Romanticising the Canadian Hinterland

Romanticising the Canadian Hinterland

By Matthew Neville, Contributing Editor

The following essay was first published in On Site Review 34: On Land.

The topic of landscape is overwhelming. Ruminating on the word floods the mind with all of its meanings and applications – far-reaching, often meaningless, always subjective. The diversity of essays in this issue demonstrates the range of the term. Reading Desiree Valadares’s essay ‘Dispossessing the Wilderness’, I find it difficult to reconcile the landscape images I most often see of Canada – often of our National Parks – and what I experience. I’m left wondering – why is our physical, common – or national – landscape not urban in nature?

Regardless of definition, Canada, as one of the world’s largest politically-defined land masses and culturally-diverse population, is rich in landscapes. From the picturesque wild of our National Parks to the often grotesque results of resource extraction, the Canadian landscape means something to both Canadians and to people beyond our borders. In her essay, Valadares eloquently points out that the “cultural constructs of North American identity have long hinged on wilderness, the mythology of uninhabited nature, and the vastness of the American landscape“1.

Canada is often envisioned as wilderness, yet such representations of a national landscape are vastly different from what most of us experience and inhabit. We are, after all, a country of (sub)urban dwellers, with 80-90 percent of the country’s inhabitants living and working in an urbanised region (and more than half of urban dwellers concentrated in either Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver).

In his 1926 ‘Manifesto for a National Literature’, literary scholar Lionel Stevenson noted that “the primordial forces are still dominant” in Canada; as a result “Canadian art is almost entirely devoted to landscape, Canadian poetry to the presentation of nature.”2 Today, this mythology remains strong, yet our common history is one of nation building, urban migration and urbanisation. Walter Pache, the late German literary scholar, once commented that urban writing in Canada is ubiquitous, yet elusive – an observation as relevant to Canadian literature as it is to the notion of Canadian urbanism.2 It is little wonder why the concept of Canadian urbanism is so weak, when our real and representative landscapes are so far detached from one another.

Less than 20 percent of Canadians live in non-urban environments, yet political discourse, policy and patterns of urban development are often rural-centric, and, in some cases, blatantly anti-urban. Over the past three decades, the trend of municipal amalgamation of towns and villages with large areas of non-urban land, suggests “a denigration of the urban, reflective of the disdain and indifference with which the city and the urban continue to be treated in the Canadian political system and cultural imaginary”3. In Halifax for example, the City of Halifax is part of a municipal unit of nearly 5,500 square kilometres in size. 75% of people within it, however, live within an urbanised area of less than 300 square kilometres. As we are in a federal election year, it is worth noting that a rural vote in Canada continues to count for more than an urban vote. Canada is a nation of urban dwellers who refuse to accept their urban condition, instead we appear to have a national preoccupation with open green space.

Paradoxically, with a mere 3.3 persons per square kilometre, Canada has one of the lowest population densities on the planet – suggesting that it is very much a non-urban nation. With more than 75 percent of Canadian clustered within 150 kilometres of the US border, there is a very real great expanse above – the true Great White North – which only a small percentage of citizens have ever actually experienced. And despite being so far removed from the North, its impact on Canadians and their image of the country cannot be overstated. Perhaps it is this overarching notion of nordicity and of a large empty hinterland beyond the city skyline that makes the truism of urbanity more difficult for most Canadians to accept.

Canadians seem to insist on the “city’s subordination to the natural world”4 and preference for the non-urban, yet in the daily lives of nearly all Canadians, non-urbanism is little more than a myth. But is this sense of identity based on the notion of wild and wilderness – and of nordicity – fading? While immigration to Canada was traditionally dominated by Europeans, today the vast majority are coming from cities in countries that have long experienced a ferocious pace of urbanisation (China, India, Philippines). New Canadians are coming from large cities and settling in a the largest of Canadian cities. Will this change in demographics bring about a new respect for the urban in Canada? Or are they looking for reprieve and will only reinforce the myth?

There is a critical need to “assert the centrality of the city and the urban within the Canadian spatial and cultural imaginaries, to help us see the city as a place of Canadian society and culture”.5 The need for an understanding of the urban as space of possibility, of personal freedom, of opportunity is critical to the overall health of the country. The future of the country is visible in its cities today – our shared physical landscape. This fixation, however, on the non-urban myth may ultimately degrade the overall high-quality of life that Canadian cities are known for today. 

1 Valadares, Desiree, ‘Dispossessing the Wilderness’ On Site review 33: on land. 2015
2 Pache, Walter. ‘Urban Writing’. The Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada, edited by W.H. New,. Toronto: University of Toronto Pres, 2002. pp1148-1156
3 Stevenson, Lionel. 1926. Appraisals of Canadian Literature. Toronto: Macmillan, 1926.
4 Edwards, Justin and Douglas Ivison. Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. p199
5 Edwards p4

Matt Neville is an urban planner working in Halifax. He has a bachelor degree in Social Anthropology (Dalhousie) and a graduate degree in Human Settlements (University of Leuven, Belgium). He is PhD dropout and a contributing editor at The Site Magazine. Twitter: @nevwxyz