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Reviews / September 14, 2017

The Pictures Change, But the Myths Persist

A new exhibition featuring archival American news photos of Canada illustrates how so many of the country's central myths remain unchanged.

“Canada is journalism’s latest cool assignment,” the Canadian Journalism Foundation declared in the marketing for a panel it will soon host, featuring the author of the infamous Rolling Stone profile of Justin Trudeau, later this month. “Renewed international interest in all things Canadian means even we’re looking at our country from a different perspective—thanks in part to the Age of Trump and its contrast with our refugee-embracing, feminist prime minister,” it adds.

“Your beat is Canada, and it’s become a hot beat. Why is Canada having a moment in global press?” Canadaland host Jesse Brown asked the New York Times’s correspondent Ian Austen in an October 2016 episode examining why global news organizations are flourishing in Canada while American ones are floundering. “We know the source,” Austen responded. “It’s your prime minister. He’s the first Canadian prime minister who’s a global celebrity since his father.”

Canada’s definition of itself in contrast to the US dates much further back than headlines we’re seeing now about Justin Trudeau being Trump’s polar opposite. Now open at the Ryerson Image Centre, “The Faraway Nearby” offers a glimpse of America’s perception of Canada through the New York Times photo archive. These images, curated by Denise Birkhofer and Gerald McMaster, helped to construct, then project, a picture of Canadian identity both internally and externally, “[reinforcing] certain nationalist tropes about the Far North, while also conveying a propagandistic view of Canada’s prosperity, harmonious diversity, and boundless natural resources,” Birkhofer said.

“Canada’s clearly having a moment right now,” Birkhofer echoed. “It is Canada 150, and Canada is doing a lot of things ‘right’ in the public eye when the US is doing so many things wrong.”

The 150 photographs in the exhibition, selected from an archive of about 25,000, don’t just put forth how America sees Canada, but also how Canada wants to see itself and how it wants to be seen internationally. They span from the First World War to the early 1990s—just before the advent of digital photography—and are sourced from the newspaper’s staff photographers, freelance photojournalists, local Canadian newspapers and international news agencies and wire services. Images of everyday life brush with snapshots of significant moments in 20th-century Canadian history—royal visits, the unveiling of Canada’s flag, Trudeaumania—organized by subject matter, preserving how they were filed by photo editors in the picture morgue, and the major sections of a newspaper. The original captions are reproduced in full, making the original context transparent.

Canada’s cultivated, and often propagandistic, image is one of the overarching themes of the exhibition, Birkhofer told me. Many of the photographs of tourists basking in the Rockies in the travel section, for example, accompanied articles with headlines like, “Canada bids us welcome,” used to draw American tourists to a place that is close yet exotic, novel yet accessible. The exhibition’s title draws on this idea.

Canada as a singularly welcoming haven for immigrants and refugees is another age-old trope that still anchors the country’s identity. In a special section of the exhibition called “Peoples of Canada,” we see its roots in a series of screen captures of four American Vietnam-era draft evaders speaking on TV. Birkofer said it was a significant turning point in terms of the American presence in Canada; many ended up settling in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, thereby changing the demographics of these cities. “It’s an interesting parallel to what’s happening today, or the aspiration of all the left-leaning young Americans to escape to Canada, which I successfully did,” she said. “Canada’s the promised land, at least among my American peers who tell me, ‘You’re so lucky you’re in Canada.’”

Other images in this section depict the country’s contrasting and varied immigration narratives. An image of a government official greeting British arrivals the moment their plane touches down hangs near a portrait of a Sikh family looking through their smashed window in 1970s Vancouver. (“It was broken by vandals, presumably because of hostility to Asian immigrants,” the caption says.) Coincidentally, the curators selected images for the exhibition this past winter amidst headlines about refugees attempting to enter Canada on foot, greeted by the RCMP or other police services.

The trope of the maverick PM persists. A wall panel blows up a 1972 news story about Trudeau Sr., contrasting his “swinger” image—cutouts show him dancing and brandishing a hockey stick—with a somber portrait of the man who introduced multiculturalism as official government policy. The original photographic sources of the cutouts are framed, exposing the editing and masking techniques used by photo editors. Today we see Trudeau Jr. shirtless and in Vogue spreads, inciting global jealousy of “the hottest PM ever,” who appointed a cabinet with unprecedented diversity—“because it’s 2015.”

We then see Prince Charles getting his face painted by Blackfoot medicine man Arthur Healy at the Blood reserve in southern Alberta; “during which time the prince was inducted into the Kainai chieftainship and given the name Mekaisto (Red Crow)” the caption says. Nearby, we see Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh receiving a gift from Chief Little Dog of Kainai Nation, and his wife Antoinette Heavy Shield of Siksika Nation, before the Calgary Stampede. Today we’re overwhelmed by photos of Justin posing with elders, promising collaboration with Indigenous communities in one breath, then approving pipelines in another. Meanwhile many First Nations communities still lack potable water.

This image of reconciliation and collaboration between a state and minority representatives—between the colonizer and the colonized—is also seen in the “Benevolent Mountie Myth,” another enduring trope as identified by academic Eva Mackey. Represented as ostensible equals, this image of collaborative cultural contact has often been contrasted with the American image of “cowboys versus Indians,” to distinguish the so-called benevolence of Canadian colonial history from the relative violence and bloodshed of America’s.

At first glance the exhibition might be read nostalgically by Canadians of a certain age, or as a crash course for new Canadians. But the myth splinters when you take a closer look at the original captions, which in many cases implicate the sexist and racist attitudes of the time. “What I want people to take away from the exhibition,” Birkhofer said, “is that it takes a multiplicity of voices to represent a nation.” Omissions are only a reflection of the limitations of the archive itself.


Merray Gerges

Merray Gerges writes around art rather than about it. She studied art history at NSCAD and journalism at King’s in Halifax, where she co-founded and co-edited CRIT, a free biannual criticism publication. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in Canadian ArtC MagazineMOMUS, Hyperallergic and more, addressing issues ranging from the radical potential (and shortcomings) of intersectional feminist memes and art selfies, to art-world race politics. At Canadian Art, she was editorial resident in 2016, and assistant editor from 2017 to 2019. She's currently the editorial fellow at C Magazine.