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Review

Creative Subversions: Whiteness, Indigeneity, and the National Imaginary

By Margot Francis

November 4, 2013

Review By Chris Herbert

In Creative Subversions, Margot Francis starts from the premise that some of the key images that inform Canadian national identity, such as the beaver, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), national parks, and Indians are “public secrets,” whose exploitative histories are known, but generally not discussed. Unsurprisingly, Francis’s analysis of these images reveals that Canadian identity was, and remains, an assumed white, heterosexual, male, and anglophone identity. Francis’s project is therefore two-fold.  First, Francis details the development of these images, revealing that while they may appear to be relatively neutral and benign, they actually support a variety of racial, gendered, and classed assumptions. The very banality of these images hides their critical role in shaping national identity. Second, noting that many Canadians have internalized these images, Francis examines the efforts of various artists to foster discussion about the public secrets that lay at the heart of national identity by critiquing and playing with these images. Each chapter follows this two-part organization. 

The first three chapters on the images of the beaver, the CPR, and Banff are very strong. For instance, in the chapter on beavers, Francis traces how that image has been shaped by the fur trade, political cartoons, and slang usage. In each case, Francis reveals how the image of the beaver has served to legitimize a white, male, heterosexual, and anglophone population as the “real” Canada. The chapters on the CPR and Banff are as engaging and insightful. Francis’s analysis of the history of national parks in Canada and their meaning for national identity will ring particularly true to anyone familiar with the substantial literature in the United States on their national parks system (a literature I wished she had engaged more substantively).

Arguably the heart of the book is the fifth chapter on Indigenous responses to images of Indians. Throughout the first three chapters, images of Indians appear again and again. For example, Canadian settlers explicitly contrasted the supposed strong work ethic of the beaver (with whom they identified) against the perceived improvidence and laziness of the Native population. Francis therefore devotes an entire chapter to exploring some historical and contemporary ways that Natives have challenged these images of themselves, at the same time that they have sought to unsettle an uncritical acceptance of multiculturalism that often relegates Indigenous peoples to the sidelines, only to bring them to the centre when a demonstration of Canada’s diversity and tolerance is needed (think of the quasi-Native mascots of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics).

Just under half of the book is devoted to artistic responses to these images that are, at times, compelling, shocking, and hilarious, but also fairly limited in impact. Performance art, videos, sculptures, and paintings reach a small audience, and as is evident by Francis’s insightful analysis, fewer still will grasp the critiques of national imagery embedded in these works. But if the art that Francis discusses falls short of offering a meaningful path to unsettle and overturn banal national imagery, they do highlight the contradictions and ironies embedded in national imagery, opening the door for others to advance their critiques and begin to unsettle the meanings of these images on a broader scale.

Creative Subversions: Whiteness, Indigeneity, and the National Imaginary
By Margot Francis 
Vancouver:  University of British Columbia Press, 2011 252 pp, $32.95