CanLit’s Colonial Habit

Literature in the age of Reconciliation and ‘peak’ diversity

Many years ago, I was mistaken for a literary Jew. My first book, Raymond and Hannah, had just been published—a novel-in-emails about a long-distance relationship between a graduate student in Toronto and a yeshiva student in Jerusalem—and I had been invited to participate in a Jewish literary festival in Vancouver. Some moments in a writer’s life can be confusing; others are fraught and grueling. The part where somebody flies you to another city and puts you up in a hotel and buys you meals and talks to you about your work isn’t. You go. I went.

I was on a panel about “the future of Jewish fiction in Canada.” It’s a testament to my youthful arrogance that I found it perfectly natural the organizers of a Jewish literary festival would want my perspective. I mean, who wouldn’t? Then again, the main character in my book was Jewish, I had just returned from a group tour of Israel with other writers (not of all of whom were Jewish) where I had met all the major writers there, and I was also a regular book reviewer for the Forward, the Jewish paper in New York. Their confusion was natural, and so was mine.

The evening was typical. I met the organizer and my fellow panelists at a midlist restaurant, the best that could be justified on the expense account of a charity; over mediocre pasta and wine, we flattered one another and discussed distant mutual friends and close mutual books. Then we went to some room in some university where a small crowd of literary devotees joined us to worship the abstruse little cult of literary fiction in which we were minor priestly functionaries. I’m not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that everyone was operating under the assumption that I was Jewish. I think it was the first time somebody used a Yiddishism I had never heard before. Anyway, it was clear by the end of the panel, when the organizer, my host, swept a hand across our small group and declared, “Meet the young Jewish writers of Canada.”

I wonder now what I should have done at this point. Should I have stood up, in the middle of the applause, raised my hand and clarified? “Sorry, everybody, I’m not Jewish.” That would have called out for an explanation, wouldn’t it? “Sorry everybody, though I’m not Jewish, I am married to a Jewish woman and I have Jewish children, and I’ve travelled in the Middle East and read a great number of Jewish writers, and A.M. Klein and Leonard Cohen matter a great deal to me.” That probably would only have muddied the matter. Maybe I should have stood up and told the whole story: “Sorry, everybody, I’m not Jewish. I never said I was Jewish. I am kind of Jew-ish, if you know what I mean, but I would never claim to be Jewish, especially since Judaism contains a series of mechanisms that would allow me to convert to Judaism and call myself a Jew straight out, so in fact my real identity might well be found in my refusal to become Jewish even though I am Jew-ish.”

I did the good Canadian thing, instead, and smiled and kept my mouth shut.

“For the past couple of years, something called ‘the appropriation debate’ has been raging in Canada,” Margaret Atwood said, while giving the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University, 26 years ago. She traced the debate a lot farther back, to Toronto’s Sunday Globe of May 22, 1892, in which E. Pauline Johnson wrote a long essay on “The Indian girl in modern fiction”—a critique of the figuration of the “Indian maiden” who dies for love of a white man. So the debates that have been raging lately in Canadian literature are not exactly new. They have taken on a new force and a new rage, however. The literary powers that be, hilariously negligible as they are, are in the middle of a grand and quintessentially Canadian upheaval. The rash of recent scandals in CanLit—Joseph Boyden, the Hal Niedzviecki editorial and subsequent defences, the Walrus fiction editor kerfuffle—possess a singular defining feature that distinguishes them from the literary scandals of any other country: Specific works of literature are almost never discussed. No one really cares whether the materials under discussion are any good. The questions that matter are who gets to write and under what terms. The scandals move forward through op-eds, not novels. The battles are about arts administration before they are about art. Canadian literature will eventually be nothing but memos on the subject of Canadian literature.

The Canada Council for the Arts has recently taken an explicit stance “opposing appropriation,” which was outlined in statements by director and CEO Simon Brault as well as Steven Loft, the director of its Indigenous program. They spoke solely about the appropriation of Indigenous culture and, as one might expect of an arts funding body, they mostly offered bland bromides, in this case about treaty obligations and traditional lands. They were light on specifics, mentioning not one single example of work that might be rejected for the act of appropriation. The purpose of their statement, and the accompanying op-eds they wrote in its defence, was to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), but given the difficulty of articulating a clear position on an idea as complicated as cultural appropriation, the effect was mainly to demonstrate how firmly they stand on the right side of history: “We are all agents of either stasis or change. For every act of political, social or cultural agency that challenges the status quo, there will always be opposing forces fuelled by colonial entrenchment/privilege, oppositional paranoia or, simply, inertia.” Their stated aim, to engage Canadian culture with the process of truth and reconciliation, is necessary and worthwhile to be sure. But the vagueness is terminal. They offer no larger plan, leaving judgment to the individual assessment committees, and to the artists, to whom it falls to grapple with the real questions. What would such a plan look like anyway? How would they even begin? Would they cross-reference the ethnicity of the artists with the ethnic specificity of the work of art in question to ensure they were not in conflict? How would they establish that a writer is white or Indigenous? Would they require formal documentation? Would they require testimonials from the community? How would they define cultural elements as belonging to one ethnic group over another? These are not rhetorical questions. They matter to the larger cultural appropriation debate, not just the specific question of Canada’s tortured relationship to Indigenous culture.

