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Arts and Culture

What's Happened to CanLit?

In classrooms today, cultural nationalism seems to be a non-starter.

Michael LaPointe 7 Aug

Michael LaPointe is a writer and literary journalist in Vancouver. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement.

This essay first appeared in the Literary Review of Canada, and is republished with kind permission.

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Northrop Frye once diagnosed our cultural identity anxiety as "a frostbite at the roots of the Canadian imagination." Photo: courtesy U of T Arts.

[Editor’s note: This essay first appeared in the Literary Review of Canada, and is republished with kind permission.]

By the time a Canadian graduates from high school, there is one Canadian poem he or she is likely to know: "In Flanders Fields." We might mistake McCrae's poem for the central text of Canadian literature, so unfailingly can our students intone it. If one aim of mandatory schooling is to guarantee basic knowledge of one's country, the Canadian literary education cannot claim success. (Note: For the purpose of this essay, only English-language literature and education will be treated.) Insufficient resources are compounded by conspicuous indifference and confusion about which authors are essential. Whose place in the Canadian canon is firm enough for teaching? Who can challenge McCrae?

Setting out to map not the ideal, but the de facto Canadian canon, by examining the basic texts of a Canadian's education -- and by talking to the instructors who teach them, or do not -- we find our curricula strangely untouched by the 1960s and '70s, decades that saw the sustained efforts of writers, critics, publishers and legislators to reverse-engineer a canon, aggrandize our literature and instil it in our schools. The abiding paucity of Canadian authors in the classroom belies a nation-building project that failed to endure. Canada has missed its national moment.

It has long been held that we are what we read. In Robert Kroetsch's celebrated phrasing, "we haven't got an identity until someone tells our story. The fiction makes us real." If this is so, then today's high schoolers are something other than real Canadians. This is not to sound the alarm, however, for it is unlikely that it would rouse attention. With tidal regularity, someone steps forward to decry the absence of our literature in schools. Instead, we seek to trace the perishing of Canada's nationalist literary pedagogy. Its goal -- what one Grade 12 teacher terms "a civic and national pride, one that allows [students] a certain confidence in their pride as a people" -- slides further and further out of reach, as nationalism becomes ever more retrograde in a 21st-century context.

Literary frostbite

Canadian cultural nationalism first took legislative shape following the 1951 report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, aka the Massey Report. We can even detect the origins of Canadian canonic anxiety in the report: "Is it true, then, that we are a people without a literature?" A few years earlier, reviewing The Book of Canadian Poetry, Northrop Frye diagnosed this anxiety as "the colonial position of Canada... a frostbite at the roots of the Canadian imagination." The Massey Report's recommendations were intended to defrost Canadian creativity through financial empowerment, with a view to fortifying against every "twitch and grunt" of Trudeau's famous sleeping elephant, America.

The Canada Council for the Arts emerged in 1957 from the Massey Report, spurring a decade of nationalist literary projects in the run-up to the 1967 centennial celebrations. One such endeavour was the creation of the New Canadian Library paperback series by McClelland and Stewart, engineered to act as a stable, trustworthy canon from which consumers and teachers could draw. The predictably white, English series canonized such authors as Stephen Leacock, Mazo de la Roche and Morley Callaghan. Publisher Jack McClelland perceived his project patriotically: "If we want to continue to be Canadian for very long, we can't follow a course of passive acceptance of everything American and everything that seems easy."

The Writers' Trust of Canada, founded as the Writers' Development Trust in 1976, commissioned one of the more peculiar artifacts of the nationalist era. Intending to bridge the gap between students and the canon, the trust developed "resource guides for the teaching of Canadian literature." The guides' composition was national and representational: "five work groups were assembled to provide nation-wide talent and representation, and topics were similarly chosen to reflect national interests." With audacious critical assurance, the authors claimed the chosen books were "with no exceptions, of proven literary merit." The 10-volume set cost $15.

Its introduction begins with a lament we might find in this morning's editorial pages: "It may seem odd, even sad, that it is still necessary in Canada to provide reasons for wanting to see the national and regional experience of Canadians dealt with more adequately in our school systems." The authors delineate the everlasting anxiety of teaching Canadian literature. Opposition to their project springs, they wrote, from "the conviction that one should teach only the best, and Canadian writing isn't good enough; and … a fear [of] those who want to see it taught overwhelmingly, as some kind of nationalist exercise, to the exclusion of international literature, to the exclusion of 'the classics'."

