Not so long ago, Canadians who were feeling inundated by American culture were constantly being reminded of the importance of “telling our own stories.”
The message became a key tool in the kit of Canadian film and literary organizations. The media picked up on it, and the theme has since been showing up in newspaper columns and broadcast talks.
Typical was the campaign of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, an outfit that is strong for the CBC and other public broadcasting. It launched an Internet campaign more than ten years ago – TellCanadianStories.ca – to push the idea that Canadian stories were being neglected on our airwaves.
The message evolved as Canadian film and literature matured, but never really went away. A London Free Press columnist, Greg van Morsel, recently summed it up this way:
“It took tireless authors who knew they had the write stuff, from the late Robertson Davies to the legendary Margaret Atwood. It took trailblazing Canadian publishers, like the late Jack McCLelland, willing to take chances on homegrown talent. Academics, too, had to be willing to teach CanLit and governments willing to invest in telling our own stories.”
A half century ago, the number of successful Canadian novelists could be counted on one hand, such as Morley Callaghan and Mazo de la Roche. Both won international reputations. La Roche, in fact, won the Atlantic Monthly $10,000 novel of the year award for Jalna in 1928 — a huge sum for the time. A bit of a 1920s Downton Abbey, it tells the story of a Canadian family, the Whiteoaks, in plot and narrative that had universal appeal.
Since their time, television spawned a People’s History and today, shows such as Little House on the Prairie, Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle and Saving Hope are regular fixtures on major networks and abroad. In France, I was told that “Inspect-air Murdoch” is a favourite even if he “never knows what to say to Julia.”
Today, despite cutbacks at the CBC and an uncertain book publishing industry trying to adjust to the switch from print to online reading, we’ve never been stronger at telling our own stories.
What’s changed is that Canadian writers are no longer constrained to write about only Canadian things. We’re free to cast our interests around the world.
A crop of immigrant novelists has blended experiences of their native countries with Canadian life, ranging from Yann Martel to Rawi Hage. We’re seeing the same trend in non-fiction. Three of the five short-listed titles in this year’s RBC Taylor Prize built on content from outside Canada.
Thomas King won the Taylor Prize and the B..C. Non-Fiction prize for his widely-acclaimed The Inconvenient Indian, which casts a North American context for his look at what has happened to the aboriginal population of this continent since the arrival of Europeans.
Graeme Smith won a major prize for The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, a searing examination of what’s gone right and wrong in Afghanistan. Margaret Macmillan, in The War That Ended Peace, has produced yet another page-turning account of the First World War, its causes and its outcomes. J.B. MacKinnon gives us a global picture of the stresses facing our environment in The Once and Future World.
Modris Ecksteins added further lustre to his reputation with Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. John Valiant used a Siberian setting for his suspenseful examination of man vs. nature in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.
In recent new fiction , J.L. Witterick has written a compelling (and controversial) novel on the Holocaust, My Mother’s Secret, about a Catholic Polish woman who saved Jews from the concentration camps.
The appearance of more Canadian books on global subjects – reflecting the willingness of Canadian publishers to go to subjects beyond our borders – is one of the brighter signs of Canada’s newly found maturity. We’ve told our own stories to ourselves. Now we’re telling the world’s stories to both ourselves and the world.
Stephen Leacock is one of the most enduring figures of Canadian literature. Some might regard that statement as faint praise. But he was a good choice for inclusion in John Ralston Saul’s series of Extraordinary Canadians for Penguin Canada.
Margaret MacMillan, a distinguished Canadian historian (Paris 1919, Nixon in China) admits her field is international history, not the history of this country. Yet she was a good choice to write the Leacock entry in the series.
In delivering the 2009 Leacock Lecture last night, MacMillan told us it was not easy “to get a sense of the full man.” She’s right. He is, I believe, the least understood of Canada’s literary figures.
Leacock worked as a university economics professor but is known for his humorous writings. His life, 1869 to 1944, covered the years of Canada’s existence as a loyal member of the British Empire. Canadianness was viewed with suspicion by an establishment that largely denigrated the few original expressions of character that were developing during his lifetime.
Most notably known for Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Leacock , MacMillan writes, “lived through great changes in Canada and in the world, and his writings are part of the record we have of the past.”
MacMillan paid tribute to Leacock both as a humorist and a public intellectual — one of the very few that Canada had during his life. His speeches were reported on the front pages of the newspapers. His ideas were fodder for the editorial writers.
In the book, she reminds us of Leacock’s view that “the real virtue of a nation is bred in the country, that the city is an unnatural product.” Then she asks: “Don’t we still have that today with our enthusiasm for our cottages and for summer camps for our children?”
This makes me think that MacMillan is addressing the same comfortable upper middle class audience about whose foibles Leacock, wrote, made fun of, and otherwise demolished.
I asked MacMillan whether she thought there was still a market for Leacock’s work, and works about Leacock and others of his era, in today’s post-British, multi-ethnic society? Do Canadians whose recent roots lie in other lands give a damn?
She didn’t really answer my question, probably because there isn’t an easy answer. But she did make a good case as to why those Canadians should be interested in our past: The institutions and values of Leacock’s time are still largely our institutions and values, she said, and you can’t understand a country without knowing something of its past.
Other echoes of Canada’s past were heard at the Leacock Festival when authors Ted Barris and Tim Cook discussed their books: Juno by Barris and Shock Troops, by Cook.
The former deals, of course, with the Canadian landing in Europe on D-Day. The latter is the second volume of Cook’s history of Canada in the First World War.
Barris gave us illuminating anecdotes of Canadian achievements. Like the weather observer whose report after flying along the coast of Europe led to General Eisenhower’s decision to postpone the invasion by 24 hours. Or the cameraman who rode a Canadian landing craft onto the beach to record the first film of the Allied invasion.
Barris reminded us that soldiers don’t usually talk of their wartime experiences. He’s collected many such stories for his next book, Breaking the Silence, to be published in September by Thomas Allen.
Cook didn’t read, but he did sing. He sang a few ditties of World War I, such as Hit Me There Again (a satirical challenge to the Boche) and Mademoiselle from Armentieres, a bawdy ballad of the trenches.
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