Perhaps because the conversation on cultural appropriation is so light on specifics, it frequently fails to resemble a conversation at all. A few months ago, Aaron Mills, a scholar and member of the Bear Clan Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation, volunteered:

To invite Jonathan Kay, Steve Ladurantaye, Anne Marie Owens, Andrew Coyne, Elizabeth Renzetti—and anybody else who argues in favour of opening cultural appropriation to debate—to sit with the elders at Turtle Lodge at some point this summer at a date that will work with most of us…. And if you come to our house, we will treat you with respect.

The headline that appeared in the Globe and Mail describing this sensible and generous offer? “Apologies over cultural appropriation debate ‘insufficient’: Indigenous scholar.” What could show more completely the reduction of the whole debate to points-scoring? Mills’ offer could only be taken, even by the piece’s headline writer, as a kind of rhetorical ploy. And Mills is so right: The framework for the debate on cultural appropriation—social media, op-ed polemics, TV segments—is inadequate. The shallowness of the format is inimical to the empathy, the complexity, needed to pursue the truth. The debate has been designed to fail, literally: The purpose of the new media is to provoke impotent outrage, the least demanding route to attention. Without a doubt, Turtle Lodge would have been infinitely superior to Twitter as a venue.

The Canadian literary scene was intrinsically vulnerable to media that promote empty piety anyway. Writing in Canada is a goody two-shoes profession, a virtuous activity that rewards sanctimony. Sanctimony creates a feeling of deep security, both through intellectual certainty and by creating an intellectual community, but it relies on an inherent instability. The ground of virtue is always shifting. The meaning of the phrase “cultural appropriation” itself is highly variable. Some definitions are as vague as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.” A commonly cited definition of cultural appropriation comes from American legal scholar Susan Scafidi’s Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law:

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a ​minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

Scafidi’s definition is a starting place, but for many who use the word, Scafidi is not broad enough. The lawyer and broadcaster Supriya Dwivedi once told me that “you know it when you see it.”

The phrase cultural appropriation has a huge variety of meanings; it has been used to describe Beyoncé wearing a sari, and ivory hunters burning sacred Kongolese icons. At times it can mean a disrespectful ventriloquism—white people wearing dreadlocks or putting on Indigenous headdresses at a music festival after dropping E, taking on attributes of other cultures as a disingenuous escape from their own. At other times, it serves as a metonymy for the colonial project as a whole—simply any cultural exchange in which the ethnic groups in question exist or have existed with a power imbalance. Occasionally, the semantic variability of the term leads to absurdities. The University of Ottawa cancelled yoga classes because somebody felt they were “cultural appropriation” even though the worldwide spread of yoga was very much a long-term soft-power project of the Indian government.

But the vagueness of the term can be diminishing as well—it puts truly horrific acts in the same category as some kid wearing a poorly thought-through Halloween costume. The U.K.-based fashion label KTZ used a Nunavut shaman’s sacred garment whose design had come to him in the middle of a dream of drowning, and used it without attribution or payment. As I write this, a woman in England is selling the 1885 medicine bag of a Métis chief from Batoche on eBay. The description literally reads that the artifact was “found on grave.” The vagueness of “cultural appropriation” gives license to a lazy and horrifying glibness, too, horrifying even if unintentional—imagine if you were to experience the desecration of the vandalism of the pictographs of Matinenda Provincial Park and then hear the most powerful journalists in the country describe their desire to set up a prize to celebrate it.

The Scafidi definition implicitly creates a spectrum. At one extreme there is cross-cultural influence, like Picasso being inspired by African sculptures, on the other extreme mockery and degradation, like minstrel blackface. Both legitimately could qualify as “cultural appropriation” by Scafidi’s definition. The question becomes where to draw the line between what you will accept and what you won’t. That question is unanswerable—or to be more accurate, every answer is as personal as taste: “You know it when you see it.” But any answer avoids the more substantial problem of the spectrum itself, which conflates criminal acts with immoral ones with tasteless ones with syncretic art of any kind. And the term is so loose that its definition could easily shift again.

