This Review was published in the January/February 2006 Issue
The LRC 100 (Part One)
Canada's Most Important Books
By Margaret Atwood
All comparisons are odious and lists are by nature comparisons. Therefore all lists are odious, and I for one have a lot of trouble making them up. A list called The LRC 100: Canada’s Most Important Books is a recipe for a brawl, as there will be many disagreements about what should or should not have been included. In fact, the list itself—we’re told—is a product of furious though presumably civil wrangling among its compilers. We hope no tea-cups were thrown.
My own long-ago experiences after the publication of Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature—a book that has made it onto the dreaded 100, though with a disparaging note attached to it—would indicate that the editors of this list will receive more than one sackful of hate mail. Some will rail against what they feel is a biased exclusion of their favourites, others will denounce the effort in its entirety as elitist, racist, centrist, socialist, capitalist, stodgy, radical, stateist, colonialist, naively nationalist, feminist, misogynist—you name it. Yet others will say that the enterprise per se is hopelessly outdated, as there isn’t and never has been a Canada, or a Canadian tradition in literature, or a respectable Canadian body of work—which is where Survival came in, back in 1972.
A good definition of Canada might be that it is the only country that is being told repeatedly— from both inside and outside itself—that it doesn’t really exist. This is a tub that has been thumped even more loudly of late, as Canada —if you allow that it once did have an essence, form, and being—supposedly fragments into provinces, interest groups, ethnic constituencies, and hyphenations. In view of these rumblings The LRC 100 will provide a test case: if it’s a bone worth fighting over, there’s a dance in the old dame yet. If you believe in Canada, bite the list!
It may soothe some offended souls to note that this modest offering does not claim to list the hundred best Canadian books. That a work can be “important” without possessing much literary merit as such has long been a truism. (Take, for instance, the Geological Survey of Canada, 1863—number 6 on this list.) But what is meant by “important”? Many of these books were highly influential in their day but are now largely forgotten; others have become classics. Each listing has a small paragraph attached to it, defending its inclusion. From them, we learn that “important” has many meanings. Perhaps these books may be viewed as having made us what we are today.
Whatever that may be, some will say. Those that do say so might try reading through this minilibrary of essentials. They’ll have a much better idea then.
Will The LRC 100 become required reading for our politicians? Can moose fly? Never mind. For teachers, students, citizens, and the nationalistically disoriented, this list will open doors and windows, stimulate thought and debate, and offer a few pathways through the post-modern labyrinth.
Zip up your parka. Grab your mosquito repellent and your recipe for stewed gopher and your last spike and your joual dictionary and your Anne of Green Gables egg-racing spoon. Turn off your Blackberry. Look out for Coyote. Stop gnashing your teeth because you wanted some other, presumably finer list. Read on.
1. Bref récit et succincte narration de la navigation faite en MDXXXV et MDXXXVI (Account of the Second Voyage of the Navigation of 1535 and 1536) (1545)
by Jacques Cartier
Cartier not only explored what would become the centre of New France; in retrospect he coined a name for a nation. Through an apparent misunderstanding, he used the Huron-Iroquois word Canada, meaning village, to refer to the area surrounding what is now Quebec City. Later iterations of loose usage (as so often happens in the case of newly discovered lands) led to further extensions of the word’s meaning, first to refer to the entire Laurentian region, then to the territory north of the Great Lakes as well and, finally, to most of the northern half of the continent. Cartier’s unwitting coinage, which appears for the first time in his Bref Récit, gave the country he helped discover a moniker far more suitable than the other term common at the time of Confederation—British North America.
2. A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean (1795)
by Samuel Hearne
Hearne’s Journey is the foundational classic of northern exploration literature. While telling the enthralling story of a 5,600-kilometre northern trek, Hearne paints a vivid word-portrait of a way of life that was soon lost to smallpox; he also devotes 50 pages to pioneering descriptions of little-known sub-Arctic animals, including the beaver. This book includes the only written account of one of the most controversial moments in Canadian history, the massacre of innocents at Bloody Falls. Given that Hearne lived for an extended period in a foreign culture, Journey is one of the earliest examples of “immersion reporting” in North American literature.
