The Canadian Good Life in Gunless

Curator's Note

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.


My comments here aren't explicitly related to the American Western (here read as a continental narrative movement), but I do think that the Western as a genre marks a major narrative effort in forgetting/rewriting national moments of trauma. I'm certainly less familiar with Canada's colonial history than I am with the construction of Memory and Archive in the U.S., but I do occasionally run across narratives that point towards some overlap in the ways in which Canada and the U.S. elide past national atrocities. Bharti Mukerjee's short story, "The Management of Grief" may be worth taking a look at, and perhaps the film Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Both--I think--have to do cultural work towards revealing systems of elision (Mukherjee) and oppression (Ghouls). Ghouls seems to point towards similar assimilationist attitudes in Canada and the U.S.--revealing histories that are seldom in the popular domestic imaginary, while Mukherjee's short story touches upon a national treatment of grief that is repressive, and perhaps at odds with the ways in which other countries tend to deal with it. I wonder then if the Western Genre isn't more than a cover up of history, but also a cover up of national grieving as well--or at least, moments of grief that hit close to him?

Great post! I especially appreciate your focus on how the way indigenous people are portrayed in historical films/tv can rewrite who are the oppressors (the switch the show enacts from Canadian to American) and who are the oppressed (the easy relationship between N'Kwala and Corporal Kent). Perhaps the Americans in the film (who are "other") are used as scapegoats for Canadian historical oppression against both Chinese labourers (also "other") and indigenous people like N'Kwala (also "other"). So that the text might serve as a comforting text whereby Canadian colonization is projected onto the American other, as well as into the past, thus insulating present day Canada from its role in colonization and oppression. In the clip itself, I notice the way N'Kwala politely translates his name to make it easier for the white people to pronounce/remember, thereby evoking a peaceful assimilation rather than the violent stripping of names and language that went on in the residential boarding schools. When the Americans shot the dog because of its barking and then mocked the Chinese for the way they spoke, it struck a chord about how people demonize others when they don't understand them (either linguistically or culturally).

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