This discussion thread appeared on an email list as a result of the posting of a notice of a conference on the history of the Canadian North,
to which no historians living in Canada north of 60° have been invited. The texts are complete except for being de-identified.
My question to the coordinators, which is real to Northern residents, is
why no invited speakers to the Northern Workshop actually lived in the north.
It is the equivalent of hosting a workshop on Toronto and inviting only
speakers from Saskatoon.
As soon as I saw the conference location, it was obvious that no Northern
historians (using my definition of that term) would be there. The academic
community remains far more interested in what their colleagues have been
able to distill from their quick passes through the region than they are in
what is really going on here. For those of you who are interested, however,
I'd like you to know that we have a vibrant historical community, with
active researchers who are making our history accessible to the general
public in a way that is both meaningful and credible to them.
For my part, I've published 2 books in the past 18 months (one on a 1905
mining stampede, and the other on the Canol), and my Yukon & Alaska History
Web site gets huge numbers of visitors. My records clearly show that people
in the region where the Northern History conference is being held are not
aware of either.
The "series of papers and reports on works in progress that provide insight
into the most recent research in the area" at the conference will
undoubtedly follow the same path as it always has in dealing with the North.
In reply to the question "why no invited speakers to the Northern Workshop
actually lived in the north," I would point out that Steven Haycox, who
lives in Alaska, is invited, as well as four members of the faculty of the
University of Northern British Columbia, and Matt Bray, from Laurentian.
I don't think the Saskatoon/Toronto analogy is particularly apt, though it
would probably be fascinating to sit in on a workshop on Toronto made up of
speakers from Saskatoon. Someone should organize one.
Without putting too fine a point on it, speakers from northern British
Columbia, for example, do live in the North.
[the writer lives at 54° N.]
Sorry, _____ and _______, but who would seriously claim that
Prince George is in Northern Canada? Central B.C. yes. This is as bad as
Zaslow suggesting that Sudbury was in the north. When I last checked,
Sudbury was south of Medicine Hat, where I grew up, and anyone who suggested
The Hat was in the North would be jeered at.
As to Haycox, good historian but an American. Surely some credible North of
60 Canadian historians would have been available. Or how about some of the
many First Nations people publishing and writing about the North? Academics
need to move beyond the claustrophobia of "learned" conferences and bring
their ideas and study into the public light where it might have some public
benefit. Where, for example, have our "Yukon" historians of national repute
been while Whitehorse City Council bulldozes down most of our heritage?
With regard to the on-going discussion surrounding the legitimacy of
academic discussion on the "North" being carried out by "non-northerners",
perhaps this "essentialization" of experience is understandable, a
reasonable fear of discriminatory/hegemonic interpretations which have
proven tenacious and damaging. However, I would like to know whether this
requirement of the experience of "being North" in order to do Northern
history has real implications for historians in general. Does this mean
that historians must become more like ethnologists and live in the culture
which they study, or that only a woman can write "women's" history, a child
can wrtie children's history (or a former child?), or the privileged white,
anglo-saxon, anglophone males can write of the liberal capitalist
experience etc.? The primacy given to experience is, as many of my profs
have said to me over the years, a good subject for a thesis.
.... Well, speaking from the south (where we had our first frost of the
season just last night), I don't think the objections about the northern
workshop stem from the fact that the invited speakers are not "northerners"
(and by this I think ________ meant folks north of the 60th parallel)
since many of us HAVE lived in that North and most of us spend a good deal
of time there (even in the winter) whenever we can. I suspect the original
objection (correct me if I'm wrong, _____) may have had more to do with the
fact that most of the invited scholars don't have JOBS in the North and thus
northern institutions are underrepresented. I'm sure the workshop organizers
are aware of this and I'm sure they will welcome submissions from all camps
(it was a call for papers after all, not a finished program), including a
panel discussion on the question of where is the North and what is it NORTH
OF? Sign me up, this is one of my favorite debates.
So, I don't think this is about "essentializing" northern history, at least
I hope not. It's taken an awfully long time to get anybody (in Toronto or
elsewhere) to recognize that the North has a history worthy of academic
study in the first place.
