Investigations into racism and the colonizing force in Canadian Art 1747-1953.

From the time of historical contact between the native inhabitants, living in what we now know as Canada, and the European settlers and explorers who “discovered” them, painting in Canada has been used as a tool to promote European colonial interest, to instill Nationalist ideology and to degrade or deny the reality of the Native presence.  The ramifications of this campaign, both covert and overt, can still be seen today, reflected in the negative attitudes of many Canadians towards such issues as access to land (treaty negotiations in B.C.), resources; (Mi’kmaq fishing rights & rights to timber), access Salmon, Site C dam and the Trans Mountain pipeline in BC etc.), access to equal treatment under the law (the Indian Act of 1867).  As well as this First Nations reality, the issues of race and ethnicity vis-a vis immigration continues to have a bearing on what is perceived as “real” Canadian values.  To many, these values are defined as White, Christian, Paternalistic and Capitalistic.  The conflation of these two issues – the continued stereotypical attitudes towards not only first nations people but to immigrants of colour as well – presents a not too pretty picture of a society that, though touting itself as multicultural to a fault, is incapable of freeing itself from eighteenth and nineteenth century racist colonialist thinking.  The defining of a singular Canadian Culture has been and still is the predominating agenda in the Canadian artistic community, particularly among painters and writers.  It is interesting to note that the Canadian vision is framed in the artistic terms of a “Cultural Mosaic” as opposed to the industrialism of the “Melting Pot” of our neighbour to the south.  Perhaps this is an allusion to a subscription to loftier ideals, to the sublimation of Canadian society as a whole as can be seen in the work of various members of the Group of Seven.  But these allusions (illusions) of a higher spiritual plane defined by a northern European ideology can be seen much earlier in Canadian art and history. 


Disappearing a Race.

The history of the incursion of Europeans into North Eastern North America is no different than that which went on in the southern part of the continent, Central America and South America.   Once the realization of the wealth generating opportunities of the new land sunk in, classic colonizing techniques were employed to gain control of these lands and resources.  Military models of divide and rule, exploitation of factional and national differences in the indigenous population etc. were used to great effect by the French.  By enlisting and supporting the weaker Huron nation in an alliance to fight the more powerful Iroquois they gained not only access to the productive farmland of the Iroquois but also an entree to the rich fur producing hinterland to the west.  Following on the heels of the military came the clergy.  The Jesuit and Recollet religious orders began the task of saving the souls of the Native populations.  One of the tools used in new France, in this process of wholesale Deicide – (a religious conversion which also had been going on in both North and South America since the landing of Columbus) – were paintings.   Jesuit monks in Brittany had previously used religious paintings as instructional tools in teaching the tenants of the Faith, to limited success there.   Perhaps the belief that the native populations presented a more primitive subject, instigated a return to these tools, and both the Jesuits and Recollets brought paintings from France and even custom ordered specific images painted to the likeness of the native subject.  Besides an attempted conversion to Christianity these paintings served as an indoctrination into an economic system prevalent in Europe at the time.  The depiction of the monarchs of the time as being a direct conduit to God or even as descendants of God reinforced the belief in the doctrine of Absolutism (that the power of the Monarch flows directly from God) and attempted to produce a non-threatening society with a world view, compliant with that of the colonizer.  The efficacy of this use of painting on the Native subject is seen as marginal at best and negative at its worst.  

With the influx of Europeans came deadly disease, which swept through the native populations.  Many of the paintings used by the missionaries depicted hellfire and damnation and came to be seen as a threat by the Natives and as a device to call these plagues down on them.  

It’s interesting to note that it was not only the native populations which fell under the pall of imported economic, cultural and religious values inherent in the painting genres of the day. 

The effect of this Art on the population of French immigrants is probably just as profound.  Though intended as a tool for the conversion of the natives they found their strength in reinforcing the power of the Church in the (French) immigrant population.  The paintings of Belgian artist and immigrant Cornelius Krieghoff of the “Habitant” farmers can also be seen as influential in informing the Anglo view of the French Canadian culture.  Painted for the English art market in Montreal, this stereotyping of a culture as “peasant”, undereducated and crude, with too many children and too much partying, perhaps contributed to the domination of the economic culture of the province by the Anglo business elite. The dominance of French Canadian society by the Church continued well into the second half of the twentieth century until it was finally ended by the “Quiet Revolution”.  The election of the Parti Quebecios around the same time finally opened the economy of Quebec to French Canadian participation.

The effects of the stereotyping of the native North American by both writers and painters cannot be overestimated and can still be seen to this day in the marginality of Native culture viv-a-vis the dominant (white) culture.  Early modernist notions of the “noble savage” and the corollary of the “disappearing race” positioned the native as “primitive other” and provided the rationalization needed to allow the wholesale injustice that would be visited on these people.

