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Setting the CanLit canon on fire

How controversy, curriculum change and emerging perspectives are shifting the study of Canadian literature.
BY ERIKA THORKELSON
MAR 06 2020

Setting the CanLit canon on fire

How controversy, curriculum change and emerging perspectives are shifting the study of Canadian literature.

BY ERIKA THORKELSON | MAR 06 2020

On a November evening in 2018, writers, scholars and readers pack a room in Simon Fraser University’s downtown Vancouver campus for the launch of an anthology called Refuse: CanLit in Ruins. The collection marks a moment of turmoil in our national literature, a period when controversy after controversy burst into the public discourse, laying bare the inequities at its heart. But, for the moment, the mood here is one of celebration; if the events chronicled in the anthology signaled a symbolic death within the canon of Canadian literature, then perhaps there was also an opportunity for rebirth.

The end of the previous decade saw a hard few years for Canadian literature – many Canadian writers and critics have referred to this period as the “CanLit dumpster fire.” The period inspired the creation of Refuse and in their introduction to the book, editors Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak and Erin Wunker call that time “a tangle of events that are recent but have deep roots.” It began around 2015, when accusations of sexual assault and harassment in creative writing programs at Canadian universities started making the news, and led to at least one high-profile faculty member being fired. In response, several well-known writers organized a poorly received campaign called UBC Accountable, which ostensibly set out to condemn the University of British Columbia’s handling of complaints against a faculty member.

That was followed by the “appropriation prize” controversy of 2017, sparked by an opinion piece by a white editor and published by The Writers’ Union of Canada, which encouraged the appropriation of Indigenous experience in literature. The editor was fired, though not before a handful of prominent Canadian news editors took to his defense on social media. (On the upside, the controversy inspired a new award for Indigenous writers.)

That same year saw the eruption of long-simmering questions about the identity of author Joseph Boyden, who, it now appears, had misrepresented his heritage even as he accepted opportunities intended for Indigenous writers. There were also tense discussions about the exclusion of disabled writers at literary festivals, and an announcement from writer and critic Rinaldo Walcott, a professor with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, that he was “quitting CanLit” because of its ongoing disregard for Black writers (like the absence of author Austin Clarke from a CanLit history published to much hype in 2017). Each of these moments – and many others – had critics and writers returning to a question that has plagued CanLit for as long as it has existed as an industry and a field of study: Whose voices are celebrated and whose voices get forced out?

My own contribution to Refuse was an essay in response to the UBC Accountable petition. In it, I argued that powerful writers like Margaret Atwood (who supported UBC Accountable) must learn to listen to those who have less power if we are to truly address historical injustices. Seeing that essay alongside Refuse’s many contributions by distinguished writers and thinkers felt like a confirmation that these ideas were being taken seriously. As with the Me Too movement, it seemed like these age-old complaints could no longer be shoved under the rug.

Dr. Wunker says that, for her at least, preserving and continuing the dialogue that these controversies generated was part of the impetus for creating the anthology. She and her fellow editors had encountered these conversations at conferences and on their social media feeds, and they wanted to create a record of that “ephemeral” discourse. “They are sites of cultural discourse that matter,” says Dr. Wunker, an assistant professor of English at Dalhousie University. She notes that part of her job as a scholar of Canadian literature is to create resources for scholars and students to make sense of the changes taking place at this time and the tensions that are fueling them.

According to Laura Moss, an English professor at UBC and editor of the journal Canadian Literature, to understand the future of CanLit we must first define our terms. In her essay for Refuse, “On Not Refusing CanLit,” she carefully differentiates between two meanings of CanLit: one refers to the industry of Canadian writing and publishing, and the other describes the field of study. To understand changes in the scholarship, she argues, we must contextualize current discussions within the long history of resistance in the field. “It’s not that a canon didn’t exist,” she explains in an interview. “But there were people who were writing outside of it right along the way – people who were struggling to get published, wanting their voices heard or thinking differently.”

She points to writers like Lee Maracle, a Stó:lo author and instructor at U of T, who grabbed the microphone during the 1988 Vancouver Writers’ Festival and, unprompted, read from her essay collection, I Am Woman. Though she had been denied an official invitation from festival organizers, Ms. Maracle later recounted to CBC’s Unreserved that she had insisted the audience, assembled in her “original village,” hear her voice. The trouble was, these moments of resistance were easy to ignore in the grand narrative of Canadian literature, until social media and the internet gave people a place to gather and to broadcast these interventions to a wider audience.

