Canadian Geographic is taking a closer look at its racist past

Canadian Geographic is combing through its back catalogue for examples of racist portrayals of minorities after National Geographic acknowledged its own problematic record with race this week.

Archivists are combing through every issue of the magazine after National Geographic's public apology

An image from a past issue of Canadian Geographic. The caption describes its subjects as 'lusty beggars' possessing morality of 'the lowest type.' (Volume 1 of the Canadian Geographical Journal.)

Canadian Geographic is combing through its back catalogue for examples of racist portrayals of minorities after National Geographic acknowledged its own problematic record with race this week.

After what it called an extensive investigation, the iconic American magazine confirmed that for generations it portrayed people of colour as savage, unsophisticated and unintelligent.

"There are lessons to be learned here," said John Geiger, chief executive officer of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and publisher of Canadian Geographic.

"There's a benefit to having organizations own up to these sorts of issues."

Geiger said that after reading National Geographic's statement, he looked through older editions of his own publication. What he found shocked him.

"We didn't start publishing until 1930, so I was hopeful that we wouldn't see that same kind of overt racism that you saw in the earlier years of National Geographic," he said.

"But sadly, I reviewed a copy of our very first issue and within the first few pages I saw that there was language that was offensive."

Racist language

In one story titled, "Canada's Viceroy in the West Indies" — about then-Governor General Viscount Willingdon's visit to the Caribbean, described in the piece as the "sun-room of the empire" — a young black girl sitting next to Lady Willingdon is described as "a dusky maiden."

In the very same issue, some Asian men are described as "lusty beggars" as the magazine asserts that the "morality of many of them is of the lowest type."

Another Canadian Geographic image, this one of Governor General Viscount Willingdon's wife, Lady Willingdon, in the West Indies with a young black girl described by the magazine as a 'dusky maiden'. (Volume 1 of the Canadian Geographical Journal)

"It sometimes literally takes your breath away," said Geiger.

His operation now has two archivists combing through every back issue of Canadian Geographical Journal and Canadian Geographic looking for more examples of racist language and imagery.

Geiger said he fully expects to find more articles. He described the effort as an aspect of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's teaching mission.

"The National Geographic Society, like the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, are educational organizations and if we can learn from our own past mistakes, there's a benefit," he said.

Moving beyond racist portrayals

Rinaldo Walcott, director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, praised these publications for owning up to their racist records, but said he remains cautious about celebrating their actions.

Walcott said National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg's assertion that her publication has done a better job with gender diversity than it has with racial and ethnic diversity gives him pause.

"They're not fully coming into the kind of racial consciousness and racial thinking that they need to come into to make the transformation that is necessary."

He cited National Geographic's past use of photos of bare-breasted Indigenous and African women as an example of how race, ethnicity and gender all play roles in portraying women of colour in a demeaning light.

"The subjugated women's bodies are exposed in a way that white women's bodies are not exposed," he said.

"Somehow because you bared ... a part of your body, that makes you less intelligent, that makes you less human, that makes you less modern. National Geographic has been a part of a long legacy of European colonialism using images to suggest that non-white people are less than human."

Perpetuating stereotypes

Walcott said photography has played an outsized role in the perpetuation of stereotypes that have had a devastating and long-lasting impact on non-whites.

"Images have been used to shame us, they've been used to denigrate us, they've been used to suggest that we lack intelligence."

Geiger said today's Canadian Geographic works very closely with many Indigenous writers and photographers to tell stories about issues that affect their communities.

"We've worked very hard to be part of the reconciliation process. It's something that has great meaning to us."

A CBC reporter asks a black man a racist question in Halifax in 1962. 0:17

Asked whether the CBC was doing a similar review of its own archives, Head of Public Affairs Chuck Thompson said the idea is now the topic of "internal conversations."

"National Geographic's review raises important questions," he said in an email, "and while we are not currently reviewing our past coverage of marginalized communities, we are having internal conversations as to how best to look at our historical content, fully recognizing that many may feel their communities were unfairly depicted.

"That said, our commitment to reflection and representation is active, important and on-going."