Regarding the recent spate of e-mails and comments regarding the
up-coming Northern History workshop at the next CHA Conference. It
seems that no one can decide what is north and south anymore. If this
is the case than the historical profession is in much worse shape than I
thought. The real question is how do we as historians, writers or
whatever define north? Winnipeg might be as far north as Thunder Bay,
but so is Vancouver and Victoria. Are the latter cities considered
northern? Does someone in Churchill, Manitoba consider Winnipeg to be a
northern or southern city? Does someone on Baffin Island think that
anything below the tree line is south. Is ones "northerness" relative
to one's position to Toronto? Or Ottawa? Does one have to be north of
60 to be north? Winter temperatures north of Thunder Bay are as cold as
in the Mackenzie Delta. Is weather the defining characteristic? I live
in North Bay (east of balmy Sudbury), and every winter -30 is common
with temperatures sometimes hitting -55. According to one person I'm in
the south. Well, join me by the pool in January.
All this debate reflects is the fall out from the Limited Identities
concept of the 1960s. Larger regional concepts are now being splintered
into smaller and smaller defintions. Eventually, no one will be able to
say anything without innumerable qualifications attached to it. To
change Careless' quote a little: I feel like the independent snow
plough contractor in the midst of a blizzard when he declared: "Lord, I
know I asked for snow -- but this is riduculous."
Lastly, as regards the upcoming workshop in particular, isn't it simply
a good thing that people are studying the 'north' (whatever it may be)
to find out what is unique about it.
Although it could descend into petty name calling, the discussion regarding
the Northern Studies conference opens the door to a consideration of what
constitutes "the north." My ______ class here at ____ is currently
struggling with this problem as well as the issue of how to define northern
identities. _______ appears to be fixated on the traditional
Canadian emphasis on the 60th parallel of latitude. Outside of Canada,
where this line has significance based upon artificial political
boundaries, the 60th parallel is really of little help in defining the
north. In Russian Siberia, for example, agriculture, large industrial
cities, and intensive forestry (phenomena not associated with the Canadian
territorial north) all exist north of 60. In Europe, Oslo, Stockholm,
Helsinki, and St. Petersburg are all at or near the 60th parallel. At a
meeting of the Arctic University working group two weeks ago, a colleague
from Tromo University in Norway informed me that Oslo was not northern in a
Norwegian sense, and one of my Russian born students insists that St.
Petersburg is not a northern city and that the Russian north begins at
Murmansk and Archangel. Interestingly, St. Petersburg is a frozen port in
the winter while Tromso, Murmansk, and Archangel are ice free. The issue of
ice also leads to problems in defining the north. Tromso, the northern most
University in the world at nearly 70 degrees north, has a climate and
economic lifestyle which I would classify as Maritime rather than northern
if I worked in strictly Canadian definitions. Surely lines of latitude are
an insufficient method of defining north. How are Churchill (59), Fort
Chipewyan (59), and the territory of the James Bay Cree (55), less northern
than Rovaniemi (66), Tromso, Akrureyi Iceland (65.5), and Whitehorse (61).
Looking around Fairbanks (64), it reminds me quite clearly of Ontario and
British Columbia mining and resource towns like Prince George (54), Kenora
(49) or Sault Ste. Marie (48). Indeed, Hamelin's classic, if problematic,
effort to define north in terms of economic, climatic, and cultural
characteristics demonstrates that even in Canada, the 60th parallel is not
a sufficient definition. If lines of latitude are sufficient to define
north, then surely the 45th parallel is the dividing line since any place
above 45 is closer to the pole than the equator.
