Thursday, December 10, 2009

The "Canadian" Northwest Passage?

So here we go again! The Canadian House of Commons has come out with a motion to rename the "Northwest Passage" the "Canadian Northwest Passage." It's a strange and surreal claim, although its context -- the concern over Canada's sovereignty to its Arctic territories -- is at least somewhat sensible. Down here, it would be like renaming the Mississippi River the "American Mississippi River," except of course that no one is claiming rights of free passage from New Orleans to St. Louis. What's more, though, is that this renaming has got caught up with Inuit concerns over their right to reassert indigenous place names, along with the whole history of the Passage as an Icon of British Naval quests generally, meaning Sir John Franklin and all who searched for him can't be far behind.

Everyone should take a break here and consider the facts. As my good friend Kenn Harper observes, the "Northwest Passage" was an idea long before it was a reality; in fact, its essence is that of a quest, or a desire, rather than a fulfillment. Of course, other imaginary names have ended up on maps before (see for instance the Straits of Juan de Fuca, which were named after the man who sought the fabled Strait of Anián, a nonexistant route across the Americas, in 1592), but in point of fact there is no such waterway with this name. It was imagined as a singularity, but is in fact a multiplicity; there are any number of potential routes through the inland Arctic waters of Canada, including that taken by Sir Robert McClure, that taken by Roald Amundsen, that taken by the SS Manhattan, and many others since. A Government can, of course, name any physical feature what it wants, but the "Northwest Passage" is not a physical feature at all.

It is, in fact, a very Romantic idea, and ought to be celebrated in just that spirit, rather than pinned down to a map. And the finest emobodiment of this spirit, I am sure many readers of this blog will agree, is Stan Rogers' song of 1981, "Northwest Passage." It embodies the idea, and the passion of the Passage, connecting the exploits of Sir John Franklin, Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, and Henry Kelsey with Rogers' own symbolic passage, which was undertaken via the Trans-Canada highway as "this tardiest explorer." It's an extraordinary song, one which -- by Rogers' own account -- came to him as he lay in a darkened recording studio, with the thrumming of the amplifier tubes as his drones. It has been called Canada's unofficial national anthem, and with good reason: the significance of the Passage, and Franklin's death, and Rogers', are all bound up in it. In the efforts to assert Canadian sovereignty over its inland waters, it has been caught up as a sort of talisman, but that's not a purpose it should serve. Instead, I hope it reminds everyone -- in Canada and elsewhere -- of the power of a story wrought with sacrifice, fringed with fear, and concluding with the unity of a diverse Nation, brought together not with declarations of some body of legislators, but with dreams.


  1. This does have some importance given that with Global warming the North West Passage might become practical so Canada exercising a claim makes sense. I do remember the Manhattan sailing through, apparently without Canadian permision of the basis that the North West Passage was "International waters" so I can understand as a Canadian a bit of sensitivity in the area. In some respects Canadian policy is similar to the Indonesian Archipelego idea claiming political contrtol over the many, many various straits between the various islands of Indonesia.

  2. Love that album long before I expeienced the North. Appreciate the blog and research and updates involved.