The quasi-ethnographic nature of the projects of Irish born painter Paul Kane was inspired by an exhibition of paintings by the American painter George Catlin.  These portraits, as well as the tableau vivant, with North American Indians in full regalia, that were popular at the time in Europe, contributed to the fixing of the Native North American as a “Primitive” culture, inextricably bound within “Nature” and therefore unable to adapt to the demands of a “modern” culture.  These bonds of nature dictated that like all of nature – things are born, flourish and then die – their time had passed and a new (European) culture would take precedence.  Paul Kane traveled to the west and painted, observed and wrote about the “red Indians” he found there.  These expeditions were financed by the Hudson Bay company and played a large part in the stereotyping of the Native culture.  Kanes’ contentions that these paintings were “true and accurate” depictions of these cultures and his pretenses of objectivity are belied by his written descriptions of these encounters.   His observations dwell on descriptions of violence, superstition, and barbarity and display a profound ignorance of, and arrogance towards his subject.  

The work of Notman Studio painter John Fraser, and other loosely associated painters, Lucius O’Brian and Fredrick Verner followed Kane west and contributed to the corollary to the myth of the “Noble Savage”, that of the “Dying Race”.  In their case they painted romantic visions of a culture doomed to pass like the ancient forests that sheltered them and the herds of Buffalo that fed them were passing.  With the Indians starved off the land and the railroad stretched from sea to sea, and positioned to bring in Immigrant farmers to the prairies and tourists to “their” Rockie Mountains, the colonizing project was almost complete.  

The above mentioned painters were financed by the railroad companies on excursions to paint these wonderful vistas of a new and empty land and a Nationalist vision of Canada was beginning to form.  Concurrent with these “picturesque” painters, other central Canadian painters, such as Homer Watson, Robert Harris and George Reed, helped define the transition from colonialist vision of Canada as a country worthy of interest, to a landscape that was becoming “developed” and culture civilized, and with Fraser, O’Brian and company were instrumental in defining a new nationalist vision of Canada.  

The central Canadian painters had contributed to a colonizing ideology of arrogation, progress and development and with the depiction of a “civilized” landscape came a cultural appropriation of the landscape epitomizing the proprietary gaze.  

O’Brian and friends’ depiction of the dying race highlighted the modernist vision of progress and development necessitated by the very fact of the “constructed emptiness” of this new land.  Government and Industry rewarded Fraser and O’Brian, in particular, for their nationalist vision.  The humanitarian concern expressed in these depictions of the “dying race” also served to define the difference and superiority of British and Canadian institutions in dealing with these “weaker brothers” when compared with the U.S.  This self-fulfilling myth of “Noble Savage/Dying Race” coupled with disease and starvation eventually resulted in the paternalist “Indian Act” of 1876.  This made all Natives wards of the state, forcing them off the land and ensuring that any land that they were left with was held in trust by the federal Government.  This remains as the law of the land today and contributes to the economic marginalization of much of the Native population.

This constructed nationalist vision of Canada as a “vast emptiness” – in the words of B. C. Supreme Court Judge Allan McEachern, in dismissing the land claim of the Gitskan Wet’suwet’en in 1991 – evidently has been so profoundly inculcated in the Canadian psyche, that it blinds us till this day to the injustice done by the “othering” of First Nations people, coupled with the appropriating force of the colonizing drive.

The Great White North.

The constructed ideas of the “wilderness” of the Canadian landscape would continue to haunt Canadian painting in the twentieth century and racism would continue to rear its ugly head. 

The coalescence of artists around the so- called Group of Seven resulted from a shared desire to define a new national school of painting.  The task at hand was to modernize Canadian painting, to jettison the imported European sensibilities in vogue in Canada at the time.  The impulse was shaped by an anti-European, anti-American and anti -Modernist sentiment.  Modernism was seen by most of the group as decadent, an urban phenomenon, which tolerated the mixing of race and class. A prevailing fear in Canada at the time was of the flood of undesirable immigrants – as was seen to be happening in the U.S. – the influx of which would dilute the racial purity of the mainly Anglo population. The reaction to the decadence of the modernism – as practiced by Canadian artist David Milne – was to adopt a style rooted in Nordic Mysticism ideas of a kind of Arcadian utopia. This perhaps is a coincidental with a utopian belief in the teachings of Theosophy, with its hodgepodge of eastern spiritual beliefs, mixed with the belief that capitalism was a failure.  Unlike the socialists of the time though, the Group rejected ideas of class struggle and embraced a passive stance, believing that in a utopia on a spiritual plane would be attained through the leadership of an enlightened few. 

The key figures leading this quest for a definitively national style in the production of art were the front-man and proselytizer A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris – scion of the Massey-Harris implement manufacturing wealth- as well as critic and ideological mentor Fred Housser and patron Dr. J. MacCallum.  These and other members of the group met at the Arts and Letters club in Toronto where they heard debates and lectures of the value of “racialist” painters.  The belief that a superior art was inspired by a particular racial temperament applied to one’s native environment.  The Scandinavian model was held up as particularly appropriate, with its attention to nationalistic ideas of an art of the homeland and because of the proximity of a “northern” landscape. 

