ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Where is the North, and who should interpret its History?

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 "northerner."

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 ground.

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 and society.

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 alienation.

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 NorthNorthwest?

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 or Nuuk?