My students have also tried to define north in terms of mindsets. For
example the hinterland mentalite was considered. Although Alaska exhibits
several economic characteristics of a typical hinterland region
(underdevelopment, dependency on exploitation of staples resources,
transfers of wealth from the federal government to the hinterland region),
its residents exhibit a frontier or pioneer mentalite. Indeed, Haycox has
tried to point out that the mythology of the Alaskan experience is quite
divorced from the economic reality. The hinterland mentalite furthermore,
has little resonance in Norway or Iceland where such debates, rather than
north-south, are characterized in terms of urban-rural. (As an aside,
coming from the prairies where rural means farm, it is quite strange to
here small Alaskan villages and hunting/fishing communities described as
rural) Nor does mythology and imagery serve as a sufficient construct for
defining the north. The class is now struggling with defining north in
terms of constructed identity along the lines suggested by Benedict
Anderson and Linda Colley (among others). Perhaps northern identity, and
hence a definition of north, is captured in the common language of regional
discourse and the relationship to others. Thus when confronted by an other
from California, it is easy to consider Yakutsk, Prince George, Swan River,
and Juneau as northern and sharing a common relationship. When confronted
by an other from Prince George, however, the definition of identity is more
localized and the term northern takes on localized characteristics. (One of
my new colleagues here at UAF recently said, you just don't feel Alaska
(read northern) in Anchorage any more.) Thus to be north is to live where
darkness is 24 hours if you live in Rovaniemi or Inuvik; to be north is to
live where winter is 8 months long, summer four months, and neither spring
nor fall really exist if you live in Fairbanks; to be north is to live
beyond the tree line if you are in Barrow.
As a final point in this discussion. I intend to submit a proposal to the
conference and I encourage others who live, research, and teach in the
north to do likewise. I currently live in Fairbanks, but was born and
raised on the Canadian prairies. Just because I live in Fairbanks, am I a
northerner and hence acceptable.
I have found this discussion of the north interesting,
but rather frustrating. _______ seems to define
"north" rather narrowly at the 60th parallel. I call this
narrow simply because it presumes an absolute definition
of north, but such a definition is impossible for any place
on earth, short of the pole. Historians should not be
permitted to get away with such under-theorized definitions.
Perhaps the problem here is that Canada's regions are
generally handed simple geographical names, but are
actually social and cultural constructs that often fit their
geographical designations only loosely. (Consider
Central Canada) As for the case of the north, I would
suggest that we have many norths. Yet, judging by
singulars employed in the panel and presentation titles,
this is something that the conference may not acknowledge.
As for defining "the north" differently than ______,
I approach the subject more along the lines of L-E Hamelin's
late 1970s effort to define a cultural/geographical index
of nordicity accommodating such factors as climate,
latitude, development, and isolation. Despite its weaknesses,
such an understanding is appealing because it allows for
changes over time and across space. Thus, although I spent
the first part of my life at a latitude of 56' 07" (roughly the
equivalent of Davis Inlet), I will not portray myself as a
Some good points of debate have been raised, and I salute the instigators
for raising them and for the ensuing discussion that they sparked. I'll
add one point only.
Having been highly governed and defined since even before becoming a part
of Canada by institutions issuing out of the South--HBC, RCMP, federal
Department of the Interior, and Indian and Northern Affairs, Topographical
Survey, Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources, Polar Shelf, Church of
England, Roman Catholic Church--the North, it follows, ought to be studied
from both the North and the South. And the points of view ought to be
juxtaposed. That southerners, some blithely and with little knowledge of
the North, governed it for a time, remains a sore point for many
northerners. That many of us snow birds still exploit the North (some of
us even still treating it as a tabula rasa on which to inscribe our own
fantasies--have a glance at Canadian Literature, even recent publications,
by Atwood, Moss, van Herk, Wiebe, and others), helps explain the resentment
that surfaces when "yet another" meeting about the North is convened in the
South. This is understandable and it is historical; moreover, it is, as
Hugh MacLennan wrote years ago, one of Canada's enduring paradoxes. Every
Canadian, except, I suppose, those few who are stationed at Alert, has the
North north of him or her.
The use of latitude as a factor in defining the North raises the
all-too-neglected question of how political/administrative boundaries
(including parallels and meridians) got there in the first place and how
we tend to let them affect the way we think and act. The effect of Hudson Bay,
which helps bring polar climates further south than anywhere else on
earth, should be a constant reminder of the poor fit between imposed and
natural boundaries. I once asked a Quebec govt administrator how 55
degrees north became the boundary between Cree and Inuit territory.