3. Wacousta; or The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas (1832)
by John Richardson
At an isolated British fort on the Canadian frontier, the entire regiment is jolted awake after an apparent intrusion by an unknown enemy, who now lurks in the forest outside. So opens this bestknown work of the first Canadian-born novelist. Richardson’s conflation of factual history and fictional suspense is spiced with liberal dashes of political allegory. Wacousta encapsulates, perhaps more than any other work, Northrop Frye’s theory of early English Canada’s garrison mentality. The novel’s microcosm of polite colonial society is alternately repelled and attracted by the lawless freedom that looms just beyond the fortress gates.
4. Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839)
by Lord Durham
Only in Canada could royal commission reports be essential documents of self-awareness. John George Lambton, Lord Durham (1792–1840), landed in Quebec in 1838 to investigate the causes and effects of the recent rebellions and stayed five months. He created ten sub-commissions to examine subjects ranging from the seigneurial system to the educational structures of the country, concluding that it was actually “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” A fascinating snapshot of 1830s Canada, Durham’s report would have mixed success. His call for the establishment of “responsible government” was immediately acted upon; his open wish for the assimilation of French Canadians would be mocked by old and young alike for the eight generations that followed the publication of the Report.
Patrice A. Dutil
5. Roughing It in the Bush, or Life in Canada (1852)
by Susanna Moodie
When Moodie, a well-educated English immigrant, published her account of life with her husband, John, on a pioneer farm in Upper Canada in the 1830s, she dispelled any illusions her British readers may have nursed about the colony. She described a raw society of illiterate newcomers and the back-breaking struggle to survive. But Moodie broke new ground in more ways than one. She was one of the few immigrants to record her experiences, and her self-portrayal has made her an icon of CanLit—the pragmatist who discovers her own strength as she overcomes adversity. The Moodie stereotype marches through novels by authors as varied as L.M. Montgomery and Margaret Atwood, exercising a powerful hold on the contemporary Canadian imagination.
6. Geological Survey of Canada: Report of Progress from Its Commencement to 1863 (1863)
This volume is truly a Canadian classic: it was published only 20 years after the survey was authorized in 1843 by the provincial government of what was then Canada—roughly, modern Quebec and Ontario. The book gives a systematic description of the area’s rocks, minerals and fossils, and is accompanied by a geological map (issued separately). Prior to its publication, only a few scattered observations had been made on the geology and mineral resources of Canada. Afterward, there was a scientific foundation on which the mineral and petroleum industry could build, one that established— among other things—that it was futile to search for workable coal deposits in the region.
Gerard V. Middleton
7. Canada and the Canadian Question (1891)
by Goldwin Smith
A former Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Smith did not move until his late forties to Canada, where he soon gained notoriety for his political polemics. In this best known of his works, he argued that Canada could never be a successful nation, not least because of its linguistic divide. While French Canada had its own destiny, English Canada’s future lay in a continental union that would strengthen Anglo-Saxon civilization. Smith’s blatant ethnocentrism was widely scorned in his own day, yet elements of his logic continue to reappear— often in strangely inverted forms, especially among today’s Quebec sovereigntists. Yet little acknowledgement is given to the intellectual debts owed to this path-breaking contrarian thinker.
8. Wild Animals I Have Known: Being the Personal Histories of Lobo, Silverspot, Raggylug, Bingo, the Springfield Fox, the Pacing Mustang, Wully and Redruff (1898)
by Ernest Thompson Seton
Although he spent his childhood watching wildlife in Toronto’s pre-parkway Don Valley, Seton assembled the stories in Wild Animals I Have Known only after settling outside New York City. A bestseller in its day and in print ever since, the work popularized its genre and its subject like no book before and few after. It did not, however, originate the modern animal story, as Seton claimed. Its romantic, pathosdriven stories of animal heroes are neither true nor realistic, as Seton also claimed and some believed. And there is nothing distinctively Canadian about those animals, as Seton never did claim, but others have. Nonetheless the book touched the hearts of a generation and, for better or worse, helped North Americans make the giant cultural leap between The Deerslayer and Bambi.
9. The Poems of Archibald Lampman (1900)
by Archibald Lampman
Categorized with Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman and Duncan Campbell Scott as one of the “Poets of Confederation,” Lampman died young but was the first to be recognized as a poet of substantial achievement. He worked in Ottawa and wrote primarily about the natural world close to the capital, which he explored on foot and by canoe. His poetry is remarkable for its quiet, meditative, often melancholy evocativeness and its descriptive precision and emotional restraint. In many respects, it serves as a verbal though subdued complement to the later paintings of the Group of Seven.
