Contending with Marginal Histories in Books That Spur

In conceiving of new ways to imagine “Our New Tribalism,” this year’s Spur Festival in Winnipeg included two moderated events on “Books That Spur,” both of which showcased recently published books that make an important contribution to conversations about Canada’s national identity.

Barry Lane’s illustrated history of Canada’s expansive development of a transcontinental railway in Canadian Pacific and the Golden Age of Travel (Goose Lane Editions, 2015), for example, draws on a wealth of archival records and visual documents, including glossy campaign posters, maps, and vintage photographs of the CPR’s fleet of ships, along with images of the glamorous hotels that were studded across eastern and western Canada and the prairies during the early advancement of the CPR’s “trail of iron.”

Yet an inquiry from an audience member during the event’s question and answer period indicated the presence of a disquieting truth that lies embedded in Lane’s story of the CPR’s imperialist expansion: “What about Chinese immigrant labour?”. The mythology of the CPR and of Canada’s “golden age of travel” as Lane imagines it remains indeterminately contextualized in light of the loss of immigrant lives and the spurious procurement of land from Indigenous Peoples.

The ways in which this history of a “sea to sea” railway hedges around marginal histories indicates the pervasive influence of the mythology of the CPR in the making of Canada’s nationhood. Fitting into a mythology of national progress and unity, the CPR retains an allure that in turn obfuscates the implications of racial politics and the socio-economic frameworks that underlie this constructed civic ideology.

While Globe and Mail reporter Joe Friesen attempts to address similar political dynamics in his examination of male indigenous violence in The Ballad of Danny Wolfe: Life of a Modern Outlaw (McClelland and Stewart, 2016), the audience in attendance at Spur considered how the individuated biography of former Indian Posse leader Danny Wolfe may come to be read—perhaps problematically—as an exemplification of wider systemic issues in Canada.

In a critique of the surmised exceptionalism of Wolfe’s biography, a question raised by a fellow RBC Emerging Scholar engaged in a critique of Canadian mythology and the process by which an institution (or in this case, a posthumous person) can make or unmake a sense of community. By constellating questions of political resistance, crime, and the impact of Indigenous street gangs around a divisive Indigenous figure, does Friesen break down or reinforce the negative stereotypes that circulate in Canada with regard to Indigenous youth?

By bringing together a wide range of academic, public, journalistic, and artistic audiences, both of the “Books That Spur” events provided space for opening up questions about identity, belonging, and the marginal histories that necessarily complicate these national mythologies.

Sarah Bezan is a PhD Candidate enrolled in the Department of English and Film Studies at The University of Alberta, where she is currently researching decomposer organisms in contemporary fiction, poetry, and film. Her scholarly work has appeared in Mosaic, the Journal for Critical Animal Studies, Criterion, and the Journal of the African Literature Association. Sarah is also a proud contributor of book reviews and interviews for the Bull Calf Review and Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature, and is currently co-editing a book of essays entitled Seeing Animals: Derrida, Visuality, and Exposures of the Human (Lexington Books, 2017).

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