Time for new guides

The age of the resources is now all too apparent. The "Social Realism" volume informs us that "several men had a profound effect on our view of the nature of man," while if teachers are seeking examples of blatant sexism, "Women in Canadian Literature" suggests we read "some of the lyrics of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones" or "any issues" of the Police Gazette. Despite such shortcomings, however, the resources mounted a strong, panoramic argument for the vitality of Canadian literature and formed the practical foundation of a course, or even just a unit, of Canadian literature at the secondary level. With such an apparatus in place, we might consider money well spent on occasional revisions, reflecting the latest critical trends, not to mention the emergence of new authors. The goal, after all, is changeless: "to help students form their own impressions of Canadian identity and culture, using literature as a medium."

No new editions were developed. Students of teachers still heeding advice to use "the songs of Anne Murray, Gene MacLellan, [and] John Allan Cameron" can only be considered a lost generation. It was not until 2002 that the Canada Council decided to reinvestigate the state of Canadian literature in high schools, wondering, "might it be time to produce another series of guides?" It commissioned the Writers' Trust to write a report.

That report, "English-Language Canadian Literature in High Schools," concluded that although "there have been profound changes in the educational environment since the 1970s," the "challenges remain very much the same as 30 years ago." Few students could identify 10 Canadian writers, and most read no more than five Canadian books during their secondary education. Only 31 per cent of schools offered a Canadian literature course, mostly as an elective, and the report predicted that number "will continue to decline." Some teachers make room for Canadians in the independent study units, although a retired teacher from an independent Anglican school in Port Hope, Ontario, commented, "I don't believe that books are really on the curriculum unless everyone reads them." Why did our zealous, if sometimes foppish, nationalism fail to sustain?

The Writers' Trust report details some basic, tangible impediments. Lack of resources remains the most pressing. As a Grade 11/12 teacher in Vancouver said, "if Canadian publishers want Canadian schools to teach Canadian authors, they could offer us class sets at a deeper discount." Over the past two decades, however, this has become less and less feasible. Canadian publishers lean heavily on heritage and cultural programs, which between 1994 and 1998 alone were cut by 23.3 per cent. Following the hostile takeover of Chapters by Indigo Books and Music Inc. in 2000, and the subsequent collapse of Stoddart's General Distribution Services in 2002, more than 60 Canadian publishers relied on the emaciated Department of Canadian Heritage for a bailout. Taking a cue from Jean Chrétien, Harper's Conservatives cut that department's budget by a further 5.6 per cent in 2011.

What impedes CanLit's teaching?

Certain intangible variables continue to thwart the teaching of Canadian literature. One is what the report calls the "new definition of 'text'," a theory that trickled down from the revisionist frenzy of the academy. A 1997 study of the Alberta secondary school literary canon noted the post-national attitudes of anthology editors combined with what Brenda Reed, in her study of Ontario secondary school curricula, calls "the increasing move away from text-based interpretations of literature to reader response and post-modern theories." Interestingly, this expanded, post-national definition of literary legitimization did not derive from Canadian criticism. It is itself, like our dog-eared copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, an imported product.

While broadening the received definition of text stimulated the academy, says the 2002 Writers' Trust report, in high schools it "means that students are reading less print texts of sustained length, specifically novels." English has been replaced by "English language arts," while libraries have transformed into "learning resource centres," which, a Saskatoon teacher reported, "have many computers but will never be adequately equipped with sufficient materials." Only conservative schools, hostile to revisionism, teach text strictly of the old-fashioned, between-the-covers kind. A Grade 11/12 teacher at an independent Catholic school in Calgary told me that "we emphasize time-honoured works … Because we are a conservative Catholic school, much of the Canadian feminist canon is not acceptable to us."

Another intangible is what Jean Baird, author of the Writers' Trust report, calls "ghost parents." Teachers fear community reprisal, should a book's content be more mature than the average dinner table chat. Baird's report phrases it euphemistically: "A huge issue for teachers is content that is acceptable by community standards." Mordecai Richler, for example, may be "my personal favourite Canadian author," says the Catholic school Calgarian, "but much of his writing is a little spicy for our conservative parents." After all, one duty of teachers, according to the Ontario Education Act, is "inculcate by precept and example … the principles of Judaeo-Christian morality."

Meanwhile a third, apparently invincible intangible continues to haunt the teaching of Canadian literature. This is the belief that, in the words of the 1970s Writers' Development Trust resources, "Canadian writing isn't good enough." As Baird's report found, 30 years later, "there is an attitude within the high school educational system that Canadian literature is substandard and doesn't merit being taught in schools." Writing in the New York Times, Douglas Coupland facetiously characterizes the genre: "CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience." As for its aesthetics, Coupland argues, "one could say that CanLit is the literary equivalent of representational landscape painting, with small forays into waterfowl depiction and still lifes."

