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Newfoundland and Labrador: "Discovery" & Regional Stereotypes

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images and Thea Lim at Racialicious have both commented on an advertisement for tourism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

(Text reads: Discovery is a fearless pursuit. Certainly, this was the case when the Vikings, the first Europeans to reach the new world, landed at L’Anse aux Meadows. While it may only be a three-hour flight for you, it was a considerably longer journey a thousand years ago. But it’s a place where mystery still mingles with the light and washes over the strange, captivating landscape. A place where all sorts of discoveries still happen every day. Some, as small as North America. Others, as big as a piece of yourself.)
Their comments are quite astute: Lim points out that talking about the "European arrival in the Americas “Discovery,” rather than Colonisation or Genocide," both effaces a lot of colonial history, and effectively dehumanizes the indigenous peoples who were in Canada at the time of European arrival. She also points out that the discussion of "the land – or indigenous people, or their culture – as so mysterious and spooky" is at once way of dehumanizing and romanticizing indigenous peoples. (SocImages mostly restates Lim's analysis.)

Perhaps one of the most problematic elements of Canadian culture is the tendency to claim victimization (at the hands of our British rulers or our powerful American neighbours), while apparently forgetting that the nation only exists because of a seriously brutal colonial history. (Or, frankly, while apparently forgetting that we rejected the American Revolution because we wanted to be part of the British Empire.) So -- Lim and Wade are both 100% right about the problems with framing this ad. That said -- I'd like to add a little nuance, because there's more going on here.

First, Wade refers at one point to the Vancouver Olympics as "remind[ing] us relentlessly [that] Canada was home to many peoples when the Europeans arrived." That's true, of course, but it's a bit historically imprecise to talk about the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows as part of that bigger European arrival, or bigger colonialist project. L'Anse aux Meadows appears to have been maintained quite briefly around 1000 AD. Leif Ericson didn't "discover" Newfoundland, but neither did he try to settle it beyond the one temporary outpost. (And, of course, this all happened about 500 years before Cabot made landfall in 1497, marking the beginning of real European rule of the region.)

All of this seems to confirm the suggestion that this ad "effaces" colonial history -- in part by reframing European arrival as something separate from a bigger colonial project. It was, in the case of the Vikings at the beginning of the last millenium -- but in the 16th century, it wasn't. And as on the rest of the continent, it was brutal. The Beothuks, as you all probably know, weren't represented at the Vancouver Olympics because the last of them died in the early 19th century.

Second, I'd like to add that this advertisement is also seriously problematic in its representation of Newfoundlanders. (Full disclosure: I've never lived there, but my relatives on both sides go back several generations in NL.)

It's difficult, in general, to talk about Newfoundland in one breath with the rest of Canada. The province joined Confederation in 1949, making it by far the last province to do so. Until that time, it was a separate Dominion of Britain, and was more-or-less directly under British rule. Historically, it's been an economically poor ("have-not") province -- and it's been regarded as a bit weird and backwards by the rest of the country. Newfoundlanders are stereotyped as poor, uneducated, backwards simpletons with bizarre accents.

The children in this ad seem to be embodiments of this outpost stereotype. They're pictured with dirt-smudged faces, in clothing that looks to be homemade (the cable-knit sweater) or cast-off (the rest). They're playing with rocks in a grassy field, as what looks to be a bad storm rolls in. Unless I'm missing something, this is not how Newfoundlanders live. Certainly Newfoundland is beautiful,  has a pretty distinctive landscape -- and certainly most Newfoundlanders adore it for that reason. But, believe it or not, they're fully modern there. Rural mostly, yes. But if you're going there to see children with fairy-crowns of curly red hair whose parents for some reason don't tell them to come inside when it's obviously about to start pouring rain, you're going to be disappointed. (Especially after making that three-hour flight, all the way from Ontario or the northeastern US.)


Maternal death rates in the Globe and Mail

With thanks to Mary, Queen of Thoughts, I give you this image from Monday's Globe and Mail:
After talking to MQoT (one of my BFFs IRL!!!), I want to add a bit to her commentary. (Only to extend, not to contradict.)

First, as she and I discussed, it's mind-boggling to use only two colour gradations here. I realize that this map comes from a G&M special issue dealing with Africa, and so it makes sense to foreground issues of African maternal health. I also realize that there are some substantial debates going on at present about the inclusion of contraception and abortion in the current G8 initiative. The G&M has historically been a Liberal-identified paper, so it makes sense that they'd foreground this highly partisan issue at this point.

By using only two colour gradations, this map gives the impression that Africa is much, much worse off than all of the rest of the world (with the apparent exceptions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, if I'm reading this right).

