Thursday, March 6, 2014

Oh Canada: Landscape as Nation and Fake Folksongs

Continuing the discussion on Canadian nationalism, I would like to take a moment and consider the 1954 currency series that was issued by the Canadian Mint:

The other bills ($20, $50, $100) are in the same ilk
If I had to sum up the country from this series of currency alone, I would say, 'Canada: we have landscapes, but no people.'  However, a closer look at these images reveals that in addition to these various panoramas, we also have resources.  For instance, on the $1, we have plains suitable for growing wheat.  On the $5, we have trees, just waiting to be logged.  Even the $2, with its gentle, rolling hills, suggests that some kind of agriculture is taking place since the whole countryside looks so tamed.  While there were some modifications to these scenes made in the next currency series (issued in 1969)--such as the inclusion of a schooner on the $5 and the Canadian parliamentary building on the $1--the $20 retained this idea of Canada as Scenic Landscape Panorama:

Indeed, Canada as land of primary resources and nature was reflected in a very popular series of videos issued by Environment Canada (government entity) and the National Film Board, entitled Hinterland Who's Who.  These short clips would provide a brief documentary about a specific creature that was found in the Canadian wilderness.   These videos have appeared on Canadian television since 1963, and continue to run even today, although they have been revamped for a more modern format.  The theme music is iconic and makes a fabulous ringtone:

The calls have 'come to symbolize Canada's wilderness because of their lonely, haunting quality.'

The impression that one has, between currency and wildlife videos, is that Canada is a vast, lonely place, inhabited by many creatures, but few (if any) people.  This is, in fact, pretty accurate, since Canada is large and, in places, sparsely populated.  But how to represent its people?

One answer came with another National Film Board video entitled, 'The Log Driver's Waltz,' which was also shown on television and in movie theaters.   This 1979 version provided animation for the song written by Wade Hemsworth, a Canadian songwriter who also saw how logging camps operated during the 1950s.  There is a 1955 Smithsonian Folkways album of his music entitled 'Folk Songs of the Canadian North Woods,' although 'The Log Driver's Waltz' is not one of the selections included.  While I would hate to make a generalization about the entire nation based on this cartoon, my suspicion is that most of us believed this song to be much older, one that originated in logging camps and possibly one that was sung by lumberjacks. 

I suspect that part of the popularity of this particular cartoon (and I would guarantee that most Canadians remember it and could even sing the chorus) is that it reflects what are generally viewed as Canadian values--and not just in the Canadian wildlife that appears while the log driver is going down the river (i.e., moose and beaver).  The verse about the narrator having to dance with white-collar men, such as the doctors and lawyers, but preferring the log driver reflects a particularly Canadian idea that all of us are entirely equal.  There is very little concept of elitism in Canada, and certainly elitism is not grounded in education.  So while our narrator's parents might prefer for her to choose a more rich and stable man, she is perfectly content with a blue-collar worker.

I wouldn't make such a big deal about the possible intention of minimizing the authorial influence in favor of a folk interpretation if it wasn't something that happened in a second case as well.  The song 'Barrett's Privateers' might be one of the few that many Canadians would know and consider to be 'a part of our heritage' (as some of the other National Film Board videos would put it).  This song seems to be especially authentic: it mentions actual Canadian locations (Halifax, Sherbrooke); it tells the story of a boat crew and their adventures; and it sounds, well, 'old':

Except that it's really from 1976. 

So then why has it taken a place as a purportedly authentic song?  I would suggest that this song contains some sentiments that Canadians want to think are timeless.  Take, for instance, the chorus, which is repeated multiple times: 'I was told we cruise the seas for American gold/We'd fire no guns.'  What could be more Canadian than that?  'Let's go pillage the neighbours, but not do any harm while we are doing it.  Sorry.'  Of course, things don't go as planned, and it is an American ship (specifically, a 'bloody great Yankee hove') that takes down the Antelope.  Perhaps even worse, the American ship is laden with gold ('god damn them all'), so there is something here about thwarted aspirations--a feeling that Canada seems to know well when competing with its neighbors to the south.

This folk-ish quality also has a long legacy in Canadian music, as evinced in the 1990 song 'Home for a Rest,' by Spirit of the West (this is also the designated song that had to be played late at night in Canadian clubs during the 1990s and a frequent favorite at weddings).  While there was no suggestion that this was some kind of ancient Canadiana, it is hard not to hear the distinct folk roots of this piece in the violin parts and the song as a whole, and I would suggest that it fits with the other selections as something that sounds kind of old, but really isn't:

For more information about Canadian currency:


  1. I *love* this post. Thanks for writing it, Zoe!

  2. Running with your currency theme, Zoe. I recently noticed that the government has replaced the images of Pacific Native art on the $20 bill with poppies and the Vimy Ridge Memorial. Looking more closely, I see that the quote "Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?" has naturally been removed. All of which speaks to the Cons' ideological agenda and their image of Canada (which doesn't include First Nations peoples - consider Idle No More and the difficulty chiefs had getting meetings with Harper et al.). Thanks for the post(s).

  3. Oh, I didn't know that. I'll be sure to check that out. There will be a sequel that discusses Canadian currency, because I'm planning to use the new $5 to lead into 'The Hockey Sweater,' which will tie up a lot of the themes that have come up in the posts so far. Thanks for the information!