The Canadian Wilderness of the Settler Imagination: Unpacking the Racism of Back to God’s Country

March 28, 2019

By: Ariel Smith

One of Canada’s oldest feature length films, Back To God’s Country, turns 100 years old this year. A silent movie released in 1919, Back To God’s Country stars Canadian actress Nell Shipman who also co-wrote the screenplay based on a short story by the film’s other co-writer James Oliver Curwood. It is worth mentioning that the film was seen by many in North America and Europe, doing extremely well at the box-office where it turned a nearly 300% profit. It is undoubtedly the most successful silent film in Canadian cinema history.

This April 17th, 2019 on National Canadian Film Day, REEL CANADA will be commemorating the centennial of Back To God’s Country as a way to mark and celebrate 100 years of filmmaking in this country. Although it is important to commemorate this film and honour its place in Canada’s film history, it is also essential to acknowledge its problematic elements, namely it’s racism against Indigenous and Asian people.

 

An argument can easily be made that Back To God’s Country is simply a product of its time, and that it is unfair to hold a 100-year-old film up to today’s standards of what is socially acceptable. I find this to be a lazy argument, however, as it positions the film’s racism as something that was purportedly “accepted” at the time of its release, which is an oversimplification of the truth at best. The types of racist caricatures of Indigenous and Chinese people in Back To God’s Country may have been deemed okay by the majority of dominant culture audiences at the time of the film’s theatrical release, but they were most likely never “acceptable” to Chinese and Indigenous people. They were just as hurtful, offensive, and humiliating in 1919 as they are now in 2019. The Inuit, Métis and Chinese characters in the film are reduced to stereotypes that are either played for humour or serve as dehumanized props to further the narrative arcs of the white protagonists and antagonists. This is well illustrated by the fact that the villain Rydell’s lecherous and immoral sidekick is not even given a name, referred to in the film only as “the halfbreed”, and is played by a white actor, Charles B. Murphy, whose skin has been darkened with poorly applied makeup.

 

Other than Rydell’s accomplice, the presence of Indigenous people in a film set in North Western Canada is almost non-existent save for a scene where the character of an Inuk woman, also without a name, has her braids tugged on and is cruelly tricked into eating a bar of soap. The purpose of this upsetting scene is to reaffirm the altruistic nature of the film’s heroine, as she eventually comes to the aid of the Inuk woman, and the scene also disturbingly seems to have been intended by the filmmakers as a form of comic relief. Filmmaker and writer David George Menard puts forth an effective summation of the soap-eating scene, along with other racist elements of Back to God’s Country, when he states:

“This film…represents a cultural construction of Canada, the Nation, as a white homogeneous social entity…that discriminates against racial…otherness…All through the film, the cinematic eye denies these ‘others,’ that is, it deliberately prevents them the opportunities to form as subjects. Indeed, these so-called ‘others’ are subjected to humiliation, abuse and violence…The Inuit woman, a symbolic barrier standing in the way of nation-building and of a white male dominated Canada, must be eradicated because she is a threat to the psyche of the white male and his dream to dominate the world.”

 

The absence of Indigenous characters in Back to God’s Country is largely due to the movie’s reliance on the well-worn trope of a pristine and untouched Canadian wilderness. The romanticized notion of this country as wild, vast and uninhabited is a harmful myth rooted in the concept of terra nullius (Latin for nobody’s land) which defines Native people as either subhuman or nonexistent in order to seize and control their lands. A myth linked to the erasure and displacement of Indigenous peoples. A myth that, in the words of Cree-Métis academic Jesse Thistle, has been used to:

“…justify colonial settlement while delegitimizing Indigenous claims to their own ancestral lands. The logic [being] if nothing or no one existed here before settlement, then it is okay that settler-Canadians exist here now.”

Interestingly enough, propagation of the myth of an uninhabited Canadian wilderness, for the purpose of redistributing Indigenous lands to European settlers, has a very direct link to the film Back to God’s Country.  A few years before the outbreak of WWI James Oliver Curwood, the co-writer of the film’s script, was beginning to gain fame as a writer who waxed poetic on the beauty of the aforementioned Canadian wilderness when he was contracted by the government of Canada to author propaganda on their behalf. This was during the height of the government’s “Last Best West” overseas advertising campaign whose purpose was to recruit settlers from the UK and Northern Europe with the promise of free land in the Canadian prairies. Government officials were confident that Curwood’s romantic literary style would help sell potential newcomers on the idea of Canada, and paid him to travel around the country writing a series of articles and short stories that would attract new settlers. It is around this time that Curwood himself coined the term “God’s Country” to describe the Canadian wilderness but simply put, “God’s Country” isn’t a real place and does not exist outside of the settler imagination.

 

The fable of Curwood’s Canada, a Canada that was wild, empty and savage prior to the arrival of European settlers, is completely false. In reality the “God’s Country” of Curwood’s imagination, and the God’s Country romanticized in the 100-year-old film, has been continuously occupied by Indigenous peoples since the last ice age for at least 12, 000 years, or hundreds of generations. It was never nobody’s land.

I put forward my critique of Back to God’s Country, and challenge the racist notions found within, not because it is a film without merit that should never be seen again, but rather because it is illusory to ignore the problematic aspects simply due to the film’s importance in the canon of Canada’s national cinema.

In conclusion, as we commemorate the centennial of Back to God’s Country, let us not dismiss its racism as simply a product of its time. Let us instead think critically, unpacking and examining the problems within it in order to learn more about our shared history of colonialism in this country.


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