Skip to content

From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Cultural Nationalism 3.0

The head of The Writers’ Union of Canada continues the debate on CanLit in the schools (and in our lives)

John Degen

Michael LaPointe’s essay on CanLit in the May LRC challenges Canadians to measure both our awareness of our national literature and our level of contentment with the very idea of a national literature. LaPointe continues an ongoing conversation that almost certainly does not happen in most of the rest of the English-speaking world. Yet it is a conversation I have been having in one form or another for my 20-some years in the business of writing and publishing in Canada, and one I am increasingly anxious to leave behind.

It is a truism that an actual writer writes, while a wannabe writer talks about writing. Every writer knows that “other” writer who talks a great game, endlessly describing his or her workspace or scheduling habits, detailing the many plans and intentions for all the writing that is going to be accomplished. I have a sad suspicion it works the same way at a national level. Countries with a thriving national literature just keep their heads down and go about the business of chucking more books on the national pile, while we Canadians, so anxious to be accepted by our international peers, might never get past the stage of counting our output, and asking others to watch us while we count.

I do not disagree with much of what LaPointe has to say about the state of the country’s literary scene. My response instead is to sigh with such audible impatience that my wife thinks I have lost something important in my office—my wife, a respected American scholar and a lover of all literatures, who sympathizes with the idea of defining a people through culture, but at the same time wonders why it is we Canadians feel the need to talk so much about doing so instead of just getting on with the project.

LaPointe surveyed the somewhat depressing 40(ish)-year history of CanLit’s impact in Canadian classrooms, and seems to conclude that despite a lot of well-meaning effort on the part of organizations (like the one for which I work, The Writers’ Union of Canada) we as a country have somehow failed to create a body of work that will tell a compelling national story to our school kids.

“The abiding paucity of Canadian authors in the classroom,” he writes, “belies a nation-building project that failed to endure. Canada has missed its national moment.”

Have we really missed our national moment? To say we have seems a pathetic admission, and one tinged with the same kind of rah-rah chauvinism that makes one vaguely uncomfortable in a crowd of sports fans belting out the national anthem as though it were some sort of battle cry.

At the risk of sounding too typically Canadian, I would have to say no, we have not missed our moment … and yes, we have.


Without question, the current status of Canadian-authored books on Canadian curriculum lists and in Canadian school libraries is, at first glance, disturbing. Jean Baird’s invaluable work in British Columbia notwithstanding, our country’s educational policy makers seem unconvinced about putting Canadian books in front of our own daughters and sons. I have two children in the K-12 school system, both boys, both reluctant readers, and we read school-assigned books as a family. As much as I enjoyed the story in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet—a boy lost in the wilderness is forced to fend for himself—it is hard for me to imagine the educational logic of assigning Paulsen’s American tale over Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, a similar (and better) story, written by a Canadian about Canadians in Canada.

On the other hand, ask a group of Canadian writers (as I have recently done, on Facebook) how important it is to them as literary professionals to have the qualifier “Canadian” in front of the word “writer” and you get a mixed bag of responses. Most, it seems, would prefer to be known as a “good” writer before being defined by their nationality. And why not? In an age when a writer can find readers as easily in Bangalore as in Brantford, an insistence on Canadianness can seem a bit precious and provincial.

(Canadian) novelist Emily Schultz might just be the epitome of our literature’s identity crisis. Recently, in a funny public service announcement for Miranda Hill’s very patriotic Project Bookmark (a charitable effort to place markers in Canadian locales noted for their appearance in Canadian books), Schultz noted that American author Joyce Carol Oates lived in Windsor, Ontario, for eight years “but left without setting any novels there.” Schultz’s early novel, Joyland, is set in rust-belt Ontario. Her most recent novel, The Blondes, has some Ontario in it, but the book largely takes place in New York City, which is also where Schultz spends half her time running a cross-border short fiction website (also called Joyland).

