A Canadian Myth of Origin

by Craig Martin

The following is an excerpt from a chapter I’m writing for a book on mythmaking and identity formation at public tourist attractions, edited by Erin Roberts and Jennifer Eyl. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to share this prior to the book’s publication.

In January of 2017 I visited Ottawa, Canada’s capitol city. At that time the downtown area was saturated with banners and signs marking “Canada 150,” the year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the creation of Canada as a self-governing dominion or confederation, independent of Britain (established via the British North America Act, 1867). The Canada 150 logo could be seen on just about every street:

As the Canada 150 website claims,

[t]he logo is composed of a series of diamonds, or “celebratory gems,” arranged in the shape of the iconic maple leaf. The four diamonds at the base represent the four original provinces that formed Confederation in 1867: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Additional diamonds extend out from the base to create nine more points—in total representing the 13 provinces and territories.

The Canada 150 logo is an evocative symbol and will become an enduring reminder of one of Canada’s proudest moments. The maple leaf motif is recognized at home and abroad as distinctively Canadian, and it fosters feelings of pride, unity and celebration.

Although the four diamonds are said to represent the “original” provinces, just what exactly constitutes the “origin” of Canada is, in fact, a deeply contested matter. The website claims the maple leaf “fosters unity,” but other cities—such as Vancouver—have launched a “Canada 150+” campaign in order to note that there were aboriginals in North America long before the formation of the confederation in 1867, and that those aboriginals are perhaps a part of a “Canada” that existed prior to that particular point in time. Tensions between aboriginals and those descendants of the French and British colonials have been present since the settlers first arrived, and the status of the First Peoples is to this day subject to ongoing legal battles.

I found a particularly interesting site for the complex discursive construction of “Canada” at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, particularly in the “Early Wars in Canada” permanent exhibit. According to the museum’s website, this exhibit focuses on “The wars of First Peoples, the French and the British [which] shaped Canada and Canadians.” What is ambiguous here, of course, is just what the referent of “Canada” is in “Early Wars in Canada.” Since most of the exhibit concerns a time period before the confederation of 1867—the exhibit begins by noting that it will cover “earliest times to 1885”—to what does the term Canada refer? The exhibit claims to depict “Wars on Our Soil,” but who constitutes the “we” behind the “our” in “our soil”?

One of the first messages in the exhibit claims that “War has shaped Canada and Canadians for at least 5,000 years.” The excavation of 11 bodies with “fractured skulls and smashed facial bones and teeth” at an archaeological site at Namu, British Colubmia—dated from four or five millennia ago—is cited as evidence.  Notably, such a claim implies that the region in North America that eventually became the state of Canada was always Canada, and that the people who lived there were always Canadians—or, if not always, at least from approximately 3000 BCE. In this way, Canadian-ness is anachronistically—yet strategically—projected backwards in time from the present, making the present a teleological end-goal of the last 5,000 years.

Notably, such an anachronistic projection of the present into the past could be done at any moment in history. For instance, imagine that in a thousand years what we now consider the nation of Canada becomes annexed to Mexico; at that point, the narrative could be altered such that, “War has shaped Mexico and Mexicans for at least 6,000 years.” Nothing ensures that the retroactive identification of the past with the present will be stable; the past, then, can continually be rewritten. Revisionist history is, perhaps, the only type of history possible.

The survey of particular wars that have taken place across “Canada” begins with inter-tribal battles between First Peoples. Citing a narrative from the Odawa tribe, the exhibit notes that hunters who went beyond the respected boundaries of their tribe risked death at the hands of neighboring tribes; as more deaths occurred, “several states were obliged to declare open hostilities against each other …. From this time they were engaged in constant warfare.” The inclusion of the Odawa tribe and the First Peoples generally in an exhibit within the Canadian War Museum implies that these peoples were Canadians, even if they did not identify as such. Much as many Christians co-opt ancient Israelite traditions for Christian purposes, here it seems contemporary Canadians claim ancient First Peoples as their own, for contemporary purposes.

Further into the exhibit, following displays of material evidence of the means of war between such tribes (i.e., spears, bows and arrows, etc.), a more cautious note appears: “In Iroquoian communities in what is now southern Ontario, every man and woman had a military role” (emphasis added). This is notable insofar as it attempts to avoid the anachronism seen in the previous parts of the exhibits. However, it also rhetorically distances the First Peoples from contemporary Canadian identity. Although the Iroquois may have lived on the land now known as Ontario, perhaps they were not Ontarians. (Arguably, the creators of the exhibit want to have their cake and eat it too: staking out Canada’s ancient authority or authenticity by including First Peoples at one point, but excluding First Peoples when it comes to contemporary political authority.)

