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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Honours English Introduction

Gentle readers of my livejournal, below is the next-to-final version of my Honours English thesis’ introduction. It runs to eight pages in WordPerfect 8.0, in all, doublespaced.

Canadian nationalists–particularly English Canadian nationalists–fear the presence of the United States. Canada first emerged as a cultural-geographic entity distinct from the United States because of Canada’s seventeenth century colonization by the French and the future United States’ contemporary colonization by the English. The British conquest of Canada did place the two future countries under common rule for more than two decades, but after the United States gained its independence from the British Empire in 1783 Canada was reconstituted along explicitly anti-American lines, as long-implanted French Canadian populations were joined by large populations of American refugees expelled for their continuing attachment to Britain. The ninteenth century history of Canada, from the War of 1812 and the Maine Boundary Dispute to Confederation and the National Policy, was dominated by the struggle to establish strict boundaries between Canada and the United States. As a distinct Canadian nationalism evolved in the twentieth century, the disappearance of the British link and the ascent of the United States to superpower status encouraged Canadian nationalists to define themselves against the United States. According to some nationalists, the United States was alternatively as a threatening economic hegemon (Newman), a potential threat to Canadian security (Livingston), and, above all else, a menace to the development of a distinctive Canadian culture (Clarkson).

It is important to note, however, that although this Canadian nationalism achieved numerous victories, in the end it failed to alter the reality of Canada’s links with the United States. Interestingly, for Francophone Canadians–particularly Québécois–the question of remaining separate from the United States never became as pressing an issue as it did for their English Canadian counterparts (Dufour 108-110), perhaps because of the relatively strong cultural distance betwee Canadian Francophones and Americans, perhaps because of Canadian Francophones’ preoccupation with their relationship with English Canadians (Chodos and Hamovitch 220-229). For English Canadians, however, the extreme permeability of the cultural frontier with the United States ensured that “[t]o most Canadians, TV was American TV, films were American films, and the same applied to books, magazines, music, entertainment, clothes, food, housing, and technology” (Gwyn 49). Canadian culture–particularly English Canadian culture–is interpreted as a fragile entity, menaced at every turn. This is the argument made in Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1972 survey Survival, in which Atwood argues that Canadian literature and its authors have been preoccupied by attempts to survive in the midst of a hostile natural environment. Canada’s marginality is furthered by its preoccupation with the themes of its colonial or neo-colonial powers, in particular by the United States. In this perspective, Canadian literature is seen as constituting a nationalistic striving for autonomy.

The central symbol for Canada–and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature–is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance. Like the Frontier and The Island, it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of “hostile” elements and/or natives: carving out a place and a way of keeping alive. But the word can also suggest survival of a crisis or disaster, like a hurricane or a wreck, and many Canadian poems have this kind of survival as a theme; what you might call ‘grim’ survival as opposed to ‘bare’ survival. For French Canada after the English took over it became cultural survival, hanging on as a people, retaining a religion and a language under an alien government. And in English Canada now while the Americans are taking over it is acquiring a similar meaning. (Atwood 32)

Coupled with this cultural dependency upon the United States is a profound economic dependency, based on the fear that “[a]s a peripheral northern region of the continent (more exactly, five peripheral subregions), the economic and geographic logic of the marketplace will inevitably . . . marginalize us. . . . Canadians [will become] poorer Americans rather than distinctive North Americans” (Gwyn 62). Gwyn’s thesis is a demonstration of the theories of the noted social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein, who has proposed that the world as a human system is united by what he calls the “world-economy”–a global capitalist economy that is the product of the immense European expansion overseas that began in the 15th century–and is divided between prosperous “core” economies and marginal “peripheral” economies. Though the current world-system “is … a unit with a single but integrated division of labour,” it possesses “multiple cultures”; unlike world-empires, which possess a political integration commensurate with their economic integration, the world-economy in which Canada has developed possesses multiple polities and cultures (McCann 3).

In Wallenstein’s categorization, there further exists a special category of intermediate economies (the “semiperiphery”) that may rank with core economies in a particular aspect such as living standards, control over natural resources, or a large domestic market, but which are ultimately dependent upon core economies for their intermediate status. Canada is such a semiperipheral country, exporting a wide variety of staple commodities and comparatively few manufactured goods or specialized services, yet producing some manufactured exports and investing in foreign economies. (McCann 1987: 10-12). Historically speaking, “most Canadian innovations and public policies, virtually since 1840, have been imitative of the United States” (Rotstein 269). More importantly, although Canadian standards of living are well above world standards, they have consistently been below those of the United States. One popular observer notes, perhaps unwittingly, that:

Canadians who live near the border live in their nation’s banana belt, the most temperate climate Canada offers. Americans on the border live in the deep north. Popular perceptions are flip-flopped in the border zone, for here Canada has sophisticated urban centers like Vancouver and Toronto and a dense network of roads and agriculture. The U.S. has mostly hardscrabble farms and vacation sites. (Vesilind 99)

