EssaysFeatureThe Radical Imagination

The Imaginal Politics of Empire

Thoughts on the images in the new Canadian passport

I. Imaginal Politics

In 2013, the Canadian government redesigned Canada’s passports. The thirty-one pages that were until recently covered in faint maple leaves now boast images of two European explorer ships and one sailboat, five war memorials, two trains, one grand waterfall, two groups of policemen, hockey and football players with their respective trophies, more than seventy-eight (seemingly white) men, one statue of a famous (white) woman and one statue of a famous (white) disabled man, two objects pertaining to Indigenous Canadian cultures, two Canadian cityscapes with ‘heritage’ European architecture, and two pages devoted to a war monument in France. With these many images, we see which bodies are included or excluded, whose history is remembered or forgotten, which events are given importance, and which images are meant to represent the Canadian identity not only domestically but — given the function of the passport –internationally. I suggest that the images on the new passport can, when analyzed through the concept of the imaginal, provide an illuminating example of how settler Canadian culture imagines itself. Specifically, I argue that the imaginal space created by the images on the new passport invoke and reproduce potent myths about the origin and character of Western civilization.

The imaginal identifies that which is made of and through images. It is a space of images that does not assert their relation to the imaginary, imagination, or in any way false perception of individuals or groups. Rather, the term imaginal labels the tension between two different theories of imagining: those that emphasize individual imagination and those that emphasize the social or collective imaginary. The relationship between these images and reality need not be clear. They are presented as neither historical fact nor artistic expression, but as something that is in-between. This in-betweenness allows the images to remain unnoticed or unquestioned. It is precisely because of the non-historical presentation of this imaginal mythology that its narrative quietly reinforces the hegemony of European imperialism within the contemporary settler colonial state.

II. The New Canadian Passport

A passport is an important national symbol: it is a tool, but it is also an expression of identity and a symbol of status. It determines one’s permission to enter another space, or one’s reason to be excluded from it. In selecting which images will be reproduced on passports, leaders are also deciding which images will help to crystalize and reinforce the national identity. By deciding which images are included in this tool and identity symbol, the images that shape the national identity are reinforced. The feelings that are invoked are those of grandeur, stoicism, and power, but most important is the feeling of a certain people arriving in a space at a certain time. On the Canadian Passport, these people are portrayed as explorers, ‘settlers’ who have discovered new territory on which to expand their already fully-formed ways of life, rather than ‘immigrants’ who are given allowance to reap the benefits of the communities and infrastructures that others have created. This distinction reinforces the identity of Canada as a white state that kindly allows for multiculturalism; these images are there to remind us to whom the country ultimately belongs.

The first page of the passport includes two objects associated with Indigenous Canadian cultures, along with the words: “Symbols of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.” This is the only mention of Indigenous peoples — an inuksuk and what appears to be a spirit or smudging feather. [1] There are over 600 recognized Indigenous governments or bands in Canada, with distinctive cultures, languages, art, and music. The single page meant to represent them does not include bodies, but historical — and arguably fetishized –objects; museum images. On the next few pages, we see Samuel de Champlain, the Father of New France, with his ship. Then, the Fathers of Confederation including John A. Macdonald, a Scottish man and Canada’s first Prime Minister. For some he is an important founding figure, and for many he is better known for his starvation policies and residential schools.[2]  We see these men of the New World; we do not see those who had already lived on the land for centuries. The following page features another British businessman driving in the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, we do not see the 17000 Chinese workers who built the railroad, or their history of exploitation and segregation. Then comes the stoic arctic explorer, but we do not see the arctic communities. We see farming on the Prairies, but not the genocide which cleared the land to make possible Western agriculture. We see the Parliament building, but no mention of Indigenous governmental structures. We see Pier 21, ‘the historic gateway to Canada,’ where the settlers arrived to each claim their own piece of this new land of opportunity. Skipping to page thirty, we see the first woman in the passport. This is a famous feminist and social activist, Nellie McClung. The image is not of a body, but of a statue, and on the next page beside her is another statue: that of Terry Fox, the famous man who lost his leg to cancer. These are the exceptions to the bodies whose images are included in the passport pages, but they nevertheless reinforce the image of Canada as a white nation. Before the end, we see images of the Canadian efforts in the First World War, Second World War, Korean War, and an image of the National War Memorial to commemorate all Canadians killed in all conflicts past and future. But we do not see any mention of the conflict of first European contact. Finally, we see the Bluenose, a sailboat — a symbol of speed, wealth, and prosperity.

Being a federation with two official languages, Canada is very preoccupied with equal representation of settler identities. The passport pages alternate between French and English as the language which comes first in the captions to the images, and all regions of the country are represented. Political rhetoric boasts of multiculturalism. Yet, we see one kind of body and one kind of story. We see grand events of exploration, discovery, arrival, war, vast landscapes and the spectacle of nature, contact sports. It is crucial that these images are presented not as history (they might today never be published as such) but as symbols which allude to the myth of a society which has advanced from the European birthplace of modernity and civilized culture.

