Canadian Identity as Expressed in Canadian Literature



If you are not Canadian, you may have some preconceived notions about what it means to be Canadian. The way Canadians are portrayed in the media, in literature and other artistic mediums contributes immensely to what non-Canadians perceive Canadians as. The actions of our politicians, the decisions they make or even abstain from making reflects on the Canadian population as a whole whether we agree or not with what they have said, done and decided.  But our interest today is that whiff of Canada that is present in literature whether the Canadian author intends it or not. Actually, that should be a question: is there an irrepressible whiff of Canada in Canadian literature? An all unifying trait that denominates the book as Canadian? Is it possible to identify a Canadian identity by reading books produced by Canadian authors?

People I ask have almost unanimously said no. Before we move on to that though, let’s talk about stereotypes. I sometimes enjoy them because let’s face it, some of them are funny, some of them are true and some of them are very offensive. When I first moved to Canada and spent a lot of time online (which will be a topic for a later post), I talked to a lot of people from other countries and I had to explain to them that no, I did not live in an igloo and no, lunching with polar bears and swimming in icy rivers is not something I intend to ever do. I was very puzzled when I heard that Canadians say “aboot” because I have yet to hear one say that. In fact, the only people I have heard saying “aboot” instead of “about” are Americans. (The Newfie accent doesn’t count because I’m still not convinced they’re even speaking English.)

My experiences as an immigrant is by no means exclusive but I feel that this experience gives me an interesting perspective on what it means to be Canadian. I resisted being Canadian for a very long time because I clung to the islands of my childhood; my identity was a place that no longer existed and this was brought home only when I returned to where I had lived once and still call home. Returning let me realize that home is just as transient as childhood and since I defined myself in large part by where I lived, this made me question my Canadian identity. What is the Canadian identity?

Of course I turned to books as I usually do. You will notice that I said Canadian Literature instead of specifically Canadian children’s literature. The reason for that is I have not read much in the way of Can Lit. though I have read a fair amount of Canadian literature. Now you will be questioning my decision to even tackle this topic and really, I am only skimming the surface of it. This could very well be the topic of a dissertation and maybe even is.

Here’s what I found in my reading of Canadian literature:

1. Canadians are very preoccupied with the weather. Especially but not exclusively winter. Canadians talk a lot about the weather whether in real life or in fiction. (I cannot comment on nonfiction because I have yet to read any.) Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road comes to mind.h

2. The wilderness could very well be secondary characters in many Canadian novels. The Maestro by Tim Wynne-Jones and Kelley Armstrong’s Darkness Rising trilogy. There are several adult novels such as Shoot! by George Bowering. Landscapes often shape the characters present in the Canadian novel; their attributes and skills are dependent on the landscape native to them.

3. This is by no means unique to Canadian literature but in my experience, Canadian literature, both adult and YA, are often very exploratory in both content and tone. New worlds whether internal or external are often explored in great (and not so great) detail. Some examples of those include Seraphina by Rachel Hartman and Blood Red Road by Moira Young.

4. The most unifying trait that I can think of, one that is common to almost all Canadian novels is that the protagonists in the novels are usually grappling with the question of identity. They are seeking to define themselves through their experiences, to formulate an identity throughout their novel no matter what genre this novel is in.

If I had to conclude, I would say that the Canadian identity is one that is still developing. Both regional and national identities are in flux and perhaps that is what the Canadian identity is. The multicultural and diverse nature of the Canadian population makes it difficult to specify a commonality between all Canadians (no matter their ages and countries of origin). However, it is very improbable that young Canadians, those born and brought up in Canada (no matter where their parents are from) have many things in common that one could tie together and call a national identity. I don’t know. I can speculate, of course but I cannot say.

I do know that right now if someone were to ask me who I am as in how I’d identify myself, I’d say Indo-Fijian Canadian because all three of these things matter deeply to me, all three of those things have played an important part in how I define myself.

How do you define yourself?