Canadian Ghosts and the Narratives of Nation Building

By Shaun Stevenson

Issue 5.1 | January 15, 2014

Margot Francis. Creative Subversions: Whiteness, Indigeneity, and the National Imaginary. University of British Columbia Press, 2011. 252 pp.

Soon after relocating to Vancouver, British Columbia, I made an obligatory tourist excursion to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park on the North Shore. While struck by the beauty and lushness of a West coast rainforest, the enormity of the trees, and the vastness of the cliffs traversed via narrow, swinging bridges, I found my attention drawn to other things residing in the these dense, damp woods. Totem Poles and other Indigenous iconography are scattered throughout the park, signaling something both present and absent in this hallmark depiction of the Canadian wilderness. Whether buried in the trees, or lining the shelves of the park’s gift shop, there appeared a history–present, persistent, and yet not named– haunting this otherwise familiar signifier of Canadianness.

In many ways, Margot Francis’ Creative Subversions: Whiteness, Indigeneity and the National Imaginary is a text about hauntings. Francis frames her analysis around the power of ghosts and the ways in which they become implicated in the everyday geography, real and imagined, of the Canadian experience. Tracing a shift in the historical understanding of ghosts, or “spectrality,” from an emphasis on familial hauntings, to the post-enlightenment conception of collective, or national hauntings, Francis explores how whiteness and Indigeneity, and all of their spectral manifestations, are both omitted and conjured up in the symbols of Canadian social life. She investigates the articulation of Canadianness through pervasive yet banal emblems of national purpose, with topics ranging from the beaver, to the Canadian National Railway, to Banff National Park. As Francis notes, these seemingly banal symbols of Canadian nationalism are laden with “strategic absences”: knowledge that is generally known, but which is rendered  inarticulable (4). Francis’ analysis is centered around the question: “when banal emblems of national belonging convey a knowledge that is both articulated and refused, what might this teach us?” (4-5).

The scope of Francis’ theoretical foundations is vast yet focused, and in order to explore the meaning of national hauntings, and to root the concept of spectre in an understanding of national discourse, belonging and nation building, she deploys the work of a number of theorists. Contemplating the ideas of Freud and Julia Kristeva, and their analysis of the ways in which two seemingly opposite terms – the familiar and the uncanny – circulate through one another, Francis is concerned with how, “the uncanny intrudes on the Anglo-Canadian historical and cultural (un)conscious” (7). Building on the work of sociologists, critical race theorists, feminist and Indigenous scholars, Francis argues that at the center of the nation’s unconscious lies its implicitly white, hetero-masculine assertion of identity, haunted by the uncanny intrusion of Canada’s colonial legacy. Thinking through the work of Michael Taussig, Francis’ analysis articulates how failing to engage with these “public secrets” – histories that are known, yet often denied – perpetuates limited and exclusionary discourses of national belonging (159).  The implications of denying the spectral power of public secrets are elucidated as Francis writes, “in so far as Canadians consume versions of the past that do not nourish, the living can themselves become ghostly” (5). 

Creative Subversions is as much a text about analyzing these problematic manifestations of Canadian identity as it is about resistance through the critical counter-narratives of artistic practice. While Francis’ analysis of the banal symbols of national commemoration lay bare many Canadian public secrets, she is careful to assert that the power of spectres is not confined solely to our ability to “out” these national ghosts. Drawing on the work of Derrida and Benjamin, Francis writes,

The point is not simply to demystify the public secrets that shape a national consciousness, a project that […] is tantamount to wanting the power of mystery without the mystery; rather, it is to engage in a drama of re-enchanting the world, or revealing a secret, but only through a “transgressive uncovering” of what is already “secretly familiar”  (5-6).

In each chapter Francis turns her attention to the radical and resistive creations and performances of artists, historical and contemporary – from video artist, Richard Fung’s Dirty Laundy (2006) and Cree painter, Kent Monkman’s Moral Landscape (2003), to Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s humourous performance of Lesbian National Parks and Services (1997) and the Garden River First Nations’ refashioned  performance of Longfellow’s epic poem, Hiawatha. These artists raise critical questions about the nature of Canadian benevolence “while also articulating alternative visions of the ties that bind in this deeply contested nation” (19). She focuses on the artists’ ability to “cannibalize Canadian culture” in ways that prompt new forms of memory, agency, analysis and activism (19). The artistic works engage in the drama of re-enchanting the banal emblems of national purpose, demystifying the secretly familiar ghosts that haunt Canadian social life, as they “play with and against the very notion of belonging” (21).

Framing Chapters Two through Four around a different commonplace symbol representative of Canadianness, Francis unpacks the various ways in which these nationalistic images encapsulate hidden histories. For example, in Chapter Two, entitled, “The Strange Career of the Beaver,” Francis implements a Foucauldian discourse analysis of natural history to explore the anthropomorphizing of the beaver and the ways in which “beaver society” has been idealized, racialized and sexualized, and then transposed onto Canadian society (24). Reflecting on a number of historical writings emerging out of New France during settlement and the fur trade, Francis shows how the beaver was revered for its “laborious and disciplinable nature, its industry and its obedience in work” (23). Emphasizing the hierarchical and repressive structure represented in explanations of beaver society, these narratives worked to shore up the social regimes of New France, demarcating who would be included and excluded in this emerging nation. Perhaps most interesting, and problematic, is the manner in which the revered qualities of the beaver were implicitly directed at Indigenous peoples throughout colonial encounters in order to reflect the very traits that they were believed to be lacking (25-26). When not idealized as brave, stoic warriors, or when perceived to be in the way of acquiring resources and advancing ‘progress,’ Indigenous people were viewed as “wasteful, lazy and far from manly” – indeed unlike the beaver, and thus unlike Canadians (26).

