The North and Canada

The Group of Seven

Nelvana of the Northern Lights

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon


In her landmark study Canada and the Idea of North, Sherrill E. Grace presents a cultural analysis of the North in which she dissects the various discourses that over time constitute and reconstitute Canadian perceptions and projections of their northern frontier. Analyzing a multitude of voices that critically shaped Canadians' ideas and imaginations of 'North', Grace shows how the constant renegotiations of such representations formed an ongoing process in the creation of a shared heritage, origin, and experience.

At the heart of Grace's work lies the proposition that the Canadian North represents a culturally constructed idea that performs a variety of functions and serves as a symbolic projection space of Canadianness. Settling on a definition of North, Grace explains that

North is not natural, real, a geological or meterological matter of treelines, eskers, permafrost, snow and temperatures that can dip as low as -81C. North is a discursive formation and as such it has done and continues to do a great deal of ideological and practical work. [The Canadian North] permeates all aspects of our culture, from painting to comic strips, from politics to classical music, and it encompasses the entire country.

As a discursively constructed idea North "is a process, not an eternal fixed goal or condition." Images of North are constantly in flux, being renegotiated amongst a polyphony of cultural agents that in turn create multiple-at times even conflicting-ideas of North.

When viewing the North as a culturally constructed idea, it is important to identify the formative forces that shaped the discourse of 'North'. During the mid-twentieth century these took the form of academic and arts associations and clubs, educational institutions, and governmental departments, mostly located in urban centers, above all in Toronto, along the southern border of Canada. As a result an inverse creation of images of the North ensued. While First Nation populations living in the Canadian North lacked a voice in the cultural centers of the time, southern Canadians exclusively defined the 'North'. Grace pointedly notes that what became conceived of as North was "above all, a construction of southerners, paradoxically invoked to distinguish us [Canadians] from those who are more southern." An important feature of representations of the Canadian North is that such ideas tended to "serve southern Canadian interests, be they psychological, spiritual, physical, material or political." In a similar vein, Caroline Rosenthal draws attention to the uses of North as a feature for differentiation and as a projection space:

"[I]n times of national crisis or when seeking to delimit itself from other nations, Canada has always looked north. However, this imaginary north had little to do with the north that is a homeland to the Inuit."

The Canadian North as a culturally constructed idea thus plays a key role in the way Canadians conceive of themselves as a national community, sharing a common 'northern' origin and experience and portraying themselves as a society distinct from the United States. Grace further underlines this point, arguing that "North is fundamental to who we are, to that 'imagined community' of Canada, with all its contradictions, failures, compromises, and successes." The North as a projection space for a variety of discursive voices that together constantly renegotiate the significance of North for Canada therefore assumes a community-creating function. It becomes an integral part in the construction process of a Canadian national identity-not unlike the American west, some scholars suggest.

(Grace, Rosenthal)