The results of a debate fought in terrible formats on poorly defined terms have been predictably empty. A few white men have lost their jobs, or been transferred to make it look like they lost their jobs, because people, or institutions, accept that outcome as a marker of progress; it tends to dampen the Twitter rage anyway. The semantic fluidity of the phrase means that the conversations Canadians need to have are not happening: Both sides of the debate are simply talking past one another. They are talking about different things even though they are both using the phrase “cultural appropriation.” The question matters much more than some ctrl-left versus alt-right flame war. Its political consequences could not be larger for Canada: How are we to approach reconciliation? What is the future of multiculturalism? What does decolonization look like? I will not concede that the cultural questions are less important. They will tell us whether we are a meaningful country.

No one should so much as write a poem in this country, or draw, or act, or teach a class in philosophy, without reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report of 2015. It should be required reading for any class that purports to teach Canadian culture in any form. It should be required reading for any program that wants to teach Canadians how to practice art. It is a blueprint to our collective pathology. It is a big first therapy session.

To start with the most obvious point contained in the report: We are making culture in a country that we took by cultural genocide. By destroying family structure and cultural practices and religions, the government and churches, over multiple generations, annihilated Indigenous Canadian ways of life. Here is the father of our country, Sir John A. Macdonald:

When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed on myself, as head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.

Putting aside, for a moment, the sheer cruelty of the ideas conveyed, note the rather complicated notions of language and identity the passage contains. It would not have been sufficient to produce “a savage who can read and write,” that is, an Indigenous person given the tools to move through modernity.  It is a matter of using language to strip away Indigenousness itself. The foundation of our culture was the pulverization of distinction, even on the level of language.

You can read the TRC report for yourself. It is a very detailed work, which reads like an extensive, elaborate horror story, and I won’t pretend its significance can be unpacked in a single essay. It explains too much, too well. One essential insight is that it wasn’t criminals who devastated the First Nations. It was priests and teachers and the RCMP and scientists. The virtuous are the scum here. The point of Canadian colonial culture was the extraction and exportation of value, and the destruction of originality. The drive of Canadian colonialism was, first, to pretend that Indigenous people did not exist, and second that, if they existed, they should be made British. Therefore, the best of Canada stole children and starved whole tribes.

The grand evils dribbled down to minor humiliations, as in other countries. I have always wondered why Canadians care so little for their history, why an event like the War of 1812—rich with fascinating characters and heroic incident—should be more or less completely forgotten. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report explains without explaining: When your country is based on taking away First Nations’ history from them, and replacing it with a history from a country thousands of miles away, why wouldn’t you throw out your own history too? The cliché of Canadian art is that it is obsessed with landscape. The TRC report reveals the terrifying why: Canadian landscapes are visions of country with no people.

He suspects that something has happened, a law
been passed, a nightmare ordered. Set apart,
he finds himself, with special haircut and dress,
as on a reservation.

So A.M. Klein described the existence of the Canadian writer in “The Portrait of the Poet as Landscape.” Why is our culture so derivative? Why are we so unoriginal? The answer is in the country’s foundational annihilation.

This cultural dilemma may seem small, negligible—but it emerges from the deep matrices of our oldest power structures. The question we should be asking is different from the one debated: Why is there so little cultural appropriation of Indigenous cultural forms in this country? Needless to say, I am not promoting the idea of cultural appropriation, since the phrase can mean so much that I find so loathsome. But what distinguishes Canada as a colonial force is how little it found worthwhile in the cultures it conquered. Mughul architecture in India is full of lotus and prayer lamp motifs adopted from Hindu iconography. The Romans borrowed hugely from the Greeks. The Americans brutally exploited Africans but all American culture that is distinctly American is a fusion of European and African-American cultural modes. Why did Canadian settlers take so little from the multifarious and rich Indigenous cultures they encountered?

Indigenous writing is in the middle of its own renaissance, with and without white people. But in non-Indigenous Canadian literature, examples of Indigenous characters and motifs are exceedingly rare: I Heard the Owl Call My Name, bits from several of Mordecai Richler’s novels, some choice passages in Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, Rudy Wiebe’s Big Bear, Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian, Robert Bringhurst’s translations from the Haida. A very few works in a very large corpus. André Alexis in his Globe and Mail piece on cultural appropriation acknowledged, honestly I thought, his own ignorance: “The culture of the people who first named the land isn’t taught to me. I don’t know their religions. I wish I did know them. I wish I had been taught them.” The overwhelming majority of Canadian writers and artists are simply too ignorant of Indigenous cultures to steal from them. America was based on the exploitation of African-American bodies and souls—that exploitation is reflected in their art. Canada was based on conscious exclusion of Indigenous bodies and voices—we don’t appropriate; we ignore and destroy.

