Archive for March, 2010

Gerald Friesen – Citizen and Nation

Citizens and Nation by Gerald Friesen is an attempt to conceptualize the Canadian nation at the end of the twentieth century in such a way as to weave together the different strands of our collective past into a unifying national story. Friesen sees a place, Canada, whose present situation as a modern, industrialized, urban nation seems so far from the experiences of indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans, and from the experiences of early settlers. And he worries about the later twentieth century intellectual trends of post-modernism, post-structuralism, which threaten to “de-mean” (eliminate the value of) or dilute any common historical myths that we have of Canada (as a northern nation, as a British-French-Aboriginal nation, as a multicultural nation, etc.). In order to overcome this quagmire Friesen attempts to meld together the idea of modes of communication and economic production as determinants of identity with enquiries into the relationships between cultural history and perceptions of time and space. I argue that in undertaking such a broad and nationalistic project, Friesen glosses over many of the schisms that have existed and do exist within Canadian society. More troubling though for Friesen’s project than this political critique is the argument that it is precisely these internal conflicts and complexities that make Canada interesting and which make a unique Canadian identity possible.

Friesen differentiates four “epochs of time-space dimensions” (224) which correlate to four dominant communications systems, which in turn, in the spirit of Innis, relate to different economic modes of production. Each of these epochs is meant to create its own type of culture, and each epoch corresponds roughly to a broad time period in the history of northern North America. What then are these four epochs? They are the oral-traditional, the textual-settler, the print-capitalist, and the screen-capitalist. Friesen believes that it is possible to synthesize these historical epochs in order to gain a better understanding of current day “Canadian public consciousness” (224). The key to this project for him is to look at the lives and experiences of ‘common people’ living during these periods. To this end, he chooses several individuals and families to serve as archetypes for different periods. For the oral-traditional society Friesen uses the documentary film Summer of the Loucheux: Portrait of a Northern Indian Family to explore the lives of the Andre family, a Gwich’in family living along the Mackenzie River in the 1980s. For the textual-settler society he relies upon the memoirs of Elizabeth Goudie, who along with her husband, a trapper, spends most of her life in the remote areas of Labrador in the early to mid 1900s, before eventually relocating into town. The print-capitalist society is shown through the memoires of Phyllis Knight, a German-Canadian immigrant who came to Canada in the late 1920s, and along with her husband struggled along in numerous low-paying wage-earning jobs. Finally, Friesen introduces Frank and Roseanne, two mid- to late-twentieth century middle-class workers, Rosie as a teacher and Frank as a mid-level employee of Imperial Oil.

In attempting to save the “citizen’s historical reflection” from the “utter instability, even unknowability, of individuals and communities,” (218) proposed by post-modernists and post-structuralists, Friesen ignores important aspects of the history of Canada and of the people who have and do live here. Specifically, I want to challenge Friesen’s portrayals of Indigenous peoples, ‘common people’ and citizens, and the State.

Friesen’s project in the first two chapters, on oral-traditional societies, is to explain how “there remains today an element in Canadian life that is Aboriginal in character” (13), despite the textual and capitalist nature of today’s society. Friesen wonders how the continuity of Indigenous culture has been maintained, and his answer is that it has been maintained through a “political determination to survive,” (47) rather than through some inherently durable quality to Indigenous cultures or worldviews. More specifically the survival of Indigenous cultures is due to their determination to communicate their political struggle to each new generation. Friesen attributes this determination to a “ sheer stubborn immovability” (47) on the part of Indigenous peoples. It seems slightly offensive to say that ‘stubbornness’ is the reason that Indigenous cultures and languages have survived through centuries of aggressive colonialist and assimilationist tactics by the French, British, and Canadian governments.

Any writing on Indigenous people in Canada should be a part of a decolonizing project. Though Friesen is clearly sympathetic to and even supportive of the Indigenous struggles for, as Haudenoshaunee scholar Taiaiake Alfred would say, peace, power, and righteousness, his approach to Indigenous history undermines what, I assume, are his good intentions. Friesen’s approach to history is not an Indigenous approach, but rather is the approach of a Western-trained academic. This becomes problematic when he tries to slot the history of Indigenous peoples in northern North America into his four-epoch theory. Though he may accurately describe an Indigenous approach to history as one that “associate[s] empirical fact with myths as inseparable parts of a single sphere and discuss[es] human and animal or plant life as elements that exist on the same plane as the dream world,” (220) Friesen nonetheless does not himself feel obliged to approach Indigenous history through this sort of Indigenous view. Thus he risks being another White outsider writing about Indigenous people from a distance, a position which places him distinctly in line with the colonial historiography of Natives in Canada.

Friesen is aware of his position when he says that his account of the survival and influence on Canadian identity of Indigenous culture is a “European-Canadian explanation.” (54) Instead of engaging with Indigenous communities and ways of being, he writes that “it is not easy to penetrate the actual workings of the aboriginal political community” (47). It is certainly easier to take his approach, which is that watching a “short, quiet film offers enough to construct a history of Aboriginal people in northern North America” (17). Winona Wheeler describes this problem well:

Conventional oral history interview methods do not meet [for example] Cree standards. Clearly there is a direct correlation between the depth and quality of knowledge a student acquires and the level of reciprocal trust and respect cultivated between the teacher and student. This is why the practice of racing into Indian country with tape recorder in hand and taking data meets with little success. This is also why historians who read interview summaries in distant offices are deaf to significant events from Indigenous perspectives. (Wheeler 201)

To get, or rather to be given, the kind of information required to tell a history that is meant to be part of a decolonizing project requires investing significant time into fostering a relationship between student and teacher (and for a university academic it also requires having the humility to become a student). And even worse for Friesen, “because Indian oral tradition blends the material, spiritual, and philosophical together into one historical entity, it would be a clear violation of the culture from which it is derived if well-meaning scholars were to try to demythologize it, in order to give it greater validity in the Western sense of historiography” (Harvey Knight qtd. in Winona Wheeler 202). Friesen acknowledges this blending, and yet in his own historiographical work does not partake of it.

