Magical Thinking

Daniel Francis

For Canadians, the canoe is a container for our deepest dreams and anxieties, the magical vessel in which we are transformed from newcomers into natives.

During the 195s and 196s, the political commentator Blair Fraser was probably the most influential journalist in Canada. Writing from Ottawa for Maclean’s magazine, Fraser had a pipeline to every important politician and power broker in the capital. His column Blair Fraser Reports was a must-read for anyone wanting to know what was going on in the back rooms. But when he wanted time off from the world of politics, Fraser liked nothing better than to go wilderness canoeing. He belonged to a group of senior civil servants and diplomats, calling themselves The Voyageurs, who every summer followed one of the old canoe routes through the north country, re-enacting the adventures of the early fur traders. It was during one of these excursions on the Petawawa River in northeastern Ontario in 1968 that Fraser drowned when his canoe flipped over in a set of rapids. He was fifty-nine years old.

Modern-day voyageurs such as Blair Fraser and the other Ottawa mandarins who were on the trips with him—including, most famously, Pierre Trudeau—believed that their canoeing adventures immersed them in the essence of Canada. The trips, wrote Fraser, “gave us all a new awareness of Canada by bringing us into a kind of personal contact with its past.” In his only book, The Search for Identity, a history of the post-war period, Fraser located the country’s uniqueness in its northern landscape. Trudeau agreed. “I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism,” he once wrote, “but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land, and the greatness of those who founded it.” And the best way to experience the land was in a canoe.

As Misao Dean makes clear in her new book, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle: The Canoe in Discourses of English-Canadian Nationalism (University of Toronto Press), canoes have long embodied a set of virtues that are considered central to the Canadian identity. They are, after all, ubiquitous in our history and folklore. Fur traders and missionaries used them to navigate the northern waterways. Explorers used them to map the continent. Middle-class urbanites still use them to escape into the rusticity of cottage country. Generations of children used them to learn to be Aboriginal at summer camp. And before all that, the Aboriginals themselves used them, in the words of Samuel de Champlain, “to go without restraint, and quickly, everywhere…” As a result, the canoe has become a potent symbol of Canada. Why else would the federal government choose to install Bill Reid’s huge bronze canoe sculpture, Spirit of Haida Gwaii, in front of our embassy in Washington, DC? The canoe is supposed to symbolize our link to the landscape, to the first inhabitants, to our own history. But as Misao Dean, who is a literature professor at the University of Victoria, points out, symbols obscure as much as they reveal. If the canoe is a fundamental icon of our nationality, it is also (among other things) a fetish object, a misreading of Canadian history and a symbol of colonial oppression.

Fetish objects are revered for their special power. We usually associate them with religious ceremony or the magical thinking of pre-industrial cultures. In Dean’s view, however, Canadians have always revered the canoe for its power to transform us into indigenous North Americans. Canoeing, she writes, “is a strategy of appropriation whereby non-indigenous Canadians hope to indigenize themselves…” The canoe is a vessel in which non-Aboriginals can “go native,” imagining themselves at one with the land and its original inhabitants, erasing the distinction between Native and newcomer and claiming a right to ownership. “Canoeists,” Dean writes, “by virtue of their canoeing, are not European anymore, but something new, Canadian.” This, at any rate, is the myth.

The fetishization of the canoe is based on a reading of history that is summed up in the phrase attributed to the historian A.R.M. Lower, “Canada is a canoe route.” Or in the filmmaker Bill Mason’s “statement of canoe faith”: “It is as if God made the canoe, and then set about making a country in which it could flourish. That country was Canada.” Mason was a particularly important purveyor of recreational nationalism. Once called “Canada’s guru of canoeing,” he made several films for the National Film Board about canoeing and conservation. For him, canoeing was a means of recovering a relationship with nature that non-Aboriginal Canadians had lost, or never had. But, Dean argues, the fur trade did not create Canada, nor did the pioneer canoe routes determine our borders. And how can a recreational activity engaged in by only a small minority of the population be said to define our nationality? The canoeing version of our history is not an objective account of the past but rather an argument for a particular version of events, whose purpose is to rationalize the European occupation of the land and assert a wildercentric view of the Canadian identity.

A similar point is made in another new book, Canoe Nation: Nature, Race, and the Making of a Canadian Icon (UBC Press) by Bruce Erickson, a geographer at York University. Like Dean, Erickson believes that the canoe has become “a national fetish” that is “valued for its service to particular national myths.” He writes about what he calls “the anxious relationship” between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians and argues that in the national imagination the canoe is a vehicle for resolving this anxiety. As he puts it, canoeing is “the national equivalent of saying, ‘I’m not racist; look, I have Native friends.’ ”

Stated in shorthand, these claims might seem glib. Like Freud’s infamous cigar, isn’t a canoe sometimes just a canoe? But both Erickson and Dean make a convincing case that recreational canoeing is an example of a phenomenon known as “Indian masquerade.” At its most obvious, Indian masquerade involves dressing up in Aboriginal garb—usually including a feathered headdress—or even, in the case of Grey Owl, for example, taking on a permanent pseudo-Aboriginal identity. But the masquerade might also involve more subtle, even subconscious forms of appropriation, such as canoeing. The canoe trip remains a common way for Canadians to go native, to masquerade as Indians and to assert our connectedness to the environment.

“The canoe transports not just people and goods,” writes Bruce Erickson, “but also ideas and ideologies.” These ideas are most often unacknowledged. The virtue of these two new books is that they contradict the claims of “canoe nationalism” (the term is Dean’s) and reveal the ideology that lies behind the use of the canoe as an all-purpose symbol for Canada.

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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


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