Scholars and graduate students recently addressed the myth of the "Great White North" as a major theme in contemporary debates about Canadian geography and identity at a recent two-day workshop held February 1 and 2.
Organized by faculty members of the Department of Geography at Queen's (Andrew Baldwin, Laura Cameron & Audrey Kobayashi), participants discussed the idea of nature and how social constructions of race, whiteness and nature are interconnected in creating the Canadian nation. The workshop was related to a book project the three faculty members are currently working on, called Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature and the Historical Geography of Whiteness.
One of the objectives of the workshop was to draw scholarly attention to the geographical configurations of racisms in Canada and elsewhere, says Dr. Baldwin, conference organizer and Professor, Department of Geography. Another goal in hosting the experimental workshop was to provide a space for the various book contributors to discuss their work amongst themselves, says Dr. Baldwin.
"We invited critical race theorists, academics and practitioners to dialogue with another body of academics, namely geographers working on questions of social nature. We asked these two groups of scholars to consider what their respective fields might tell us about nature and Canadian identity," he said.
A total of 15 pre-selected papers were presented by scholars -- both established academic and graduate students -- from across North America. Following each paper, an independent scholar commented and critiqued the paper.
The workshop was opened with a prayer and presentation by Onita, Algonquin Nations member Paul Carl, a member of the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen's and a member of the Kingston community. Carl reflected on Kingston, its history and the lack of native references and the presence of First Nations peoples living in Kingston. About 10,000 people of Aboriginal descent live in the greater Kingston area, according to Carl, but they are disproportionately represented by those living inside the prison system.
Two invited, world-renowned scholars also attended the event. Kay Anderson, Department of Geography, University of Western Sydney, spoke on the implications of the history of racism in Australia for ongoing social science debates on questions of humanism and post-humanism. Sherene Razack, Department of Sociology and Equity Studies, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, offered her remarks on the workshop papers.
The workshop offered a timely intervention given recent public concern in Canada over questions of national identity as reflected in public debate over multiculturalism, immigration and broader geopolitical concerns over terrorism.
Organizers said it is equally timely given the recent dramatic upsurge in political concern for matters of environmental protection and climatic stability in Canada.
The workshop provides a venue for a political discussion about the connection between race, nature and the history of whiteness in Canada.
"It offered a refined sense of what whiteness means in the context of Canada and the relationship that the production of space and the production of nature has for that refined definition," said Dr. Baldwin.
Race and the Arctic
One research paper addressed the notion of white, capitalist, colonialist constituency set against an Inuit constituency, which forces the Inuit figure to "speak back" to racialized understandings of the Arctic.
"When describing the arctic, it's very easy to talk about it in terms of an Inuit versus non-Inuit, or white - as two separate camps," says Queen's Geography PhD candidate Emilie Cameron, whose research focuses on how stories construct our understanding of the north.
"In my PhD more broadly, I'm trying to think about how that position has been entrenched and different ways of understanding histories and geographies of the north and Canada in general. . . A lot of what people think about the north relates to either the exploration era or climate change today - those are actually very limited and momentary stories about the north. There are many more stories to tell."
In her research from the people she works with in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, she studies the massacre story of Bloody Falls and how it's been told over the years. "If we are going to work from a decolonizing and anti-racist perspective in understanding the north, then we need to find different ways of telling the stories about the north."
She noted that a more productive way to talk about how histories are connected and people are interconnected and diverse within their own constituencies is to tell the story of this particular region through following copper - and to try to think about the different ways it's been used and thought about and imagined through time. Cameron's presentation was therefore titled "Of Beaver Dung and Copper Wires: Rethinking Narrative Geographies of the Central Arctic."