Mere presence upon what came to be known as Canadian soil is apparently insufficient to make one a Canadian, as museum-goers next learn when the exhibit comes to the Vikings, who are described as “alien invaders.” Although they “established an outpost” at what came to be Newfoundland, they were enemies of the First Peoples and were eventually defeated and forced to leave the continent. From this it appears that the First Peoples were Canadians, but the Vikings—despite their stay—were not.

By contrast, when the exhibit gets to the arrival of the French, the French are not characterized as “alien invaders.” On the contrary, they are said to have “settled” and to have “founded” Quebec. In addition, they built forts “for defence against European rivals.” The status of the French is thus, at this point, ambiguous. Although they have “settled” in Canada, they are also “European” and have “European rivals.” Perhaps at that point the French occupied a liminal space between France and Canada? Perhaps their parturition from France and the birth of Canada was not yet complete? Either way, it is clear that their identity is here, at this point in the narrative, individuated primarily from the fact that they arrived from France, insofar as they are consistently referred to as “the French.” That individuation seems to have priority over their other possible identities.

The Europeans brought guns with them, and the exhibit notes that as the First Peoples adopted their use, it changed the way they engaged in war. “Algonkians and Hurons acquired matchlock muskets through trade. When they realized that wooden armour provided no protection against lead bullets, First Peoples stopped wearing armour and fighting battles in the open.” Here the First Peoples’ identities are individuated through their tribal names—Algonkian and Huron—but insofar as the header above this text claims that “Firearms changed First Peoples warfare in Canada” (emphasis added), perhaps as First Peoples they are nevertheless still Canadians. However, the exhibit then turns to note that as the Algonkians and Hurons allied with the French, they collectively warred against “the Iroquois League and the British.” Is Canada a land divided at this point? If the Iroquois are part of Canada, is this civil war?

The “Post-Contact Wars” between the Iroquois and the “Algonkian-French-Huron alliance” had the effect of “militarizing” Canada:

Every man became a soldier, every parish had its own militia, and every town had a garrison, fortifications, and a military commander. The Governor-General, who served as commander-in-chief, could mobilize Canada’s entire armed strength within days.

The use of the word “entire” is instructive here; if the governor can mobilize all of Canada’s military against the Iroquois League, then it follows that the Iroquois are, apparently, not part of Canada. Later the display claims that “Canada faced defeat by the Iroquois League,” further implying that the Iroquois were not included among the Canadians. The exhibit goes on to say that, “[b]eginning in 1669, Canadian men aged 16 to 60 received military training and served in the militia …. They joined First Peopleswarriors on raids against the Iroquois League and the British.” Here Canadian men joined First Peoples, in which case First Peoples are apparently not Canadian; here “Canadian” appears to refer only to the French forces.

Later in the exhibit, museum-goers learn that the relations between the First Peoples and the Europeans involved both tension and accommodation. “First Peoples found themselves accommodating to or resisting the European presence, while working to preserve their own culture and heritage.” What is remarkable about this statement is, in part, that First Peoples’ “own culture” seems, implicitly, to be something pre-Canadian. They had their own culture, which they tried to preserve from (corruption by?) European influence. Are they, then, pre-Canadian Canadians? The same paragraph continues: “This accommodation and resistance continues today.” This last claim implies that perhaps there is still something un-Canadian about both First Peoples and the “European presence” in Canada. Perhaps, then, we are dealing not with civil war but a war between foreign nations on Canadian soil?

This conclusion seems to be confirmed when the narrative goes on to emphasize ongoing conflict between the French and the British, culminating in the “Seven Years’ War.” The “local clash” between the French and the British

quickly escalated into a world war. Beginning in 1755, Britain and France sent thousands of professional soldiers to North America. A year later, hostilities spread to Europe and both nations formally declared war. By 1759, war raged in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and the Caribbean, and Quebec was under attack by a British fleet and army.

Here, it seems, there are foreign nations—France and Britain—clashing on Canadian soil. The one discursive exception is in the last clause: if Quebec is part of Canada, then perhaps the French there were Canadian, as opposed to the British foreigners at their door. This is confirmed when the exhibit goes on to say that Louisbourg, “a Canadian city” founded by the French, was destroyed by the British. Apparently the French in Louisbourg were Canadians, although the British exiled them to France after the defeat.