Friesen frequently writes of both ‘common people’ and citizens in ways that I believe are problematic. He says that ‘common people’ are those who “feel that they are responding to events around them rather than initiating the changes” (6). This, I think, makes Friesen’s ‘common people’ different from the type of people portrayed, for example, by Zinn in A People’s History of America, or by Morton in A People’s History of England. The subjects of these ‘people’s histories’ are people who work to make changes around them but whose changes the elites of society actively try to prevent, and whose historical significance elites try to suppress.

Friesen does portray ‘common people’ as contributing to political actions, like the “thunder gusts” in the 1800s when many people struggled hard for democratic representation and responsible government, and like the political protests that Phyllis Knight participated in in the 1930s. But he portrays political actions like these, when he writes about them at all, as “comforting” (219) or even worse he construes them as intentionally contributing the building of the nation when in fact they were meant to challenge the nation as an entity controlled by elites. Put another way, political protests, like the 1838 rebellions, like the On-To-Ottawa trek, like the FTAA protests, were not shows of solidarity with the elite in the mutual project of constructing the nation. They were demands that the state, as the medium of class power, be given over by the elite in order to better serve the collective good—and not that ‘the nation’, as the locus of Canadian identity, be given over. This leads me to wonder then what, or who, Friesen means by ‘citizens’, for it is certainly true that Indigenous peoples in political struggle, radicals, labour organizers, interned Japanese, and others did not always identify with the Canadian State.

Citizenship is increasingly used as an implement of power by the Canadian state in order to differentiate those it deems (economically and politically) desirable from those it deems undesirable. Recent works by Himani Bannerji, Nandita Sharma, and others have exploded the myth of Canadian multiculturalism and have explained how citizenship policy in Canada has been used to widen class, gender, and racial divides. On a different angle, work by Engin Isin and Greg Neilsen and others has challenged the notion of citizenship as something that is bestowed by states. Rather, Isin puts forth the notion of ‘acts of citizenship’ through which “regardless of status or substance, subjects constitute themselves as citizens or, better still, as those to whom the right to have rights is due” (Isin 2). In this way citizenship becomes something that is enacted, and that is taken, and that works in defiance of the ability of the State to privilege certain people over others. Friesen’s book, though admittedly written before the major works by these authors, does not conceive of citizenship in this way, despite claiming to “assert the creativity of every citizen, not just the powerful few” (228).

Friesen’s telling of Canadian history also glosses over the, often negative, role that the Canadian state has played, thereby supporting the status quo image of the Canadian state as benign. He makes little or no mention of the residential school system, the interning of Japanese, the exploitation of Chinese labourers to build railways, the deaths of hundreds of workers in unsafe worksites, the deportation of (often racially targeted) radicals and progressives, the unnecessary imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970, etc. If we want to be able to be proud of Canada as a nation, or as a collective then we must be able to come to terms with these events in our history in order that we might become justifiably proud. But in order to do this we must first halt the destructive actions that the Canadian state continues to support. Why is our military still killing people in Afghanistan under a mission that is not run by the UN? Why is Canada allowed to be the home base for the majority of global mining companies that wreak havoc around the world? Why does our government support the government of Israeli and punish those who do not? Why does the state hold out against signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? And what of recent immigrants, who despite having higher levels of education find themselves working lower paying and more precarious jobs than those who were born here. Friesen claims that his book is “about today’s world. It is a history of the present” (4). He claims in his conclusion that the book is “political because it contributes to a community discussion about politics and the responsibilities of citizenship” (217). I ask, if Friesen claims that his book is a political one, and is about the day-today lives of common people, why does the book not issue a call to action for political action against the supporters of neoliberal policies that make the lives of ‘common people’, in Canada and in the rest of the world, so much worse?

Friesen positions himself as a champion of importance and impact of common people in shaping Canadian history. I do not disagree with this. But if by ‘common people’ we mean those who are passive with respect to historical forces and who make their contribution by populating the mainstream, these are hardly the people I look to as monumental figures. Those who struggle for change in anonymity, those who demand their rights rather than waiting for them to conferred, those who demand that the government be accountable to the people and not to corporations and the wealthy, these are the people who have held Canada together as a nation by refusing to let it be mediocre and repressive. Friesen “contends that a crucial strength of Canada lies in its common people” (228). I contend that a crucial strength of Canada lies in the politically aware and progressive people who work hard to convince others that they can be more than just common people.


Friesen, Gerald. Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication, and Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Isin, Engin, and Greg Nielsen. Acts of Citizenship. London: Zed Books, 2008.

Wheeler, Winona. “Reflections on the Social Relations of Indigenous Oral Histories,” in Walking a Tightrope: Indigenous Peoples and Their Representations. David McNabb, Ute Lischke editors. Wilfred Laurier Press, 2005.