Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Colonial Daydreams

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Over on Globe Books, Cormorant Books owner and publisher Marc Côté (the Globe erroneously leaves off the circumflex in his name) offers some very passionate, astute and sobering thoughts on why the average Canadian will buy an American or British novel long before they’ll buy a Canadian one.

Writes Côté:

The obstacle Canadian publishers must overcome in their own markets isn't Indigo Books, or Costco, or amazon.ca, or any of the large retailers that account for probably 75 per cent of the book market. It isn't the staggering geography, the two official languages, the small population or the millions of immigrants. It's the simple fact that our English-language media is dominated by U.S. and British culture. ... This cultural colonialism is so pervasive as to seem normal.

He goes on to make a pretty solid argument about why Canadian publishers need financial assistance from the government.

...the Canadian book market is not dominated by Canadians but by [foreign-owned] publishers that benefited from the military and naval power of the British Empire and the protectionism of the United States in the 19th century. Canada did not conquer other parts of the world and install education systems identical to "back home." We were the colony.

The article is well worth reading for anyone who has ever wondered why they have such a strong sense of the narrative mythologies of the USA and UK, but have little or no sense of any Canadian narrative mythology.

This is something I’ve spend a lot of time pondering over the years, but it was not until earlier this year when I encountered Robert Bringhurst’s volume The Surface of Meaning, which is a history of books and book design in Canada, that I began to really understand the reason why the Canadian identity is so elusive.

I’ve known for quite some time that one reason the Canadian identity remains obscure is that Canada does not have a founding narrative mythology. That is, we have no founding stories. We are not a nation that was forged in rebellion and revolution, as was the USA, or that traces its ancestry back aeons to legends steeped in magic and tradition, as is Britain. I’m embarrassed to say, but if I was travelling in another country, and someone were to ask me to tell them the story of how Canada was founded, I would be hard pressed to come up with a very interesting answer.

Then I encountered this line in Bringhurst’s book:

“...the country went without a national library until 1953.”

That kind of sealed the deal for me. If a national library is a repository of a nation’s collective stories, how much narrative mythology could Canada have actually accumulated if it didn’t feel the need to collect its stories together until 460 years after Italian-born explorer Giovanni Caboto (aka John Cabot), under the patronage of Henry VII of England, pushed the “play” button on what would eventually become Canada by landing on the Atlantic coast (Labrador, it is believed) in 1497?

Surely something happened in all that time. Did no one think to write it down? I’m being facetious, of course, but the question remains: Where are the great works of fiction that tell of the formation of this great land?

My own feeling is that mythologies are forged in the crucible of conflict. I think that because Canada did not have a separate identity to fight for, because it was essentially born out of squabbling and wars between the British, French and Americans over (Native) land, there were no moments in which heroic figures rose from the ashes to represent triumphant Canadian values. There were battles, treaties were signed, borders were establish, but all along we remained a colony. Our story became an extension of those British, French and American stories.

This is, I think, why great landscape painters like the Group of Seven and Tom Thompson, as well as Emily Carr, A.J. Casson, and David Milne, have become so integral to the Canadian identity. We may not have found our grand tales to tell about Canadian heroes because we were “just” a colony, but there has always been the land. The land, I think, has filled the void in our collective imagination left by our absent heroes. It was, and is, our story. Indeed, if I was travelling in a foreign nation and someone asked me about Canada, I would happily point to landscape paintings by such artists and say, “That’s Canada. That’s not just what it looks and feels like, but that’s the mythology of Canada. The land itself. We have a visual and geographic mythology, not a narrative one. The land is our hero.”

I wonder if it is too late to have a literary equivalent.

4 comments

@calisaurus - It would be a great class. I'd love it if we could build up a mythical sense of our nation. Some of those figures you mention have been heroic, but I still don't think we have (m)any heroes of the larger-than-life variety here. The people you mention were all great figures, but I don't have the sense that they have risen above themselves to become part of the common consciousness and identity of Canada.

@sinckerzmom - Terry Fox is the sort of figure who may well be on his way to becoming mythological, IMHO. From all that I can tell, he was just an average guy who got it into his mind to do something amazing. He wasn't doing it for himself and his actions have come to represent something that is pretty humbling when you look at it. That's why I don't think the answer is that we're too nice. In fact, I think a significant part of the Canadian identity is sacrifice. Don't ask why, because I don't know. But I think that one of the reasons Fox resonates so strongly with Canadian's is that we look at him and say, "If only I could be so brave and selfless."

That's an interesting site, btw. Many great figures. (And one or two I'd argue strongly against.)

Actually, it just occurred to me that "Canadian mythology" would be a great class for Universities... and they certainly would need textbooks on the subject! Pearson... Oxford... are you listening?

There are many Canadian heroes - just think of June Callwood, Elijah Harper, Lester Pearson, Nellie McClung, Roger Obata... etc. I think the problem comes from the smaller Canadian market. We can assume that a book about Canada will sell the majority of its copies in Canada - and Canada has a far smaller population than the US or the UK, thus publishers are less willing to take risks on these sort of books - because it's a huge financial risk. If people just made books for the sake of reading, instead of for necessary profits, I think you would see a lot more books on Canadian mythology.

Wow! I have been sitting here for 15 minutes trying to think of a Canadian hero - from a historical perspective. All I could come up with was Terry Fox, and that is way too recent. So I thought, hey, "google"!

Not much help. Google the term "Canadian hero" and the best result you get is this site: http://www.canada-heros.com/in.... Which is interesting in that I didn't know a bunch of the people listed.

I think you have a real point, we are truly missing a Canadian narrative. Are we just too nice?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group.

Go to Shaun Smith ’s Author Page