The rare examples you can find of Indigenous people in Canadian literature serve mainly as mystical wilderness negotiators. In Marian Engel’s Bear, a First Nations elder named Lucy Leroy teaches the white woman how to fuck a bear. In the writings of white Canadians, First Nations are mostly half people, half the North, the gas station you stop at on your drive to the cosmic encounter at the cottage. It cannot simply be a coincidence that some of the worst writing by non-Indigenous writers in this country has involved Indigenous characters. Arguably the worst line, almost certainly the worst sex scene in Canadian literature, belongs to the Métis lover Jules Tonnerre from Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners—“Ride my stallion, Morag.”1

But mostly Indigenous people are simply not there, removed, set aside. Atwood took the part of Susanna Moodie, the prim settler. Alice Munro’s vast study of Canadian life does not contain, so far as I can remember or reckon, a single Indigenous character. Michael Ondaatje, one of the broadest and most successful cultural borrowers of all time—effortlessly moving between Sri Lanka, early 20th century New Orleans, an uncomfortable Chinese restaurant in Camrose—never touched Indigenous material, and had to leave Canada, at least intellectually, to write his masterpieces Coming Through Slaughter and Billy the Kid. The great CanLit revolution saw the importation of global literary forms, not the encounter with an Indigenous reality. The cultures Canadian writers of the 1960s were imitating were American and British. They were trying to sound like Sylvia Plath and John Berger.

There is one species of cultural appropriation unique to mainstream Canada’s relationship to Indigenous culture, however. Major Canadian artists have a habit of becoming Indigenous—similar transformations occur in other countries but with nowhere the near the same success or number. In the careers of Black Wolf, and Grey Owl, and Joseph Boyden,2 the dense mass of Canada’s denial of Indigenous reality folds in upon itself, like a great star becoming a black hole. Archibald Belaney, the English settler who claimed to be Ojibwa Grey Owl, was the world’s greatest catfisher before social media existed. But even by the 1930s, when his career blossomed, he belonged to an ancient tradition. The coureurs de bois became “hommes du nord,” their own kind of nobility, by reproducing Indigenous ceremonies as they traveled up the rivers. This is a very profound, very substantial Canadian dream—to become something different from the people of the countries they abandoned, to belong here for real. But the becoming of Grey Owl also reveals the heart of the pathology: The mainstream of Canadian life is so totally incapable of recognizing Indigenous existence, requires so completely their obliteration, that the only way to represent First Nations is by pretending to be them. “Many white Canadians claim, as a matter of pride, some ‘Indian blood’,” Atwood wrote in her essay on the “Grey Owl syndrome,”  “perhaps to convince themselves that the land they live in is the one they ‘ought’ to be living in.”

Canadians speak of reconciliation as if it were a process that is well under way. It isn’t. There can be no reconciliation without the truth; we are not even remotely close to the truth. The mainstream vision of history in this country—and remember that English Canadians are so ahistorical in outlook that they barely remember their own military heroes—is so distorted that it can barely imagine the Indigenous other at all. There is a quote from Cohen’s Beautiful Losers: “The English did to us what we did to the Indians, and the Americans did to the English what the English did to us. I demand revenge for everyone,” says F., the French-Canadian gay character. This is the fundamental fraud of CanLit’s victimology, that we are all just survivors here. The settlers imagine that they participate in the Indigenous experience by lasting a winter. Susanna Moodie praised the Indigenous people she encountered. “Often I have grieved that people with such generous impulses should be degraded and corrupted by civilized men; that a mysterious destiny involves and hangs over them, pressing them back into the wilderness, and slowly and surely sweeping them from the earth.” She is wilfully, necessarily blind to her own role in the “mysterious destiny” of the First Nations.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report is a work of art criticism as much as a document of political activism. There is a gaping wound at the heart of our culture that we cannot stand to look at. By virtue or by crime, we must turn away.

Canadian multiculturalism, or its literature anyway, is simultaneously reaching a crisis also given the name of “cultural appropriation.” We live in increasingly diverse cities—their diversity is their principal attractive feature—and our literature has aggressively promoted diversity for 30 years or more. But again the lack of cultural appropriation is the distinguishing feature of the literature that has resulted.

