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Curb 5.3 Erickson_pages

Excerpt from Curb 5.3. “Are We There Yet?!”:

Historian A. R. M. Lower claims that “Canada is a canoe route,” a phrase proudly adopted by the Canadian Canoe Museum. His argument is that the shape of Canada comes from the path of the Fur Trade across the country, and such a path necessarily incorporates French, English and Indigenous history into the founding of the nation. However, as Misao Dean* and others (including myself) argue, this simplifies the relationship at the heart of the production of Canada. The fur trade certainly involved cooperation and kinship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples, but it was also fueled by mistrust, insecurity and outright conflict. Moreover, by the end of the fur trade as a significant economic industry in Canada the relationship had deteriorated into one of paternalist exploitation on the part of the Canadian state (not to mention the intention of the state to slowly eliminate the “Indian problem”). Despite this (or perhaps, because of the dangerous decline), the fur trade might offer some helpful ideas for contemporary conflicts over urban land and access.

Specifically, the fur trade highlights the need for European settlers to engage with indigenous groups on their terms. Traveling throughout the expanse of North American, on the rivers and lakes that now grace our urban centres, required the skill and technology of indigenous peoples – the canoe became the material symbol of this relationship. The failure of the fur trade to maintain the cooperative relationship can be found in the insistence of Europeans to exploit and profit from these relationships. As York boats, carts and railroads replaced the canoe, the geographic reason for this insistence faded and the drive for profit and control overtook the kinship bonds that originally fostered the fur trade and its people (including the Metis). The planning process for our urban centres now has the opportunity to reestablish that relationship, and engage with Aboriginal people on their terms. Consultation is one starting point, but it is also time to listen to Indigenous groups articulate and implement their vision for the city.

* Dean, M. (2013). Inheriting a canoe paddle. Toronto: University of Toronto.

Bruce Erickson is an assistant professor in the department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba.  He is the author of Canoe Nation: Race, Nature and the making of a national Icon and the co-editor of Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire.

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