- Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson
Aboriginal affairs are an increasingly prominent part of the Canadian zeitgeist. Competing commentaries and conflicting reports regarding housing conditions on Attawapiskat First Nation; the re-election of National Chief Shawn Atleo in July 2012; anticipated Tory legislation that will allow for the privatization of tribal lands; fraught proposals to transport bitumen across unceded Native territory, especially in Northern British Columbia; and other current events with historical implications make Anderson and Robertson’s book, which came out in fall 2011, more relevant than ever.
Seeing Red is part of a recent critical trend that considers the relationship between Indigenous peoples and North American print culture. Unlike Hugh J. Reilly’s The Frontier Newspapers and the Coverage of the Plains Indian Wars (Praeger, 2010) or Philip H. Round’s Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663–1880 (U of North Carolina P, 2010), this monograph privileges a Canadian perspective that focuses on newspaper coverage from roughly Confederation in 1867 to the centennials of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 2005. As such, it [End Page 124] promises to fill a significant gap in existing scholarship; unfortunately, it fails to deliver on that promise.
The authors organize their book around twelve case studies: the purchase of Rupert’s Land in 1869; the signing of Treaty 3 in 1873; the Northwest Rebellion of 1885; the Klondike Gold Rush, 1898–1905; the death of Pauline Johnson in 1913; the “disrobing” of Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) in 1938; press coverage of Aboriginal people in the wake of World War II; discussions of the contentious White Paper in 1969; letters to the editor regarding the 1974 Anicinabe Park standoff in Kenora, Ontario; passage of Bill c-31 in 1985; the Oka Crisis of 1990; and two provincial centennials in 2005. The subject of each case study, many of them seminal events, presents a geographic, topical, and critical range of issues that feels apt. The requisite presentation of primary evidence with which to critically reinforce each case study, however, falters.
Consider, for example, the opening chapter, which examines coverage surrounding the purchase of Rupert’s Land. Drawing primarily from the Toronto Globe and the Montreal Gazette, Anderson and Robertson demonstrate how the newly formed nation used the press to cultivate a collective mythology that speciously differentiated Canada from the United States—a mythology that continues to exist today. Despite repeated assertions that Canada–First Nations relations were morally superior to US–American Indian relations, the nineteenth-century press nonetheless “naturalize[d] the massive imperial land aggrandizement by casting [Rupert’s Land] as free for the taking and Aboriginals as essentially unfit in several ways” (19). The authors’ claim may surprise or even offend many contemporary Canadians, but concepts and phrases normally associated with American westward expansion—such as “manifest destiny” and the “colonization” of inexhaustible “virgin” lands—were frequently parroted by the Globe and Gazette and “presented conquest as simply a given” (23).
The chapter is a fascinating one, and the scope of research is admirable. Yet the ultimate effect is disappointing. Despite ample evidence from which to draw, individual quotations are clipped (two or three words at a time, sometimes one, which is the most nagging critical limitation throughout the book) and often uncontextualized. Though sections were less strictly defined in nineteenth-century newspapers compared with today’s, it is generally unclear if remarks about Indigenous people are drawn from news stories or editorials; it is also unclear if the [End Page 125] Globe and Gazette just happened to use similar language or if they were directly responding to one another. And general discussions of the historical moment itself demand disproportionally high levels of reader familiarity; many Canadian scholars, and certainly most Americans, will not have the sense of Rupert’s Land history and size that the authors assume. And an overly theoretical framework gets in the way of pertinent historical context and critical...