame (though they are), or that government policy is at fault (though it is). I am saying everyone is complicit in the disrespect we show the earth by the manner in which we have structured our lives. ”

Meanwhile, and this for me is the subtext of Bowling’s book, B.C. is marketed to the world as a place of surpassing beauty and unlimited abundance, a playground as much as a province. “Supernatural B.C.” is the slogan the tourist brochures use, often accompanied by breathtaking photographs of the wild coast. But the West Coast has always been a place where natural resources are exploited ruthlessly. It began long ago with the arrival of the earliest fur traders, who within a few years destroyed the sea otter population on which their trade depended. It continued with the clear-cutting of coastal forests and the massacre of whales and other sea creatures. Nature was commo­dified and the commodities were harvested without thought for the future. The blowhard’s image of Supernatural B.C., like the sentimental image of a tartanized Nova Scotia, obscures this history of pillage behind a billboard identity of ski slopes and totem poles.

Are there more books to be written about the imagined identities of other provinces? I hope so. Think of Alberta marketing its mountain landscapes while tolerating the environmental catastrophe that is the oil sands project. And what about Prince Edward Island? What dark secrets are hidden behind the skirts of Anne of Green Gables? It is a bracing way to think about Confederation, not as a union of provinces but rather as a gallery of self-satisfied images waiting to be deflated.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at danielfrancis.ca.

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