Is Schultz a Canadian writer? Of course. And let’s be honest about the crucial policy scaffold that helped Schultz become a Canadian writer. Not only is she a deserving recipient of public funding for her writing, but the publishing lists that supported her development within Canada (at House of Anansi and ECW Press) exist, in part, because of the funding mechanisms that grew out of our great cultural flourishing 50 years ago. As obviously talented and determined an artist as she is, Schultz herself would likely admit the road from Wallaceburg, Ontario, to the Fifth Avenue offices of St. Martin’s Press would have been a lot harder to travel without a little bit of CanCon gas in the tank.

Would an American reader of The Blondes (and thanks in part to Schultz’s Brooklyn profile there will be many American readers of The Blondes) either know or care about her nationality? Doubtful. They would assume she is American. Schultz’s service to Project Bookmark proves she is a good, proud Canadian, yet her success as a writer of international standing might suggest we are past the need for Canadian content policies. Certainly, forcing Canadian school kids to read The Blondes (the story of an apocalyptic plague of light-haired murderesses in an American city) might seem an odd exercise in nationalism. On the other hand, why wouldn’t Canadian students want to read that book on their own time, given the important information that it actually exists as part of their national literature?

Knowledge is key in any discussion about cultural nationalism. Recently BookNet Canada, a non-profit that gathers and analyzes Canadian book sales data, released a study called Canadians Reading Canadians showing rather conclusively that Canadian book consumers want to read Canadian books. Unfortunately, the study also showed that Canadian book buyers often have no idea whether a book is Canadian or not. As BookNet writes on its blog, “what seems to be missing isn’t an interest or a desire to consume Canadian literature, it’s knowledge and awareness of who our homegrown talent are and where to find them.”

If Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes does not appear on reading lists in high schools across the country, then there is something very wrong indeed with how our education system approaches Canadian writing. Where it is taught, I would hope to see a side lesson in word-evolution featuring Hill’s own writing on the controversy around his book’s title—“the word ‘Negro’ resonates differently in Canada. If you use it in Toronto or Montreal, you are probably just indicating publicly that you are out of touch with how people speak these days. But if you use it in Brooklyn or Boston, you are asking to have your nose broken.”

What makes Hill’s book Canadian? Is it because Hill lives in Hamilton and pays Canadian taxes? Sure, part of that beautifully crafted novel takes place in Canada, but the action is actually centred elsewhere (many elsewheres, in fact) and involves a larger story in world history. Hill was born in Canada, but surely much of his worldview was shaped by his expat-American parents, and this is demonstrated, I think, in the easy slide across literary borders. It is entirely possible, I imagine, that Someone Knows My Name (The Book of Negroes’ American title) appears on many, many reading lists across the United States as part of a lesson plan on American history. As with Schultz’s The Blondes, the idea that Someone Knows My Name is a Canadian book might rightly seem absurd to the majority of the people who have actually read it. So where does that leave us?

As I write this essay, I am also busily reading through the five books on the First Novel Award shortlist (I am on the award jury). Of the five, really only one of them contains a fictional world that is recognizably Canadian in an everyday sense. Y, by Marjorie Celona, is the story of a child abandoned at the front door of the YMCA in Victoria, British Columbia. The entire action takes place in B.C. and several passages seem very intentionally to take the reader on a tour of the land- and city-scapes of that province. It is utterly Canadian. Celona lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Let’s look quickly at the others:

Ru, by Kim Thúy, is set in Montreal, but most of the action takes place in Vietnam, South Asian refugee camps and the stinking, disease-filled hold of a boat in the middle of the ocean. People Park, by Pasha Malla, builds a completely fictional world that sort of looks a bit like Toronto, although it might just as well be Portland, Oregon. The Rest Is Silence, by Scott Fotheringham, has a very stereotypically Canadian focus on the natural world, and Nova Scotian woods are the main setting, but the protagonist retreats to those woods from Manhattan, and the environmental collapse that so preoccupies the narrative is global. Finally, Malarky, by Anakana Schofield—a brilliant exercise in voice—takes place entirely in Ireland, references briefly both the Middle East and the United States, and mentions Canada exactly never.