Moving from these norms of social order, to the gendered discourse of beaver fashion (26), to commercial culture and colonial fetishism (35), and finally to the sexualized and degrading slang discourses of the female genitalia (42), Francis examines the beaver’s role in the construction of the imagined community that would come to form the nation. The seemingly banal emblem of the beaver was integral to this national project, “contributing categories that defined some people, primarily European male immigrants, as fully entitled and deserving citizens while others – including all women – were defined as unfit to be full citizens of the “new” land” (45). Through her historical analysis of how the beaver articulates the defining attributes of Anglo-Canadian settler identity, Francis begs us to consider how these ghosts of the past continue to inform and possess the living.

Similarly, in her chapters on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and Banff National Park, Francis interrogates each emblem of Canadian nationalism for its ability to produce and perpetuate a discourse of white national belonging, and to materialize the “regime of the open secret” (127). Francis depicts how the CPR became the emblem of masculinity’s domination of nature in the new continent (60). Likewise, the construction of Banff National Park, perhaps Canada’s most internationally recognizable signifier, worked to reinscribe a white masculinist discovery of and mastery over the wilderness, and ‘virgin’ lands (95). Both of these seemingly banal symbols of Canadianness, embedded in fraught discourses of nation building, naturalize whiteness and hetero-masculinity as the foundational attributes of Canada’s construction, once again calling on the reader to consider how these discourses continue to haunt contemporary Canadian life.

As mentioned, each chapter concludes with an artistic inversion of these problematic and exclusionary discourses of national belonging. These works, enacted and constructed by those very subjects previously excluded or subjugated by these limited national projects, destabilize the taken for granted emblems of Canadianness, and provide new models of belonging and nationhood; they also expose some of the public secrets that continue to haunt the living. The photography of C.D. Hoy for example, presents an alternative version of the Canadian Pacific Railway, depicting the fact that thousands of Chinese labourers were required for its construction, and that bachelor communities made up of Indigenous and Chinese workers were indeed the most integral aspect of nation building at this time (69-71). Certainly, this artistic intervention turns the white hetero-masculine discourse on its head, and as Francis so astutely comments, “The juxtaposition of C.D. Hoy’s images with the earlier CPR images suggests that, although the railway secured a distinctly Euro-Canadian hegemony during the first decades after its construction, it also fostered a racially hybrid and predominately male homosocial culture” (74).

Perhaps the most substantial intervention into the limited discourses of Canadian nation building found in Creative Subversions are those offered by Indigenous peoples. Francis dedicates an entire chapter to Indigenous responses to “Indianneess,” as she identifies “Canadians’ parasitic relationship to Indigenous peoples” as a central thread of analysis throughout her text (127). Here Francis looks to the ways in which Indigenous artists have played with and against the notion of national belonging through Indigenous responses to the “phantoms of Indianness” (127). While she incorporates a number of Indigenous counter-narratives, one of the most powerful and continuous instances of artistic resistance is seen in the Garden River First Nation’s engagement with a classic narrative of the noble Indian: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Song of Hawatha (1855). While this poem and its corresponding theatrical performance is often understood as an assimilation narrative, beginning in the late 1890s, the Anishinaabek of Garden River would work within the confines of the problematic discourse to trouble its meaning, legitimizing Indigenous agency through the incorporation of their language and traditional practice, and presenting the Euro-Canadian audiences with the consequences of a colonial legacy, of which was unfolding right in front of them (141). This type of Indigenous counter-narrative asks viewers, and indeed readers of Francis’ text, to consider how Euro-Canadian narratives of nation building, and the limited notions of a ghostly “Indianness” that they perpetuate, are both acknowledged and refused in the present moment.

While Francis’ analysis initially appeared almost too encompassing, integrating whiteness studies, gender and feminist theory, Indigenous studies, critical sociology, artistic analysis and more, her text offers a fairly comprehensive interrogation on the construction of a limited and continuing problematic discourse of Canadian nationhood. She provides the reader with a number of significant examples of this discourse, along with various ways with which to critically read through and across national narratives. Her turn towards historical and contemporary artistic counter-narratives depicts how Canada’s national discourse has never been quite stable, providing a hopeful and ongoing conception of resistance.  Further, Francis’ interest in ghosts and hauntings allows for a continuous thread and lens with which to understand how these narratives continue to manifest themselves in Canadian social life. In his text White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada, Daniel Coleman writes, “whiteness still occupies the positions of normalcy and privilege in Canada, and anti-racist activity remains hamstrung until we begin to carry out the historical work that traces its genealogy (7-8). Creative Subversions makes a substantial contribution towards tracing this genealogy, adding to a breadth of work done around whiteness, Indigeneity, gender, memory and national identity. It stands alongside similar integral texts engaged with the critical investigation of Canadian identity, including, Paulette Regan’s Unsettling the Settler Within, Sunera Thobani’s Exalted Subjects, Lee Maracle’s I am Woman, Eva Mackey’s The House of Difference, Roy Miki’s Redress and Coleman’s White Civility. Francis’ text encourages readers to think more deeply about the precarious spaces between memory and forgetfulness, the spectres that haunt these spaces, and what these ghosts might have to teach us about contemporary Canadian society.


Work Cited

Coleman, Daniel. White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. Print.

Shaun Stevenson is a PhD student in the Production of Literature program at Carleton University.  He is also a research consultant with the National Core for Neuroethics’ (UBC) Cross-Cultural Issues in Aging and Dementia project. He holds a M.A. in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory from McMaster University, and a B.A. in English and Indigenous Studies, also from McMaster. Shaun is interested in research that has the potential to reconcile relationships between Indigenous Nations and the larger population of Canada, particularly through the lens of community engagement and education.