Issues

November 2017

Re: “CanLit's Colonial Habit,” by Stephen Marche

Re: “CanLit’s Colonial Habit,” by Stephen Marche

Stephen Marche’s article carries important messages, but some of his more questionable assertions may distract readers. Of particular importance is his outline of the complexities of “cultural appropriation” and the need both to respect each other’s traditions and to retain a generous appreciation for the benefits of artistic exchange. Ideas and symbols are not there to be treated as property, although combinations thereof may become intellectual property in the commercial realm.

The possible distractions are unsupported assertions, such as: “Writing in Canada is a goody two-shoes profession, a virtuous activity that rewards sanctimony.” Really? Whose writing? Even Marche’s? Marche writes, “The point of Canadian colonial culture was the extraction and exportation of value, and the destruction of originality.” But exploiting the natural resources of the area, removing or harnessing anything that got in the way—trees, rocks, the downward flow of water, wildlife, people, etc.—required abundant originality of a ruthless and practical kind. The ultimate symbol of the settlement ideal in Canada is not the residential school, which came later, but the survey grid.

Marche asks, “Why did Canadian settlers take so little from the multifarious and rich Indigenous cultures they encountered?” They adopted and adapted what they needed for their enterprises: canoes, snowshoes, toboggans, crops, medicines, know-how—a long and vital list. Settlers also brought many new tools and ideas, and a restless culture driven to invent better tools and ideas. They also brought infectious diseases. It’s a complex story, laden with glory, tragedy, and ambiguities, not to be captured by any “lazy and horrifying glibness,” a vice Marche rightly deplores but has not entirely avoided.

Writing remains a virtuous activity, as all art can be when undertaken in a virtuous spirit. Diversity and multiculturalism (what a gawd-awful word!) are virtues. They are not naturally dirty. Like all virtues they can be corrupted, however. Glibness is a good way to start.

Paul W. Conway
Northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario


Re: “CanLit’s Colonial Habit,” by Stephen Marche

Simplifications and contradictions in Stephen Marche’s essay betray a difficulty in distinguishing benign appropriations from insidious varieties. Marche laments that Canada as a colonial force took so “little” from the culture it conquered, whereas the Romans “borrowed hugely from the Greeks” and “American culture…is a fusion of European and African modes.” In fact, the Romans wiped out Etruscan culture in their early expansion, demonizing the inhabitants even as they took over their art, script, and other cultural artifacts; they destroyed cities, and massacred and enslaved populations across the Mediterranean, including in Greece, Spain, and Carthage. The U.S. conquest of the continent by systematic extermination of Indigenous populations outdid the destruction in what became Canada, and persists in the current “retreat…into antique colonial modes” and racial tensions.

In A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul credits Indigenous roots in Canada for the “inclusive circle” as a model of egalitarianism, peace, and good government (and environmental conservation), in contrast to western Judeo-Christian colonial constructs for exploitation. Western history is replete with self-aggrandizing justifications for cultural genocide under the guise of eradicating barbarism, progress, and inventions of god-sanctioned entitlements.

Appropriation “as a metonymy for the colonial project” continues today in the U.S. and in Israel and Palestine. While the Zionist colonial project, and that in North America, have both employed Biblical stories of a Promised Land and a chosen people, there’s a glaring difference. Israel’s project disinherits the native non-Jewish population while claiming the cloak of nativity itself. It appropriates regional foods like hummus and falafel as Israeli “national dishes”; the shekel as Israeli currency, with some dictionaries now eliding its true Babylonian origin; ancient scripts like Phoenician and Aramaic as Hebrew; sites of Muslim mythology as solely Biblical; and ancient Jews and Israelites as antecedents (though present Jews, Shlomo Sand shows, are mostly converts in later centuries.) It has also altered Arabic place names to committee-assigned Hebrew phonetics, as Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti documents. Early travellers recognized Palestinian life as reminiscent of ancient customs, but today Israel has turned the villages it destroyed or depopulated in 1948, like Sataf, into “parks” where the Palestinian farmers, who had done the work, are forgotten while Israeli hikers are told to imagine the remains of their ancient agriculture.

Adopting cultural products or ideas from others as one’s own has occurred throughout civilizational exchange. This borrowing, however, becomes perverse when the taking is ungrateful, when it erases, destroys, or demonizes the source so as to deflect attention from the act. Marche implies that reconciliation is an empty gesture if it lacks fundamental recognitions. By embracing such recognitions, Canada can work toward reversing centuries of injustice.

Basem L. Ra'ad
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “CanLit’s Colonial Habit,” by Stephen Marche

Stephen Marche’s essay is a smart contribution to the debate currently animating Canadian literary culture. As with many of his past CanLit commentaries, Marche works in broad strokes that might fly amongst the King Street West chattering classes, but stretch credulity for the rest of us. Indeed, Canadian literature is neither a literature of “blood and soil” nor is it suitable “to the market of 1950s England”—texts by writers such as Jean Marc Ah-Sen, Lynn Crosbie, and Suzette Mayr (to name only a few) come to mind to reveal the laughable absurdity of both generalizations.