Is our cultural nationalism over, as LaPointe suggests? No, but it sure does not look like the kind of cultural nationalism that produced Dennis Lee’s profoundly beautiful and important Civil Elegies, a work of such deliberate Canadianness that its recent re-release still somehow demands Toronto’s iconic City Hall as a cover image. Malarky, a book about Ireland, published by a relatively small Ontario company called Biblioasis (which is supported by both the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council), was the eventual winner of the First Novel Award, sponsored by the Canadian arm of a giant American online bookseller. Welcome to Cultural Nationalism 3.0.

We should accept that policy solutions might never be elegant, and rarely will they actually solve anything fully. Art does not exist in a world of solved problems. But, however inelegantly, smart policy can and does work to encourage good outcomes. Can we all agree that Canadian kids reading Canadian books is a good outcome?

When I ran the Literature Office at the Ontario Arts Council, I noticed very little of the money in my grants budget travelling north. Plenty of it stuck to Toronto (surprise), and plenty of it went southwest and east in the province, but a funding map of the province showed hardly any writers at all living north of Parry Sound. From my own personal experience as a travelling writer, I knew that to be a ridiculous outcome. Of course, writers live in Ontario’s north—excellent writers live in the north, and they have important stories to tell. The problem was they either did not know the grant programs existed or they hadn’t the confidence to apply. The OAC let me carve out a bit of my budget to create the Northern Writers’ Works in Progress program, and to trumpet its existence in outreach visits to northern communities. Applications from Ontario’s north grew by a factor of 25. Excellent new books by Northern Ontario writers are on the lists of Canadian publishers right now as a direct result.

Certainly organizations such as The Writers’ Union of Canada will continue to advocate for an official national policy to get the works of its members onto school lists. To many, this advocacy will be dismissed as self-interest. Okay, I am self-interested, but not just because I am a Canadian writer. I want my kids to read Malarky and The Blondes (maybe when they are a bit older—CanLit is a bit spicy these days, innit?). I sure as hell want them to read The Book of Negroes, and if it takes policy to encourage schools to get rid of their musty, decades-old copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, then bring on the policy. ((To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful book, but tell me that Harper Lee can teach Canadian kids about black history—or about writing—better than Lawrence Hill. I don’t believe it. )) If there is only room or budget for one of those two books in a Canadian classroom, I see no earthly reason it should not be the book written and published by Canadians.

Obviously, this kind of positive action could begin with one committed teacher or department head, one determined parent, or one demanding and interested student in one school insisting on a Canadian story. LaPointe’s essay suggests reasons why that has not happened. Overburdened and underfunded educators are turning away from full texts, and demanding steeply discounted or even free content to make do with their diminished budgets. This trend leads us inevitably to the current, and vulgar, educational turf war, which sees financially constrained teachers and overcharged students pitted against impoverished writers over a shrinking pool of copyright royalties. Even as The Writers’ Union of Canada fights rear-guard legal skirmishes for writers’ educational royalties, we continue to administer programs to subsidize visits by Canadian writers to Canadian classrooms—programs that only get more popular every year. It is a baffling position in which we find ourselves—paying authors to visit the very schools that are buying fewer books while trying to copy more and more writing for free. How long can that keep going?

If a country truly values both its cultural output and its education system, it needs to pay for both in such a way that those two important sectors can afford to support each other. Recently, Australia announced its new National Cultural Policy including a $75 million increase in arts funding, and this comes at a time when their government is also working to improve its educational funding so that, just maybe, their schools can afford to pay for the books their authors write. And you can be sure that Australian students read their own national literature. Canada’s vital national literature awaits a similar policy design.

John Degen is a novelist and poet. His day job is executive director of The Writers’ Union of Canada. His novel, The Uninvited Guest (Nightwood Editions, 2006), was a finalist for the 2006 First Novel Award.