Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Armchair Canoeing

Aug 20, 2013

When it comes to canoeing, Canadians can be divided into two groups of people, Johnsonians and Leacockians.

As children, Johnsonians invariably went to summer camp in the woods where they chanted Pauline Johnson's anthem, "The Song My Paddle Sings," around the campfire each night. ("Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!") Later in life they spend their holidays hurtling down one pest-infested waterway after another.

As you may infer, I am a Leacockian. We feel as Stephen Leacock did when presented with the enthusiasm of an avid outdoorsman in one of his stories. "He offers to take me to the head-water of the Batiscan. I am content at the foot. He wants us to go to the sources of the Attahwapiscat. I don't. He says I ought to see the grand chutes of the Kewakasis. Why should I?"

It is fair to say that Misao Dean is a Johnsonian. I am reading her intriguing new book, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle, about the role of the canoe in the Canadian imagination and it is clear that she comes to the subject as a lover of "the lonely loon-haunted Nipigon reaches" (to quote Duncan Campbell Scott, which she does). But that doesn't stop her from writing a fascinating deconstruction of the canoe as a symbol of "Canadianness."

I'll be writing about Dean's book in an upcoming column in Geist. For now, while others spend the summer flinging themselves over rapids, I am content to stay at home and read about it.