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Found Identity in the Northern Lights: Canadian Studies Module 1 Written Assignment
Ideally when looking at the symbolism of various objects and their possible relation or importance to one’s cultural belief system or identity, aspects of nature – and by extension that of natural phenomena – come to mind. In all areas around the world, the sight of natural phenomena brings significance to naturalized culture, especially that which holds itself to be perceived as part of the country’s identity. In Northern Canada, the sight of the northern lights (aurora borealis) stands as one of these natural aspects of Canadian identity. Although there is difficulty in finding a solid national identity, it does not mean that it cannot be renowned. In 2017, to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation, The Royal Canadian Mint began circulating the majesty of the Northern Lights with the release of a limited edition Toonie. With its release, the wonder of these natural lights can be shown to bring homage to the historical beliefs of First Nations, as well as create feelings of a spacious nation brought together through unity. In saying, this paper will identify the reasoning behind the use of this natural phenomenon as the focal point of a limited release for a national celebration, along with what significance it brings to represent Canada and its respected identity. Further along in this paper, discussion will be brought in reference to the Northern lights’ relevance in terms of identity through the eyes of Canadian citizens, the Lights’ historical view from Indigenous belief systems and culture, as well as the overall sense of desire found through the incorporation this image portrays on coinage, and if the Royal Canadian Mint had invested wisely in the Canadian 150th anniversary milestone design.
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In light of Canada’s 150th anniversary, various federal initiatives were seemingly set in place as a milestone celebration for the nation, allowing for individuals and corporations to come together and celebrate both Canadian heritage and Canadian accomplishments. For a phenomenon that is so well known and unanimous with the Northern regions of Canada – along with its atmosphere and climate – one might question the exact reasoning for placing the Northern Lights on coinage to commemorate Canada’s confederacy, and its alleged theme of unity; these outlined questions lead to a multitude of answers in and of themselves. To begin, one must understand the mindset behind why the Lights show relevance to Canada and its developing identity. As part of a contested project created by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the Seven Wonders project, Canadian citizens were tasked with submitting nominations for what they felt to be some of the most natural yet memorable aspects of the Canadian landscape, along with what they felt to represent Canada as a natural wonder. While the Northern lights had appeared as one highest voted and most memorable natural feats to appear on the ranked list, the question becomes as to why exactly the Northern lights are considered to be as popular of Canadian identity and heritage as they are, especially when considering the counted votes from citizens who partook in the Seven Wonders project. Even though the contest’s entirety contained mixed reactions, this is what the CBC felt best represented personal Canadian voices in what was considered to be one of the most natural embodiments of the nation, firstly showing an initial connection of unity.
Additionally, following the popularity of the Northern lights as one of the natural wonders of Canada, it is labelled as such not just because of its occurrence in the Arctic landscapes surrounding the Northern Canadian territories, but because of what it means in the sense of being a Canadian and respecting cultural heritage; that of which has been the foundation of national multiculturalism. Diversity in beliefs is what makes Canada’s own identity unique, especially those belonging to Indigenous cultures found throughout Canada. The folklore behind the northern lights is considered to be a living tradition that lives in a simplified interpretation passed down to modern Inuit culture. As is told, after the creation of the world by the spirit Nanahboozho, and humanity had received the knowledge of adaptation within their environment, Nanahboozho had passed to his Northern abode, promising mankind that he would shelter and protect their lives; according to this myth, as a sign of his protection, he would occasionally light great flames across the sky, whose likeness would be visible to mankind. For the proceeding Inuit populations, the northern lights are reflections of Nanahboozho’s watchful flames, experienced as a living resonance of the world’s natural beauty. This tradition clearly expresses the northern lights as a flaming reflection — an observer to the creative forces that today still manifest the diversity of creative stories. By analysing this aspect of Indigenous mythology, the traditions of indigenous people become understandable. Other native inhabitants across the northern territories emphasize a similar mythos and tradition as the Inuit, where it is a widespread belief that the those who have passed away are present in the aurora borealis, as eternal souls traversing an endless abyss, being the night sky. Although Canada’s colonization was brought on with a Eurocentric worldview in mind, the manifestation of complete tolerance and understanding of others’ beliefs had shown to be a complex and thorough journey for many individuals.
However, looking into the modern-day as a changed reflection of history, this very aspect of tolerance has helped alter Canadian citizenship and identity with the inclusivity of all cultures. While identity is seen as a personal view, it is also interpersonal, compared with others’ identities, with how they see others and themselves. Comparing the beliefs of both European settlers and Indigenous people before complete colonization, settlers had felt the need to justify the withdrawal of land from Natives; it brings attention to the ideological portrayals that “normalize” the Canadian state as fair and racially neutral. In reality for the time, this sense of fairness would take numerous years before any signs of improvement can be shown. In relation to the commemoration the natural northern lights on the toonie, it is best connected with the representation of diversity among individuals. Despite the differences those may have endured during Canada’s initial confederacy, it is representative of the fact that change and progression are what make Canada the nation it is today – and ultimately – houses its identity. The use of the northern lights in this context signifies that the respect of cultural heritage is what unites the meaning of being a Canadian; the Iqaluit folklore is a respected story for explaining a natural phenomenon that is fitting with the culture’s standing beliefs over time. Fairness in respect of others is what Canadians pride themselves on; treating others as one would is representative of how individuals wish to be perceived, and therefore, how their communities and nation is perceived.