His response was that the line already existed as a major parallel of
latitude whose location was known by all parties concerned, and
was therefore convenient to the purpose. Great basis for a treaty,
wouldn't you say? And wasn't it just last winter when the James Bay
Crees, relatively untouched by the ice storms, sent relief supplies
southward to Montreal?
As to the question of southerners writing about the North, I do not
understand why this poses such a problem. Southerners have
many mistakes, misunderstandings, and atrocities to acknowledge in
their past and present treatment of the North and its people, and many
southern scholars are doing just that, as I'm sure the Northern
Perspectives workshop will highlight. The subtitle
of the workshop is, after all, Visions of Northern Canadian History. I
only hope the other Canadian divide does not deter francophone scholars from
sending in proposals to the workshop, or conference organizers from
inviting them. Louis-Edmond Hamelin's name came up during this
discussion. At this point in his life, and with all his real-life
northern experience, he would be a great addition to the program.
As someone who routinely refers to Winnipeg as "the south," in my
work, and who is keenly aware that the north does not begin at the 60th
paralell - at least in the prarie provinces - I feel compelled to put
my two cents worth into this debate, even though I do not live in the
north. I must confess to feeling torn on this issue, for while I am
pleased to see that there will be a special session on the north at this
year's CHA, I also think that we should make an effort to have
participation from aboriginal peoples and others who reside in northern
Canada speak at some of the sessions. Still, I cannot help but think
that much of this debate has been a tempest in a teapot. Is it truly
possible to argue that only those who are presently living in the north
can understand this region? Does present geographical location imply
some ability to "understand" the "historical reality" of existance in
that location any better than a well informed outsider? Without
descending into either a critique of the "limited identities" thesis or
into a defence of post-modernism, do we really have to accept the notion
that a call for papers is tantamount to a continuation of colonial
attitudes or another manifestation of imposing historical metanarratives
upon an oppressed region? I certainly hope not!
The response and subsequent discussion related to the recently announced
"Northern Perspectives: Visions of Northern Canadian History" planned
for the Learneds next June has been fascinating. However, I think the
initial visceral "northern" response has been misinterpreted by some
of the respondents.
Those of us working in northern history, like those of our colleagues
working on the "West", struggle with some definition of what is the
place we study. There has been a great deal of work in all regional
studies to come up with some common understanding, not necessarily
of a boundary, but rather some clearer description of what we are
considering as defining characteristics of region. It seems to
me that the present discussion is once again going over this familiar
A second challenge in "northern" history has been the general lack of
professional study and the vigour of popular notions of what the
north is supposed to be in the public mind. If we understand history
as a social force that develops a logical continuum from idea to popular
understanding, then historians must understand their work as part of this
passage. Ultimately the humanities contribute to advancing society's
appreciation of its source and purpose. Therefore "northern" history,
as part of Canadian history, should consider the distinct character
of the region and attempt to contribute to a broader public
understanding of its place within Canada and the world.
While the discussion of north as a place is always an opportunity to
broaden our understanding of the field of study, I am not convinced
that this is the issue being presented. Rather than considering the debate
one of ownership, that is, who is a "Northerner" or whether this distinction
includes a prior right to discuss northern history, I think it goes to the
core of knowledgeable academic study - the evolution, hopefully
advancement, of social thought about who we are. Perhaps the present
discussion should focus on "Who is asking the questions?" and "Who cares
what the answer is?"
I would agree that the region has been generally ignored by Canadian
historians and the recent resurgence of interest by academic historians
is a positive sign for both Canadian history and "Northerners." The north,
or as it was known earlier, the frontier, has been studied. The basis of the
staples theory and Metropolitanism was the availability of hinterland
resources that could be tapped and integrated into the central economy.
Much of northern history, particularly in the public mind, still revolves
around the fur trade, mining rushes and the extension of railways and
airways into the remote regions of the country. The social consequences
of this popular understanding are now being felt by all Northerners, and
perhaps by many Canadians. There is "newcomer" outrage at the apparent
richness of Aboriginal land claim settlements, business resistance to any
limits on natural resource exploitation and arguments rage over
management tables as western scientists and policy makers face aboriginal
elders over the relative values of science and traditional knowledge.