Other than a few rare exceptions—Ondaatje being the most glaring—Canadian literature is a highly diverse collection of writers producing novels and stories that would have been completely suitable, in style and characterization and plot, to the market of 1950s England. Literary diversity is a species of intra-exoticism. Canadian multiculturalism, let’s remember, was invented, not out of any sense of responsibility to the world or our love for foreigners or because we’re good people, but as a counter to ethnic nationalism in Quebec and a chipper embrace of the globalization that was going to be shoved down our throats anyway.

According to the most recent national survey, Canada is 78 percent white, roughly the same as England and Wales; America is 61 percent white. And yet Canada insists on defining itself by its diversity. It is the only country in the world where the more patriotic a person is, the more that person believes in multiculturalism. From thirty thousand feet in the air, what Canada is is the whitest country in the Americas. We are a not-very-diverse country that celebrates diversity as if it were our essence. Campaigns for diversity always claim that they are making their institutions “look like Canada.” Canada, outside of the few neighbourhoods where the media producers happen to live, looks pretty damn pasty.

The literature of Canadian diversity is, in many ways, a literature of blood and soil. Boyden, ironically enough, has been clearest on this point: “I truly believe in something called ‘blood memory’,” he declared at a panel in Toronto. Mostly Canadians write—with the extreme rarity of a book like Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, with its overlapping white and black and Asian characters—about their own ancestors. If you’re Portuguese-Canadian, you don’t write about Jamaican-Canadians, even if you’ve married one and have little Jamaican-Portuguese-Canadian babies. You write about old Portuguese-Canadians, preferably dead, for Anglo-Canadian women, the people who buy books in this country.

Politically, multiculturalism remains popular because it works and it makes us feel good about ourselves. How else could we tell Quebecers that their desire for their own country is racist? And Canadian literature follows, as always, in the wake of the country’s least controversial politics. Sanctimony is the means and the end. Canadian literary institutions have scoured the country for diversity while the market remains overwhelmingly white—the intrusion of demographic reality. In this light, the Boyden story reveals its economic substance. You can say what you like about the fluidity of identity or the traditions of adoption in First Nations culture, but if I were a young Cree writer considering writing historical fiction, I’d be pissed. The sale of diversity has diminishing returns. If somebody takes a slot, that slot is taken. And that’s not just for Indigenous voices: If you’re a young Mennonite writer, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars, move straight to L.A. Miriam Toews has already written the novels, for a generation or two at least. Canadians have probably had their fill of that flavour for a while.

Joseph Boyden is both an excellent writer and an excellent man, a highly skilled storyteller who has fought intensely for Indigenous rights, but he has not been selling his excellence. He has been selling his identity, or an identity. To be more accurate, the identity called Joseph Boyden is what Canada has been buying. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that my first novel would never have been published if it didn’t have Jewish characters. The problem with having a national literature that is a moral beauty pageant is that if you want to find out if you’re any good you have to leave the country.

Multicultural literature is reaching an impasse, an impasse of exhaustion. This already happened with Canadian regionalism, which dominated the market and the administrations for a while: You can’t make a living as a Cape Breton writer anymore, or not for long anyway. Start with The Birth House but go to The Witches of New York. Naturally it is writers of colour who have noticed the multicultural exhaustion first. In his new book Curry, Naben Ruthnum describes a genre of novels about delicious-but-smothering homelands written in the decadent-but-alienating west, a genre with which he has little familiarity even though it limits the possibilities of his career.

I asked a close relative if she had any recommendations for – as I put it in the email – “super-typical ‘I miss the homeland’ novels you’ve read by South Asian authors in the past few years.” She replied, “Oh God, I avoid those like the plague. My white friends seem to enjoy them.

Ruthnum calls such novels currybooks, a fine phrase. The market for currybooks is simply a fact of life:

What they’re interested in up here in Canada, it seems – at least, it can seem when you’re sending that email to a journal or an agent or a publisher – has a lot to do with how you write about where you ultimately came from, and not about what you write about as a brown Westerner with a collection of different interests and experiences.

Ruthnum, raised in Kelowna, has a deeper connection to Return of the Jedi than to Hindu rituals, and the work with which he identifies most directly is Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, written, naturally, by two white people. Ruthnum finds himself in an impossible position—he is supposed to have a home where he doesn’t, in two places. In the end, he innovates an Antonioni-like solution to his identity stalemate, taking on the white-sounding pseudonym Nathan Ripley for thrillers, and his own name for more literary work. After Curry by Naben Ruthnum, Nathan Ripley published Find You in the Dark.

