#Canada150 / #Colonialism150: An Advertising History

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Janis Thiessen

Government advertising for the sesquicentennial of Confederation began in 2013, “aimed at increasing Canadians’ knowledge and pride in Canada’s history and heritage.” The federal government promoted licensing agreements for commercial use of the “Canada 150” logo. A number of businesses in Canada took the opportunity to promote their products by connecting them to Canadian nationalism and Canadian history – though not always in logical or tasteful ways. KFC, for example, temporarily changed their logo to K’ehFC.

CBC News.

The Sobey’s grocery chain sold hamburger patties shaped like maple leaves.


And Tim Hortons promoted an abomination known as the poutine donut (which was, mercifully, only available in the United States and only on Canada Day).

CBC News

The use of nationalist images and historical events in advertising in Canada has a long history, though not a particularly varied one. Ira Wagman notes that Canadian ads that have used Canadian historical images or events “draw from a relatively small set of images and themes associated with unity, the use of technology to bind space, and ideas of national development” (Wagman, 560). He questions the effect such advertising has had “on Canadian historical consciousness, on the way Canadians recollect and understand their past” (Wagman, 559). These effects are particularly problematic when such ads draw on ahistorical, stereotypical, or racist images of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The problematic depiction of Indigenous peoples in Canadian advertising is a consequence of settler colonialism and ongoing Indigenous dispossession. Mainstream media have historically depicted Indigenous people as morally depraved, racially inferior, and/or incapable of “progress” (defined in western capitalist terms) (Anderson and Robertson, 7). Daniel Francis, in The Imaginary Indian, explains how business uses a false understanding of Indigeneity (invoking environmentalism or stoicism, for example) to sell its wares, and in the process, commodify Indigenous people themselves. “The advertising image is based on stereotypes of the Imaginary Indian already abroad in the culture. In turn, advertising reinforces the stereotype by feeding it back into the mainstream culture in a self-repeating loop” (Francis, 189).

Examples abound of the “Imaginary Indian” in government advertising. Britain, France, and the Canadian dominion government relied on the doctrine of terra nullis to justify their occupation of Indigenous territories in North America. Nineteenth-century Europeans, for example, were encouraged to settle on what was promoted as “empty” and therefore available land.

A more recent example from the Northern Development Ministers Forum shows that government reliance on stereotypes of Indigeneity persists today. Of eighteen images included in a 2010 paper on Indigenous youth entrepreneurship, eight are images of nature or otherwise stereotypical images of “Indian-ness” (canoes, beading, teepees, dreamcatchers). Only eight are of Indigenous people actually engaged in business.

Northern Development Ministers Forum.

Tourism has long relied on depicting ancestral Indigenous lands as “empty space” available for settler recreation, or on romantic stereotypes of Indigenous peoples to market settler engagement with nature. Niagara Falls promoted “Indian whimsy” souvenirs as the necessary, commodified evidence of a vacation (Gordon, 390). British Columbia promoted tourism through what Michael Dawson describes as “‘Imperialist Nostalgia’ – a common endeavor in which we absolve our complicity in imperialism by mourning the passing of a society that we helped to transform or subdue” (Dawson, 168). Thus, for example, tourism ads described totem poles as relics of an Indigenous art form supposedly “lost through neglect.” Banff Indian Days, first organized by a committee of Anglo male businessmen in 1902, saw “park officials, residents, and visitors effectively coloniz[e] Indigenous territory, lobbying for the prohibition of Aboriginal hunting and resource gathering while welcoming Natives into the park only for the Indian Days’ duration” (Clapperton, 352).

Banff Indian Days poster, 1926, by Wilfrid L. Kihn. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

Indian Days ads described Indigenous people as “children of nature,” and their leaders as representatives of “a conquered and disappearing race.” A trip to Banff was not complete without seeing the dual spectacle of mountains and Indigenous people: “tourists who departed Banff without seeing the two together had viewed a partial environment” (Clapperton, 354-8).

