Thursday, February 4, 2010

CBC New's Alec Scott writes about "O Canada"

CBCnews


How they see us

A new photo exhibition looks at the history of Canada's image abroad

Last Updated: Thursday, February 4, 2010

By Alec Scott


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Erecting "Canada Bread" sign, Dundas West and Bloor, Toronto (1951), photographer unknown.


My father is English, and I vividly remember that one of the books his family had on its shelves was an essay collection called The Romance of Canada. It featured a skin-wearing fur-trapper on its cover, plodding through a wintry pine forest on snowshoes, his rifle at the ready.

Many of the images in O Canada, a new photo exhibition that runs until Feb. 27, are similarly stereotypical. The bulk of the pictures, on display at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, document the nation's first century, from Confederation to Expo '67. Bulger tracked down historic images in collections around the world, but he hit a mother lode when the New York Times invited him to explore its vast photo archive in Queens. There, among four-million-plus photos, the curator found over 22,000 with Canadian content.

Many of the photos in the show illustrate how Canada grew to be perceived by the rest of the world. Winter is a constant presence, and the Mounties and Niagara also get their close-ups. Some images document the central role aboriginals have played in the nation's story, while others bear witness to the birth of a multicultural society.


Moose Hunting: The Return (1866), by William Notman.

Moose Hunting: The Return (1866), by William Notman.


The images of itinerant Scottish-born photographer William Notman were seen around the world in the Victorian era, and helped convey a romantic image of the nascent nation to people who'd never been there. Ironically, this seemingly authentic depiction of life in the wilds was staged in Notman's Montreal studio. Indeed, a nation's image is always, to some degree, staged.


Prince Arthur and Group, Ottawa, Ont. (1870), by William Notman.

Prince Arthur and Group, Ottawa, Ont. (1870), by William Notman.


Much pomp and circumstance surrounded Canadian visits of British royals, with street-naming and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. But images of (apparently) less formal, unscripted events – like this shot of a tobogganing Prince Arthur – were especially prized in the home country.


Ice Skating, Kingston (ca. 1890), by Harry Henderson.

Ice Skating, Kingston (ca. 1890), by Harry Henderson.


The crowd gathered at this Kingston, Ont., rink suggests it's more than just a recreational skate. With the rules of hockey just formalized in the late 1870s, this photo could be one of the earliest documents of our national sport. ("I can't say for sure," curator Stephen Bulger says, "but it looks like hockey.")


Bobby Leach and his Barrel (1911), Photo Specialty Co.

Bobby Leach and his Barrel (1911), Photo Specialty Co.


Several photos in O Canada illustrate the international fascination with Niagara Falls. The daredevil Bobby Leach evidently survived his barrel ride over the cataract, and has been clumsily cut-and-pasted in front of this glamour shot of the falls.


Ice Palace at Lachine, Que. (circa 1928), photographer unknown.

Ice Palace at Lachine, Que. (circa 1928), photographer unknown.


The numerous ice and snow-covered shots in the exhibition call to mind Gilles Vigneault's lyric "Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver" ­– "my country is not a country, it's winter." Many of the snaps, like this one of an ice castle at an unidentified festival, glamourize our coldest season, rendering it exotic and pretty for those in more temperate climes.


A Douglas Fir Log in Forest North of Port Haney, B.C. (1933), photographer unknown.

A Douglas Fir Log in Forest North of Port Haney, B.C. (1933), photographer unknown.


The influential economic historian Harold Innis argued that Canada's dependence on raw, unprocessed staples like fish, minerals, fossil fuels, pulp and paper put us at the mercy of more industrially advanced nations. He felt we were often relegated simply to the role of hewers of wood, as witnessed here, and drawers of water.


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A "Ghost Town" of the '90s Comes Back to Life (circa 1934), photographer unknown.


Here's how the New York Times captioned this shot: "Barkerville, B.C., which once numbered a population of 15,000, now the centre of a new gold rush to which men are stampeding for claims." The message conveyed by many of these photographs is that Canada's chief claim to international attention lay in its abundant, seemingly inexhaustible natural resources.


Royal Canadian Mounted Police Arrive for the Coronation (1937), photographer unknown.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Arrive for the Coronation (1937), photographer unknown.


A recent New York Times crossword puzzle asked for an enduring symbol of Canada in seven letters. The answer, of course, was "Mountie." This photo was used twice by the same paper: once, in 1937, in a photo spread for the Coronation of George VI (in 1937), and again for a story on Alberta's alleged desire to "replace the famous mounted police" in the 1950s.


Padlei, Nunavut (1950), by Richard Harrington.

Padlei, Nunavut (1950), by Richard Harrington.


Retained by Life magazine to shoot photos of the Arctic, Richard Harrington came across the village of Padlei, a community in what is now Nunavut. Padlei's members were starving because of shifting caribou migration patterns. This renowned photo was captioned, "During a time of famine the Padleimiut stay together. Keenaq and her son Keepseeyuk rub noses."


Totem Poles, Alert Bay, B.C. (circa 1950s), photographer unknown.

Totem Poles, Alert Bay, B.C. (circa 1950s), photographer unknown.


O Canada features many images of aboriginal life, ranging from one of a native settlement next to a Hudson's Bay trading post in Temiscaming, Que., to this shot of the totem poles in Alert Bay.


A Fair Way to Celebrate Canada's Centennial (1967), by Sam Falk.

A Fair Way to Celebrate Canada's Centennial (1967), by Sam Falk.


The bold, modern font employed in this fairground fixture signalled Canada's desire to shift gears on its 100th birthday. Expo 67 gave evidence of the host country and former colony's intention to take its place on the international stage.


O Canada runs at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto until Feb. 27.

Alec Scott is a writer based in Toronto and San Francisco.


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