Review of A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land by Adam Shoalts
A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land
by Adam Shoalts
So … this is a proof copy from the publisher via NetGalley (tanks), and I have to just put it out there that I didn’t actually see any maps in this version. I don’t know if that’s by design or simply that they hadn’t been set into the book at the type this version was exported. It seems a little silly to me that a book called A History of Canada in Ten Maps does not, in fact, include any pictures of maps. Adam Shoalts’ writing is definitely engaging and edifying, so I wouldn’t say that the lack of maps is a dealbreaker. It’s just odd considering the premise of the book.
When I first started writing this review, I said I had “somewhat mixed feelings” about this book. The more I write the review, though, and process the implications of Shoalts’ writing, the more I’m convinced this book is trash.
Taken at face value, A History of Canada in Ten Maps, aside from the not-having-maps thing, is what it says on the cover: ten stories. Starting with the Viking visitations a millennium ago and ending with Dr. Richardson’s mapping of the Arctic, Shoalts examines what he considers pivotal moments in our comprehension of the geography of this land. Basically, his thesis is the history of Canada may be understood through the history of those who explored it. His writing is, for the most part, quite entertaining and holds one’s interest (though I have a few qualms, which we’ll get to presently).
So why the long face and low rating? Put simply, Shoalts’ entire approach to Canadian history is an uncomplicated, uncritical narrative that appropriates and patronizes Indigenous cultures and histories instead of acknowledging their primacy on this land. By way of full disclaimer, I want to make it clear I’m a settler; there is no way I can adequately represent an “Indigenous perspective” of this book. But I’ve read enough trash takes on Indigenous peoples to recognize the broad strokes, and it behoves me to use my privilege as a settler to speak out about it.
Again, if we just launch into this book uncritically and take it at face value, it looks like Shoalts is acknowledging both the presence and crucial involvement of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples during the European exploration (read: invasion) of the continent. He points out that the most successful explorers and surveyors were the ones who worked with the Indigenous peoples of the area. Yet he seldom examines the reasons for those explorers and surveyors being there. I wish he presented the fur trade, and entities like the Hudson’s Bay Company, in a far more critical light.
Moreover, Shoalts relies a great deal on primary source accounts of the explorers, such as their diaries, or secondary sources written from a very Eurocentric perspective. So we end up in a situation like endnote 7 of Chapter 6¸ wherein Shoalts apologizes for Hearne’s account of the way Dene chief Matonabbee treats women:
… on the other hand, if we try to set aside twenty-first-century perspectives and examine things from the context of the 1770s, Matonabbe’s views can be seen in another light. Matonabbee was in essence saying to Hearne…
And that’s where I checked out of that note, because putting words in a historical person’s mouth, even in an attempt to paraphrase, is not a good look for a non-fiction history book. It’s doubly un-good when the person in question is Indigenous and the author is not. Whether or not Shoalts, or Hearne, or any of the scholars and sources Shoalts relies on is ultimately “correct” in their portrayal is beside the point: the point is that this shit is complicated, but Shoalts is presenting it in a very simplified, uncomplicated light.
Intentions are also beside the point. I suspect Shoalts has good intentions here. Take a look at this passage from his afterword:
Perhaps the revival of indigenous cultures provides a vision for a society that gets us past seeing the natural world in terms of dollars and cents, gross domestic product, a means to an end. Indigenous knowledge holds out the hope that we’ll recognize Canada’s remaining wild lands and wildlife for the irreplaceable gifts that they are.
On the surface, this seems very positive, very much in the spirit of reconciliation. But if you stop and think about it, Shoalts is positioning “indigenous cultures” as these treasure troves of “a vision for a [better] society”, as if they’re something we can just adopt (cough, appropriate, cough) without doing the work. He is endorsing “Indigenous knowledge” but not actually connecting that to the action needed to restore that knowledge to primacy—i.e., restoring the land.
And this is evident from the entire rest of A History of Canada in Ten Maps. Time and again, Shoalts acknowledges the existence of Indigenous people on this land but relegates them to the roles of antagonist, sidekick/ally, or bystander; the protagonists are always European. Although he never sugarcoats the treacherous nature of traversing wilderness, he romanticizes the process of exploration and colonization: these explorers are intrepid (male) heroes who brave incredible odds, might be accompanied by the “good” or “noble” Indigenous person, and challenged by the “bad” or “unwelcoming” Indigenous person. There might be an element of wish fulfillment happening here; at the end of his afterword, Shoalts talks about a solo journey across the Arctic. I have to wonder if he rather identifies with these explorers, sees them as kindred spirits, and yearns for the “simpler times” of men being real men, of going on these adventures.
Because that’s really the tone of this book: it’s a “boy’s own adventure” chronicling the exploration of this country. Again, Shoalts makes attempts to acknowledge that not everyone sees Canada as a positive thing, referring at one point in the afterword to “an unwelcome empire”. Yet these attempts are meaningless considering the grand theme of this book, the emphasis on Canada’s greatness as a product of centuries of committed exploration. Within the same paragraph as the previous quote, he claims that the “unspoiled wilderness” is “the bedrock of our country—the harsh but beautiful reality that gives meaning to our national identity”. Much eye-rolling ensued.
This kind of hyperbole recurs throughout the book. Shoalts has these weird moments where he waxes way too poetical about our country and famous people, like when he says, “In a couple of thousand years, when history has mingled with legend, [Alexander] Mackenzie might become to Canada what Odysseus is to Greece”. Or when he talks about the treatment of Pierre-Esprit Radisson at the hands of the Iroquois and says, “Fortunately, it was only an ordinary bit of torture (a few ripped-out fingernails, burnt flesh, sitcking a red-hot knife through his foot, and so on)”. That is an oddly macabre attempt at humour, and it feels so awkward and out of place.
It’s notable that not once does Shoalts engage with any of the problematic aspects of European-sanctioned map-making. There’s an entire chapter about the redrawing of the Canadian–American border after the War of 1812, focusing a great deal on the strategic and heroic efforts of figures like Brock and Drummond. But where’s the chapter on the various Treaties (particularly the numbered Treaties)? These were a series of patchwork-map land-grabs by the federal and provincial governments, well worth entire books of their own. Similarly, Shoalts could have included a chapter on the creation on Nunavut in 1999, perhaps the most successful land claim ever since colonization. That was an event that literally redrew the map of Canada within my lifetime. How about a map that shows all the residential schools across the country? But, you know, war maps are more fun, right?
This is a prime example of how it’s possible both to be progressive and yet still racist in one’s actions or writing. A History of Canada in Ten Maps commits the same error that our current federal government has done: using the right words and phrases, like reconciliation or nation-to-nation relationship, without really acting on those words and phrases. Shoalts often says the right things, or at least tries to, but ultimately, A History of Canada in Ten Maps is an extremely Eurocentric, settler-based perspective of our country’s history. It’s not that it’s poorly written or uninteresting—but we don’t really need more books like this. We absolutely do not need to mythologize the contributions of privileged white guys “taming” Canada into the country we have today. We need more Indigenous histories of this country, by Indigenous people; and we need settlers who are writing history to examine critically what they’re saying instead of just try to say what they think might be politically correct.
Not angry, just disappointed.