From hockey to totem poles, Canada cherishes its culture

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.''

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.

The basic duality of Canadian culture, sparked by the persistence of the French-speaking minority centered in Quebec, has encouraged other European minorities to retain their own cultures. This has been particularly true with East European groups. The Ukrainians, for example, who have petitioned for their mother tongue to be granted equal status with English and French. The Germans, too, have retained their culture, dress, language at such places as Lunenberg, where they originally settled, and Vancouver, where a large number settled after World War II.

Similarly, a strong Jewish culture has added markedly to literature, although in English and not Hebrew. The noted novelist Mordecai Richler is a case in point.

''This rich diversity of cultures has strengthened the Canadian nation,'' says George Woodcock, the historian.

When it comes to art, the Indian influence is conspicuous. Indeed, even as early as the 1700s, a dynamic style, derived from combining white European art with that of native American Indians, was making its print on Canada. Certainly in this century, there has been a strong, successful effort to preserve as much as possible of the native past and to stimulate its revival today.

That has been difficult. Native Inuit art developed within a largely unorganized society - and that was one of its strengths. Loose family groups, working in harsh environments, kept it alive. Trying to sustain it today in a more organized society is proving difficult and may fail, some specialists say. But the effort continues - helped along by grants from the federal government and local foundations.

A vigorous part of Canadian culture is in the sports arena, but unlike many another former part of the British Empire, Canadians are not much interested in cricket or soccer or rugby. They prefer US-oriented sports such as baseball, football, and ice hockey.

In baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays currently lead the tight race in the American League East. Toronto is mighty pleased about this. ''Blue Jays on top!'' proclaims a headline in the Toronto Sun. More disturbing still for US baseball fans, the Montreal Expos are battling for first place in the National League East. The World Series conceivably could be held in Canada this fall.

Local Canadian radio and television carry full broadcasts of Blue Jays games - and do the same for hockey. Canadian stadiums, according to sports reporters in Toronto, are more jammed with fans than similar stadiums in the US. ''You don't see many Blue Jay games at home that aren't packed to overflowing,'' says Calgary sports reporter Jim Bowler.

Canadians also are proud of their fellow Canadians who play roles on the world scene. During the 1950s and early '60s, Prime Minister Lester Pearson was widely viewed as holding a position of moral importance not only in the developed nations like the US, but also in the developing countries.

Similarly, Canadians take pride in the number of Canadians who have made it big in the US, pointing to television actor Lorne Greene and television newscaster Morley Safer.

Next: Canadian politics

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