The Northern started as a pulp phenomenon in the early twentieth century, relocating Western tropes north of the border. The films were often “quota quickies” -- low-budget productions that counted as domestic content for British cinemas. Made in abundance, Northern films helped mythologize Canada as a rugged, do-right nation. Recent Canadian texts return to the north as a site of meaning and myth-making. We see this in 2010’s Gunless: a comedy about the Montana Kid, an American gunslinger who finds himself stranded in a small settlement in the burgeoning Dominion of Canada. On the run from a vengeful gang of American outlaws, the Montana Kid agrees to work in trade for a battered old pistol. When the gang inevitably catches up to him, the Montana Kid realizes he truly cares about his new community and tries to solve his problems peacefully.
In Gunless, diversity is a timeless Canadian trait. The small town is home to a newly-immigrated Chinese family, and happily hosts travelling Chinese labourers headed west to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. As we see in the clip, the American outlaws treat them terribly. This cements the Americans as villains and neatly sidesteps the dangerous reality of railway work for Chinese labourers: seen as disposable, they perished in massive numbers compared to their white counterparts. Gunless similarly mis-remembers relationships between the Mounties and Canada’s Indigenous communities. This clip shows how N’Kwala, a local Elder, accompanies Corporal Kent on patrols, smiling serenely at the corporal’s gaffes and offering him sage life advice.
Such a dynamic denies Canada’s past – and present – oppressive, often violent attitude toward its Indigenous populations, now at the forefront of the country’s consciousness thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. When Americans are the film’s primary source of conflict, it is harder to connect Canada’s past actions with today’s inequalities. What Gunless remembers – and forgets – generates a feel-good Northern comedy in which a history of shared adversity (rather a history of violent colonialism) leads to a fantasy of future happiness.