The True Northwest Passage: Explorers in Anglo-Canadian Nationalist Narratives


  • Janice Cavell


The Northwest Passage has always held a symbolic role in the mythology of Canadian nationalism, but the imagined geography of which it is a part has changed drastically over time. From Confederation to the present day, explorers have been described as the first builders of the Canadian nation. But in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Canadian historians showed little interest in the Far North. Instead, they were fascinated by the story of westward exploration. They created a romantic grand narrative celebrating the explorers who mapped out the path later followed by the Canadian Pacific Railway. For them, this westward path-the "true Northwest passage"-led both to the Pacific and to Canadian nationhood. Arctic exploration came to the forefront of nationalist concerns only after this paradigm had been established. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, British explorers like Sir John Franklin were also seen primarily as nation-builders. In the second half of the century such claims were re-evaluated. However, the romantic nationalist tradition has persisted, though in an altered form, among the writers who prefer new Arctic heroes such as John Rae and Samuel Hearne. These explorers are now thought to have shown the way to a very different "true Northwest passage" through their sympathetic understanding of the northern landscape and its Aboriginal inhabitants. This article analyzes both the continuities and the differences between the old and new imagined geographies of Canada.

Author Biography

Janice Cavell

Janice Cavell is an historian with Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, and an adjunct research professor at Carleton University.