Postcards from the Prairie

A Settlement Discourse

Author:Kim Ennis

Let’s call it a myth, to be generous. Looking at the posters featured in the exhibition Acres of Dreams: Settling the Canadian Prairies from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, I am impressed by both the level of deceit and the durability of the imagery. Yes, these are unmistakably documents of civilization, and thus documents of barbarism, as Walter Benjamin asserted (Said, Culture, 309). Whose dreams are depicted here? Are these the dreams of Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, nation builder, dreams of a new “Britain of the North”? Are they the dreams of the family of “stalwart” Bukovynian peasants, dreams of bounty and security in a home of their own? Or are these the apocalyptic dreams of Wovoka, the Paiute visionary, nightmares of unstoppable destruction and death, dreams which have come true in the worst way?

Fig. 1. Prosperity Follows Settlement in Western Canada, 1905
Fig. 1. Prosperity Follows Settlement in Western Canada, 1905
(image details)

The cover of a promotional pamphlet from 1905 entices prospective farmers with the promise, “Prosperity follows settlement in western Canada.” The accompanying image depicts an angelic figure hovering in a cloud above a plain already laid out in rectangular fields and ready for harvest (see fig. 1). She is dispensing golden wheat from an overflowing cornucopia as though in fulfillment of a divine plan. One of the posters from 1910-20 shows an image of partly-treed crop land and fenced fields generously covered with stooks of wheat. There is a wagon heaped with sacks of grain and a well-established homestead featuring a large house surrounded by more trees. The text reads:

Western Canada
The New Eldorado
Homes for Everybody
Easy to Reach
Nothing to Fear
Protected by the Government
Wheat Land
Rich Virgin Soil

It is evident enough now that only the first and last lines contain any significant element of truth. In spite of that, more than two million people were convinced by such promotions to give up their homeland and cross the world. Many of the posters feature the words, “Free Homes” or “Free Farms.” How could they be free? What happened to the people who lived there before, in this “great fertile belt” with “deep soil, well watered, wooded, and richest in the world” not to mention the “climate the healthiest in the world” (Acres of Dreams)? Why would the original inhabitants want to give up such valuable land?

One summer my cousins came to visit from California. My family took them for a picnic, to Fort Carlton as I recall, to see some Canadian history while enjoying the countryside. Cousin Cindy was afraid to leave the vehicle because there might be wild Indians. I assured her that there were no more Indians. This was the plain truth that emerged from my white middle class schooling. How could I have accepted that? Did I imagine that an entire population of Indigenous people had quietly faded from existence like fairies or leprechauns? How could this idea have gained acceptance?

Fig. 1. Prosperity Follows Settlement in Western Canada, 1905
Fig. 2. Free Homes in Canada. The Land of Plenty, [1903?], Database ID 26180, from Persuasion: Print Advertising and Advocacy on the Prairies
(image details)

At least three very significant developments took place simultaneously, at the time known to the Cree people as “where it went wrong.” According to the Cree scholar, Neal McLeod, this critical turning point in the relationship between Indigenous people and the European invaders (there were very few settlers at this time) was clearly identifiable and well-recognized. In his book Cree Narrative Memory he says:

Despite the efforts of the nehiyawak [Cree people] to resist the colonial presence, the events of 1885 strengthened the colonial grip on Cree territory. Out of desperation, frustration with the government, and starvation, events culminated in armed conflicts between Indigenous people and Canadians at Frenchman’s Butte, Cutknife Hill, and Batoche. [. . .] After the troubles, the Canadians dominated the new region: they imposed the new colonial order and met with markedly decreased resistance. The Cree word for the events of 1885, e-mayahkamikahk (‘where it went wrong’), represents the culmination of spatial exile. (McLeod, 57)

My guess is that “wrongness” refers not to a particular failing, such as an error of tactics on the part of the resistance leaders, or even the disproportionately belligerent response of the Dominion government, but rather to a sad truth: from this time onward the relationship between the two cultural groups, which had for two centuries been one of mutual benefit and relative balance during the fur-trading era, would become a severely imbalanced power struggle verging on genocide as the newly established Dominion hastened to remove all obstacles to settlement. This change of political will was one of the three developments.

What Prime Minister John A. MacDonald had to say on the subject of the resistance (or rather, rebellion, from his point of view) was that “these impulsive half breeds ... must be kept down by a strong hand until they are swamped by the influx of settlers” (quoted in Coleman, 20). Since the annexation of the Northwest Territories in 1870, the Dominion of Canada had been expecting a deluge of settlers to occupy the vast tract of land, hoping, in part, to secure it against a perceived threat of northward expansion from the United States, in part to provide the engine of development for what was anticipated to be an empire surpassing even that of Britain. Indeed, every effort had been made to entice settlement, including the completion of the CPR main line, also in 1885. The growth of the railroad, not only as a means of transportation and communication, but as a powerful corporate player in the newly emerging arena of national politics, indeed as an adjunct to the Dominion government, was the second important development.

The third of these significantly intertwined developments was the introduction of the camera. Photography had been employed by the Geological Survey of Canada since 1871 in the construction of the railroad; in 1885 Oliver Buell, in the employ of the CPR, recorded troop movements during the Northwest Rebellion, likely the first use of photography to record historical events in Canada. The new technology provided replicable visual imagery that could be widely distributed for the first time. These three interrelated forces–the political will to accelerate the colonization of the Northwest Territories (now the western provinces), the empowerment of the CPR (and later the CNR as well) as agents of the Dominion government, and the introduction of photography–combined to create an important new instrument for the propagation and dissemination of national mythology.

The postcard is but one example of the array of visual documents that began to proliferate at this time. Originating in Austria in 1869, postcards gained wide circulation in conjunction with the international expositions that took place around the turn of the century, including the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, and the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1899. These events were staged to showcase national progress through architecture, technology and elaborate displays of colonial possessions, including entire villages complete with human inhabitants. As such they were impressive demonstrations of the centrality and superiority of Europe as opposed to the marginality and inferiority of the “subject races.” In his essay on the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 in London, Brian Street writes, “The meaning of the exhibition itself and of the photographic images and postcards that accompanied it, is to be understood within this construction of a modern, civilized self in contrast with a primitive ‘Other’” (in Edwards, 126). The extraordinary popularity of these postcards, sometimes selling a quarter of a million copies, and achieving a total circulation of 866 million in the British Empire in a single year (122) attests not only to their importance to the modern European psyche, but to their enormous power as instruments of hegemony. Never before had images circulated in such numbers, images that originated from a single controlled source.

Malek Alloula describes the postcard with great vividness:

[. . .] it becomes the poor man’s phantasm: for a few pennies, display racks full of dreams. The postcard is everywhere, covering all the colonial space, immediately available to the tourist, the soldier, the colonist. It is at once their poetry and their glory captured for all the ages; it is also their pseudo knowledge of the colony. It produces stereotypes in the manner of great seabirds producing guano. It is the fertilizer of the colonial vision. (Alloula in Mirzoeff, 318)

Thus from their earliest proliferation, postcards were in the service of national fantasies.

The visual imagery of the postcards from the prairies contributed to the production of stereotypes of several kinds, all contributing to the mythology of settlement, and so “fertilized the colonial vision.” When Clifford Sifton entered the Ministry of the Interior in 1896 he “regarded the West as a commodity, distrusted by the rest of the world, that only vigorous promotion would sell” (Rees, 11). Determined to bring large numbers of settlers to the prairies, he needed to reverse the perception that had been established by Palliser and others of a bare and barren wasteland. In order to counteract the existing exploration narrative he had to replace it with a contradictory narrative of settlement. To accomplish this, Sifton embarked on an aggressive advertising campaign that was continued by his successor, Frank Oliver. The campaign was focused primarily in Europe, and consisted of the broad distribution of posters, free postcards, more than a million pamphlets in 1900 alone (ibid), and “magic lantern” shows provided by hundreds of traveling promoters known as “Canadian crackers” (8). Curator Keith Bell records in his essay in Plain Truth that

the pamphlets were accompanied by postcards, handed out free at the immigration offices, as well as in the prairie region, where it was clearly intended that settlers would send them home as positive views of their new way of life, thereby encouraging further waves of immigration. (in Ring, 39)

The postcards represented in the Digital Projects in Special Collections at the University of Saskatchewan are in many cases examples of these promotional documents. Together they form a visual representation of the settlement myth that was being actively propagated during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Were these postcards sent home as a kind of response to the posters that had lured people to move to western Canada, or as a confirmation of the reality of the myth? Rees suggests an answer to this question: “After the upheaval of departure, few were disposed to admit that emigration was painful, far less a mistake. Letters home tended to be justifications of the new life” (13-14). My guess is that Rees is correct: no one wants to send home bad news. Of course it is difficult to confirm this on the basis of the evidence of these collections, since very few of them were actually posted. If they had been, they would likely be in collections in Europe, the United States and Eastern Canada. As a result, few of the postcards in the collection bear inscriptions. Of those that do, most say very little: “enjoyed your letter;” “wish you would write;” “been very busy;” “arrived yesterday” are typical messages.

Fig.  3. On Qu’Appelle Valley, near Cutarm, Sask., 191-?, from <em />Postcard Views of  the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 3. On Qu’Appelle Valley, near Cutarm, Sask., 191-?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

But the pictures say a great deal: visual images have an immediate, definite, powerful impact that verbal texts can only strive to match. These postcard images, emanating from a single source (at least initially) and having been judiciously selected and crafted to represent a carefully defined aspect of reality, offer an unequivocal view of a land that matches the hopes and dreams of potential European migrants in every possible way: it is vacant (of prior inhabitants); it is fertile; it is warm and sheltering; it is safe; it is civilized and already established (by the new inhabitants). Figure 3 is typical of the lush green landscape views that exemplify the first three characteristics. Such overwhelmingly positive images fulfill two complementary needs: the promotional purposes of the Department of the Interior, and the emotional needs of the new immigrants to reassure their families back home of their well-being and their success (or at least, the promise of their success) in the distant land. Mona Wood of Pense, Saskatchewan described the general passion for collecting postcards during the early years of the century, and recorded, “I bought cards, too, to send to my friends. Even our local drugstore sold cards of our town–all kinds of scenes–and we were anxious to send them back East to show just what our prairie town looked like” (Anderson, v). It is this desire to show loved ones “what our prairie town looks like” that accounts for the views of Main Street (see fig. 4) that are so prevalent in the collections.

Fig. 4. Main Street, Stoughton, Sask., from Postcard Views of Southeast Saskatchewan,

Fig. 4. Main Street, Stoughton, Sask., from Postcard Views of Southeast Saskatchewan

(image details)

Looking through the postcards, it becomes quickly apparent that the images fall into more or less definite categories. The views of Main Street almost constitute an entire genre in themselves, one that persists to this day in the ubiquitous views of the city skyline. Significant new buildings such as churches, schools, banks, and railway stations are often singled out as examples of establishment, growth and sophistication. In the same way, locomotives, new flour mills, and the latest harvesting equipment are featured as examples of advanced technology.

Bountiful harvests are often depicted as groupings of men and animals working in the fields with grain elevators in the distance. Bounty was one of the primary motivations for moving to the prairies, and these postcards testify to the truth of the earlier promise. Social events such as parades, picnics, theatrical performances, festivals and other celebrations are another popular subject that testifies to social well-being as well as to the continuity of traditions.

Fig. 5. Farm House of Senator Douglas, Tantallon, Sask., 191-?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 5. Farm House of Senator Douglas, Tantallon, Sask., 191-?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

These categories often overlap, signifying each other. In some ways they all say “home” but some are more explicit than others. Every effort was made to convey the idea of a place much like home, only better: rolling land, partly treed, with abundant water, a nearby village with a church and school, access to the railway and other benefits of technology, a welcoming landscape similar to parts of Europe, often with well-established farmyards and gardens.

Earlier photographs of empty landscapes, winter, and broken ground were replaced by scenes of towns, heavily mechanized farming, and prosperous people abundantly serviced by schools, churches, and hospitals set in what appeared to be permanent summer. (Bell in Ring, 39)

There are numerous examples of this kind of portrayal that seems to answer back to the promotional posters that pictured a tidy, spacious farm house in an orderly yard, with a garden and chickens, a wife baking at the kitchen window and men working in the nearby field. In Figure 5 this wish is fulfilled in an extreme form. It is just possible to make out a group of servants posing on the lawn for this photograph in front of the exceptionally large house. The fact that it belongs to a Senator suggests not only that this is a civilized place, but that an immigrant might also aspire to become a senator and achieve this level of wealth.

Fig. 6. A Pretty spot in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., 19--?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 6. A Pretty spot in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., 19--?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

The Qu’Appelle Valley provided the source for many of the views of Saskatchewan because it was neither perfectly flat nor completely dry. The more enclosed spaces of the coulees, the hillsides, the relative abundance of greenery and the presence of water all contributed to the picture of habitable land (from a European perspective). The landscape portrayed in Figure 6 could almost be a view of a river valley in the hills of Germany or Switzerland. Note the figures on the hillside that suggest a picturesque tourist destination. The “home” effect is even more pronounced when the image includes signs of actual habitation, such as rail fences, trails, people on horseback, bridges, views of settlements and especially cozy cottages or well-established houses and yards.

Fig. 7. Qu’Appelle Valley scene near Regina, 1909, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 7. Qu’Appelle Valley scene near Regina, 1909, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

Obviously, the choice of images for these promotions was crucial: snow was not to be portrayed, the mention of drought was forbidden, and Sifton, as one of his first official acts,banned the publication of Manitoba temperatures abroad (Rees, 14). Sifton also published the Atlas of Western Canada in 1901 in which he described the climate of Saskatchewan as “healthy, and free from endemic or epidemic diseases. It is bracing and salubrious, and is undoubtedly the finest climate on earth for constitutionally healthy people” (18). Information of this kind, combined with visual imagery such as the view in Figure 7 suggest something close to paradise on earth.

Views of the experimental farm at Indian Head were very popular since they indicated not only established habitation, but also technological advancement, the presence of science and the imposition of order. One postcard in particular (see fig. 8) shows the superintendent’s residence surrounded by extensive and well-manicured gardens peopled with numerous figures (which appear to be added) walking at leisure, riding in a carriage, seated in the shade, while in the distance, looming like a veritable manifestation of the march of progress, stand nine or ten grain elevators, as well as a church, punctuating the blue horizon line. The perspective is elevated, an example of the bird’s-eye view that was frequently employed at this time, especially for giving a sense of the expansiveness of towns and cities. The exalted position of the viewer also suggests a visual dominance, an omniscience consistent with notions of advanced knowledge and accomplishment.

Fig. 8. Indian Head, Sask: view from exp. farm, 19--?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 8. Indian Head, Sask: view from exp. farm, 19--?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

In a second view of the same superintendent’s residence (see fig. 9), this time from ground level, the garden motif is even more pronounced. Again, the figures appear to have been added. While this technique was no doubt a matter of convenience, nevertheless the added figures suggest the possibility of substitution: a prospective settler could imagine being transplanted into this situation. The impressive house is actually the seat of an institution, but gives the impression of a prosperous home, while the experimental gardens could be imagined as a luxurious yard. At the same time, the studious-looking men appear to be engaged in serious scientific pursuits. The scene is imbued with a sense of order, abundance, ease and definite belonging.

Fig. 9. Superintendents residence, experimental farm, Indian Head, Sask., 1909?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 9. Superintendents residence, experimental farm, Indian Head, Sask., 1909?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

The numerous views of Main Street are really a specialized instance of this portrayal of home, but in place of a personal or familial refuge, they indicate primarily accomplishment and security in the linear perspective of these views, in which the converging lines of the street permanence through the establishment of a viable and expanding community. There is a sense of security in the linear perspective of these views, in which the converging lines of the street vanish at the distant (and usually empty) horizon. The buildings that face each other across what is often the only street stand for the promise of more to follow along the same lines, in a
progression that is apparently infinite.

Fig. 10. Main Street, Whitewood, Sask., 1913?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 10. Main Street, Whitewood, Sask., 1913?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

Both Figure 4 and Figure 10 are particularly clear examples of this geometry. These images, like the equally prevalent views of newly constructed architecture, are also testimonies to the sophistication of prairie settlements, in that they have succeeded in reproducing the visible structures of the civilized world to house the required institutions of civil society: the seat of government, the bank, the church, the school, the post office. Figure 11 shows a rare interior view. The Qu’Appelle Town Hall (see fig. 12) has been constructed with selected features from disparate periods including crenellated parapets on the towers and Italianate arches over the entrances. This free adaptation of anachronistic European styles is typical of prairie architecture during the settlement period. The transplantation of building styles echoes that of the institutions which they house. The postcard images are proof that this transplantation has successfully taken place.

Fig. 11. Pro-Cathedral, Qu’Appelle, 19--?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 11. Pro-Cathedral, Qu’Appelle, 19--?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

Fig. 12. Town hall, Qu’Appelle, Sask., 191-?,  from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 12. Town hall, Qu’Appelle, Sask., 191-?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

Another instance of the portrayal of progress through large scale structures is the set of postcards depicting bridges (see fig. 13), flour mills, threshing machines (see fig. 14), and other advanced technology of the time. This category also includes various modes of transportation including teams of horses and oxen, automobiles, locomotives and riverboats. These images equally demonstrate that the wild west has been transformed into a viable component of the modern nation. The railway bridge in Figure 13, a truly remarkable work of engineering, has the complex, linear, metallic appearance that is the hallmark of modernity. Set in such an open vista, it gives the impression that this is a land of endless opportunity poised to accomplish great things.

Fig. 13. The Qu’Appelle Valley, near Cutarm, Sask., 1911?,  from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 13. The Qu’Appelle Valley, near Cutarm, Sask., 1911?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

Fig. 14. Threshing scene, Carnduff Sask.,   from Postcard Views of Southeast Saskatchewan

Fig. 14. Threshing scene, Carnduff Sask., from Postcard Views of Southeast Saskatchewan

(image details)

Harvesting images are of particular significance since the primary target of the settlement project was farmers. From the earliest promotions the idea of bounty was central: “Free Homes in Canada–Land of Plenty” (see fig. 2); “Prosperity Follows Settlement in Western Canada” (see fig. 1). Promotional posters and postcards alike depict countless images of vast fields of shoulder-high wheat or mountainous swaths or stooks. Along with the idea of owning a home, the attraction of productive farmland would have been a primary consideration in the decision to relocate. Farm images invariably include spectacularly successful crops (sometimes making use of transplanted figures to exaggerate the height, as in fig. 15) as well as the most advanced harvesting equipment, large teams of healthy horses, large numbers of men at work, and often a line of elevators on the horizon ready to receive the produce (see fig. 16). These images, as well as conveying the idea of bounty, also establish a claim to the land by showing the settler community as fully established. The importance and effectiveness of this imagery are proven by its durability: the same images, almost unchanged, continue to be among the most popular subjects for landscape painting and fine art photography on the prairies today. To a very great extent all popular visual images of western Canada have derived from the prototypical postcard imagery of home, establishment, bounty and progress. Even the conventions of popular prairie painting as an expression of middle-class western Canadian consciousness are based on the orderly linear perspective of roads, power lines, square fields of wheat, and the rows of grain elevators on the horizon. The same imagery is found on the relatively few postcards that can still be found at the local drugstore, as well as on every tourism brochure and government document.

Fig. 15. Canadian Harvesting Scene, Showing Immense Yield of Wheat, 1908, from Documenting Saskatchewan

Fig. 15. Canadian Harvesting Scene, Showing Immense Yield of Wheat, 1908, from Documenting Saskatchewan

(image details)

Fig. 16. Reaping Indian Head. Assa. [Assiniboia] Canada on line Can Pac Ry., 190-?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 16. Reaping Indian Head. Assa. [Assiniboia] Canada on line Can Pac Ry., 190-?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

Because this flood of imagery was coming from a single source, the representation was uniform and almost uncontested; and it seemed to work. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, more settlers had relocated to western Canada than during the whole of the previous century (Waiser, 59). There were other factors, such as the end of the homestead era in the United States, that contributed to the trend, but it seems certain that Sifton’s promotions were pivotal. Alloula emphasizes the advantages of the postcard as a means of dissemination of visual representations. “Travel is the essence of the postcard and expedition is its mode. It is the fragmentary return to the mother country. It straddles two spaces: the one it represents and the one it will reach” (in Mirzoeff, 318). This was precisely the purpose of Sifton’s practice of giving away free postcards wherever possible, to encourage new settlers to send word–and more importantly pictures–home to Europe as well as to family in the United States or back East. Sifton knew that “the most persuasive advertisers of the West [. . .] were the settlers themselves. Whereas the organized literature was often distrusted, few questioned the veracity of letters from emigrant friends and relatives” (Rees, 13). The fact that these images wereoverwhelmingly positive helped to attract further immigration, a relationship that is confirmed by the statistics: in 1908 there were 41,000,000 postcards sent in and from Canada; in 1911 Saskatchewan’s population increased by 439%; in 1913 there were 60,000,000 postcards sent (eight times the population) and over 400,000 people arrived in Canada (Anderson, xii-xiv). Altogether, 2.9 million immigrants joined a population of 7 million between 1897 and 1913 (Osborne in Schwartz, 170).

The CPR was complicit in this undertaking, making contractual arrangements with photographers and artists to travel across the country selecting suitable views for reproduction. By the 1925 Railways Agreement both the CNR (which had its own Department of Colonization and Agriculture) and the CPR were authorized to “select, transport and settle agriculturalists, agricultural workers and domestic servants” and what is more, to keep records –including photographs–of every immigrant that the railways transported, to monitor their progress and to repatriate any that were not suitably “absorbed” (Osborne in Schwartz, 166, 176-7). As part of this effort to monitor and “assist” new immigrants, the CPR developed special educational programs designed to help Eastern Europeans in particular to “fit in”, that is to conform to the desired British norm. As an adjunct to these activities, the CPR also gave away free photographs for school textbooks and encyclopedias for “educational” purposes, as well as to journalists (Bell in Ring, 40). So the monopoly on representations of the West was impressively complete, as was the consolidated power over the new settlers, a close interweaving of “nation-building, immigration policy and corporate strategies” (Osborne in Schwartz, 168).

Fig. 17. Regina Beach, Sask., 190-?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

Fig. 17. Regina Beach, Sask., 190-?, from Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley

(image details)

Further proof of the requisite level of “Britishness,” what Coleman has termed “white civility,” is in the evidence of the transplantation of British culture found in depictions of social gatherings. Picnics, games, celebrations, performances of various kinds are represented in the postcards as a testimony that life in the new land is indeed civilized. Figure 17 shows a family that is at leisure, enjoying a holiday together. The situation, which is clearly enacted for the benefit of the camera, indicates not only that these people are so well-established that they can relax, but also that there is such abundance in the land that even leisure activities can provide extra food. They are also at ease with the photographer, looking back with confidence from a position of equality, apparently happy to pose.

This treatment is in contrast with the images of Indigenous people, who are inevitably portrayed as different, outside, inferior. The postcards, as well as picturing the most favorable physical features of the land, were constructed to disguise or occlude the struggle over land;

Indigenous people were represented as rare, exotic, isolated and on their way elsewhere. The land was portrayed as already occupied by industrious white settlers, thus creating one narrative to block another. With the signing of Treaty 10 (and the continuing restrictions of the Pass System which endured from 1885 to1951) it seemed for a time that the Indigenous people really had vanished. Banished might be a more accurate description of their fate. When they were present, as in this photograph (see fig. 18), they appeared to be curiosities from the past, already consigned as artifacts to a diorama in a natural history museum. As Gail Valaskakis remarks about postcards of Indians, “These are the representations of Others, Indian realities transformed into non-Native social imaginaries and frozen in fragments: Indians as living artifacts” (67).

Fig. 18. Indian Family in Saskatchewan, 190-?, from Postcard Views of Indigenous People

Fig. 18. Indian Family in Saskatchewan, 190-?, from Postcard Views of Indigenous People

(image details)

Of the cards that I looked through in the collection, none of those with images of Indigenous people make any comment about them. They are simply curiosities. One card with the caption “Sioux Indians at Prince Albert, Sask.” has a long message about the lack of rain, but no word about the ‘Indians’. Another bears the following message:

I suppose it will all come out all right in the long run, but I often feel like selling out and going gold digging or something but I shall stick for a year or so and see if I like farming any better. We have been in a fearfully mess at home having the

house plastered and fixed up inside so that we shall be a little warmer this winter and not have to burn so much wood. I expect it will all be finished sometime this week. Mother and Daisie will be very glad to see the men go. [. . .] P.S. Please give photo of Indians to Vivian. (Special Collections)

The people portrayed are an afterthought, interesting but not important.

Fig. 19. [Native Couple], “Carlyle, Sask.” 190-?, from Postcard Views of Indigenous People,

Fig. 19. [Native Couple], “Carlyle, Sask.” 190-?, from Postcard Views of Indigenous People

(image details)

Alloula’s critique of the extensive photography of Algerian women popularized on postcards concentrates on the allure of the hidden and forbidden sexual object, and on the return of the photographer’s voyeuristic gaze from behind the veil. The images which he discusses are above all examples of the gaze which originates at a position of relative power and beholds the inferior but tantalizingly exotic Other. This gaze is equally evident in these postcards from the prairies (see figs. 18, 19, 20) which depict Indigenous people as romanticized remnants of a vanishing race, inevitably “disappearing” in the irresistible course of progress and therefore valuable, both as collectable picturesque imagery and as symbols of the pioneering adventure of the West. Whether posed in the studio or outdoors, these people appear to be equally trapped: the relationship with the photographer is not one of equality, but one of dominance and submission. The value of the people photographed is precisely that of an image, one against which to compare the more sophisticated and ultimately successful settler. Daniel Francis, in his fascinating work, The Imaginary Indian, specifies that, “Not only are Indian images used to represent what non-Natives think about Indians, they are appropriated by non-Natives as meaningful symbols of their own culture” (172). Thus the Indian headdress and the tomahawk become the compulsory souvenirs of Canada, and the profile of the Indian warrior (if you are of an age to remember this) becomes the test pattern on Canadian television.

Stephen Leacock, an author noted for his otherwise humorous prose, expressed a culturally skewed viewpoint that was likely very common at the time: “The Indians were too few to count. Their use of the resources of the continent was scarcely more than that by the crows and wolves, their development of it nothing” (quoted in Francis, 54-5). As a result of this kind of rationalization, forced assimilation was chosen as the strategy of the Dominion government to deal with the “Indian problem.” One of the chief tools of assimilation was the disruptive violence of the residential schools. Yet, incredibly, much of the settler population remained unaware that children were being taken from their families (I didn’t find out until adolescence). How could that have happened? How is it possible that we remain to this day largely ignorant of our (unevenly) shared history? Social Darwinism had provided the theoretical basis that “allowed settlers to fantasize that the disappearance of Aboriginal peoples was an inevitability and therefore to mourn this necessary passing of a way of life that was doomed under the unstoppable wheels of progress” (Coleman, 29). The repetition in popular culture of pictures of the “vanishing Native” gradually created the acceptance of a fact already accomplished. As Edward Said argues in Culture and Imperialism, it is cultural products that prepare the way for imperial forces, obscure the truth about them, and then justify the results. In the settlement of the prairies, visual culture, and photography in particular, played a central role in the creation of the discourse that allowed colonization to take place and a system of apartheid to be conveniently ignored.

Fig. 20. “Moose Mtn [Mountain] Indians.” 190-?, from Postcard Views of Indigenous People,

Fig. 20. “Moose Mtn [Mountain] Indians.” 190-?, from Postcard Views of Indigenous People

(image details)

The settler enters this history at what is perceived to be the beginning of a heroic quest, the first stages of the construction of a nation. As Fanon says, “the settler makes history; his life is an epoch, an Odyssey. He is the absolute beginning” (quoted in Said, Culture, 268). By making the act of settlement the beginning of the story, the history of Indigenous people is ignored, obscured and forgotten. The settler is in an untenable position (though infinitely better than that of the Indigene): after abandoning the homeland at great peril, the settler family is under tremendous pressure to conform to the prevailing norms, that is, “white civility” (Coleman) while at the same time suffering guilt and anxiety, however much suppressed, for the displacement of the Native. As Coleman says, the settler colony as the “second world” is caught between the “first world” of the imperial metropolis and the “first world” of the First Nations. “To each of these First Worlds, the settlers are secondary–indeed, supplementary” (15). In this situation, the postcard images are an affirmation of both the settler’s right to be present on the land and of the settler’s acceptance as part of the dominant culture.

Why should the two groups be separate? Why must one dominate? The settler John E. Logan wrote in 1884:

We have not amalgamated with the native and woven the woof of our refinement of the strong sinuous web of an aboriginal tradition and religion. In our civilized arrogance we swept away that coarser fabric, knowing not that we destroyed that which we would now, as a garment, be proud to wear [. . .] But we are here now and they are gone. (quoted in Coleman, 30)

The suggestion that Canadian society might have been radically improved by an amalgamation of cultures is as enlightened as it is rare, yet even this unusual individual was convinced that “they are gone.” Coleman reinterprets Logan’s words as a prophecy: “‘We are [always] here now and they are [always] gone’. Civilized Whites, therefore, must cherish evil memories of the necessary losses that have been incurred so that an enterprising, cultivated society could come into full flower” (30, brackets are Coleman’s). While individual settlers might have been genuinely ignorant of the suffering of Indigenous people, and others indifferent, as a society it is unforgivable to deny what was done: the collective guilt exists whether we choose to take notice or not, and the continuing ascription of difference cannot be overlooked. Postcards, along with an enormous archive of other forms of visual and textual culture, have succeeded not only in maintaining and entrenching this difference, division and exclusion, but more importantly in making it feel natural.

I have been working on the assumption, and subscribing to the theory, that new settlers sent these images home to Europe or the United States, thus conveying particular kinds of images of the new land and disseminating them abroad. However, apart from suspicions that this occurred, or must have occurred, I have no evidence that it actually did. That evidence would presumably be in collections in the United States and Europe. Though it does seem most probable that this is indeed what happened, it is by no means the only direction of transmission or perhaps even the most important. Most of the cards that bear inscriptions in this collection are addressed to family and friends in other parts of Canada. As mentioned before, few contain any significant written communication, but together they constitute a circulation of shared visual imagery that reinforced among the citizens of the new nation a vocabulary of self-identity. Let us bear in mind that Indigenous people did not become citizens until decades later, and certainly did not share in this identity.

This shared self-imagery had (and has) a significant part of its origin in the early photographs commissioned by the CPR and the Dominion of Canada for the purpose of promoting settlement of the West. As a textual continuum they form a discourse, not unlike the archive of Orientalism, as described by Edward Said, a discourse that proceeds by accretion without radical alteration. Said’s proposal is that a pervasive cultural perspective can grow in an organic fashion from a relatively simple idea, such as the notion that beyond the pale of European civilization there existed a relatively uncivilized “Orient.” Over time, a variety of literary and visual texts gathered around this kernel until eventually it became an entire field of study consisting of an enormous archive of agglomerated material. The central idea–that the Orient is external, exotic, unchanging, homogenous and in every way different from and inferior to Europe–was never challenged, and in many ways continues to this day.

This Orientalizing tendency has a counterpart, perhaps “Occidentalizing,” in settlement discourse. The central idea is that the Indigenous population of Canada is different from and inferior to the European colonists. Colonization is justified by the need to civilize the unfortunate Natives, but sadly (so the myth develops) the Natives vanish before this can be accomplished. Under the circumstances, there is plenty of room for the incoming settlers to pursue their agricultural project, thus the offer of “free land.” The photographs taken by the CPR form the visual core of this “Occidentalism,” and because this source of imagery is controlled for so long and distributed so widely, it establishes a pattern that continues to be followed with little alteration even after independent photographers begin to produce the postcards themselves. As a result, many popular images of western Canada today look a lot like those in the early postcards. As a result, since the original template was that of a mythical homeland, so are all the resulting variants. The pictures serve to perpetuate the myth, that is, of a “home and native land”, in other words, a nativist national narrative, the purpose of which is to make a claim on the land while simultaneously establishing the parameters of citizenship. Thus the importance of the postcard images is at least twofold: to demonstrate established residency and to prove indisputably the right to that residency. Daniel Coleman writes in his brilliant work, White Civility, “By representing himself as already indigenous, the settler claims priority over newer immigrants and, by representing himself as already civilized, he claims superiority to Aboriginals and other non-Whites” (Coleman, 16).

These claims are perfectly analogous to the conventions of Orientalism as described by Said: the establishment of a normative centre as opposed to an inferior and marginal Other that is
characterized by its inability to progress, its unmistakable difference and its lack of all the qualities that mark the centre as superior (Said, Orientalism). During the settlement of the West, there were layers of colonization, the western territory itself being a colony of the eastern Dominion, the British settlers central and most preferable (and still more layers of desirability among them), followed by a hierarchy of other Europeans. All other people were considered absolutely undesirable, and noteworthy efforts were made to keep them out.

For example, the Immigration Act of 1910 “excluded immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climatic requirements of Canada” and the amendments of 1919 added “those deemed unsuitable having regard to the climate, industrial, social, educational, labour or other considerations or requirements of Canada [. . .] owing to their peculiar customs, habits, modes of life and methods of holding property [. . .] probable inability to become readily assimilated or to assume the duties and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship”. It is also interesting to note that during the same period of accelerated immigration some 62,000 people
were deported (Osborne, 173).

But the Indigenous people, who continued to exist in spite of the predictions of their imminent disappearance, were (and are) the ultimate “Other” of “Occidentalism”, assigned all the traits of the Oriental: ignorant, lazy, unteachable, animal and child-like, unpredictably violent and promiscuous, yet simultaneously highly romanticized, idealized and celebrated in their absence through appropriation of their symbols.

The most important thing about these narratives is the very real power behind them–as in European imperialism–consisting of not only political, economic and military force, but of hegemony, in the sense of domination by consent. The power of the national myth to elicit agreement and conformity on the part of the included, and to justify the exclusion of the rest is part of the foundation of Canada.

Narrative is crucial […] stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the model colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history. The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course, but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future – these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative. The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and
imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” (Said, Culture xii)

Postcards of the settlement era constitute a visual narrative, a discourse that overwrites the violence of colonization and inscribes a mythical necessity to settlement. Postcards were invented for the purpose of promoting the idea of national progress, and to establish who is part of that progress and who is to be excluded. The exceedingly durable myth that has been constructed around these images celebrates the very real successes of the settler culture, but obscures the fact that the Indigenous people were brutally pushed aside to make room for the “free land.”. The identity of inclusion in Canadian civil society is contrasted with and to some extent dependent on the exclusion of the Indigenous “Other”, and the settlement history is based on the elision of the history of the First Nations.

This discourse has continued virtually unchanged and uninterrupted for more than a century so far. Curator Lucy Lippard sums up the enduring and tragic consequences in the introduction to her masterful work on photographs of Native Americans:

The indigenous tragedy of a people surviving genocide, orphaned, displaced, and largely deculturated in their own homeland, is the tragedy of this country, affecting everyone far more than most of us realize. It lies buried, invisible beneath the histories (plural, multidimensional) taught in schools and universities, beneath the history (singular, one-dimensional) officially assumed, even beneath the stories of lives lived and experienced individually, locally. It is the bump under the carpet of colonialism, the nightmare at the edge of communal sleep. (Lippard, 19)

Interestingly, Lippard is musing on a postcard of an Indigenous family as she writes this, a photograph that seems to have been produced in a rare situation of complete trust. But it is precisely the rarity of this occurrence that indicates the level of tragedy that we have come to accept. It is at least partly due to the effectiveness of “Occidentalizing” discourses and the resulting national mythology perpetuated by these postcards and their visual offspring that Canadians have come to placidly accept this ongoing, scarcely hidden nightmare.

Works Consulted

Acres of Dreams: Settling the Canadian Prairies. Diefenbaker Canada Centre, Saskatoon.
Exhibition of historical artifacts, organized and circulated by the Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2010.

Alloula, Mallek. “From The Colonial Harem.” The Visual Culture Reader. Ed. N. Mirzoeff. Routledge, 1998, 317-322.

Anderson, Allan and Betty Tomlinson. Greetings from Canada. Toronto: Macmillan, 1978.

Coleman, Daniel. White Civility. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Documenting Saskatchewan, Special collections, University of Saskatchewan Library. March 20, 2010.

Francis, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 1992.

Lippard, Lucy, ed. Partial Recall. New York: New Press, 1992.

McKay, Eva. “Settling differences: managing and representing people and land in the Canadian national project” in House of Difference: Cultural, Political and National Identity. Toronto:

University of Toronto Press, 2002, 23-50.

McLeod, Neal. Cree Narrative Memory. Saskatoon: Purich, 2007.

Persuasion: Print Advertising and Advocacy on the Prairies, University of Saskatchewan Archives, Diefenbaker Canada Centre, and Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan. March 20, 2010.

Postcard Views of Indigenous People, Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan Library. March 20, 2010.

Postcard Views of the Qu’Appelle Valley, Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan Library. March 20, 2010.

Postcard Views of Southeast Saskatchewan, Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan Library. Web. March 20, 2010.

Rees, Ronald. New and Naked Land. Saskatoon: Western Producer, 1988.

Ring, Dan and Keith Bell, curators. Plain Truth. Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 1998. Exhibition catalogue.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.

–––––. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Schwartz, Joan M. and James R. Ryan, eds. Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Street, Brian. “British Popular Anthropology: Exhibiting and Photographing the Other.” Anthropology and Photography 1860-1920. Ed. Elizabeth Edwards. Yale UP, 1922. 122-131.

Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie. Indian Country: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005.

Waiser, W. A. Saskatchewan: A New History. Calgary: Fifth House, 2005.