Despite overreaching for a theory-of-everything CanLit, Marche’s essay is provocative, particularly his proposition that Canada has repressed its genocidal history to avoid contending with the “gaping wound at the heart of our culture.” For too long CanLit has taken its cue from Duncan Campbell Scott, the poet and longtime deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, whose “Indian guides are dead asleep;” muted, spoken-for, dead.

Marche is at his best when he sees things as a literary critic: his claim that the TRC Report is “a work of art criticism as much as a document of political activism” productively suggests how past wounds might provide the historical grist and imaginative vocabulary for conceiving new forms of creativity and community. In place of an anecdotal tour through Marche’s multicultural group of friends, however, and stale claims about multicultural “crisis” and “exhaustion”—claims as old as the policy itself—we might investigate how artists and writers have already liberated the toothless terms of multiculturalism and reconciliation out of their colonial straitjackets in order to re-invigorate our literature.

Yet Marche makes the common Canadian critical mistake of reading the map for the territory. Government legislation and policy are not our culture; they are placeholders, mere shadows of the exciting cultural and political life that is actually occurring here. For Marche, the Canada Council’s statement opposing appropriation suffers from “terminal vagueness”; I see a vagueness of terminology that actually opens up the possibility for creatively rewriting our place in the nation and contending with the “gaping wound” in our identity. Indeed, in Tessa McWatt’s Out of My Skin, an Indigenous character, Surefoot, repeatedly picks at a wound that bleeds, heals, and bleeds again. Surefoot’s constant engagement with the wound of her own identity evokes her mantra that “Belonging is what you give yourself.”

To fill in those legislative placeholders and contend with the wounds of belonging and history, we must turn to the literature, read it and write it, in order to understand ourselves anew. More than anything, Marche shows us that the old frameworks and language no longer suffice.

Paul Barrett
Wolfville, Nova Scotia


Re: “Peak Twins,” by John Semley

As a psychiatrist, I am fascinated by the theme of mental illness in fiction. It is relevant to some of the greatest fictional characters in history, including Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Madame Bovary, as well as those of the modern era, such as characters in the novels of Alastair Campbell and Sebastian Faulks. Literature displays the remarkable perspicacity of novelists, poets, and playwrights in depicting and understanding atypical human experience and behaviour. Conditions such as psychosis, paranoia, and melancholia were described by writers long before they were identified by physicians and “alienists.”

Surprisingly, psychiatrists and psychologists have not been as prominent as novelists in writing about psychiatric illness. However, physician-writers such as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and W. Somerset Maugham have written novels whose characters display varying degrees of psychopathology. More recently, Keith Oatley (The Case of Emily V.) and Shira Nayman (Awake in the Dark), both psychologists, have written novels that depict characters with complex psychopathologies.

I struggled with this problem in my recently published historical novel, Father, Unknown, which is set around the time of the French Revolution. One of my main characters has what now would be called PTSD, but we are in the early 19th century. Another character has childhood depression, and a third displays strikingly inappropriate behaviour following the death of her three-year old daughter from diphtheria. It was challenging getting into the heads of these characters, describing their thoughts and feelings, and then attempting to work out how to deal with their problems using only those medical techniques that were available in the early 19th century.

Semley writes, “all novels, all fiction, can in a way be seen as allegories of a kind of schizoid break.” This is a neat summary of the type of intrapsychic and interpersonal tension that makes a novel a page-turner.

Dr. François Mai
Ottawa, Ontario


Re: “Tax and the Canadian Psyche,” by Elsbeth Heaman and Shirley Tillotson

Debates about taxation are nearly always about social justice, and, as Aristotle taught, it is the capacity to order a society on the basis of discussing questions of justice that distinguishes human societies from the social order of brutes.

That said, I am surprised that Heaman and Tillotson did not have more to say about whether the introduction of a federal income tax may have been seen as an unjust intrusion into direct taxation, a field of taxation specifically permitted to the provinces at Confederation. British Columbia first taxed personal income in 1876 and P.E.I. began taxing income in 1894. Many of the provinces were levying taxes on corporations and estates well before 1917. The provinces needed these revenues to take on expanding responsibilities, especially public education and building roads for the automobile. So I question the suggestion that Canada lagged behind Russia in adopting taxes that were more progressive than tariffs.

Speaking of Confederation, these historians suggest that there is a straight line from George Brown’s wanting to reduce the political weight of French Canada in the new Dominion and the racialized view of French Canadians that was poisoning English-French relations in the early 1900s. My understanding of Brown’s position is that he did not imbibe the racial hatred and dislike of French Canadians that developed after Confederation, but deeply believed in the separation of church and state and therefore opposed the Roman Catholic Church’s interference in politics.

