From Colony to Dominion:

Canadian Literature yesterday and today

Canada’s sesquicentennial provides a good occasion for a few reflections on our country’s literature, past and present. How did our nation’s literature develop, and what is its present state?

For comparison’s sake, the United States of America declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, then saw a significant literary renaissance with mid-19th century writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Poe and Whitman. Canada’s official birth, in contrast, did not occur until Confederation in 1867, and its first significant literature took much longer to appear than it did in the U.S. Why was that?

Several reasons. First, Canada had two founding nations rather than one – what novelist Hugh MacLennan has called Canada’s “two solitudes.” The result was that a sense of national identity came much more slowly to Canada than to the United States. In fact, it’s been a matter of debate whether Canada has a unified national identity at all, and that Canada consists more of a number of separate regions, each with its own identity. Second, Canada’s population was much smaller than that of the U.S., and consisted of settlements that were often spaced far apart, which delayed the development of a unified national awareness and, therefore, of a mature body of literature.

Thus, while The United States was experiencing rich mid-nineteenth century literary expression, Canadian writing published during that time consisted largely of tales of expeditions written by explorers, and, still later, of books documenting settlers’ experiences on the frontier. Think of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush or Catherine Parr Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada. The few novels that were published in Canada at that time tended to be derivative historical romances modeled after British novels.

Early 20th century American literature featured great writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck. During that time in Canada, the novel first came to expression with writers such as Fredrick Philip Grove, Hugh MacLennan, Sinclair Ross and Morley Callaghan, but these novelists’ work, compared to the modernist writings of the Americans, was very traditional in form. Critic W.J. Keith says that what was written in Canada after World War I was a series of isolated pioneering efforts.

A sense of nationhood
Then, in the 1960s, came a virtual explosion of Canadian literature. What factors brought about such sudden literary growth?

A combination of factors. First, three specific historical events created a sudden increase in patriotic feelings and allowed Canadians to begin to shed their colonial mentality. In 1965 Canada chose the maple leaf as the symbol of its nationhood, and the Canadian flag was born. In 1967, Canada’s celebration of its centennial coincided with the country’s hosting of Expo ‘67 in Montreal. Then, in 1972, Canada’s hockey team defeated Russia in the Summit Series, and Paul Henderson’s iconic, game-winning goal – by far the most important single moment in the history of Canada’s national sport – galvanized the nation. These three events fostered a sense of nationalistic pride, and led to a flowering of literature in the ‘70s and ‘80s that explored and celebrated Canadian life.

A second significant factor is the emergence of feminism in the 1960s, which encouraged the development of Canadian women writers who have become some of Canada’s strongest voices in fiction. Think of the major contribution made to Canadian literature since the 1960s by writers such as Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields, among others.

Critic Coral Ann Howells sees a parallel between Canada’s emergence from its colonial mentality and women’s new gendered perceptions of themselves. “There is a connection,” Howells says, “between the preoccupations of nationalism and of women’s fiction. . . . The ideological coincidence between nationalism and feminism would suggest one of the reasons why so much attention is being paid to women writers in Canada now.”
World-class fiction
On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, what might be said about the present state of Canadian literature? 


Three key Canadian writers

Alistair MacLeod’s short stories depict the life of Cape Breton fishermen, farmers and miners, a life that is simple and beautiful in some ways, but also tragic and austere. Written in elegiac prose, the stories’ recurring tone is one of loss and sadness, since MacLeod is memorializing a Maritime culture that, like its young, is rapidly disappearing.

Alice Munro, a master of the modern short story, is one of Canada’s most celebrated and beloved writers. Most of her fiction is set in Huron County in southern Ontario. The Nobel Prize committee, in awarding Munro the Nobel Prize in 2013, observed that her stories “often accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages. . . . With subtle means, she is able to demonstrate the impact that seemingly trivial events can have on a person’s life.”

Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan, a lyrical, poetic novel about one of the more shameful chapters in Canadian history, namely the internment and relocation of Japanese Canadians from the west coast to the interior of British Columbia during World War II, won a number of prizes and was highly acclaimed when it appeared. Kogawa herself experienced the trauma described in the novel, but rather than being angry and strident, her novel transforms tragedy and suffering into high art. Kogawa, daughter of an Anglican minister, offers profound insight into the challenging call to forgiveness as a Christian response to injustice and human suffering.

First, the maturation of Canadian literature today is indicated by the increasing number of Canadian writers garnering international acclaim. Top of the list certainly has to be Alice Munro’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for lifetime achievement in literature. Further evidence: Alistair MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief won the IMPAC Dublin Literary award in 2001; the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize has been awarded to novels by Michael Ondaatje (1992), Margaret Atwood (2000), and Yann Martel (2002); and Carol Shields’ wonderful novel The Stone Diaries was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1995. These contemporary Canadian writers have risen to the level of world-class writers.

After the surge of fiction and poetry beginning in the ‘60s that focused on Canadian life, a second significant feature of contemporary Canadian literature – no surprise, given the rapidly changing nature of the country’s profile – is the emergence of a significant body of literature coming from ethnic minorities, writers who enrich, and form an integral part of, the Canadian mosaic. (I should state parenthetically here that I’m restricting my comments to Canadian literature in English, since French Canadian literature is a topic of its own.)

Of the writers representing minority communities, I can name only a select few. Aboriginal writers include Thomas King, Tomson Highway, Daniel David Moses and Richard Wagamese. A strong contingent of Asian Canadian writers includes Joy Kogawa, Michael Ondaatje, Wayson Choy, M.G. Vassanji, Vincent Lam and Evelyn Lau. Mennonite writers are represented by Rudy Wiebe, Miriam Toews, Sandra Birdsell and Patrick Friesen. There are Dutch/Belgian Canadian writers such as Aritha van Herk and Guy VanderHaeghe. We could also mention Canadian writers of Italian, Irish, Jewish, Caribbean, African and Muslim communities. In many respects, this trend of increasing numbers of minority writers mirrors present-day Canadian society, and is one of the more dominant features of contemporary Canadian literature. Contemporary writing in the U.S. has seen a corresponding growth in literature coming from minority writers.

Canadian literature has reached a level of excellence over the last five decades, and on this sesquicentennial offers a body of writing well worth celebrating.


  • Hugh Cook is Professor of English (Emeritus) at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, and the author of four books of fiction. The latest, a novel titled Heron River, is available at Reprinted with permission from Books and Culture.

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