Diverging into the more scientific reasoning behind the northern lights, the phenomenon becomes more valuable while looking at their occurrence within the Arctic climate, and subsequently within the Northern Canadian landscape. Looking at these factors as evidently designed in the coin, it is able to invoke a great sense of desire – both for discovery and how it is refined for Canada. Throughout history, the northern lights have captivated people across the distant north, yet their origins were always woven into cultural folklore, never being given scientific explanation until proper technology had been developed; the lights themselves are the products of solar winds, and how the particles in these winds react with the Earth’s magnetosphere (otherwise magnetic and electric nature or fields), and ultimately create a multitude of coloured lights reflected in the sky. The very nature of this is the cause for such wonder about Arctic regions – especially in the Canadian landscape – and how exactly they may appear at different points in time for different communities. One might question exactly how the northern lights’ depiction on a commemorative coin may create a feeling of desire for Canada. To offset this, it is simple to say there is involved a wanting desire for discovery, ultimately leading to the desire of Canada. The discovery and curiosity to be found with the northern lights comes alongside the landscape it is most well-known to be found; Northern Canada. Outlined over three territories – Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut – the landscape is able to provide a feeling of openness, allowing for the exploration of a nation that is seemingly scattered about from communities. The want to travel and explore the north for some is what emphasizes the said-inclination to be Canadian; the openness of an environment is what identifies with others to be a sentiment of liberation, of which many citizens feel to need throughout their lives. This common idea is what resonates most with the design of the coin; the northern lights not only represent what beliefs can represent diversity, but also what feelings such imagery may entreat in others.
As a testament to the release of coinage with the illustrious and creative depictions of the Northern Lights, the Royal Canadian Mint put within them the effort, and brought to attention their own acknowledgment as part of the federal government’s Canada 150th celebration – with the incorporation and release of the “Northern Lights’” Toonie. As previously mentioned, various aspects in what emphasizes one’s perceived identity is composed of numerous yet complex factors that may all start from different points in society or culture. A brilliant design to follow, the Mint’s use of the natural Northern Lights’ is able to be shared among Canadians and a united identity, not only for its acknowledgement of past and present Indigenous and Native beliefs of the Light’s themselves, but also because of the simplicity it brings in the desire of discovery – of the Arctic North of which many Canadians feel emphasize a sense of exploration over a spacious nation. Although spaciously spread from coast-to-coast, it is not to say that every individual is not united; these citizens are not only united in how they view aspects like this natural phenomena, but also how it is able to bring a sense of togetherness and belonging alongside one another, and partake in the longing to explore and experience what has grown from conception at the time of Canadian Confederacy. Whether someone is drawn to the science or spirituality (or both) of the northern lights, there is no denial in their outstanding beauty. To design this Toonie over one of the most fascinating natural phenomena to ever be seen emphasizes that the coin’s design itself is more than a static representation – but one that ties individuals and creates unity for all Canadians.
- Camfield, David. “Settler Colonialism and Labour Studies in Canada: A Preliminary Exploration.” Labour / Le Travail 83, no. 1 (2019): 147–72. https://doi.org/10.1353/llt.2019.0006.
- “Canada 150.” Scholars Portal. Government of Canada, 2017. https://books.scholarsportal.info/uri/ebooks/ebooks4/cpdc4/2018-12-11/1/10097380.
- Cormack, Patricia, and James F. Cosgrave. Desiring Canada: CBC Contests, Hockey Violence and Other Stately Pleasures. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
- Falck-Ytter, Harald. Aurora: the Northern Lights in Mythology, History, and Science. Hudson, NY: Bell Pond Books, 1999.
- Forsythe, Allison. “The Beautiful Northern Lights.” Nature Canada, February 29, 2016. https://naturecanada.ca/news/blog/the-beautiful-northern-lights/.
- Lawrence, Bonita. “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview.” Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), January 9, 2009. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2003.tb00799.x?casa_token=KNcbiVocHygAAAAA:vMxNJM2hIwiXGxVPafiIlpEFGezQnTn0xxBQp7cMfC_k8bvRAswN5xnDdp1QFAQBZxq9DhABluvRiA.
 “Canada 150,” Scholars Portal (Government of Canada, 2017), from https://books.scholarsportal.info/uri/ebooks/ebooks4/cpdc4/2018-12-11/1/10097380.
 Patricia Cormack and James F. Cosgrave, Desiring Canada: CBC Contests, Hockey Violence and Other Stately Pleasures (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013). p. 37-38.
 Harald Falck-Ytter, Aurora: the Northern Lights in Mythology, History, and Science (Hudson, NY: Bell Pond Books, 1999). p. 29.
 Ibid. p. 32.
 Bonita Lawrence, “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview,” Wiley Online Library (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), January 9, 2009), from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2003.tb00799.x?casa_token=KNcbiVocHygAAAAA:vMxNJM2hIwiXGxVPafiIlpEFGezQnTn0xxBQp7cMfC_k8bvRAswN5xnDdp1QFAQBZxq9DhABluvRiA.
 David Camfield, “Settler Colonialism and Labour Studies in Canada: A Preliminary Exploration,” Labour / Le Travail 83, no. 1 (2019): p. 147-172., from https://doi.org/10.1353/llt.2019.0006.
 Allison Forsythe, “The Beautiful Northern Lights,” Nature Canada, February 29, 2016, from https://naturecanada.ca/news/blog/the-beautiful-northern-lights/.
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