10. The Imperialist (1904)
by Sara Jeanette Duncan
Some books are important because they capture a crucial moment in a culture’s history. This smart and savvy novel, which scrutinizes Ontario politics at the turn of the 20th century, caught Canada at the height of imperialist fever when we had nowhere to go but down into the cozy embrace of the Americans and their enormous markets. In a style derivative of both Jane Austen and Henry James, Duncan has her hero, Lorne Murchison, fight valiantly but in vain for the maintenance of the imperial connection. The fact that we know the Americans won us in the end does not take away from the fun of reading about the tug-of-war as it was taking place.
11. Anne of Green Gables (1908)
by Lucy Maud Montgomery
For most of the 20th century, Canadian school children learned early that literature, like life, was elsewhere, nestling among Wordsworth’s daffodils or in Tennyson’s Camelot. Anne of Green Gables was the first Canadian book most of us read, and it made our own country magical. The poignancy of Anne’s loneliness and eventual triumph has a universal appeal—witness the book’s hold on the Japanese imagination—but for Canadians, its added fillip is its assurance that one of our own pious, smug, puritanical communities can yield such rich stories, such varied eccentricity.
12. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912)
Small-town Canadian life was captured perfectly and forever in Mariposa (a.k.a. Orillia, Ontario), a place where everybody belongs to everything “and that’s what makes it so different from the city.” Leacock, an unlikely combination of economist and humourist, understood the bonds—economic, social, political—that tie people in small communities together. Nobody was allowed to have no politics, he explained of the wild federal election of 1911. His gallery of Dickensian figures—Dean Drone, Golgotha Gingham, Judge Pepperleigh, Peter Pupkin and a host of others—acted out that peculiarly Canadian brand of ironic but deeply humanistic comedy that echoes today on stage and television with the Wingfield series and Corner Gas.
Bruce Allen Powe
13. Flint and Feather (1912)
by E. Pauline Johnson
“Ooh! Isn’t she savage?” one prairie farmer muttered as he watched Canada’s first coast-to-coast celebrity recite her poetry in a church hall in the 1890s. But Johnson was anything but savage. The daughter of a Mohawk chief and a well-educated English-born immigrant, Johnson grew up on the Six Nations reserve in Southern Ontario, steeped in British literature. Rising above the racism of her day, she drew on her double heritage to write both blood-curdling ballads drawn from aboriginal mythology and lyrical poetry. Way ahead of her time, Johnson had a vision of a society in which diversity creates strength—a vision that Canada struggles to achieve today.
14. Maria Chapdelaine (1914)
“In this land of Quebec nothing has changed. Nor shall anything change. One duty have we clearly understood: that we should hold fast—should endure.” And nothing has changed—except today it is called the “distinct society.” Written in 1913 by a French tourist visiting the Saguenay, Maria’s meditation on the virtues of her three suitors, and her ultimate decision to marry the guy next door, has become a metaphor for the hard-wired devotion of French-speaking Quebeckers to images of their rural, Catholic past. With more than 200 different editions to choose from, and only 100 pages of text, the book’s Gothic style and touching connection with place make it a universally appealing read.
15. Jalna (1927)
by Mazo de la Roche
In some ways, Jalna represents the quintessential Canadian novel, aptly telling the story of settling in both Quebec and Ontario. After a military stationing in India in 1848, the British Captain Philip Whiteoak and Adeline Court migrate to inherited property in Quebec and suffer the harsh climate, only to move on to the “fertile southern shore of Ontario.” The legacy of the Whiteoak family is told through the rhythmic and poetic words of de la Roche, who details the family’s odd characters, tragedies and comic events, not only in this novel but in the 15 sequels that followed. According to the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, the Jalna books had sold 11 million copies worldwide by 1966.
16. The Fur-Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (1930)
by Harold A. Innis
Innis’s landmark study of the fur trade in Canada succeeded where no other book has: it combined the analytical tools of political economy with those of historical narrative to produce a uniquely brilliant account of our economic roots. In describing the challenges that the harsh environment presented to the early explorers and traders, it can be read as an introduction to a critical period of economic development in this country. But at a more sophisticated level, Fur-Trade developed theories to account for things such as staple production, inter-regional conflicts and social adaptation that remain with us to this day. Innis’s work is vital to an understanding of our early colonial history.
