The great themes of Canadian history are as follows: keeping the Americans out, keeping the French in, and trying to get the Natives to somehow disappear.
– Will Ferguson
I came to Carleton University – or returned, I should say – from the United States, and I write this on the verge of going back to the United States. As I can personally attest from this to-and-froing, Canadians have a penchant to be both drawn to and repelled by the United States. It has often been suggested that being Canadian is, at base, a negative identity: not being American. While we can debate the extent to which this is true, surely Canadian identity has been formed, at least in part, in opposition or in relation to the American behemoth next door.
Perhaps we attempt to distill Canadian identity in juxtaposition to the US because Canada has so many internal competing axes – geography, region, language – upon which identities can turn. And this list of identical factors omits one that is crucially important: ethnicity. The link between ethnicity and identity, particularly for Canada’s First Nations people, is a focal point of this edition of Capstones. More specifically, most of the articles focus on how these issues are represented in the national capital, either in its institutions or in the region itself.
As the Will Ferguson quote suggests, sardonically but more accurately than we would like to admit, Canadian identity and nation-building have been built on obscuring the Native aspect – politically, psychologically, and physically. Thus it is no large surprise that the Native presence is all too often omitted in our national institutions and region. The choices made when creating exhibits for a ‘national’ history museum tend towards unifying narratives; yet in seeking to unify, such narratives often further exclude, obscure, simplify, interrupt, or appropriate identities. Indeed, missing identities was chosen as the overarching theme for this journal edition, as well as the seminar from which most of the contributions came. Objects and spaces accentuate how identity can be rooted in specific places, practices, and possessions. Ideas and values are projected onto both abstract and material artifacts – whether that is a basket, a boat, a dam, a territory, an idea – and these can not only reflect and represent, but construct and shape, culture and identity.
The contributions to this volume are particularly pertinent as the former Canadian Museum of Civilization undergoes its transformation to the Canadian Museum of History. The various articles reveal that museum displays have always been political, subjective, and contested – long before the Harper Government began raising historian and heritage hackles with its seeming attempt to rewrite Canadian history (just as federal governments of different political persuasions have always done, and will continue to do). In the various articles, the authors not only unpack missing narratives and identities in former exhibits, but explicitly or implicitly comment on negotiating the potential gaps between abstract and concrete manifestations of identity. In doing, they answer key questions and point to future avenues of research concerning making, meaning, and scales of identity.
– Daniel Macfarlane
Daniel Macfarlane is the Visiting Scholar in Carleton’s School of Canadian Studies. He was 2013 Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Canadian Studies at Michigan State University. In summer 2014 he begins a tenure-track position in Environmental and Sustainability Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dr. Macfarlane’s work looks at environmental, technological, transnational, diplomatic, and political aspects of Canadian-American border waters, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin. His first book, Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway,was released in March 2014. He is co-editing a collection on the history of Canadian border waters, writing a book on the modern history of manipulating Niagara Falls for aesthetics and hydro-electricity, conducting research on the history of Great Lakes water levels, and has started a long-term project on the history of the International Joint Commission.