I suppose in light of everything going on in the rest of the world lately, I've been feeling some major tinges of patriotism towards my own country, the overwhelmingly large piece of land that crosses from sea to sea and goes by the name of Canada. We're far from perfect, and if you look at our history it's not exactly as free from controversy, systematic racism, and human rights violations as you might believe, but nevertheless, we have come a long way, and are trying to right our wrongs, to some extent.
Today, we're seen as one of the most multicultural countries in the world, and it's something we pride ourselves on. John Murray Gibbons first called Canada a 'mosaic' in 1938, and it's a term that has stuck, and become ingrained in our society. In 1988, the Canadian Multicultural Act came into being, which declares that federal policy must:
'recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance, and share their cultural heritage.' ('Religion, Literature and Canadian Cultural Identities')
As I said, we're not perfect. But at least we're trying pretty hard to be inclusive, open-minded, and welcoming.
While I'm feeling proud to be Canadian, and inspired about our country up here, I thought what better a time to start a new theme of the 'month' (I put it in quotations because it might go longer than a month and last a couple), and move from detective fiction into the vast, cacophonous world of Canadian Literature.
Which brings us to the question: what exactly is Canadian Literature?
As I've come to realize in the past few days while researching this topic, there isn't one definite answer to this question. I could guess you could say that the answer is that there is no real answer. Canadian Literature is, like our country itself, so spacious, so diverse, and so multicultural that it doesn't really have one overarching theme. I suspect if you look closely, most countries these days don't either.
This being said, there are some tendencies that have been identified. Margaret Atwood in her landmark book on Canadian Literature in 1972, Survival, argues that if it was to be anything, 'The central symbol for Canada ... is undoubtedly survival, La Survivance.' In many ways I agree with her, but even this idea of survival is fairly open-ended.
As Atwood explores in her work, survival can take the form of physically surviving what is often viewed as our harsh, unyielding northern landscape, seen particularly in our earliest literature written by explorers and first settlers. It can also take the form of survival in terms of the French language, and culture, surviving despite Canadian being predominantly English speaking. Furthermore, it can be more 'free-floating', and allude to the idea of emotional and spiritual survival.
There is also certainly a tendency in Canadian literature towards focusing on the landscape itself, which is somewhat related to the idea of survival, but also stands alone. As Dennis Sumara, Brent Davis and Linda Laidlaw argue in 'Canadian Identity and Curriculum Theory: An Ecological, Postmodern Perspective,' Canada is a resource-rich and geographically diverse country, and 'physical contexts occupy a large part of our attention.' They go on to say that early journal writing focused on accommodating to the Canadian climate, and this preoccupation with the weather and landscape continues today. An 'enduring theme' is how this 'physical setting is woven into the psyche'.
Lastly, although, as I said above, the diversity and pluralism of Canada makes it hard to pinpoint specifics about what exactly Canadian literature is, perhaps you can also say that this tendency towards the cultural mosaic is, in itself, actually one of its most important tendencies. From the earliest times of settlement, there has been a mixing of French, English and Aboriginal cultures and voices, and as Cynthia Sugars and Laura Moss argue in their anthology, Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts, that history laid the foundation for a shared culture, and the 'mingling of languages, peoples and cultures.'
John Ralston Saul has said that 'Canadians still see themselves as a society of minorities. They are constantly balancing the centre, the regions, the language groups, and even the importance of the population versus of the land.' Hence, perhaps really, what we can conclude is that neither Canada, nor it's literature, is one thing. It's many things, and it's continually evolving.
Which takes us to what I think is the most valuable understanding of Canadian literature: Canadian literature as open-ended, as 'continually being created'. One of our most famous and beloved literary critics, Northrop Frye, famously declared that Canadian literature is less about 'Who am I?' than 'Where is here?', and I think what he's trying to evoke is a sense of the unknown, of getting a little lost, of not knowing exactly where you are. We don't really know exactly where we are in Canadian literature because it hasn't been fully mapped out yet, and it hasn't fully been mapped out yet because it is continually undergoing changes, and modifications, and probably always will be.
To return to Sumara, Davis and Laidlaw, Canadian literature operates in 'final vocabularies' rather than one, singular, final 'vocabulary'. Final vocabularies are 'the words we can find at this moment to define ourselves and our situation, but that are constantly at risk of being replaced by new final vocabularies.' And so, really, where we are left is in 'the realm of the contextually dependent, the negotiated, and the compromised.'
For me, this view of Canadian literature is the best. It seems thoughtful, considerate, all-encompassing, inclusive. It seems, to me, very Canadian.
Margaret Atwood, Survival
Cynthia Sugars and Laura Moss, Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts
Dennis Sumara, Brent Davis and Linda Laidlaw, 'Canadian Identity and Curriculum Theory: An Ecological, Postmodern Perspective' from Canadian Journal of Education 26. 2
Jamie S. Scott, 'Religion, Literature and Canadian Cultural Identities' from Literature and Theology 16.2