17. Such Is My Beloved (1934)
by Morley Callaghan
Callaghan may be regarded as Canada’s first “serious” professional fiction writer, and one of the first to focus on ordinary people living in a city environment. Beginning work as a newspaper reporter, he produced novels, short stories and non-fiction, but his best writing may well reside in novellalength narratives that he transformed into moral fables. The story of a Roman Catholic priest who tries to redeem two street girls, Such Is My Beloved is a poignant exploration of the uneasy relation between sacred and profane love, and exemplifies what Callaghan once described as the difficulties of being a Christian.
18. The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760–1850 (1937)
by Donald Creighton
As an idealistic Ontario youngster, Creighton told friends that he wanted to popularize the Patriotes of Lower Canada and their heroic struggle against the British Empire and its pompous, greedy Montreal allies. Studying facts can change your mind. The more he read, the more Creighton saw Montreal merchants as the neglected heroes of his Canada. Theirs was the vision of a transcontinental nation, linked by river, canal and—ultimately—rail. Montreal enterprise, claimed Creighton, built Canada a mari usque ad mare, not self-centred Patriotes and not whining Westerners. Creighton gave us what we had sought in vain, a plain explanation of Canada’s manifest destiny. Others offered rival notions: metropolitanism, two-nations federalism and multiculturalism. Creighton’s old, unfashionable book comes closest to explaining a country we all share.
19. Menaud, maître-draveur (Boss of the River) (1937)
by Félix-Antoine Savard
Unlike the death-dealing frozen world of Maria Chapdelaine, Savard’s Menaud has won a lasting place in Québécois hearts for its dithyrambic description of “quicksilver streams, the sapphire of blueberries, the perfumed canes of raspberries” in an enchanted landscape. Everything else about the novel is dated, from its ultramontane Catholicism to its certainty that greedy anglophones will destroy the countryside. But of all the romans de la terre, it most perfectly expresses the Québécois attachment to the land—an anti-capitalist nostalgia that still helps fuel today’s debates about sovereignty.
20. As for Me and My House (1941)
by Sinclair Ross
This novel of a bleak prairie existence during the Depression is an unforgettable portrait of a woman trapped by both poverty and lovelessness. Ross’s ability to put the voice of Mrs. Bentley on the page—and to let the reader fill in what is never admitted in her journal—speaks to a wider theme of the silent suffering of women in a rigid society. It is our Madame Bovary. Later writers such as Margaret Laurence and Richard B. Wright would take up this theme, but nobody has conveyed it better than Ross.
21. Two Solitudes (1945)
by Hugh MacLennan
There’s the book—and then there’s the title, which has developed a life of its own. Conceived in 1945 and recently buried (still breathing?) by our new Governor General, “Two Solitudes” became a trademark for all the English/French debates of the past 50 years and has gone into wider use as shorthand for schizophrenic behaviour of every kind. The book itself, set in the period between the two World Wars, is actually about the tensions among three solitudes—feudalism, rationalism and materialism—and the essential debate takes place within the soul of a single person, Athanase Tallard. MacLennan is an astute, dispassionate yet sensitive observer, even if his formal writing style seems a bit dated.
22. Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute) (1945)
by Gabrielle Roy
This novel did not just herald the arrival of Roy as a major Canadian writer; it also, and more to the point for this endeavour, marked a turning point in the portrayal of Quebec society. What the reader gets is no longer a Quebec rural and somewhat folkloric, but rather a vivid panorama of a small urban, gritty corner of that society in a time of turmoil and transformation as the world, dragging Quebec with it, edged out of the Depression and headed into World War II.
23. Report of the Royal Commission to Investigate the Facts Relating to and the Circumstances Surrounding the Communication by Public Officials and Other Persons in Positions of Trust of Secret and Confidential Information to Agents of a Foreign Power (1946)
The Royal Commission report on the Gouzenko spy case introduced Canada to both the Cold War and to espionage, in one fell swoop. The report included details of the commissioners’ interrogations of all the main suspects in Canada’s juiciest spy story. It also included the first public account of Igor Gouzenko’s defection and the portrait he drew of the Soviet Union’s clandestine methods and aims, based on his knowledge as a military intelligence official. It was the first (and probably last) such report ever to become a best seller. It had a considerable impact on public attitudes toward the Soviet Union, a wartime ally, and it helped shape government security policy throughout the Cold War.
