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Selling Canada: Three Propaganda Campaigns that Shaped the Nation

By Daniel Francis

Review By Doug Owram

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 182-83

In his latest project Daniel Francis takes on a series of publicity campaigns, running from the 1870s through to 1940: immigration to western Canada, the First World War, and the promotion of tourism from the 1880s to the Second World War. Each of these has occupied many academic and popular writings, so to put all three together, and to do so in volume of fewer than 200 pages, is risky.

To manage this, Francis relies mainly on other works, both academic and popular, that precede this volume. The result is a generally clear synthesis; but there is not a great deal new in the text nor, given the range of material, could much new be expected. What Francis does do is bring to the fore the actual visual materials that underpinned these campaigns. Posters, pamphlet covers, and photographs are superbly reproduced and displayed in this handsome volume. The author, publisher, and designers are to be congratulated.

There is a second challenge, however. It is not obvious that these three topics are linked in any meaningful way other than that they all led to the production of striking visual material. What ties promotion of western immigration at the turn of the century to the horrors and pressures of the First World War? Is commercially-based tourism promotion really similar to the central role played by either immigration promotion or the life and death stakes surrounding the material of the Great War?

Francis tries to answer the question by emphasizing two themes. The first is captured by his use of the term “propaganda.” Though the formal definition is neutral, the image of the word implies a highly biased or misleading use of materials. Francis builds on this, noting in more than one instance the way in which materials were selective at best and often misleading. More often than not, he concludes, the efforts stopped short of outright lies but were happy to tell only “truths that were convenient” (60).

The second theme is that buried among these varied campaigns, hyperbolic materials, and half-truths was an emerging identity for Canada. It is for this reason that the concluding chapter suddenly leaps forward from the inter-war years to Expo 67 before returning to what Francis concludes links the three campaigns. “Between the 1880s and 1930s, three great sales campaigns transformed the way Canadians thought about themselves and the way outsiders thought about Canada” (174).

It is a valiant effort, but the attempt to put the three campaigns together is not completely successful for two reasons. First, the scale of the material means there is more than enough to cover even if the narrative remains tightly focused on the propaganda. However, that is impossible in a popular history because the campaigns have to be given historical context, and brief histories of western settlement, the First World War, and tourism interlace the narrative, further diluting the main theme of the book.

This dilution isn’t helped by the fact that Francis cannot resist digressions. The discussion of interwar tourist promotion is suddenly derailed by the introduction of Edward McCourt’s 1963 book on travelling in Canada. The introduction of Expo 67, mentioned above, seems to set the stage for the national identity theme to be defined, only to wander off to a commentary on French-English relations, separatism, and the War Measures Act.

Most fundamentally though, the three campaigns do not fit together. Each had a different audience and a different tone. Maybe the immigration efforts of the pre-Great war era and the tourism campaign of the interwar years were linked in that they extolled the virtues of a rural, resource rich, and empty Canada to an external audience; but the tone, audience, and purpose of war propaganda were so different that much as he might try, Francis cannot convince this reader at least that these three campaigns belong in the same volume.

Selling Canada. Three Propaganda Campaigns that Shaped the Nation
By Daniel Francis
Vancouver: Stanton Atkins and Dosil, 2011. 192pp, $45.00 cloth