By the time museum-goers get to the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, we learn that the partition of the United States from Britain helped to constitute Canada as a nation. British-American colonists who rebelled against the British homeland also attacked Canadian territory, forcing Canadians to collectively defend their territory. The display says that during the War of 1812, “British regulars, Canadian militia, and First Peoples warriors smashed a major American invasion at Queenstown Heights.” What’s interesting here is that apparently First Peoples are not part of Canada, as they must be mentioned in addition to the Canadian militia. The exhibit insists that this alliance repelled similar American attacks from 1812 to 1814, “and saved Canada from annexation.” Are the British and First Peoples part of this Canada that resisted annexation, or are they merely allied with the Canadians? The narrative draws attention to one “Canadian civilian” who alerted “Mohawk and Ojibwa warriors” of important intelligence regarding the American armies; if she was Canadian but they were Mohawk and Ojibwa, perhaps they were not Canadian?

Later we’re told that in 1885 “a small Canadian army suppressed Métis and Cree resistance” to Ottawa’s administration of the province. The narrative assures museum-goers, however, that “both societies survived as viable communities, which continue to work to protect their rights and heritage.” Here, it seems, not only were the Métis and Cree not part of Ottawa or Canada, but that they continue to be distinct communities. Eventually “Canadians” took the Prairies away from “First Peoples”: “In 1870, First Peoples controlled the Prairies. By 1880, Canadian settlers dominated the region.” Here it is quite clear that First Peoples are not Canadian, especially as “First Peoples resented the Canadian settlers.” The French settlers have, at this point, now become Canadian settlers.

We have, then, an inconsistent and contradictory message. Despite the inclusion of First Peoples as part of Canada at the beginning of the exhibit, the overwhelming message throughout is that the French settlers are the real Canadians. The French are the only group consistently identified as Canadian, and First Peoples are largely depicted as either allied with or against these authentic Canadians, rather than as Canadian themselves.


The matrix of individuation applied in this origin myth involves all of the following identities: Algonkian, American, British, Canadian, Canadian militia, Cree, European, First Peoples, French, Huron, Iroquois, Iroquois League, Louisboug, Métis, Mohawk, Odawa, Ojibwa, Ontarian, Québécois, and Viking. Mere presence on “Canadian soil” (at least as drawn at the time of the exhibit’s creation) does not make one “Canadian,” as many of those groups present on that “soil” are depicted as invaders, interlopers, outsiders, or allies. In the case of most of the groups mentioned, their initial identity or primary individuation appears to be based on their European country of origin or their tribal name. That is, at first French Canadians appear to be French first, and Canadian second; Canadian-ness thus seems to be a second order individuation built upon other, previously existing identifications. By the end, however, the French Canadians become the true Canadians.

As noted above, at first the exhibit seems to want to include the First Peoples’ tribes as part of Canada—hence the claim that Canadian wars go back 5,000 years. However, by the time we get to the end of the nineteenth century, it appears that those individuated as First Peoples are not part of Canada and, in some cases, perhaps at odds with or at war with Canada. By contrast, the Vikings and the British-Americans mentioned, despite their residency on “Canadian soil,” are consistently treated as alien interlopers, clearly outside Canada proper.

If a group’s presence on Canadian soil does not qualify one as Canadian, what does? What criterion underlies the determination of Canadian-ness? No such criterion is made explicit in the exhibit, although those first identified as French (and a few of the British) eventually became Canadian. Arguably, there could be no objective or publicly available criterion by which some are identified as Canadian and others not—ultimately, Canadian-ness is accomplished by fiat via the recitation of these very sorts of discourses. The discourses cannot appeal to something outside themselves to justify their boundary-drawing, as the Canada they point to is the performative result of their recitation rather than their condition.

The discourses that individuate Canada in this exhibit clearly have no legal authority—to some extent it’s merely a museum discourse. Border control agents cannot appeal to it in order to determine who may enter the country. However, that does not mean the discourses at such sites are meaningless, purposeless, or completely without social consequences. On the contrary, insofar as the functions of discourse include the ranking, normalization, and valuation of distributed identities, subjects who identify as Canadian may develop sentiments of affinity or estrangement—or sympathies and antipathies—toward the various groups individuated in the discourse at hand. In Discourse and the Construction of Society, Bruce Lincoln rightly argues that mythic narratives are “one of the chief instruments through which [groups] maintain themselves separate from, hostile toward, and convinced of their moral … superiority to their … neighbors.” French Canadians may, for instance, develop sentiments of estrangement toward those who identify with their aboriginal ancestry; they may perceive First Peoples as a “them” apart from an “us.” So although the discourses found in a museum may not have an official, legal status in Canada, they may indirectly shape the voting choices of citizens or the judiciary’s interpretation of the law. These discourses can interpellate subjects, teaching them who or what they are, but also telling them who they are not.

Special thanks go to Naomi Goldenberg, Cameron Montgomery, and Stacie Swain at the University of Ottawa for hosting my trip to the war museum, and especially to Stacie for helping me interpret those parts of the display that depended on background knowledge about Canada that I did not have; I couldn’t have written this without her help.

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