History offers an opportunity to reflect on these issues, and to bring a
deeper understanding to the public debate on northern policy, legislation
There have been some promising moves from professional historians in
advancing "northern" history. Kerry Abel and others in the CHA have
lobbied hard and effectively to establish a separate "Clio" prize for
northern history publications, Ken Coates, Arron Senkpeil and Amanda
Graham, among many, continue effective work on academic
communications about the north through _The Northern Review_, the Yukon
Department of Education now requires all its teachers to take a course in
northern studies, and many government professionals work closely with
First Nations to develop effective management systems that balance the
values of both traditional knowledge and western knowledge. Canadians
understanding of the north is changing because of these valuable
contributions. And history is perhaps the most important element in this
conversation because of the well-developed and clear linkages between
idea and public knowledge.
I look forward to hearing about the new ideas and the examples of their
effective integration into the lives of "northern" peoples that will be
presented at the workshop.
As for conferences about Toronto in Saskatoon, when I lived in
the 'toon, Toronto conferences were held regularly in every coffee
shop I ever visited.
Two things which have struck me about this discussion are how little
those of us who live in the south know about the social institutions by
and in which northerners study and research their own history. In the
south the universities are the core institutions; in the north this is
not so, as anyone who has visited the north must surely be aware (the
members of this list, too, after reading some of the replies from REALLY
north of 60). One thing that hasn't been mentioned is the fact that for
those who are really up north, Toronto is not an important city. In the
eastern arctic the natural line south is to Montreal; in the western
arctic, it's Winnipeg, or often Edmonton or Vancouver. Whatever its
economic role, Toronto seems simply invisible to northerners. Doesn't
bother me particularly, but it certainly seems to be a fact.
The second thing is the rapidity with which this discussion segued into
Toronto-bashing. I'm doing a half-course (with 55 students) right now
called "Reading Toronto" in which we look at fiction, poetry and other
writing about Toronto, and also consider the metaphor of "reading" the
city itself. We started with Anne Michaels' _Fugitive Pieces_ and are
ending in December with Michael Ondaatje's _In the Skin of a Lion_;
passing in the interval through Mrs. Simcoe, Canon Scadding, Ernest
Thompson Seton (for the Don Valley of course), Morley Callaghan, Hugh
Garner, Raymond Souster, Dennis Lee, and Margaret Atwood. I was born 1/4
mile from where I teach, and am retiring this year, so the course has
had an unexpected component of oral history -- not least because there
is an 83 year old in the class who informed me sturdily that she was old
enough to be my mother. (Long time since I've heard THAT!) Just last
week we did a rehearsed reading of Lister Sinclair's hilarious old radio
play (1946) called "We All Hate Toronto" and the results were
interesting. Most of the kids in the course are from the city itself or
from within the borders of the megalopolis; they all seem to LOVE
Toronto, and can't figure out why anyone should hate it, but then as it
turns out not many of them have travelled very far in their own country.
So of course we talked about the historic roots of Western and Maritime
At some point, of course, all this will have to stop -- both the
Toronto-bashing, and the blatant ignorance about other parts of the
counntry under which everyone suffers -- notherners, southerners,
maritimers, westerners, and Torontonians too. I think we get so tied up
in these destructive stereotypes that we often fail to see how they
actually create and sustain low regional self-esteem, and the resulting
defensiveness. If this discussion has lead some people to re-think
their position on the north and its institutions, all to the good. Maybe
someday people will re-think their positions on Toronto too, though
probably not in my life-time.
Just for starters, I would apply Cole Harris's "archipelago theory" to
break down some of the standard centre-periphery assumptions, and then I
would go on to consider Toronto and Montreal as paired cities. For a
long time I have believed these two great cities resemble each other
much more than either resembles its hinterland. But then I am sure
historians and geographers have long recognized this. However, at least
it's a start at breaking down those destructive stereotypes, which are
less material for thought than they are refuges from real thinking.
________ wrote in part: " I suspect the original objection
(correct me if I'm wrong) may have had more to do with the
fact that most of the invited scholars don't have JOBS in the North
and thus northern institutions are underrepresented."
Yes, you are correct in that, ______. I can't speak for the NWT but on
behalf of Yukon College, where I teach ________,
it would have been good to see some invitations extended to staff there.