24. Who Has Seen the Wind (1947)
by W.O. Mitchell
If the story of one boy, Huck Finn, is the beginning of contemporary American fiction, the story of another boy, Brian O’Connal, growing up in a small Saskatchewan town during the Depression is the beginning of contemporary Canadian fiction. Wind introduces a slice of Canadian geography—the Prairies—with humour and gentleness comparable to Camara Laye’s introduction to West Africa in The African Child. W.O. Mitchell celebrates the particular, in which prairie wind and sky and gophers are never far from Brian’s developing consciousness, while connecting to the universal experience of birth and death. Few novels so delicately lattice innocence and experience, nature and the formation of human consciousness.
25. Les Plouffe (The Plouffe Family) (1948)
by Roger Lemelin
While Lemelin’s first novel, Au pied de la Pente douce (The Town Below), had greater depth than his second, Les Plouffe, it was not as widely known or as influential. This was particularly true in English Canada, where a television series based on Les Plouffe was very popular in the latter part of the 1950s and played an important role in breaking down the two solitudes, as did the political and economic upheaval of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution—to which the book and its French television adaptation undoubtedly contributed. Lemelin’s French Canadian working-class family life, though richly Québécois, was universal enough for anglophones to create an image of a Quebec much more accessible than Duplessis’s “corporate-clerical” fortress. In 1981, a Gilles Carle film based on the book was both a critical and a box office success.
26. Refus Global (Complete Refusal) (1948)
by Paul-Émile Borduas
This small, mimeographed booklet, initiated and signed by Montreal painter Borduas along with eight men and seven women who also considered themselves Automatistes, vehemently protested repression by the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec. It was also directed against governmentrun education and the conventionality of society in general. Refus Global urged “resplendent anarchy” for artists, who, Borduas believed, must be free of such suffocating influences in order to create. This manifesto not only voiced an important stance for artists, but is also often considered a precursor of the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s in Quebec.
27. Empire and Communications (1950)
by Harold A. Innis
In this insightful work, Innis used his vast historical knowledge, focused initially on the Canadian fur trade and cod fisheries, to elaborate his idea that the character of historical empires is profoundly affected by their forms of communication—as seen particularly in the change from an oral tradition to literacy. Ranging from the origins of our alphabet to the spread of modern religious freedoms, this work remained largely neglected until Marshall McLuhan’s successes helped bring it to a wider audience; today, scholars acknowledge Empire and Communications as a pioneering work in the study of media, culture and power. The importance of Innis’s imaginative revelations can hardly be exaggerated.
28. Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, 1949–1951 (1951)
Until mid-way through the last century, laissez faire attitudes and dubious returns meant that Canadian governments generally avoided funding the arts: they left that to wealthy patrons and public taste. When Vincent Massey, the Most Reverend Georges- Henri Lévesque and their fellow commissioners tabled their report, however, it marked the beginning of a new cultural era. Perhaps most importantly, they argued that Canadian art was vital to preserving a distinct national identity against encroaching Americanization—which made it worth paying for. Specific proposals included establishing CBC Television, channelling federal money to universities and creating what became the Canada Council for the Arts to provide nationwide arts funding. Over the next 20 years, rising nationalism carried most of the commission’s recommendations into reality, decisively reshaping Canadian culture.
29. People of the Deer (1952)
by Farley Mowat
Academic critics have never given Mowat his due. Possibly they resent his spectacular commercial success: books published in 25 languages and 40-odd countries, international sales exceeding 14 million copies. More likely, they have dismissed Mowat because the prevailing orthodoxy privileges fiction over non-fiction, and certainly over what the author called “subjective non-fiction.” With People of the Deer, a work distinguished by its literary strategies, Mowat launched a singular career, advancing the traditions of both exploration literature and what today we call creative or, more accurately, narrative non-fiction. This account of his encounters with the vanishing Ihalmiut people during a two-year stay in the Arctic is a landmark of Canadian literature.
30. So Little for the Mind (1953)
by Hilda Neatby
Neatby’s eloquent attack on the incipient trend toward “progressive” teaching in Canada rocked the education establishment when it was first published, with booming sales prompting a new edition only two months later. She failed to stem the tide, but because the object of her attack has now become the prevailing philosophy of education, her book seems more pertinent now than it was when she wrote it. Neatby was a member of the Massey-Lévesque Commission that created the Canada Council, and her educational ideals played a key role in securing federal aid for the country’s universities; she went on to write Vincent Massey’s speeches for him when he was Governor General. With So Little for the Mind’s success, she became one of our finest public intellectuals until her death in 1975.
