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“Where our story starts”: Canada’s Coastlines and National Conceits

Fri, March 16, 8:30 to 10:00am, Riverside Convention Center, MR 7


Taken from Psalm 72, Canada’s national motto, a mari usque ad mare, “from sea to sea,” is a declaration of dominion, metaphorically and literally (the country’s formal title is the Dominion of Canada). A biblically sanctioned statement of ambition and authority over land, water, and peoples, the motto inscribes attitudes toward nature emblematic of the “founding era.” When mapped onto another periodization of the Anthropocene, however, the motto and the conceits of Confederation (1867) begin to dissolve. What does “from sea to sea” mean in an era of global climate change?

Coastlines were an important part of the search in post-Confederation Canada to justify claims to and find meaning in new territories folded into national borders. While we have studied the mythology of the land in Canadian culture, we have not considered its edges—the dramatic and symbolic value of the point where sea meets land. Yet we have mined these littoral spaces for narratives of national power in the mythic and material (notably fossil fuels) for stories that reassure us of both ancestral and destined greatness and for confirmation of national sovereignty.

The history and environment of the Atlantic coastline is frequently used in Canadian political life to legitimate settler prerogatives, whether industrial, technological, or cultural. Like the national motto, these narratives perpetuate nineteenth-century environmental tropes that, in turn, continue to endorse older practices of state-building and industrial expansion. Thus the coastline in the public imagination exists at odds with twenty-first century realities of rising sea levels, storm surge, and migrating marine life. As Canada insists to the international community on new maritime limits, we would be wise to examine our justifications for doing so.