Geography and identity


The Pacific Coast
The Cordillera
The Prairies
The Canadian Shield
The Great Lakes
The Appalachian Region
The Arctic
Geography and identity


Geography and identity: The Historical Interpretation of Canada's Natural Environment


Canadian historians, geographers, and political scientists have long debated the nature of Canadian geography. They studied whether the country formed a natural entity distinct from the United Sates, or whether it was an artificial political creation.


The first view tended to dominate in the late 19th century, in the years that followed the Confederation of the separate British North American provinces into a new nation. This view was best expressed by Goldwin Smith, an English historian who immigrated to Canada and became the best-know supporter of a "continental" union between the US and Canada. For Smith, Canada is a natural projection of the US, artificially separated from its natural markets and big cities. From this geographical interpretation results an economic interpretation: the natural flow of commerce on the North American continent runs north to south rather than east to west, i.e. between Canada and the US rather than between Canadian regions. From those geographical and economic observations, Smith reached his conclusion that Canada was not politically viable, especially if one adds the ethnic problem of the cohabitation between French Canadians and English Canadians to the great cost of keeping together such an artificial structure.


This view of Canada and its destiny was reversed in the 1930s by a Canadian political economist, Harold Innis. Innis’s theory was taken up and developed by historian Donald Creighton. Both started with the premise that a people in a new country must adapt to its environment to find a staple, an export product, to exchange against manufactured goods from the mother country (Innis 383-384). But the French in the St Lawrence Valley, and the English on the Atlantic seaboard, were confronted to different environments and thus found different methods to obtain goods from the mother country (Creighton 3). The environment of the St Lawrence Valley did not allow agriculture or manufacturing, thus forcing the French Canadians to find a staple: in this case, furs, because the St Lawrence river gave them access to the great fur reservoir of the interior (Innis 391, Creighton 4-6). Both authors insisted on the specific nature of the Canadian environment: the Canadian shield and the river system set Canada apart from its southern neighbour and forced it to develop a specific economic system (Innis 392, Creighton 11, 14, 16). Consequently, they concluded that the political existence of Canada was the consequence of natural geographical and economic pressures: thus Canada existed not in spite of geography but because of it. This interpretation is crucial for the Canadian identity as it presents Canada as fundamentally different from the US and thus "destined" to be a separate political entity.


In the late nineteenth century when Canada was created, historians, thinkers, politicians presented the northern Canadian climate as one of the chief attributes of Canadian nationality, to set the country apart from the US and present it in a positive light. Canada was "the true north, strong and free", an expression that appears in the national anthem. The idea is that Canada’s unique and excellent character derives from its northern location, its severe winters, and its heritage of northern races. The result of life in the harsh northern latitudes was seen as the creation of self-reliance and  strength. Hence the Canadian climate was transformed from an element of sterility and inhospitability to a dynamic element of national greatness. The northerness of Canada was compared to the southerness of the US, with the ideas that the climate there was sapping the energies of the vigorous pioneer northern races that that had made the greatness of the country. Basically, Canada is presented as constantly strengthened and cleansed by the air that flows from the great virgin north. The whole discourse is largely mythical, somewhat racist, but illustrates the insecurity of the Canadian people and their strategy to produce a strong, self-confident national image.


It is striking how much Canada's national symbols borrow from the natural environment of the country. Where France is represented by Marianne, Canada has the maple leaf. In France, the franc used to feature "la semeuse"; most Canadian coins feature northern animals, among whom the beaver, whose fur, according to Harold Innis, was the basis on which the country was built. The importance of common natural symbols to unite Canadians has been perfectly explained by Arthur Lower:

"Canada with is divisions of race presents no common denominator in those profundities which normally unite - in race, religion, history, and culture. If a common focus is to be found, it must come out of the common homeland itself. If the Canadian people are to find their soul, they must seek for it, not in the English language or the French, but in the little ports of the Atlantic provinces, in the flaming autumn maples of the St. Lawrence valley, in the portages and lakes of the Canadian Shield, in the sunsets and relentless cold of the prairies, in the foothill, mountain, and sea of the west, and in the unconquerable vastnesses of the north. From the land, Canada, must come the soul of Canada."

Lower, Arthur, Colony to Nation, 4th ed., Don Mills, Longman, 1964, p. 564.


For more about geography and identity in Canada, see

Laurence Cros, « Nature, histoire et construction nationale au Canada : une étude des écrits de Harold Innis, Donald Creighton et Arthur Lower », Études Canadiennes, vol. 62, juin 2007, p. 195-206.