31. John A. Macdonald: The Young Politician (1952) and The Old Chieftain (1955)
by Donald Creighton
No selection of important Canadian books is complete without Creighton’s authoritative biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, which should top any list. It illuminates the political environment in Canada at the time of Confederation as well as the personalities of contemporary players. Hard though it is to believe, it is the first definitive story of Sir John A. It meets high academic standards but is not impeccable: it treats Sir John A.’s inevitable flaws as peccadilloes, and a contemporary writer would no doubt be more critical and possibly even more analytical. It is, however, an important story of Canada, told vividly and accurately, and reminds us that without leaders of vision, however vain and wily, nations do not get built.
32. Insight: A Study in Human Understanding (1957)
by Bernard Lonergan
This book is the cornerstone of Lonergan’s philosophical universe, a study in both epistemology and metaphysics. He was prepared to face, when most of his contemporaries were not, the radical shift from a classicist mentality, in which a culture and system of belief is normative, to a modern culture with its historical consciousness and unsettling fluidity. For Lonergan, no culture or philosophy is perennial or normative; one has to turn to intentionality analysis and human interiority to discover the perduring, the constant. His considerable opus (University of Toronto Press is publishing his multi-volume work) and his far-ranging influence (institutes, centres of research and doctoral dissertations on his work) literally span the globe.
33. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957)
by Northrop Frye
Anatomy is one of the 20th century’s greatest works of academic literary criticism. By the time he wrote the book, Frye had an unbelievable grasp of the structure of western literature, the permanence and interconnectedness of its forms and themes and imagery. Although there was an inevitable reaction to the almost suffocating dominance of Frye’s theories (promulgated by disciples known as the “small Fryes”) in Canadian university English departments in the 1960s, and although later developments in literary theory fiercely challenged his ideas, Frye’s approach will likely prove as intellectually persistent as Gnosticism or Jungianism—Frye works in the same tradition of timeless metaphors and resistance to history.
34. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)
by Mordecai Richler
Duddy was not the first Canadian Jewish novel, but it changed our landscape forever. Richler skewered all three of Montreal’s communities with an exile’s reluctant nostalgia. His unwilling affection for the world he had left never softened the cruel clarity of his vision. It was also the first salvo in a war that had not yet been declared: the fight of minority communities in our multicultural society to be portrayed only as they wish to be seen. It was a Canadian novel that made people angry, and that was new. But it is no sociological tract; you can reread it with pleasure today.
35. The Spice-Box of Earth (1961)
by Leonard Cohen
Poet, novelist, singer and songwriter, Cohen is a man of moods and masks. He plays vaudeville clown, satirist, man at prayer, ladies’ man and lover, often in the same book. In The Spice-Box of Earth, the lover holds the stage with periodic raids from other intruding selves. If you are in the mood for wooing, you can’t beat “As the Mist Leaves No Scar” or “Go by Brooks,” or “Beneath My Hands” with the irresistible line “your eyelashes / are the spines of tiny fragile animals.” Spice-Box contains a dozen of Canada’s finest love lyrics, rippling into the poetry of John Newlove and Patrick Lane. Nothing human is alien to Cohen’s wide-embracing heart.
36. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962)
by Marshall McLuhan
The best of the books by this Canadian genius, media guru and world-class intellectual, Gutenberg Galaxy describes how, in the electronic age emerging around him, McLuhan clearly saw the rise, and fall, of the age of print. From the Gutenberg press flowed the Renaissance and the Reformation, the individual and the nation. From the electronic media would come wrap-around globalization, tribalism, the disappearance of childhood and life in the fast lane. Incredibly, McLuhan’s far-out talk of the wired world foresaw the post-Gutenberg Internet before it happened. With this book, McLuhan established the scholarly reputation that made him a founder of media and communications studies. Consisting of short essays and scattered aphorisms, the book is both profound and accessible.
37. Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years (1963)
by Peter C. Newman
This post-mortem of John Diefenbaker’s government appeared only months after his defeat, a meticulous chronicle of the embarrassing Progressive Conservative slide following a spectacular rise to power. Newman’s approach galvanized readers: beyond a merciless array of facts and quotes, he used literary devices to vividly portray the former prime minister as an inarticulate, dishonest egomaniac. Renegade in Power became an unprecedented bestseller in Canadian political writing, and the book haunted Diefenbaker’s reelection attempts while securing Newman’s role as a leading public voice. A breakthrough work of “creative non-fiction” in this country, it also helped shake off a long tradition of respectful deference to our leaders.
