Canada and its literatures

Introduction to Canadian Literature

Why Study Canada?

When I first began teaching Canadian Literature at the University of Vermont in the fall of 2003, I was surprised, though not shocked, at how little my students knew about Canada. Most of them could not name the country’s Prime Minister (who at the time was also named Paul Martin!), nor even its capital city (Ottawa); most knew next to nothing about the large country that spans their own country’s Northern border. Despite the fact that Canada is the United States’ number one trading partner (more than one and a half billion dollars in trade occurs between the two countries every single day), the largest supplier of foreign oil to the US, one of its most long-standing allies, and a country with which it shares the world’s longest (and for the moment) undefended border, Canada receives very little attention in the media or in the US educational system.

Canada and the United States: more than just neighbors

A nation of just over 33 million people in a country second only in size to Russia, Canada is remarkably diverse in both culture and geography, has two official languages, and declares itself in both government policy and its Constitution to be officially multicultural. Because Canada and the United States share the same continent, are so closely connected by trade and popular culture, and because nearly 90 percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US border, one might think it safe to assume that the two countries are not all that different from one another. While that might have been the case at some point in our nations’ histories, if anything, today, Canada and the US are moving further apart than ever.

As Michael Adams’ recent book Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values (2003) has shown, while the economies of these two nations seem to be coming more closely linked each day, the mainstream values of each society are becoming increasingly divergent. Recent moves by the Canadian government to legalize same-sex marriage, decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the widespread national support for refusing to join in the invasion of Iraq are only some of the many differences between Canada’s approach to these issues and those of the US government.

What John Ralston Saul reminds us, though, in his important book Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the end of the Twentieth Century (1997), is that one of the most significant philosophical differences between the two nations lies in each country’s historical roots. In part because the land is so vast, mostly inhospitable, and impossible to conquer, the French colonizers understood early on that survival was only possible by cooperating with the Native peoples. Then, later, when the English took over from the French, rather than trying to assimilate the French inhabitants, they let them keep their language and religion. From the beginning, then, the early rulers of Canada recognized that the monolithic model of the nation-state (one language, one culture, one people) was impossible to achieve there. From the earliest days of Canadian democracy, the wielding of political power has always been about striking a balance of understanding between the French and the English.

Understanding each other

Although Canada and the United States are tightly linked by history, geography, and economics, it’s fair to say that most Canadians know far more about the United States than most Americans know about Canada. In part, this has to do with the fact that although the United States is smaller geographically it has roughly ten times the population of Canada. More importantly, while Canada’s population in primarily concentrated along its southern border, the population of the US is spread more widely throughout every region of the country.  Thus, while the proximity and influence of its powerful neighbor is impossible for Canadians to ignore, Canada does not play an equivalent role in the day-to-day thoughts of Americans. During the height of the Vietnam War, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau remarked that “Living next to the United States is a little like sleeping with an elephant. You always wonder if they will roll over on you.” The mouse, of course, always needs to pay close attention to the elephant, but the opposite is never true.

If Americans are, as J. Bartlett Brebner once put it, ” benevolently ignorant about Canada,” they are also unaware of just how “malevolently well informed” Canadians can be about the United States. As Margaret Atwood wrote in a 1986 piece written for the American magazine The Nation, the world’s longest undefended border between Canada and the US might be better described as the world’s “longest undefended one-way mirror.”  “The Canadians looking through this mirror,” Atwood suggests, “behave the way people on the hidden side of such mirrors usually do: they observe, analyze, ponder, snoop and wonder what all the activity on the other side means in decipherable human terms. [. . .] The Americans, bless their innocent little hearts are rarely even aware that they are even being watched, much less by the Canadians” (332).

Despite Canadians’ occasional bitterness about being ignored by their far more powerful and influential neighbor, it is safe to say that the two countries, remain excellent friends and strong allies.  Canada and the United States have many things, including hockey, that bring at least some of their citizens together on a regular basis. The recent 2010 Olympics in Vancouver also brought a renewed attention to Canada on the part of Americans.  Nowhere was this better demonstrated during the Olympics than in the remarkable piece Tom Brokaw did for NBC news about the USA’s northern neighbor.

Canada’s national literatures

The fact that the dominant paradigm of Canadian history and politics has been one that seeks to accommodate rather than eliminate heterogeneity has important ramifications on the shape of Canadian literary history, both institutionally and thematically. The existence of two main language groups in Canadian society means that Canada also has two virtually independent national literatures. Writers and readers in English Canada rarely read work originally written in French and vice-versa. Each of these “national” literatures, then, has developed on its own, with little knowledge of what is going on in Canada’s other primary language community. English-Canadian literature, rather than taking inspiration from the literature of French Canada has traditionally looked to England and the United States for its literary models, and Quebec has, though to a much lesser degree, seen French literature from France as one of the standards to which to aspire. On a thematic level, there is certainly a strong current in the history of the literatures of Canada that revolves around the search for a national identity.

While there are a number of international successes from both the English and French literatures of Canada in the first part of the twentieth century, both of these literatures really came into their own in the 1960s. In the years since, many important, world-class writers have emerged from Canada. The works of writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Michel Tremblay, Anne Hébert, Carol Shields, and Mordecai Richler have met great international acclaim over the last 40 years and today many of Canada’s younger writers like Yann Martel, Lisa Moore, Joseph Boyden, and Eden Robinson are receiving significant attention outside of Canada.

Want more information about Canada? A good starting place is the Government of Canada’s About Canada page.



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