As Dr. Moss sees it, social media has offered opportunities for the public and those outside academia to think and talk about literature in its social and historical contexts in much the same way she has throughout her career. That approach is the basis of the two-volume anthology Canadian Texts and Contexts, which she edited with University of Ottawa professor Cynthia Sugars. The anthology, published in 2008, contextualized Canadian literature within its colonial history by including artefacts such as the Chinese Immigration Act, the Indian Act and other “non-literary texts” alongside literature by authors like E. Pauline Johnson and Fred Wah.

It’s a practice that remains central to her pedagogy today. Last year, Dr. Moss taught Ms. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time in years. She also assigned an op-ed Ms. Atwood published in the Globe and Mail, “Am I a bad feminist?”, in 2018. Students read both and were encouraged to come to their own conclusions. Dr. Moss sees Refuse as part of that trajectory. “It is very powerful as a collection of responses to a very important time in Canadian literature,” she says.

At the University of Toronto Scarborough, Karina Vernon is also situating the literature she teaches within political and historical contexts past and present, but she’s expanding what qualifies as a historical document in a CanLit class. For the last couple of years, she has taught a graduate class called “#Black Lives Matter: Contemporary Black Canadian Literature.” Dr. Vernon writes in her syllabus that the course intends to “illuminate the current context of black life and political struggle in Canada” through a selection of work that “brings forward a range of histories and contexts that are all too often left out of media representations of black Canadian life.” Bringing these charged, ongoing conversations into the classroom was important to Dr. Vernon, but it also felt somewhat dangerous. “I waited until I had tenure because I didn’t know how it would be received by my graduate department,” says Dr. Vernon. “But I’ve received nothing but supportive responses.”

This desire to expand upon CanLit’s view of its own history emerges from Dr. Vernon’s childhood when her family moved from Honduras to the Prairies. “Alberta was a difficult place for me as a mixed-race kid not seeing any signs of blackness in my environment,” she explains. “It became a psychic and geographical problem that I continued to reference from my work, an unresolved issue.” While doing her PhD at the University of Victoria she came across a trove of writing that has led to her book The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology. Dr. Vernon hopes this “hidden archive” will challenge the image of the Prairies as “one of the regions in Canada that’s not thought about as a Black space.”

Similarly, Dr. Vernon uses the annual process of developing course syllabi to confront who the industry and scholars typically place at the centre of CanLit, and who has been left out. This semester, she brought that struggle into the class by asking her second-year students to choose a location in the country and, using databases in consultation with a librarian, find a text written there before 1900. “What the students found was extraordinary,” she marvels.

For example, an Indigenous student chose the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve and came back with the first newspaper ever published there. This, she explained to her students, is the sort of thing future anthologies might include in addition to the government documents and accounts from white settlers that the field is used to seeing. “I want to empower my students to have this sense of Canadian literature as a very malleable, imaginative construct that they can also potentially challenge,” she explains. “They might wish to imagine themselves or their cultural production within it, or they might reject it and say, as Joshua Whitehead said [in his essay ‘Notes on Indiginegativity’], ‘I am not CanLit.’”

There are those, however, who believe that simply expanding the range of the CanLit syllabus is not enough. Though she is trained in CanLit (specialists are called Canadianists), Michelle Coupal, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Truth, Reconciliation, and Indigenous Literatures at the University of Regina and is past-president of the Indigenous Literary Studies Association, argues that teaching Indigenous literature within CanLit classes does the former a disservice by divorcing Indigenous writing from its conceptual framework, and bounding it within settler culture and literary traditions. “Indigenous literature as an area of study has become a body of literature and a body of scholarship unto itself with separate methodologies, and completely different approaches from a scholarly standpoint,” she says. “It’s a completely different way of critically, yet carefully – in line with Indigenous protocols and in concert with Indigenous literary communities –approaching these literatures.”

She points out, for example, that the work of Thomas King, an author she holds in great esteem, tends to be overrepresented in CanLit curricula because it consciously references and plays with the canon of settler literature and culture. Meanwhile, authors like Robert Arthur Alexie, whose 2002 novel Porcupines and China Dolls she considers a beloved classic, remain relatively unknown to settler readers. Today, the breadth and diversity of the field means that it’s no longer necessary or even ethical to shoehorn Indigenous literature into a subsection of CanLit. She likens this shift to Canadian literature’s own founding as a field of study separate from British and American literatures. How would Canadianists feel, she asks, if CanLit was suddenly folded into a subfield of British literature? “You can almost hear a national harumph, right?”