It can be tempting to believe that such ads are limited to an earlier, less enlightened era of business. And yet in 1988, Wardair promoted their flights to Hamburg, Germany by depicting an Indigenous man “holding his ear to the ground, exclaiming: ‘Ugh! Must be 6:43 pm. Wardair flight gets ready to land’” (Dettmer, 188). Yum Yum Chips, founded in Quebec in 1956, discontinued use of their “little Indian” logo after the 1990 Kanehsatake Resistance (also known as the Oka Crisis). But the company chose to revive the logo as “a vintage treat for the [Christmas] holidays” in 2013.

Yum Yum Chips.

Cardboard cut-outs of the logo were distributed to stores, and customers were encouraged to insert their heads into the cut-out and take photos of themselves. In the face of public protest, the company claimed that their logo was merely “a nod to the founder of the potato chip [Georges Crum], who was native.” By 2015, after several adverse reports in national newspapers, the company abandoned the logo once again.

A more sophisticated – but equally troubling – use of Indigenous peoples in Canadian advertising has emerged in recent decades. Tracy Friedel has analyzed energy companies’ use of “the popular image of the Indian as environmental steward” to promote themselves “not only as environmentally friendly, but as friendly in a social sense through the inclusion of Aboriginal peoples as economic ‘partners’ in fossil fuel development.” (Friedel, 241-2).

Tracy L. Friedel, “(Not so) crude text and images: staging Native in ‘big oil’ advertising,” Visual Studies 23, 3 (December 2008): 243 figure 2.

She notes that Indigenous peoples are not, in fact, included as true partners, but are part of“the promotion of an image of corporate social responsibility.” She argues that the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility “merely hide[s] the stark truth of contemporary development, that Canada’s energy infrastructure is increasingly subject to the interests of transnational corporations rather than the communities whose image they so readily appropriate.” (Friedel, 250-1).

Roots Canada has received acclaim for their recent Canada 150 advertisement that draws on the reputation of Canadians for being “nice.”


The ad invokes the stereotypical good of Canadian society, but also speaks of “the disruptive nice,” that “nice means screaming when you have no voice,” and that “sometimes nice is knowing when sorry just isn’t enough.” The latter slogan is spoken over images of Indigenous people. The ad campaign exhorts Canadians “to #BeNice to create an even better next 150 years.”

But how exactly might Canada – and Canadian business in particular – “be nice, to create an even better next 150 years”? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action includes one (#92) directed toward “Business and Reconciliation.” David Newhouse observes that, when it comes to reconciliation, “Universities are on board, provinces are on board, NGOs are on board but there has been no discussion on business and it is one of the calls to action.” Murray Sinclair, TRC Chair, notes “business leaders are still making decisions founded upon the twin myths that Aboriginal people are inferior and Europeans are superior.”

If settler colonialism is indeed “a structure rather than merely a historic event” (Sengupta, 128) then Call to Action #92 has profound implications in a society structured around capitalism. Past and ongoing Indigenous dispossession must be addressed. Uncomfortable comparisons may be drawn to the work of the German business history association and recent efforts to uncover the role of African slavery in American (and western European) capital accumulation. German business historians in the 1980s revolutionized their field, compelling academia, business, and society to address corporate complicity with the Third Reich (Levis, 236-8). In a similar way, we at the University of Winnipeg’s Oral History Centre urge Canadian businesses and business historians to address the historical impact of business and commerce on Indigenous populations in North America. The problem, as Andrew Smith observes, is that few business historians – Canadian or otherwise – are actively engaging with the extensive literature on colonialism. And a key difference is that the Third Reich came to an end, whereas settler colonialism not only persists but is largely unacknowledged in Canada.

Logo by Eric Ritskes.

But as Eric Ritskes, creator of the #colonialism150 logo, reminds us: “Especially as Canadians gather to celebrate 150 years of the nation, with a central theme of ‘reconciliation’, it is important to disrupt the national mythmaking of Canada as a peaceful, multicultural nation for all.” Business historians need to join with those studying Indigenous and colonial history to critically re-examine the ways in which business in Canada has participated (and continues to participate) in such mythmaking.


Janis Thiessen is Associate Professor in the History Department at the University of Winnipeg and Associate Director of the university’s Oral History Centre. A version of this post was presented at the Canadian Business History Association’s Canada 150 Conference, Toronto ON, 11-12 September 2017.



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