A reader's locavore diet

CanLit, to modify Kroetsch, makes us really boring. "High school students want adventure, and adventure dwells beyond the boundaries of their cities and their country," said the teacher in Saskatoon. "It may be an age thing where they are restless and ready to break free from high school, parents and other things that restrict them. In some ways the rebellion they demonstrate against the system is similar to the way they react to home-grown literature and ideas." Others see it as a simple matter of quality: "In truth," said the Calgarian, "Canada has not produced a Shakespeare or an Austen or a Mark Twain.

Several remedies to CanLit's terminal dullness have been offered. Some suggest regionalism, which satisfies the instinct to decentralize the canon, while yet instilling a sense of citizenship. Jean Baird, for example, advocates for something akin to a literary locavore diet, right down to the neighbourhood. Students in Vancouver's Chinatown should be exposed to Wayson Choy and Sky Lee, while East Vancouver schools should incorporate Wayde Compton and Evelyn Lau.

Others are skeptical that regionalism can escape the problems of nationalism. Tracy Ware, a professor of Canadian literature at Queen's University, told me that "if the problem of an inflexible nationalism is that it assumes that all Canadians are of the same nature, then regionalism is all too likely to make the same error. No one would now assume that all Canadians are the same, given the current interests in diversity, but unless you are careful it is all too easy to read Alistair MacLeod and assume that all Nova Scotians are miners and fishers of Scottish background." This issue could be avoided, said Ware, if we invest in the regionalist program wholesale, reading more than one book, "in the case of Nova Scotia, perhaps Ann-Marie MacDonald or George Elliott Clarke" in addition to MacLeod. In so doing, said Ware, "we mirror the best kind of nationalist assumptions, which assume that Canadian writers disagree on core issues."

If a central anxiety of Canadian identity is our sense of vastness and disconnection, however, regionalism runs the risk of further isolating students, reinforcing the sense that we are little more than a loosely aligned cultural archipelago. It is appealing to teach students more about themselves, specifically in urban, multicultural areas. In the Toronto District School Board, for example, where seven out of 10 students are not white, two-thirds of surveyed students said learning about their own race would make school more interesting and almost half believed it would improve their grades. But we would probably not advocate for a locavore diet in areas of cultural homogeneity, where the notion of "learning about your own race" has a more sinister aspect. Surely a key function of literature is to place the reader in a dialectic relationship with another human experience. A curriculum drawn from a 100-mile radius will not always be positioned to achieve this.

Another precious natural resource

Baird's response: "So what?" The practical reality is that, as a Grade 11/12 teacher in Charlottetown said, "our novels are mostly by American writers." Meanwhile, indifference reigns. Ten years ago, Baird's report fell on deaf ears as, she told us, the Writers' Trust became increasingly focused on awards that "praise exactly the kind of authors that teachers say don't click." Neither, apparently, do they click with staff. A teacher in Vancouver reported that "our English department made an effort a couple years ago to find Canadian replacements for some of the 'traditional' novels, but it was met with a lukewarm response. Teachers couldn't bother to read the books."

Very few teachers observe anything like nationalism in today's students. A Grade 10/11/12 teacher at an independent school in Toronto told me that students "are unaware, most of the time, that a book was written by a Canadian. I introduce the fact but it slides away as irrelevant at some point in the teaching."

"I don't make a big deal about the authors' nationalities," said the teacher in Vancouver, and "I don't think students question the nationality of a story's author." Either the Trudeau generation failed to pass the torch, or someone failed to grasp it.

Are we content with this? Should we embrace the post-nationalism of the 21st century, or revive some fraught sense of literary protectionism? A cosmopolitan pedagogy is attractive to the liberal imagination, but cosmopolitan so often means, simply, American, and it would not be thoughtful to extend post-nationalism beyond the cultural sphere, into, say, the treatment of our natural resources. We do not want to ghettoize or tokenize Canadian literature, or teach a book for its author's origin rather than its aesthetic strength, but left alone, we do not seem to cherish that strength where indeed it can be found.

"Speaking as someone who has taught at the high school level all the plays of Shakespeare, three of Austen's novels and several works by Twain," that teacher in Port Hope said, "I believe that Canada's best authors hold their own." This is a judgement every Canadian shares, on November 11.  [Tyee]

*Writer's note: Some of the quotes in this essay come from unpublished interviews with Robert Lecker, Jean Baird, Tracy Ware and seven teachers across Canada.

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