Bill Morrison and Ken Coates both are editors for the Northern Review and I
would have liked to have seen them promote the College on a broader scale.
The Northern Research Institute is going great blazes as well. It recently
produced the first modern study on immigration to the Yukon, for example.
Authors in the historical field abound as well. David Neufeld, Ingrid
Johnson, Murray Lundberg, Helen Dobrowolsky, Amanda Graham, TJ Hammer,
Aron Senkpiel all produce good work.
As a "professional Northern historian" now living and working in the "North"
(or a small part of it), I have read with interest the lively discussion
which has come out of the comments surrounding the call for papers for the
Northern History workshop.
As my opening remark suggests, I think that the various comments have fallen
into two broad categories: 1) what constitutes a legitimate study of the history
of the northern parts of Canada; and 2) how do we define this region both
historically and in contemporary terms. Clearly these are overlapping
debates: who defines what is the "North" for the purposes of research, study
and the raising of historical consciousness? Is it the inhabitants of the
region, both aboriginal and "newcomers?" Or is it the "professional
historians," who, with their academic training and employment in museums,
public heritage institutions, and colleges and universities, have their own
agendas and perspectives?
I think one of the illuminating aspects of the comments is the
gulf that still seems to exist between these still divergent point of views.
While there are promising points of contact (as noted in David Neufeld's
posting), our institutional, conceptual and geographic frames often work in
the opposite direction.
As a recently trained academic historian, with a speciality in the history
of the images of the Canadian North, the majority of my research has been
carried out in "southern" archives. Due to logistics, costs, and other
factors, my research trips to the "North" have been limited, both in
time and geographic scope, compared to my time spent in the "non-North."
Stemming from this research, and following a fairly
traditional academic path, my work has focused, for the most part, on the
images of the North created by "outsiders" (although given the fact that
some of the creators of the images I have studied lived most of their lives
in the North, this term is somewhat problematic). My publications and
presentations of my research, also following this traditional academic path,
have been directed at a mostly non-Northern audience. While I value what I
do and see it as worthwhile contribution to "Northern History," I think it
is important that those of us that work in this fashion recognize not only
its value but also its limitations, especially in terms of its relevance and
connection to those living in the "North" and their ancestors.
Having recently relocated to Thompson, Manitoba, I now find myself immersed
in the character, problems, and challenges of living in the "North." Local
debates over the establishment of an urban reserve by Nisichiwayasihk Cree
Nation (Nelson House); the threat of an Inco shutdown; the planned absurdity
of Thompson's urban design which highlights views of the stack and obscures
the natural beauty of the Burntwood River; Aboriginal parents' accusations
of racism against local school teachers that becomes elavated to the realm
of political debate, all allow me to refocus my ideas of "north" and to
renew my research questions and agenda. Perhaps we can all agree that one
does not have to be of a place to write about it, particularly when that
place resides in the past. However, when that place is a region (or, as
several postings noted, a myriad of regions), with specific geographic,
social and cultural characteristics, personal experience with that place
will no doubt be enriching and maybe even challenge previous assumptions. It
may even help to break down some of the barriers that exist between those
who live in and those who study that place.
The recent postings about where is "North" and the recent CFP for the
Pacific Northwest History Conference in Victoria makes me wonder about the
growing use of the term "The Pacific Northwest." While I can certainly
understand considering Washington state as being part of an American
Pacific Northwest, can we really classify Victoria or Vancouver as being
part of the Northwest? As far as Canada is concerned, they are about as
Southwest as it gets.
What irks me, I guess, is to see an essentially American term being
applied to a Canadian region without looking critically at all this
implies. As we were discussing earlier, if we start considering Vancouver
or even Edmonton to be North, where does that leave the
Canadian North? Do Northern BC and Alaska become the Pacific
This definition of where "North" is, as you will recognize if you've read this far, is
a controversial subject around the world, not just in Canada. The problems associated with
this lack of agreement range from who to invite to conferences, to the huge issues of who should have control of the land
and its resources - can someone in Ottawa or Copenhagen really understand what problems are faced by people in Whitehorse