There was a perceived need in Canada for a singular national identity at the time and this project became the driving force of most members of the Group of Seven. Harris wrote that when the artist is most receptive to the needs of his audience he is the recipient of knowledge from the higher realms.  Though the group first met in 1913, they didn’t coalesce until after the war, and interest in the northern landscape became the focus for the group only after the sketches of JEH Macdonald were seen at the Arts and Letters Club. 

This turning to the north as a site of spiritual and national meaning served two purposes, On the one hand it was seen as an escape from the mounting problems of the cities.  With their swarming immigrant populations and mixing of races, the threat to the purity of the Anglo vision of Canada was in peril. The solution to these social problems was to turn their backs on the city with its social ills, class struggles and activist politics and to look to the “wilderness” of northern Ontario for a landscape redolent with symbolic imagery, a landscape that could define a true singular vision of Canada in a nationalistic sense.  Besides an escape this embrace of the landscape was seen as providing a cleansing of the soul and spirit of the nation.  The belief that the character of a country is defined by the character of its landscape and a “pure” landscape therefore demands a “pure” country leads to some uncomfortable conclusions when considering the art of many of these painters, and the nationalist ideology they were complicit in promoting in Canada at the time amounts to racism.  This narrative of an ascendance to a higher spiritual plane, by a nation made “pure” by the cleansing quality of its landscape resonates through much of the work of the group.  

The use of symbolic elements of the landscape, that appear over and over again, constitutes a language of this ideology of a “pure’ national spirit and a singular national character.  The anthropomorphism of these elements; the solitary trees, standing heroic against the sky defending their high ramparts of rocky outcroppings, overlooking the “flooding” water below, and reaching for the snow covered mountain peaks or clean white clouds becomes a language that espouses a vision of a “singular” nation, reflecting the Groups’ singularity, that of the upper middle class, male, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  Housser and Harris wrote frequently and forcefully about the dangers to Canada of the swarms of immigrants that were invading the U.S. and as late as 1933 Housser couching his terms in quasi-spiritualism, wrote that “the Jews in ancient times had degraded the mysteries and had incurred a terrible karma”.  Though they were critical of Nazi anti-Semitic policies by 1934 their earlier beliefs reflected the widespread racism prevalent in Canada in the 1920’s.  This language appears to adhere to the prevailing vernacular, especially in light of the discussion of “flowing tide of immigrants’ and “the flood of immigration” going on in the immigration debates of the time.  It’s interesting to note that this language still has currency today, as revealed by the B.C. Attorney General’s recent characterization of the arrival of less than five hundred boat people from China as “a flood that must be stopped”.  As with the earlier exponents of a nationalist vision – the painters of a “picturesque” Canada – the Group of Seven was rewarded for this work in defining the Canadian vision.  Ironically, as they were extolling the idea of the purity of the northern landscape, a landscape symbolizing the emergent greatness of Canada in the world, the resource extraction industries were decimating the forests of the very land they were celebrating.

On the West Coast, artists’ peripheral to the Group of seven, such as Fred Varley and Emily Carr painted the landscape with a somewhat different vision.  Though it can be said that they participated in the colonialist mentality through their embrace of the exoticism of the “other”, their project was much more personal much less ideological. 

Fred Varleys’ membership in the Group was tenuous at best even while in Ontario.  As a working class immigrant with bohemian tendencies in a group of upper middle class to wealthy businessmen and commercial artists, its not surprising that he did not subscribe wholeheartedly to the ideology put foreword by the rest of the Group and their supporters.  Primarily a portrait painter while with the Group – only painting one landscape before leaving – and that a kind of repudiation of the heroic anthropomorphism of Tom Thompsons’ “lone tree” icon, his embrace of the West coast painting displays a much more personal connection with the landscape.  His interest in Theosophy went beyond the hodgepodge of eastern beliefs of that group.  He delved further into the roots of eastern philosophies and religion and this informed the “mystical” in his work in a much different way than the Ontario Group.  

As opposed to the ideological fixed singularity of the rest of the Group of Seven his mysticism was positioned in the space between the visceral and the spiritual, a place allowing for an imagining of a personal concept of the “reality” of the land.

Like Varley, Emily Carr embraced the “other”.  In her case it was the “primitive’ other-ness of the West Coast native Indians and their spiritual connection with nature.  She subscribed to the “disappearing race” myth of the culture of the day, but in her work can be seen as an early critique of the colonizing force that was the cause of these problems.  She relentlessly anthropomorphized nature and romanticized the Indian and positioned herself as “outsider” in a way “othering” herself.  Even though lamenting the injustice visited on the Native population and the land itself can be construed as a purely altruistic act, by positioning the Native as other this contributes to the fixing of that culture on the margin, still seen today only in relation to, and never as part of the cultural mainstream.

Other West coast painters, from Jock Macdonald to Jack Shadbolt in their way turned to the “other”, or the primitive as a site for spiritual connection and authenticity and also as a way of rejecting modernism.  Ironically this embrace of the “other” puts them, though perhaps inadvertently into a position of complicity with colonialist ideology and modernist notions of progress such as the separation of Man and Nature and the marginalization of the very “other” that they were embracing.