38. Report of the Canada Royal Commission on Health Services (1964)
Commissioned by his old classmate John Diefenbaker in 1961 to head an inquiry into health care, Supreme Court Justice Emmett Hall took three years to research and write this remarkably eloquent text. The Hall Report called for a joint federal/provincial system that would cover the costs of preventive healthcare services and hospital care for all Canadians. This proved to be a most influential work: Parliament passed the legislation necessary in 1966, and Canada would celebrate its centenary with a new national healthcare program. The author went on to write many more influential royal commission reports, but this work won him the title “father of medicare” in many circles.
Patrice A. Dutil
39. The Stone Angel (1964)
by Margaret Laurence
The Stone Angel is Margaret Laurence’s finest novel in the Manawaska series, and a re-shaper of the psychic landscape in Canada. Hagar Shipley—a crusty ancient of days—has been imprinted on the nation’s imagination, a noble and sturdy survivor in the psychological and meteorological winterscape that defines the country. Hagar’s sheer durability, the irreplaceable woman’s voice, the creative admixture of memory and imagination in a compelling first person narrative—all these features, plus the fact that the novel turns up on more high school English courses in this country than any other homegrown work, ensure The Stone Angel a foundational place in the English Canadian literary canon.
40. In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda (1965)
by Stephen Vizinczey
Praise revealed not only that sex was a Good Thing but that it was even better when practiced between young men and older women (and vice versa). To a country—at least the anglo parts of it—raised on Presbyterian values and a permanent clampdown on libido, the novel ushered in a new/old European sensibility in matters of the heart and the flesh, as it followed the amorous adventures of the young Hungarian András Vajda through the crumbling salons of post-war Budapest. Canadian writing about sex was never the same again, which was mostly a Good Thing.
41. Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965)
by George Grant
Well, Canada is still here, but what, pray, is it? Grant wrote this brilliant, deep essay on the question in the early 1960s, in the aftermath of Diefenbaker’s political downfall. He wrote of a small “c” conservative society, respectful of tradition, that was disappearing under the pressure of continentalism. Forty years have passed, but Lament still speaks to us directly of important issues. It is a must-read for anyone interested in what might define a nation called Canada—especially given that the formula of “medicare with peacekeeping” is more glib than inspiring, and factually shaky as well.
Grant wrote several important books, but Lament galvanized much of a new generation. It argued that, because of poor political leadership and a greedy, unpatriotic corporate elite, Canada had sold so many of its assets and so much of its soul to America that it had already ceased to be a nation. Grant’s book was widely reviewed and hotly debated. A new nationalism leading to the formation of The Committee for an Independent Canada, the Foreign Investment Review Agency and Petro-Canada can be traced to Grant’s prophetic book. Told that it was already too late, or at best that their backs were to the wall, Canadians came out swinging and helped revive a widespread passion for our country.
42. Prochain épisode (Next Episode) (1965)
by Hubert Aquin
Aquin was a leading member of Quebec’s intelligentsia, an acclaimed writer, editor and maker of film and radio. In 1964, however, police arrested him in a stolen car and charged him with carrying an illegal firearm; when asked his occupation, he answered “revolutionary.” Written over the following four months, which Aquin spent institutionalized, Prochain épisode reflects the author’s complex passion for Quebec sovereignty. It describes a jailed separatist distracting himself by writing an allegorical thriller about attempted political assassination. Aquin’s brilliant first novel immediately transformed him into a nationalist literary icon, stoking the frustrated idealism that eventually erupted in October of 1970.
43. The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada (1965)
by John A. Porter
This book’s rather turgid style was more than offset by its impressive content: a comprehensive review of theories of class and power alongside provocative new ideas and hypotheses to explain Canadian inequality, with massive amounts of data brought to bear on these questions. Porter’s Canada was a rigid and self-perpetuating hierarchy, where those of British origin occupied the top positions in a class system that relegated most other groups to lowly “entrance status” on the bottom rungs. Although radical demographic shifts eventually undermined Porter’s conclusions about Canadian society, his analysis was received as revealed truth in social science circles at the time, and inspired students and scholars for more than a decade.
44. Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel (A Season in the Life of Emmanuel) (1965)
by Marie-Claire Blais
The brutal existence of Quebec’s rural poor is laid bare in this terse short novel, which chronicles one year in the life of a family consisting of an exhausted mother, a violent and indifferent father, their 16 offspring and a grandmother who represents power, stability and endurance. Any vestige of romanticism, especially about the Roman Catholic Church, is stripped away, and Blais’s chilling portrait of a pedophile priest predates the Mount Cashel revelations by more than two decades. Although tragic, the novel is written with such antic energy that it resonates with the work of William Faulkner and Gunter Grass.
45. Combat Journal for Place d’Armes: A Personal Narrative (1967)
by Scott Symons
This highly experimental illustrated novel documents a symbolic personal journey from Toronto to Montreal. In this celebration of Canada’s centennial year, Symons located the heart of Canada in the “place of arms”—Place d’Armes—in the core of Old Montreal, where he embraced, literally and figuratively, his male Québécois lovers. It is to French Canada and the symbolic buildings surrounding Place d’Armes that Symons turned (and away from the cerebral, superficial, increasingly Americanized culture of English Canada) to find that fourth dimension that is Canada’s soul—and in doing so, provided the first depiction of a gay literary sensibility in the Canadian context.
46. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967)
by George Ryga
Ecstasy, with an unusual blend of realism, lyricism and expressionism, shows the experiences and eventual fate of Rita Joe, a young First Nations woman in the city. The work is significant in three ways: first, Ryga drew the attention of comfortable theatregoers to the plight of many Native people who come to the city, and their exploitation and the fumbling attempts of the well meaning to aid them; second, Ryga successfully brought together his talents for tragedy and poetic language with urgent social issues; and third, the drama’s success in Vancouver (1967) and Ottawa (1969) signified the beginning of English Canadian playwriting’s ongoing and increasing prominence in performance.
47. Final Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1967–70)
The Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission Report was important in introducing to a broader Canadian audience the wisdom of recognizing, on an equal footing, the two principal languages in Canada. Specifically, it recommended effecting that recognition by legally making French one of the country’s two official languages, both at the federal level and in the provinces of Ontario and New Brunswick. An incidental result of the report was the advent of official multiculturalism, which provided authoritative sanction for recognizing the fact that there are many cultures represented in the Canadian mosaic and that these are all entitled to acknowledgement by public policy.
48. Les belles-soeurs (1968)
by Michel Tremblay
Tremblay’s Les belles-soeurs premiered in Montreal in 1968, inaugurating a distinctly Canadian theatre that brought the Québécois presence to centre stage, and broke with tradition by focusing on the harsh realities of the working class and by using joual to convey an anti-establishment approach. Germaine Lauzon recruits family members, friends and neighbours to help her paste into a book the million supermarket trading stamps that she has won. As she dreams of the items she can acquire with the stamps, the all-women cast speaks frankly about their tedious lives and daily frustrations, evoking tragic yet hopeful rhythms.
49. Federalism and the French Canadians (1968)
by Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Millions of dollars were added to the cost of the launching of the Canadian patrol frigates just to translate the manuals for these warships into French! The bilingualism of the federal civil service and indeed of politicians has given rise to French immersion and a myriad of French-language training options. One man more than any other is responsible for bilingualism: Trudeau. Just as Hitler articulated his agenda in Mein Kampf so too did PET spell out his intentions in Federalism. This book reflects the rationale behind the present “bilingual” state of Canada, one which my grandfathers would not comprehend!
50. Nègres blancs d’Amérique (White Niggers of America) (1968)
by Pierre Vallières
Part autobiography, part manifesto, Nègres blancs is nothing less than an explosion of rage tempered with the indisputable rationality of the human cry for freedom. Written in a New York prison, with Vallières awaiting extradition to Canada to face charges of manslaughter, it outlines the making of Québécois militancy and the emergence of the Front de libération du Québec. At the time of its publication in English in 1971, the book was heralded as a way for Canadians to know the terrorist enemy. Three and a half decades later, it stands as a bristling literary chronicle of the oppression faced by generations of French Canadians, burdened by conquest, colonization, class exploitation and a servile church—a political knife in the heart of Canadian statecraft. Nothing quite like it exists in Canadian letters.
Bryan D. Palmer