Let's liberate the Canadian landscape from the Group of Seven and their nationalist mythmaking
By erasing Indigenous perspectives, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painted a new nation into being
Content warning for Indigenous readers: colonial violence is discussed in this essay.
It has taken me a long time to reconcile the Group of Seven and their place in Canada's mythology. On one hand, I love their paintings: they are beautiful and varied in their landscapes, a representation of these lands in all their sacredness and life. On the other hand, they suffocate. The Group of Seven's nationalist story surrounds us like the prints of their work that hang in Canada's households, schools, and galleries.
We are told to see their paintings — an essential chapter in our national story — as fundamentally Canadian. But the histories of Indigenous people on these lands, and the sacred and sovereign relationship we have with this land, are not reflected in the works of the Group or their peer and influence Tom Thomson.
Despite how we are meant to see them, the Group's paintings do not represent localized landscapes infused with history from pre-contact to the colonial present. Instead, they are a reproducible image of a standardized Canada, where a jack pine is a stand-in for a red leaf on a flag. This way of seeing is national in ideal and colonial in gaze.
If the Group of Seven's paintings are supposed to define Canada, what does it mean that so many stories of the lands' history are deliberately missing? And what is lost through this colonial gaze of the Group and the land?
The Group of Seven largely painted in the Canadian wilderness. They were particularly influenced by the sketching trips they went on in Algonquin Park, led by Thomson, who resided there for much of the year toward the end of his life. It was the place where he worked, sketched, and died. The Canadian natural landscape, in all its beauty and danger, was an influence that mythologized these painters as artist-bushmen, a new breed of artist born from the rugged wilderness of Canada.
When I first started walking through the National Gallery of Canada, pausing in front of paintings, I wondered why the Group seldom painted First Nations. I read later that Canada's government officials forced out the Îyârhe Nakoda in Banff, then the Coast Salish in Stanley Park, and later the Algonquin in Algonquin Park. First Nations were forbidden from hunting, gathering or travelling through their territories. The land was now a government-established park, a Canadian park, an exclusionary park.
Continuing the work of the bureaucrats who built Canada's public park system, the Group of Seven painted the landscape as a terra nullius — "uninhabited land" in Latin. If Indigenous peoples or structures did appear, they were often faceless, a natural phenomenon to be seen by the colonial gaze.
When something is erased, a blank sketchbook is ready for its artist. Nationalism needed the artist-bushman to conquer the imaginary landscape as it needed the pioneer to do so with the real landscape.- Matteo Cimellaro
I can only hope that it's not still provocative to say, historically, Indigenous erasure and settler nationalism have been synonymous. Two sides of the coin. The Queen stamped opposite the caribou, the beaver, the bear, and so on. A philosophical foundation for this development begins in England in the 17th century. In his "Second Treatise of Government," John Locke says that once you mix your labour with nature, you create private property that is owned by you and excludes others. But what of a nationalizing labour — a cultural labour that creates a country's mythology?
This nationalizing labour excludes all that is unseen and unspoken. In the Group of Seven's depiction of the Canadian wilderness, First Nations were largely out of sight and silenced. After government policy created this deliberate vacancy, the Group's paintings colonized landscapes within what Northrop Frye referred to as the Canadian imagination. Through this painting and seeing, a property was sanctioned — a property we call Crown land.
The struggle against Crown land continues today. It is a fight to reclaim sovereignty — a preeminent desire for First Nations to have relations with their lands back, rising from the responsibility to steward Mother Earth for future generations. However, this is Canada, and like the Group's artworks, Crown land remains for private interest and ever-increasing profit. (A painting by Lawren Harris that sold for $11.2 million in 2016 is the most expensive Canadian artwork ever sold at auction.)
In her essay "Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation," Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson equates aki, Anishinaabemowin for land, with liberation. She writes: "Aki is also liberation and freedom — my freedom to establish and maintain relationships of deep reciprocity within a pristine homeland that my Ancestors handed down to me. Aki is encompassed by freedom, a freedom that is protected by sovereignty and actualized by self-determination."
Simpson is pointing to a freedom that is about human dignity taken by settler nationalism. Through a nationalist violence, Canada endeavoured to leave Indigeneity in the past tense through residential schools, Indian agents, and bans on cultural and spiritual practices.
When something is erased, a blank sketchbook is ready for its artist. Nationalism needed the artist-bushman to conquer the imaginary landscape as it needed the pioneer to do so with the real landscape. The Group of Seven, trying to distinguish themselves from a European tradition, were happy to produce these nationalized paintings.
Now it is time to question whether we, as seers of paintings and landscapes, want to continue an exclusionary myth of Canada marked by its rugged landscape and rugged painters. The recourse is to reject the colonial gaze: to see things as they are, blemished by the cruelty of history.
I'm asking you to carefully consider the historical truths when you see the paintings of the Group of Seven. What do you see — Canada? What does that mean? It is a landscape, but who is the owner? What does that ownership suppose? Is there an owner?
The artwork helps us understand history through what it represents and how and why it's reproduced. The Group's paintings and their reproductions played a crucial role in forming Canada's national mythology. Now, the Group of Seven must be liberated from the prison of Canadian nationalism. True freedom and sovereignty of the land might depend on it.