Let's contrast this to some other representations. First, I'll include this diagram from ChartsBin (click for an interactive version):

This diagram uses progressive gradations of colour. It still shows that the maternal mortality rates in most of Africa are really elevated, but it also shows that there are elevated rates in parts of South America and southeast Asia that aren't accounted for in the G&M version. The WHO site includes a less attractively nuanced colour scale, but gives a similar impression.

Again, by setting the numbers differently -- and, crucially, by including multiple gradations of colour -- this map makes it clear that there are regions of Africa that are comparable to regions of South America and Asia in terms of maternal mortality. It also shows that Canada, Australia, and Western Europe have lower maternal mortality rates, clarifying that these areas are substantially more privileged than much of the world. And it makes a distinction between countries with higher rates of maternal mortality. Setting the threshold for BRIGHT RED at 300 deaths per 100 000 live births makes it impossible to see that there are big differences between regions and countries in the continent.

But -- perhaps that's the point. Africa is still the continent that we love to talk about in terms of sweeping generalizations that efface the substantial differences between its regions and nations, as many have pointed out. It is indeed the only continent that it's still acceptable to discuss in sweepingly generalized terms. While the G&M "special issue" on Africa might be well intentioned -- and I haven't read the print version, so won't venture a guess on that -- the basic effect of a diagram like this one is to reinforce the popularly imagined version of the continent as a unified, uniformly Othered place of disaster and suffering. There are major social justice and humanitarian issues to be considered in relation to the continent, and I'm willing to concede that many of those are out of proportion to what's experienced in the rest of the world. I object, however, to the Globe's sensationalized, uncritical depiction of the continent. If their goal was to explore a serious humanitarian issue with attention to economic, geopolitical, and cultural issues, they've failed. If their goal was to make Sub-Saharan Africa look like a pool of blood, however, I guess they've hit the mark.



From Margaret Wente's interview with Camille Paglia, in yesterday's Globe and Mail:
Do you have any impression of the landscape in Canada right now?
I'm not that familiar with Canada. But when I was at York University a few years ago, I thought, “Oh my god, they are so shallow. Such a backwater.”
Thanks, Camille! Way to make me sorry that I assigned Break, Blow, Burn to my first-year writing students last year.

See, I'm on board with a lot of Paglia's arguments -- if not, precisely, with the ideology that underlies them. Take for example her ideas about education: she says in this article, as she has elsewhere, that teachers need to take a long view of history, and that we need to be pass on basic factual knowledge. That's absolutely true. This is, in fact, why I assigned Break, Blow, Burn: most of its essays are real gems that show careful attention to poetic form, poetic content, and cultural-historical context. That's exactly the kind of analysis that I wanted my students to see, and exactly the kind of analysis of which I hope they'll be capable.

But when she says derisively that "teachers have no sense that they are supposed to inculcate a sense of appreciation and respect and awe at the greatness of what these artists have done in the past" -- that's where she loses me.

I've taught a lot of Beethoven this year. I fucking love Beethoven. I have two Beethoven busts, people; I frequently hop around a little when I listen to the Eroica; and seriously, I think an awesome first date would involve hand-holding at a performance of the seventh symphony. And, as you'd hope, I have a solid understanding of his works -- of their form, their musical rhetoric, all of that. But it is not my job to make people feel "awe at [his] greatness". I will demand that they can track key changes and motivic development, I will demand that they can find the secondary theme, and I will ask them about the dramatic function of the coda. I will wear my awe on my sleeve, but I will not demand that my students feel what I do. Neither do I want my scholarship to be about "greatness".

In her interview with Wente, Paglia says, 
“Critical thinking” sounds great. But it’s a Marxist approach to culture. It's just slapping a liberal leftist ideology on everything you do. You just find all the ways that power has defrauded or defamed or destroyed. It's a pat formula that's very thin.
The question I pose back to her is this: what's the ideology involved in lamenting the lost prestige of the humanities, and in declaring that teachers need to teach "awe and respect"? That's a line of thinking that reifies cultural hierarchies, and that leaves us unable to consider the ways in which these hierarchies reinforce particular forms of power.

And it's the kind of thinking that leads people to declare Canada to be a "backwater". Always has been. I know that, with very few exceptions, we fail on those kinds of hierarchical terms -- the terms of progress, innovation, 'universal expression'. But -- that's a problem with the hierarchy, not with the nation.

Of course, I could be wrong. I may have spent the last ten years working up to a "long view" of Canadian culture, but I suppose that a weekend in Toronto and a lifetime immersed in High Art might have saved me the trouble of thinking all of this through. Dr. Paglia, is that the kind of informed assessment you want to make? I hope you see that when you argue on the one hand for close reading and historical knowledge and thick criticism, and on the other are willing to denigrate a national culture you haven't studied at all, it's doubly insulting.