For Canada, 1917 was truly an annus horribilis—maybe the worst year in our entire history. Canada’s federal union would be unlikely to survive another election like that of 1917, in which the Borden Unionists swept English Canada and Laurier’s Liberals took all but three of Quebec’s seats. The federal government brought in a Wartime Elections Act that enfranchised female relatives of members of the armed forces serving overseas—a cynical manoeuvre that outraged even some of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

The introduction of a controversial new tax was no doubt an added disturbance in those dark days. But did it stir up, as the Heaman-Tillotson conversation suggests, a “tax revolt” that threatened the state? I don’t think so. The only rioting of which I am aware was protesting conscription in the streets of Quebec City at Easter 1918.

The upside of the introduction of federal income tax in 1917 was that it would lay the fiscal foundation for the Canadian welfare state. The downside is that when the federal government came to dominate the income tax field it upset the balance of Canada’s federal system, alienating Quebec and bringing on yet another challenge to national unity. It is when debates about fiscal justice impair relations between Canada’s three foundational pillars—Indigenous peoples, French Canadians and English-speaking Canadians—that the fabric of our country is most at risk.

Peter Russell
Toronto, Ontario


Thanks to Professor Russell for his reflections on our remarks. I’m not surprised he wasn’t persuaded by my argument. I probably wouldn’t be either—not without accompanying evidence. The LRC is a place for talking about books, but the serious evidence is necessarily in the book itself. It’s the big picture that’s really under debate here, not the brief summary of it in the LRC.

I’m astonished Peter Russell thinks I need a reminder of the B.C. income tax of 1876, given that I wrote if not the book then at least the book chapter, as well as the article in Journal of Policy History. But the point remains that the national government was remarkably laggard, by international and domestic standards, and politically vulnerable on those grounds. As the political economist O.D. Skelton observed in 1912: “There is probably no civilized country today in which the rich man pays a smaller proportion of taxation than in Canada.” I devote more than a chapter to the argument that George Brown’s accusations of racialized tax evasion continued to roil Canadian politics.

As for the argument for a progressive tax “revolt” in 1917, I know it is counterintuitive, so I give it a particularly long chapter. We are retrospectively horrified by the polarization of English and French. Robert Borden was more horrified by the prospect of newfound unity. It was as true in 1917 as it had been in 1841 that French and English progressives, united, could control the legislature. In November 1917, Borden, White, Sifton, and others were thunderstruck to realize just such an alliance was forming around a simple (“simple-minded” exclaimed the economists) project of confiscatory taxation of wealth. No such progressive English-French alliance, I argue, “had existed since John A. Macdonald had laboriously deconstructed it in the 1850s. That earlier alliance was built by men determined to organize around political and fiscal accountability rather than ethnicity.” Imagine, Borden backing Laurier in Toronto Centre, as Baldwin did Lafontaine. Borden did claim to extend precisely that kind of an invitation, but a closer reading of that invitation debunks his claim.

Yes, mine is a startling new reading of both Confederation and the khaki election. Yes, it may be completely wrong. But please may we debate the evidence? Anyone?

Elsbeth Heaman
Montreal, Quebec


Peter Russell’s comments illustrate perfectly why Canadian politics scholars need to read Elsbeth Heaman’s book and mine. There’s more to Canada’s tax history than the well-worn themes of fiscal federalism. Wives, farmers, Chinese Canadians, financiers, First Nations, and many others have weighed in on tax, out of self-interest or a sense of fairness or both.

The 1917 income tax was about many things to many people, but it wasn’t about a welfare state. The 1917 Income War Tax Act was nothing like the 1948 Income Tax Act on which our federally dominated welfare state was founded. The 1948 tax had genuinely progressive rates and a taxpayer base of millions. The 1917 one, as Peter Russell will surely know, was paid by few hundred thousand, mostly urban, mostly middle class Canadians. They paid at a flat rate of four percent. A minority—I estimate under 20 percent—paid a progressive rate surtax on their exceptionally high income, most of it income from property, not labour. If that minority of taxpayers took smart advantage of the huge loophole provided by the Victory Loans of 1917 and 1918, then much of their investment income wasn’t taxed.

The shift from that feeble 1917 income tax to the one introduced in 1942 and consolidated in 1948 amounts to a change of kind, not just degree.

To confuse the two obscures why progressives were not satisfied by the 1917 income tax, why they brought their battle for a better tax to the December 1917 election, and why they continued their fight through the interwar years. They wanted tax fairness—a better balance between taxes on consumption and wages—on one hand, and on the other, taxes on investment income.

During the Second World War and since, advocates of social justice have called for and gotten something more: a state with the fiscal capacity to reduce inequality. Achieving that in a constitutionally legitimate way has indeed been a struggle, but that’s only one part of our little-known tax history.

Shirley Tillotson
Halifax, Nova Scotia


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