A whole generation of post-diversity writers is facing a similar impasse to Ruthnum’s. Jen Sookfong Lee wrote in the Humber Literary Review about an editor who expressed disappointment that her newest manuscript did not “build on [her] existing audience.” Asked why, the editor admitted it was because it was not about the Chinese-Canadian experience. Sookfong Lee says she was so discouraged she put the novel away; it remains unpublished. In Pasha Malla’s Fugue States, a thirty-something writer named Ash Dhar finds himself trying not to write exactly the kind of novel that Fugue States is—a journey of self-discovery by way of a return to a homeland. Following the publication of the book, Malla told an interviewer: “Writers of colour are expected to explain themselves to a larger audience. I was not comfortable participating in that mechanism,” awkwardly explaining himself, as a writer of colour, to a larger audience, through an uncomfortable mechanism. What are you going to do? Markets have a tendency to win.

Sarmishta Subramanian, editor in chief of this magazine, articulated the same crisis in an article published a few months ago in the teeth of the cultural appropriation flame wars:

The kind of cultural diversity that emerges from this approach often seems stilted to me, weighed down by its own colourless virtue.” Canadian drama and sitcoms are a paragon of diversity-checklist casting, often accompanied by diversity-checklist musical score…A non-white journalist once told me that at one point in her career she could not settle into the right job producing or editing at the network, but that people inexplicably kept trying to nudge her into on-air work even though she wasn’t interested. Eventually she understood: her name was a valuable commodity on air—more than her ideas off the air, though the latter would shape content just as much, if not more. That is checklist diversity in action.

The white market wants diversity, therefore the white market determines the limits and values of diversity. Multiculturalism, and the writers who have to make a living inside it, are facing an impossible choice. If you sell your ethnicity, that is what you are selling. But if you deny your history, how can you be yourself? Writers, from anywhere, don’t want to be loved for the village their grandfather came from. We want to be adored because we are just so unspeakably wonderful in ourselves.

Cultural appropriation implies a white-centric worldview. As I write, one of the most popular films in China is the Hindi film Dangal; nobody in China is worrying about whether it is appropriate for them to enjoy an Indian film, or whether they are enjoying it authentically. Their directors and producers are worried about why the Indian culture industry is so much stronger than their own. A cultural appropriation debate is meaningless even in a post-imperial pastiche-heavy culture like Japan’s. The whitewashing of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell did not prevent the movie from becoming wildly popular and critically successful there, while here and in America it was decried for its erasure of Japanese ethnicity. Appropriation as an idea assumes that western culture is the only culture with any power, which is its own kind of colonial assumption, and also increasingly inaccurate.

The ideal of multiculturalism was spelled out in Section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation of and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” In America, Jewish grandchildren call their grandparents granddad and grandma. In Canada, more often than not they are bubbe and zadie. Multiculturalism, as a policy, has been deliberately empty of meaning, which is proper. Laws should not tell us how to feel. Nonetheless Section 27 does offer a vision: Americans want a more perfect union. We dream of a country where every difference is respected. This sounds lovely. It even sounds sensible. But the Canadian system can be, in its own way, as coercive as the American. They say, you should become American. We say, you should stay what you were. One forces you out. The other keeps you in.

Canada in 2017 is riding high. We are the most popular country in the world, the most educated, the most open. Our economy is the strongest in the developed world. And it is exactly now, at the moment of triumph, that the shadows are lengthening and darkening.

After 36 years of multiculturalism as official policy, Canadians are starting to realize that we have very little idea what multiculturalism means. We have stumbled into a completely radical vision of social organization. There has never been, in the history of the world, a multicultural society that was not an empire. This is obviously true for the great cosmopolitan centres of the 19th and 20th centuries—London, Paris, New York. But it was also true for the great caliphates which produced such intense cultural mixing under the banner of Islam. The Roman Empire brought half the world together, but under subservience to Rome. The point of empire is to define the peripheries by the permission of the centre. Canada’s multiculturalism is accidentally radical, at least in conception: It imagines nothing but periphery, difference without centre.

Earlier this year, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould made the following declaration to the Assembly of First Nations:

As much as I would tomorrow like to cast into the fire of history the Indian Act so that the Nations can be reborn in its ashes—this is not a practical option—which is why simplistic approaches, such as adopting the UNDRIP as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a political distraction to undertaking the hard work required to actually implement it.

To summarize: adopting the nation-to-nation relationship is a distraction from its implementation. What? The justice minister has been raised exactly to this moment, child of a chief, a former chief herself, as educated as it is possible to be, as dedicated as it is possible to be, given as much power over the law as anyone in the country. Even she cannot get rid of even the Indian Act, and the Indian Act is not a document that an enlightened and decent country can possess as law. That is how far we have to go. The phrase “nation to nation” contains our best hope, but its meaning remains equivocal.