Myth is non-temporal while history is presented as chronological, but every event is interpreted nonetheless. History is based on forgetting as much as memory; a collective chooses which events to grant significance and which to diminish. It is therefore unnecessary to try to determine which events are interpreted. Rather, one must determine the degree to which the historical events are organized into a narrative. The imagined community is created by those who write the classic national novels, who print the newspapers, and who decide the public-school curriculum; as well as those who read these materials, who pin red poppies to their lapels on Remembrance Day, and who sew Canadian flags to their bags before traveling. [3] Unlike what is expected of history, myth does not aim to describe the world but to create its own. In this way, it is subjective, and often narratives that have been perverted are allowed to remain unquestioned and untouchable as cultural artifacts, as well as to be presented, as we see with the new Canadian passport, as internationally recognized images of national identity.

III. Work on Myth

Chiara Bottici and Benoît Challand argue that myth consists of “the re-elaboration of a narrative that answers the human need for significance.”[4] Humans want not only explanatory meaning, but significance — an indication that there is something with further subjective importance. Bottici and Challand argue that political myth consists of “the work on a common narrative that grants significance to the political conditions and experiences of a social group.”[5] Bottici and Challand deploy Blumenberg’s notion of ‘work on myth’, the process by which myth is produced, received, and reproduced through a society through time. Myths are not learned at once from a history book, but are instead learned over time through the cumulative exposure of living in a society. They are normalized and ingrained so as to enable society members to recall the whole narrative simply by witnessing a synecdoche, object, or gesture — some symbol for, or part of, the myth that alludes to the larger myth itself. This need not be a conscious or complete recall, nor must it be understood as either real or fabricated, but it is nonetheless recalled as significant to our experience as a political group with a social and historical narrative. If the meanings that societal symbols convey are accepted without question, they have the ability to implant images from the social unconscious into the individuals within it, empowering those who identify with these images and doing violence to those who do not.

The images that most vitally represent national myth are often the same ones that are brushed aside as iconic hyperbole. Importantly, through the medium of the passport, these choices of images are not seen as an historical account but rather are presented as neutral symbols of what is included in the Canadian identity. Many individuals within mainstream settler culture are aware of the violence that founded the state, yet those who committed it are still our statues, our currency, our national heroes, and our images of national identity. Eva Mackey writes that “[o]f course we all want an identity, but whom are we using, abusing, and erasing in the process of creating one?”[6] Whether they are presented as national histories or myths, the stories hold clashing truths, contradictory ideas which depend on particular histories and the bodies of those who identify with them. “Symbols of nationhood are used flexibly to differentiate and define the boundaries of the imagined nation, often switching between defining ‘others’ and nature as noble and/or ignoble savages, and the nation as male or female, depending on the needs of nation-building.”[7] The land and the people connected to it are feminized, considered as something to be conquered, owned, and protected as property. The muscular nations of European empire imagine the sons of the nation protecting their ‘motherland’ or conquering new territory.

IV. History and Myth of European Empire

Like Europeans, many Canadian settlers perceive themselves as originating from the birthplace of civilization, and consider as part of their legacy the creation of philosophy, freedom, democracy, modernity, art, and beauty. Is this history or myth? Bottici and Challand suggest that “the main narratives through which Europeans have perceived themselves have functioned as both myth and history, according to different periods and contexts.”[8] One might wonder if this applies equally to the era of European imperialism, or perhaps even contemporary neo-imperialism. I suggest that the myth of Europe as the cradle of civilization extends through the images of empire, and in this way the legacy is inherited, altered for size and taste. What is received and reproduced adds to this ‘work on myth’.

Politically, the imaginal space of the passport is not consciously intended as an historical narrative or an expression of determined national identity. Because of the ambiguity of this imaginal space, it remains to many a neutral and non-political medium. Like the images chosen for display on the faces of currency, however, Canada’s passport is fraught with political meanings and national mythology. It functions to solidify the continuation of the violent imaginal politics of European empire and to reify the inheritance of all that is included in the myth of Western civilization.



[1] A stone landmark made by the Inuit, Iñupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region.

[2] Sir John A. Macdonald ordered policies which systematically starved thousands of Indigenous people in Western Canada in order to clear the land for the Canadian Pacific Railroad as well as white settlement on the Prairies. The Canadian Indian residential school system was an organized network of Christian boarding schools for Indigenous children, created to terminate their languages and cultural practices and assimilate them into settler society. This organization of abuse, disease, death, and imperial violence officially closed its last federally operated residential school in 1996.

[3] Term coined by Benedict Anderson. (1983).  Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

[4] Chiara Bottici & Benoît Challand. (2013).  Imagining Europe: Myth, Memory, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press. Page 89.

[5] Ibid , page 92.

[6] Eva Mackey. (2000). Death by Landscape: Race, Nature, and Gender in Canadian Nationalist Mythology. Canadian Woman Studies 20 (2): 125-131. Page 131.

[7] Eva Mackey. Ibid, Page 125.

[8] Chiara Bottici & Benoît Challand. Ibid, page 88.

Serafina Appel

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