The necessity of this change was thrown into stark relief for Dr. Coupal when she was recently scheduled to teach a CanLit survey class in Laurentian University’s Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre, a space billed by the university as a “home away from home and peaceful refuge for Indigenous students.” She says that it felt disrespectful, in a space meant for healing, to teach writers like poet Duncan Campbell Scott, known both for his romanticized descriptions of Indigenous people and for his role in expanding the residential school system as deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs. She tried to include more Indigenous voices than she usually would in a survey course, but struggled to give settler students the context they needed to engage with the work in the way they might with Anne of Green Gables or the short stories of Alice Munro. “[Students] were bumping up against the cultural differences that they didn’t anticipate, didn’t sign up for, and didn’t fully understand,” she recounts. In a paper she wrote for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2018, she called the result a “hot mess.”

In classes dedicated to Indigenous literature, Dr. Coupal says, an instructor has more room to experiment because students have consciously chosen to engage with Indigenous subject matter; they might be more willing to do the work to position themselves as non-Indigenous in relation to their own histories and to the land. This year, she took that engagement to the next level for a class on residential school literature by bringing in Cree Elder Alma Poitras, a survivor of the system, as a paid co-teacher. Dr. Coupal is now working on a book about residential school literature that she hopes will guide future instructors in the area.

Nonetheless, Dr. Coupal is optimistic for the future of CanLit as a field of study. “I have tons of respect for Canadian literature,” she says. “Canadian literary scholars, unless they’re the kind that comes from the Jurassic age, are thinking hard about these issues, questioning themselves and questioning the discipline in really generative ways.”

Indeed, there are myriad ways that scholarship and teaching in the field are shifting in response to conversations about the sexism, racism, ableism and colonialism at the centre of the controversies mentioned in Refuse. Of course, not everyone agreed on the interpretation of the moment that the anthology put forward. Some have suggested that the arguments made in the book are ageist, or discount the foundational work that CanLit scholars have been doing for decades under different guises, such as “multicultural,” “postcolonial” or “transnational” literature. Such disagreements simply add to the complexity that future scholars will find themselves disentangling, perhaps with the help of the very anthology that inspired them.

PUBLISHED BY
Erika Thorkelson
Erika Thorkelson is a freelance journalist and writer of fiction and creative non-fiction living in Vancouver. She teaches writing and humanities at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
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  1. Robin Elliott / March 11, 2020 at 13:24

    Nicely balanced article on an important topic … much to think about here! Thanks so much for this contribution.

  2. Jim Clark / March 11, 2020 at 14:12

    In 1992/93, enrollments in social sciences and humanities were about the same proportion of total enrolments, 20.4% and 20.8% respectively. By 2017/18, the respective figures were 19.3% and 10.8%. One out of every 5 students for SS and one out of every 9 students for Humanities. Most of the loss in Humanities has been over the past 10 years.

    Undoubtedly many reasons contribute to the decline in the Humanities, including English, but I suspect that this essay demonstrates one of the problems. Literature now takes second seat to a focus on revealing and correcting the inequities of society, the uglier the better. The “Indian Act” as an example of Canadian Literature? People like the author lecturing Margaret Atwood on power and injustice?

    Ironically the recent success of The Handmaid’s Tale on television demonstrates the widespread appeal of fine literature and its ability to address societal wrongs. Perhaps there is a lesson there for people who care about literature and the humanities more generally.

  3. Samuel / March 15, 2020 at 19:48

    Indigenous literature is in itself a result of colonialism and appropriation.

  4. Jonathan Goossen / March 17, 2020 at 10:20

    “Reply” function isn’t working, but as a Renaissance lit prof, I fully agree with Jim Clark’s comment. Thorkelson makes this “transformation” of literary studies sound revolutionary (a perennnial habit of Can Lit), but larding syllabi and anthologies with non-literary textual artifacts just mimics a phase early modern and other lit scholars went through back in the late eighties and nineties (“New Historicism”). After a period of intoxication with the idea, most early-modernists realized that if everything counts as literature, then nothing is literature, and that we would no longer have a subject matter that was properly ours if all we read were long-lost brochures and political documents. This realization, coupled with the snickers our “historicism” evoked from real historians, who were ironically much more subtle readers of these texts, strongly tempered the fad. Can Litters are certainly welcome to join the party, but most others have already gone home and turned out the lights.

    The author’s naive heady sense of being on the vanguard of epochal events seems also to have inspired the “Refuse” anthology. Its readings of recent events on the Canadian literary scene will, after the progressivist high has worn off, appear in a more sober light to be the court records of the Salem witch trials 2.0.