So let us take a deep breath and recognize that, if we are to plunge forward into multiculture and into truth and reconciliation, we are attempting a truly radical political and cultural creation. It won’t be easy. It is not simple. There is no precedent. Decolonization will mean nation-to-nation relationships with 618 First Nations; it will mean negotiating a nation-to-nation relationship with and within a French-speaking nation that is trying to preserve its own heritage in the face of globalization. And it will mean negotiating with the countless immigrant groups who bring their own cultures with them. Meanwhile our entire legal and political order is built on the edifice of the Crown. It is probably worth remembering in the recriminations and the loathing and the self-righteousness and the outrage battles that are to come, that there is at least one source for hope. We have no other way forward. The French-Canadians have wanted a new arrangement for generations. The Indigenous communities are ready. And I believe, broadly speaking, English-Canadians are getting there too. Consider the following statement about the residential schools made in the House of Commons:

The burden of this experience has been on [Indigenous people’s] shoulders for far too long.  The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever prevail again. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey. The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.

It was Stephen Harper who uttered these words, who took the first national step on the route to reconciliation. There is no need, at least at this point, to make the task of reconciliation a Liberal-against-Conservative issue. We should aspire, on all sides, to prevent it from becoming a political football. It is too important. And, besides, Liberals are now failing where Conservatives have failed before, and I do not imagine the NDP would fare any better. “The burden is properly ours”—“ours” meaning all non-Indigenous Canadians. The failure is ours, all of ours.

Meanwhile, dreaming, failing, we go on living and writing. Cultural appropriation as an idea, as a tool for unpacking the interchange of meanings in Canada, is immensely too crude for the reality we face. But the debate around cultural appropriation has been revelatory. The debate is too vital for us to devote our energies to creating strawmen and burning them. A retreat into the past, into antique colonial modes, would be a disaster.

As for the future of who we are, the truth is that we don’t know yet. We don’t know the we who is going to emerge. It is true that there is no novel without inhabiting other people’s bodies and souls—other, different people from other, different places and other, different times. The genius of Dickens was that he could make you believe he was in the heart of every kid in a whole city. The genius of Joyce was that he could inhabit the voice of the whole world, and his embrace revealed the subterranean connections underlying common humanity. He could inhabit a dog eating its own sick. But why should we try to be Dickens or Joyce? We have all been raised to be good little literature-lovers, without asking what it is we love. Maybe there shouldn’t be novels anymore. Maybe there should be something else, something new. Maybe it will appear here.

I should probably confess that, by some definitions anyway, I have long been a cultural appropriator. My first book was Jewish enough to confuse Jews, remember. My second book, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, was an homage to the Onitsha market literature of Nigeria, among other things. Love and the Mess We’re In made orgasms out of Islamic calligraphy. I live in a globalized world, in multicultural cities, and I travel, and I read, and it was inevitable that I would encounter and love African and South American and Arabic writers, and use their work to become myself, as they had used others’ work to become themselves. I took what I found around me, which I loved, and I made of it some small thing of my own.

But openness to influence is only part of the story. True cosmopolitanism involves restraint, too. I think of a book I didn’t write. When I was a kid, I became very obsessed with the Wisakedjak stories of the Ojibwa. They are a kind of story cycle of a trickster as are found all over North America, but there was some part of me that loved the Wisakedjak stories more; they are more urbane; they involve a kind of grotesque physical comedy in a cosmic space that I admired—bloody ass-wiping on trees that results in certain species having red bark forever. But the best document I was able to find recording the Wisakedjak stories was literally from a geologist who recorded them in 1915 as an anthropological document for the Department of Mines. Memoir 71: Myths and Folk-lore of the Timiskaming Algonquin and Timagami Ojibwa. The book comes with a fold-out geological survey. That says it all.

Maybe it’s impossible to explain this to op-ed writers and the Twittersphere, but novelists must understand. I was not somehow oppressed into not writing that story. If I had written a story inspired by Wisakedjak, I would not have been punished by some imaginary army of politically correct enforcers. It wasn’t a question of taste, either. It was this: If I had written that story, what would I have been writing?

There was another way. I could have learned Ojibwa and found somebody who knew the oral tradition to tell it to me. When I did my PhD in English literature, the English department at the University of Toronto made me learn Old English basically so that I could read ten poems and a couple of histories. I could have learned Ojibwa and written something bizarre and unprecedented, but instead I wrote a bunch of mostly banal short stories for little literary journals.

The task of imagination is at hand. The time of risk is at hand. We don’t know what a multicultural culture looks like, and we don’t know what a nation-to-nation relationship looks like. All we know for certain so far is that, without both, we have no future. We will be living other people’s history.

Recently, I was having a Facebook conversation with one of my cousins. We were discussing the situation around the hydroelectric dam in Muskrat Falls (her mother, my aunt, is from Labrador) and she wrote me this: “Muskrat is my motherland.” I have been unable to stop thinking about this phrase. My cousin is Inuk and I am ashamed to belong to a country destroying her motherland. But I envied her for her motherland, too. I do not have a motherland. I have only my mother. I have my mother and my wife and kids and a small library.

I wander Toronto, city of the motherland-less. If Toronto were to disappear tomorrow, it would have left behind no cultural product that there is not a better example of elsewhere. Nobody really loves Toronto. Even the people who do love it love it the way you love the lasagna you grew up eating. “Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner,” Joan Didion wrote in her famous essay on Hawaii. “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” No one has ever loved Toronto that way. Maybe Toronto cannot be loved that way, because it is a place of only temporary belonging, because people come to Toronto not for meaning but for freedom from meaning. Maybe Toronto will never produce a single great masterpiece, just 50 decent pieces. Georgia O’Keeffe said about the Pedernal mountain in New Mexico: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me that if I painted it enough, I could have it.” Toronto is nobody’s private city, yet. Toronto wants to be admired for what it pretends to be, not loved for what it is.

Multiculturalism produces odd stories; I do not recognize them in the Canadian art I see or the Canadian books I read. I remember a friend of mine, who was then married to a Muslim-Canadian woman, now divorced, came into my house and automatically, without thinking or asking, moved my copy of the Koran to the top shelf. I was recently playing in a poker game, and a Ukrainian-Canadian guy who’d grown up in B.C. was talking to a Sikh-Canadian guy about his memories of Sikh temples when he was a kid. His father was a car salesman in town and the town had suddenly become Sikh. My friend had vivid childhood memories of receiving prasad, the religious offering that at Sikh temples is a sweet pudding of ghee, flour and honey, which he found utterly disgusting. He associated the taste of prasad with being dragged around a strangers’ world while his dad flattered and hustled. The Sikh-Canadian guy was laughing his head off at the story, although I’m not even sure I can call him Sikh-Canadian anymore. His wife—their marriage had been arranged—decided that the Catholic school system in their neighborhood was superior to the public system, so they had converted. His children are now… what? Should I call them Sikh Catholics? Does that make sense? There’s only one name for those children. They are Canadians.

Everyone who lives in Toronto knows that this is by no means an extraordinary story. Cultural flux is the norm here; it exists not just in violence and degradation. It infuses everyday life. Without the ability to move freely between cultures, even the most basic kind of description would be nearly impossible to execute in the multicultural cities of Canada. Alice Munro watched the women she grew up around, then she judged them and betrayed their confidences; they were all white. The women I grew up around were the daughters of Chinese Lutheran ministers, or Muslim nuclear technicians, or Korean bakers. If I cannot write about them, if I cannot judge them and betray their confidences, I have nothing to write about. If they are not my culture, I have no culture. If they are not my people, I have no people.

The underlying premise of Canadian literature has always been that writing is a virtuous activity and that diversity and multiculturalism are virtues. What if they’re not? What if they’re dirty?

Anishinaabe scholar Basil Johnston once called Joseph Boyden a “shining bridge.” Boyden himself preferred the name “He who must enlighten.” We need that bridge more than ever right now, but I doubt, at this point, that Canada can even conceive of an artist as valuable who is not a knight in the moral meritocracy. Here’s what is obvious about Joseph Boyden, the moment you step out of the Canada Reads writing-makes-the-world-a-better-place mentality: He’s just another fucked-up brilliant writer. He’s at least in part been fucked up by our pathological relationship to Indigenous culture. Frankly we’re all fucked up by it. The question is whether we know we’re fucked up. We need a close examination of our fuck-up-edness, immediately. Boyden could serve as a shadowy bridge, but he won’t. White audiences were reading him all those years to make them feel like good people, not to make them question themselves. The betrayal of sanctimony is the one unforgiveable crime.

Our ever-more-purifying virtues are leading us away from the realities we need to confront. Maybe we should stop trying to shine like good little boys and girls. Maybe we should go into the shadows and be ourselves.


  1. Margaret Laurence’s literary reputation is at a low ebb at the moment, and I would hate to contribute to that ebb. Despite that line, The Diviners is radically underrated. A Bird in the House is even better. 

  2. I know him somewhat. We’ve met only on a few occasions, but I enjoy his conversation and his books. I also believe he has genuinely done meaningful service for Canada.