The Reflection of Images and Stereotypes of the Canadian North in the Poetry of Robert Service

Term Paper, 2004

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Imagination and reality: how our ideas of the Canadian North are shaped

3. The Klondike gold rush as an episode which influenced the image of the North

4. The poetry of Robert Service: truth and stereotypes in his works
4.1. “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”
4.2. “The Spell of the Yukon”
4.3. “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The term ‘stereotype’ means a conventional or formulaic conception or image. In general the expression is used to describe an oversimplified mental picture of some group of people who are sharing certain characteristic (or stereotypical) qualities. It is often used in a negative sense because many people see stereotypes as illogical but deeply held beliefs that can only be changed through education.

Common stereotypes of the past included a variety of allegations about different racial groups and predictions of behaviour based on social status and wealth.

Common stereotypical characters in America are for example the snobbish butler speaking with a British English accent, the overweight, doughnut-eating cop and the drunken Irishman.

But people do not only have stereotypes for persons or groups. They also have developed a generalized mental image of countries or certain regions.

In my research paper I want to identify the common image of the Canadian North and how it has developed.

Furthermore I am going to analyse a selection of the poetry of one of the most famous Canadian writers, Robert Service. The analysis takes place on the basis of the question: Are stereotypical characteristics of the Canadian North reflected in Service’s poems?

Many people state that “Service’s work represents the truth of the gold rush” (Morrison 1998, p. 102), which was one of the most important episodes in the history of the North. But I do not agree with this claim because I have found many elements in his poetry that are either untrue or only stereotypes. I want to prove this thesis with my research paper.

2. Imagination and reality: How our ideas of the Canadian North are shaped

We all do have an idea of the Canadian North. This region is “a place of dreams, of imagination and fantasy” (Morrison 1998, p. 1). The common characteristics and stereotypes are a cold, snowy and lonesome environment, a big red sun at the horizon, bears and seals, Inuits living in igloos, fur traders, gold miners and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Only few foreigners have visited the Canadian North but in spite of this lack of first-hand experiences many people have clear images of this area in their minds.

The question that rises is, how is our extensive imagination of the Canadian North shaped?

We owe this above all the media. Photographs, TV-documentaries, books and movies have given and still give us a detailed description of the northern regions of Canada.

One example is a famous photograph of E.A. Hegg. He “was an American who took many of the best pictures of the gold rush” (Morrison 1998, p. 81). The photo is called ‘Packers Ascending Summit of Chilkoot Pass, 1898’ and shows a line of men straining up a snowy pass of a huge mountain. This shot is most likely the best-known image of a very important period of the Canadian North and shapes the ideas of foreigners how this episode was like.

Besides the media other things had an influence on our imagination. These were sculptures, carvings and paintings made by people living in the North. With their works they tried to represent their homeland from their perspective.

The images on which we depend in general illustrate only a part of the reality of the Canadian North. “The images that registered most strongly in the popular imagination evoked terror and hardship – looming glaciers, monstrous bears, perishing cold, ship-crushing sea ice, exotic indigenous people whose lives were, to all but the most perceptive of observers, nasty, brutish, and short” (Morrison 1998, p. 4).

These negative images were caused by explorers who gave most emphasis to the roughness of the climate. And by missionaries who told scary stories of the mysterious spirituality of the native people. And by a lot of other men only reporting about negative aspects of the North.

The reality looks differently. But people do not know anything about it because they cannot make their own experiences. So they depend on the information they get from writers, photographers and film-makers.

3. The Klondike gold rush as an episode which influenced the image of the North

The Klondike gold rush of 1897 – 99 is one of the most important periods in the history of the Canadian North. This event at the Klondike River was so significant that the world turned to a region of that many did not even know where exactly it was located.

When the first gold nuggets were discovered in the river a hysteria was caused. Thousands of gold-seekers came to the Yukon and settled there with the fantasy of easy riches.

The reason why so many men –and even some women- came to Klondike was that the gold was so easily available there. It “did not have to be extracted with hardrock mining techniques” (Morrison 1998, p. 82) like at the time of the California gold rush of 1849. The Klondike gold was not found locked in quartz and other rocks. It was at the bottom of the creeks, covered with muck and debris. The technique which the miners used was very simple and could be learned easily: they searched for the gold by ‘panning’. They took gravel in a pie-shaped pan, filled it with water and swirled the mixture around. The gravel was washed out of the pan because it was lighter than the gold but the expensive material remained in the pan.

Although the method of searching for gold was relatively unproblematic, the route to the Klondike River was not. Of course there was also an easy way: people could get there on a steamship and travel by sea to the Yukon and then up the river to Dawson City. But this was also the most expensive way. Only few men could afford this trip.

The common and much cheaper route was the one over the Chilkoot Pass. This overland way led the men over very high mountains and the tour was a torture. But the reason why the expedition was so strenuous, was the number of times the men had to climb the pass. They had to take tons of supplies with them because the Mounted Police did not permit to cross the pass without enough goods to last six months. This meant that a man had to take the trip about twenty times to get all his things over the mountain.

The town, where the so-called Klondikers lived in, was named Dawson City. Before the gold rush started it was a very small town with approximately 20-30 inhabitants. The news of the gold discovery around the city led to an invasion of thousands of gold-diggers who settled there. Within two years Dawson City became the largest city in Canada west of Winnipeg with a population that fluctuated between 30.000 and 40.000 people.

Dawson City was a very turbulent place where gambling and prostitution were predominant. “Saloons and dancehalls ran twenty-four hours a day” (Morrison 1998, p. 98) and theft and other crimes were widespread. But when the North-West Mounted Police took over the control of the Yukon, public order was achieved. About 500 policemen were the reason why Dawson City became free of violence and crime. For example the NWMP forbade to carry weapons into the town. The result were only few murders in the Yukon.

The gold rush ended in 1899 with the news that gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska. More than 8000 gold-seekers left Dawson City within a week. The population of the city decreased rapidly.

“The Klondike gold rush was the first ‘modern’ event to occur in the Canadian North, in the sense that it brought to the region for the first time a large non-Native population, along with modern technology, urbanization, […]” (Morrison 1998, p. 103).


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The Reflection of Images and Stereotypes of the Canadian North in the Poetry of Robert Service
University of Rostock
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reflection, images, stereotypes, canadian, north, poetry, robert, service
Quote paper
Rebecca Mahnkopf (Author), 2004, The Reflection of Images and Stereotypes of the Canadian North in the Poetry of Robert Service, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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