It is a simple thing for the analytical mind to pry open the panel of oppression and see the whizzing cogs and grumbling gears of race, class and gender working mechanically to produce social relations. How neatly our familiar intellectual frameworks structure our understanding of human life! There is a reassuring consistency with which these lenses are employed, reducing the world’s complexities to a comfortable, mechanical pattern. Useful as it is, the cold-blooded methodology that sees the operation of capitalism, patriarchy and racism in all things fails to capture the essential ambiguity of our humanity.
It is this ambiguity of the human experience that Kate Beaton has captured in her recent series, Ducks. Threaded beautifully into starkly political themes of environmental destruction, corporate recklessness and workplace safety are more explicitly human experiences: isolation, camaraderie and the moral complexity of survival in one of the world’s deepest wounds. The essential humanity of surviving in such a profoundly dehumanizing environment defines this painfully nuanced piece.
Humanity is a dangerous concept, but an important one. It is too often emphasized by exclusion, used to demonize some people to serve the ends of others. Still, it is too important an idea to abandon. When the easy tautologies of political analysis fail us, it is the idea of our shared humanity that helps to explain what makes people hang together. For students of struggle, insights into this frustratingly elusive element of history are precious.
Like generations of easterners, Kate Beaton left her home town of Mabou, Nova Scotia to make a living in the scabrous sprawl of the tar sands. With few economic prospects at home and the promise of good pay, thousands have followed its siren call into the maw of destruction. ‘Ducks’ recounts Beaton’s experiences working on one of these sites, centred around the deaths of hundreds of ducks in a tailings pond near Fort MacMurray, Alberta.
There are no easy truths framed by these panels. An action by Greenepeace that clogs a tailing pipe endangers the lives of workers on site. A sex worker finds herself frightened and cornered in a work site bathroom. Kate Beaton discovers that working in the tar sands comes with a persistent skin rash. Her equipment is covered in dirt, even indoors. Workers die on the job.
The comic is shot through with death: the ducks, a man falling from a construction crane, others killed in an accident on the highway. In the last case, Beaton hears the dead men were Cape Bretoners and seeks out another islander to see if she knew them. Even halfway across the country, the threat to home is real.
Beaton exposes a vein of callous indifference in her subjects. Men grumble about traffic on the highway on the day of the accident. Workers joke through an announcement on the death of the crane operator. The corporate response to the duck deaths is a scarecrow and some noisemakers. But for every example of inhuman indifference there is a counterpoint of dignity or sorrow.
There is the memory of home, too, in gentle jibes about Newfie Roundsteaks – a teasing nickname for baloney. A man shares photos of his children at home. The lethal crash is framed in terms of the phone call to the families. When Beaton confesses she hates it there, her coworker response captures the essential truth of the situation, and the strip. No one wants to be in the tar sands, watching the planet die. But they don’t have much of a choice.
Kate Beaton is not always a political artist – she is not even always serious. But in framing a part of her own experience, she has given expression to an often difficult truth. We survive in the little acts of kindness, in shared experiences and frustrations that complicate our day. Though we may grow numb or compromised, at the end of it all we are bound together by our common humanity and our ability to find beauty – and absurdity – in even the most trying situations. That is a political lesson than captures an intangible truth outside the reach of cold analysis. How we apply the lesson is up to us.
We are joined by a guest piece this week for Indigenous Comix Month – Sean Carlton is a PhD Candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies at Trent University. Please follow the links for more on this in-depth piece!
Rebranding Canada with Comics: Canada 1812: Forged in Fire and the Continuing Co-optation of Tecumseh
In the current age of austerity, the Harper Government allocated over $28 million to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. For many historians this proved to be an unpopular decision. It even drew the ire of the much-maligned Jack Granatstein, who pointed out, “This is also a government that’s slashing the national archives dramatically and killing the national library by cuts. On the one hand they’re good for history and on the other hand they’re bad for history—you sometimes wonder if they really know what they are doing.”
While historians are right to critique the controversial costs of the bicentennial celebrations in light of cuts to crucial public services, it is important to understand the government’s commemorative project as part of a more pernicious strategy of nation-building that historians Ian McKay and Jamie Swift identify as the “rebranding” of Canada as a “warrior nation.” In short, McKay and Swift contend that today there is a concerted right-wing effort to use the power of the state to “change how we think about our country and its history.” More specifically, they argue that “new warriors” are trying to rebrand Canada as a country “created by wars, defended by soldiers, and kept free by patriotic support of military virtues.” Canada’s history wars, then, are far from over.
In the case of the War of 1812’s bicentennial, the Harper Government pulled out all the stops to use the celebration as a rebranding opportunity. The commemorative project included a new national monument, a television commercial, and even a cell phone application, all showcasing the War of 1812 as a “defining moment” in what the Prime Minister called the “Fight for Canada.” Yet, this paper focuses on one aspect of the commemoration that received no critical attention: the representations of Indigenous peoples, and specifically of Tecumseh, in a free comic book called Canada 1812: Forged in Fire. The comic book was funded by the federal government and produced by High Fidelity HDTV in partnership with Parks Canada, Zeroes 2 Heroes Media, Bell Canada, and the Smithsonian Channel as part of a multi-media project. Canada 1812 will appeal to a broad public audience that will no doubt enjoy digging through the free comic book. However, like the other War of 1812 commemorative initiatives, Canada 1812, and especially its portrayal of Tecumseh, is a problematic “rebranding” of history to serve a nation-building agenda that must be critiqued and challenged.
The 142 page comic book traces the stories of six individuals—Isaac Brock, Charles de Salaberry, Laura Secord, John Norton, Enos Collins, and Tecumseh—who are all portrayed as distinctly Canadian heroes because of the pivotal roles they played in forging “Canada” out of the flames of the War of 1812. Canada 1812 memorializes these individuals in six separate stories, extoling each figure’s various virtues such as courage, bravery, and patriotism. The comic book opens with a hero-worshiping story of British military general Isaac Brock and the first panel of the first page depicts him as simplistically stating, “War is coming. Good.” Similarly, the story of Laura Secord is full of stereotypical tropes about gender, race, and the nation, the likes of which have been expertly examined by Colin M. Coates and Cecilia Morgan. As the work of Coates and Morgan suggests, it is important for historians to spark critical conversations about the ways in which past figures are used by different groups to reinforce troubling narratives that legitimize colonialism and Canadian nation-building. In hopes of sparking such a conversation about Canada 1812, I will more closely examine the representations of Indigenous peoples in the comic book, specifically the depiction of Shawnee chief Tecumseh.
In this article, I argue that Canada 1812 is a prime example of how people manufacture and manipulate the image of Tecumseh for the purposes of Canadian nation-building, a process that historian Robin Jarvis Brownlie has recently labelled the “co-optation” of Tecumseh. Despite his inclusion in the comic book to show a sort of multi-cultural coming together to defend Canada, I contend that the representations of Tecumseh in Canada 1812 ultimately conform to racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples that rationalize colonialism and Canadian nation-building as benevolent, even natural and inevitable. The way we are taught to see the past shapes our understandings of, and actions in, the present and future. Thus, the representations of Tecumseh in Canada 1812 are problematic not only because of their racist underpinnings, but also because they play important roles in forming perceptions of Indigenous peoples that continue to justify Canada’s colonial policies of coercion, displacement, and assimilation.
Read on at ActiveHistory.ca: