Who the North?

Reconsidering the influence of “Northern” branding in Toronto and Canada

Grace King

During a trip to Indigo Chapters in January, the first thing I saw upon entering the store was a display table bearing a sign that said “Read The North.” Walking around the table, I saw that the other side was dedicated to “Read The North For Kids.” The use of the “North” in this context seemed to suggest that the “North” was a definite, sellable element—as if the “North” was an item, and it could be “read” just as easily as it could be eaten or worn. At the time, I did not realize that the Indigo Chapters merchandising of “Read The North” was a clever nod to the Toronto Raptors’ notorious slogan, “We The North.” Now, it seems that the “We The North” campaign has become an inescapable part of the Canadian symbolic canon. I pass people on the subway wearing this slogan on their hats and on their shirts. I see “Read The North” emblazoned on tote bags and hoodies from Indigo Chapters. Walking down College Street recently, I even spotted a dispensary called “Weed The North.” It seems that all of Toronto and much of greater Canada has jumped to reclaim the North as part of the Canadian identity—but what is the “North,” in the first place?

As I noticed further instances of the “North” and similar “Northern” images in advertising, I began to understand this idea of the “North” to represent what we can call Canada’s “nation-brand.”

Understanding the nation-brand

The idea of the “nation-brand” in this context is a relatively new one. Because social media has given individuals a platform to craft a public identity, the products we promote—whether explicitly or indirectly—become blow-horns. Wearing a Canada 150 shirt or a Canada Goose branded vest is no longer an act merely to dress yourself; wearing these items advertises the featured brand as soon as you post a picture to Instagram, take a Snapchat story, or are photographed at a public event. The way that technologies have disrupted the communal model of society, too, has increased the need for nation-branding— in place of communal activities, we can simulate the same sense of neighbourhood by representing the same wearable, washable nation-brand.

In Canada, we have ten provinces and three territories, each with its own distinct identity.. Although we do not think first and foremost of Canada by its vertical orientation, it is indeed as wide from its northernmost point to its southernmost border as it is from east to west coast. This vastness and relative lack of shared experience or background across the Canadian landmass amounts to a unique identity crisis.

Well-known Victoria College alumni have, in fact, identified this challenge. When Northrop Frye explained that Canada “has always been a cool climate for heroes,” he was highlighting the difficulty for strong symbolic systems to take root within Canada. With few canonic icons or legends to provide Canada with a strong symbolic network, we look towards other symbolic systems to give our nation its glue.

That symbolic system appears in advertising campaigns like “We The North.” This is not to say that such “Northern” branding was innovated by the Toronto Raptors—the Raptors simply drew new attention to an old theme. Canada’s self-projected image as the “North” can be traced back through multiple campaigns of franchising and merchandising; it can arguably be traced back to the very arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada.

A commercial for the HBC that premiered during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics begins with: “we arrived 340 years ago to the land of rock, ice, and snow.” Here, these elements of wilderness and adventure, of cold weather and durability, form the foundation of Canada’s national identity. Not only that, but they inspire the character of the Canadian individual: “we didn’t just survive the elements,” but “together, we thrived in them,” the ad claims.

While this brand may be an effective tool for connecting some Canadians, it also represses many of Canada’s Indigenous narratives. That is, not only corporations benefit from the appropriation of the “Northern” identity—there are specific demographics within Canada that benefit just as largely. If we can assume the identity of the “North” for our own patriotic use as Canadians, we maintain a comfortable measure of distance from the alternative ideas of the “North” that can arise. We embrace the “North” as ours, in order to avoid the confession that the term historically cannot be entirely ours; the peoples who have lived in the true geographical “North” for so long are the same peoples that European settlers have marginalized.

This issue is exemplified on scales both large and small, and even through merely the negligence for historical responsibility in the HBC advertisement for the Vancouver Olympics. The “Northern” branding enables continual ignorance among Western consumers towards the Indigenous peoples who do live in the North—who were living in the North long before the European settlers like those of the HBC advertisement arrived to that barren land of “rock, ice, and snow.”

“The North Vs. Everyone”

Returning to the “Read The North” sign in Indigo Chapters, I had been so surprised at its implied message because my job experience at Students on Ice has taught me an entirely different orientation of what is “North” and what is “South.” Despite its name, the SOI organization has little to do with figure skating; rather, it has a lot to do with Arctic expeditions. Each year, SOI leads an Arctic expedition that unites Inuit students from the Canadian Arctic and Greenland together with southern Canadian and international students. These students, which number nearly 120 per expedition, are placed on a ship with 90-something educators from across all fields for ten days, during which they traverse the coastline of northern Canada and western Greenland.

At Students on Ice, someone is referred to as “Southern” if they come from anywhere below Nunavut. Conversely, someone is “Northern” if they come from anywhere within or along the Arctic Circle. This perspective is concealed if the “North” is considered to apply to the entirety of Canada.

The question then remains: how did this large gap arise in our common understanding of the North-South orientation within Canada? Even the ways in which we look at our world map can provide some answer. The most popular orientation of our world derives from a rectangular map organized by the equator. According to this map, North America is in closest focus, and Canada appears evidently “North”—more specifically, north of the United States. However, by shifting our world map, we could just as easily orient the map by the poles rather than by the equator. When we re-organize the map using the poles as our standpoint, it becomes nearly impossible to accurately describe Canada as the “North.” The only parts of Canada that could be considered Northern in this case are those areas which fall within the Arctic Circle.

Where do we go now?

Of the 118 students brought together for this summer’s SOI Arctic expedition, perspectives spanned from Malaysia, to the Micronesian islands of the Pacific, to a community of 89 on the southwestern shore of the Northwest Territories in Canada (this population was confirmed by a student from the community, who had counted all 89 people herself by making a list of names in her notebook: John, Sam, Jon, GF, Baby Lorainna…).

The stories of the people of the North, from the big stories to the small stories, are at risk of going unheard when excluded from the conversation on “Northern-ness” by nation-brand schemes like “We The North.” When we buy into “Northern” branding like that which characterizes HBC advertisements and Raptors merchandise, we are at risk of skipping over these stories of the peoples who have indeed been “thriving” in the geographical North, within the Arctic circle. Creating spaces for North-South dialogue is an important next step; SOI expeditions are one example of an opportunity for that North-South dialogue which is not only valuable, but critical, for decolonizing education. These dialogues between Northern and Southern students are necessary, and they can occur as simply as when students from Newfoundland, Alaska, Greenland, Palau of the Micronesian Islands, and the United States all sit down at a dinner table and start talking about what they do or do not hunt back at home. As my job at SOI continually shows me, it is crucial that our nation not be too consumed by fulfilling a “Northern” brand, and to leave room for narratives of Indigenous peoples who live in the North.

I am not aiming to glorify Students on Ice, as I do not see them as a reliable model for opening the majority of the population to the North-South dialogue that is so critical today and will continue to be critical into the future. Of course, I am proud of the organization for which I work; not only do SOI’s annual Arctic expeditions accomplish the reconciliation of perspectives between humans from all walks of life, but the program also brings students directly to their classroom—the Arctic—so that they can see its biodiversity, its richness, and its resilience firsthand. However, participating in an SOI Arctic expedition costs a cool $13,000 per student—a cost for which only so many scholarships can be made available. Although it sounds reasonable that almost 100 students receive scholarships each year to participate in SOI, in comparison to the University of Toronto population those 100 students make for roughly 0.001 percent of the student body. In the case that a student is not selected as a scholarship recipient but wishes to pursue the program as an individual funder, it is inherent that they come from a background of stability, with much wider access to opportunities than the average citizen (and often, this means, too, that they are benefitting from colonial structures like so many of us do).

Albeit difficult to access, the SOI program can offer inspiration to us within UofT and Toronto as a whole to re-evaluate our symbolic systems. I sincerely hope that more pressure can be placed on the major actors at UofT to initiate a conversation about the ways that we identify as Canadians, and whether those ways exclude Indigenous narratives (whether intentionally or unintentionally).

Who the North: Looking ahead

The questions of how we identify as a nation and for what reasons we form that nation are debates that haunt the Canadian narrative. Although we might believe we are distinctive and that our identity differs by some crucial factor from the identity of other Western nations, we are not entirely certain as to what that factor might be and why it makes us distinctive. We are left to grasp onto whatever we can—the most convenient trait and element being that of the Northern wilderness, the same rugged and barren sort of legend that was ingrained by the Group of Seven and has been reiterated countless times since in literature, film, and all products of the popular imagination. Although it is not to be assumed that Indigenous peoples do not identify with the same branding of the “North” that southern Canadians maintain, it can be argued that so long as the “North” remains a nation-brand for much of southern Canada, the steps necessary for reconciliation dialogues and decolonized education will face barriers.