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From hockey to totem poles, Canada cherishes its culture

By James Nelson GoodsellStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 15, 1983


Canada's literature has come a long way since a 19th-century Canadian poet wrote: ''A good deal is being said as to whether a Canadian literature exists. Of course, it does not.''

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Whether or not his dictum was true then, it is certainly not true for Canadian literature today. And it is untrue for the arts, entertainment, and just about every other aspect of culture - including sports.

Canadians have made - and are making - their marks everywhere.

One has only to think of Robertson Davies, Ann Margaret Atwood, Farley Mowat, Mordecai Richler, Hugh MacLennan, and the late Stephen Leacock to suggest just how much of a literature Canada has.

Trying to define Canadian literature, however, is as elusive as trying to do the same for United States literature. But there can be little doubt that Canadian writers are as motivated by their environment as their North American cousins in the US are motivated by theirs.

Take the literature of British Columbia, Canada's remote western province. Much of the best prose written there has centered on coming to terms with the land. After all, the British Columbian landscape - dominated by rugged snowcapped peaks, equally rugged ocean fiords, uncharted tracks of tight timberland - is a compelling subject.

Ann Margaret Atwood, the novelist, thinks the environment is a literary thread for many Canadian writers. ''The basic theme of Canadian literature is the struggle not to conquer but to survive.''

Her own writing is acclaimed widely in the English-speaking world. One of the most prolific of Canadian writers since 1966, her prose is tight and poised, not the sort of fare one often expects from someone who writes so widely.

It is not merely in literature that Canadians excel, but in painting, sculpture, and music as well. Likely as not, however, Canadian art will not be recognized as Canadian. Often it is simply categorized as North American - and that could mean the United States as much as Canada.

Canadians are sometimes a bit chagrined that credit is often misplaced. In literature and the arts, as in other fields, they have to wrestle with the problem of their nation's similarity with the US.

''It is something we have to live with,'' says Toronto journalist John Harbron. ''The excellence of our literature is often recognized, but it is not seen as Canadian literature and sometimes even gets mixed up with literature from the United States.''

Museums exist in virtually every metropolitan area. And each, while sometimes featuring one art form, tries to be broad-based in its taste. There are things in many museums for children and others to touch, to feel, to experience.

''There's nothing static about our museums,'' says Hilary Dubenkian, a staff member of a museum of native Indian art in Vancouver. ''This is a living museum.''

That's true right across Canada - from Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology with its soaring totem poles at the University of British Columbia to the Ontario Science Center in Toronto.

It has been suggested that the Canadian public has at its disposal more museum square footage per person than any other society in the world. Whether that is true or not, there can be no doubt that Canadian art, like literature, has been vigorous, particularly in this century.