Atwood’s literary theory regarding Canadian literature’s historical preoccupation with Canadian literary marginality, and Wallenstein’s sociological theory explaining Canadian economic marginality find a neat summation in Northrop Frye’s statement that “Canada is today almost the only country in the world which is a pure colony, a colony psychologically as well as economically” (145). As an American commentator recognizes, “[the] dispirited recognition [of Atwood and Frye’s ideas on Canadian marginality] corresponds very closely to that of even the casual reader/follower of CanLit or Canadian literature, both at the time of Frye’s and Atwood’s analyses and in the subsequent fifteen-to- twenty-five years down to the end of the current century” (Riggan 12).
Naïvely applied, the theories of Atwood and Wallerstein overlook the fact of Canada’s historic regionalism. Canada has not developed as a single integrated whole, spreading slowly westward from a homogeneous base in the east; Canada evolved ad hoc, out of a combination of French and British settlement. “[T]here was no master plan, no vision, as in New England, of Old World regeneration overseas, and next to no interaction among these somewhat adventitious French and British beginnings in the northwestern Atlantic” (Harris 535). Following Canada’s incorporation into the British empire, a variety of other communities were established: a French Canadian Catholic society on the shores of the St. Lawrence, with surviving French Acadian Catholic pockets in the Maritime colonies; American Loyalist settlements in Ontario and on the shores of the Bay of Fundy; a mixed Irish and English immigration to Newfoundland; and, large and diverse numbers of Britons scattered throughout the British colonies in mainland North America. Harris calls this the “Canadian archipelago”–a congregation of scattered human islands, possessing only limited agricultural resources, and constrained from expansion by the unproductive Canadian Shield to the north and the United States to the south, formed by the early nineteenth century. “Considered overall, the archipelago was settled island by island from Europe; it did not expand westward from an Atlantic beginning.” (Harris 538)

There was little intermixture of these different human islands; rather, they developed independently of one another, so that on the eve of Confederation, the different colonies of British North America were quite disjointed. Upper and Lower Canada were closely connected with one another, as were the three Maritime provinces with each other. However, there were comparatively few ties–of media, of migration, of trade–between the Canadas and the Maritimes, while British Columbia and the Prairies were entirely outside the framework of British North America. “Even the occupational homogeneity of an agrarian society [shared by the different Canadian provinces] was not helpful, since trade entails the exchange of different commodities,” and people in the different provinces feared competition by commodities from other provinces and regions (Nelson et al 79). In short, a unified Canadian community did not exist before Confederation. Although the differences between the different units of British North America were not insurmountable obstacles to Confederation as proved by Confederation’s establishment and survival, little objective data suggests that the scenario which did occur–the union of four of the six British North American colonies in 1867, including the Canadas and two of the Maritime provinces but not including Prince Edward Island–was particularly likely (Nelson et al 84). Though a common attachment to Canada has developed in these different cultural and geographic islands, this regionalism remained a potent force in Canadian life, it can legitimately be argued that neither Canadian literature nor Canada itself exists as a single entity; rather, the former exists as a collection of regional literatures closely associated with the latter’s different historical identities.

Moreover, relations between the different regions of Canada have generally been fraught with tensions owing to the simple fact of regional differences and inequities. The nature of the tension between Canada’s Anglophone majority population (dispersed across Canada) and Francophone minority population (concentrated in and near the province of Québec) is well-known, as are the tensions between the more prosperous and populous provinces of Canada (primarily Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia) and the less developed provinces dependent on federal transfer payments extracted from the richer provinces. One further cause of conflict, relatively recently developed, is the tension between urbanized areas in southern Canada and the vast northern hinterland, dependent on variable levels of interest from unresponsive governments based in the south and increasingly a cultural annex to the south. Indeed, one can legitimately argue that based on current relationships, the urban centres of Canada exert an influence over the remainder of the territory which could be described as subimperial, a term used by Kuan-Hsing Chen in his study of the relationship between prosperous Taiwan and its Southeast Asian hinterlands “to refer to a lower-level empire that depends on the larger structure of imperialism” (15). If Canada is a semiperiphery of the United States, then the centres of Canadian wealth serve in turn as the core to Canada’s internal periphery; the Canadian core’s freedom of action might be constrained by the United States, but the Canadian core at least has the comfort of constraining its immediate periphery.

The linked themes of relative economic peripherality and relative cultural marginality are well known for providing useful insights on Canada’s internal regionalism. They are, however, rarely applied to the study of Canadian regional and national literatures, to examine the internal dynamics of the Canadian novel. Three novels–in order of first publication, Thirty Acres by Québécois writer Philippe Panneton (who wrote under the penname of Ringuet), Barometer Rising by Nova Scotia-born author Hugh MacLennan, and Surfacing by Ontario-born author Margaret Atwood–provide a particularly coherent survey of regionalism in Canadian literatures, spaced through time. Thirty Acres and Barometer Rising are both set in the early 20th century, and describe the cultural shifts that occurred in Québec and Nova Scotia (the latter in an explicitly pan-Canadian context) as traditional cultures were overwhelmed by the forces of modernity, in the process forging a new Canadian national identity. Surfacing is a more modern text, set in the 1970’s and which describes the self-discovery of a woman who traveled to an isolated district of Québec in search of her father and came there to radically redefine her personal identity to exclude a corrupt modern world.

Each of these three novels puts forward a different regional perspective on Canadian identity and Canadian peripherality. Thirty Acres treats French Canada as an American frontier that receives the latest agricultural and communications technologies and in turn furnishes emigrants to labour in industrial New England. Barometer Rising describes the transformation of Nova Scotia, at the time of the novel controlled by people who over-identified with Britain and peopled by others who were politically unconscious and traditional, into a territory with a Canadian national identity forged by the horrors of the First World War and the Halifax Explosion. Surfacing provides an interesting critique of Canada, which possesses its own minority that is only a pale copy of American models of nationalism. In Atwood’s vision, Canada remains an economic periphery and cultural dependency of the United States: Canada’s major cities are organized on American lines, and they have created their own subordinated frontiers, an internal Canadian periphery, namely Canada’s primordial wilderness. Surfacing further complicates this picture of regionalism and peripherality by introducing the French fact through the novel’s transplantation of English-Canadians from Toronto into an almost wholly Francophone area of Québec.

These texts also demonstrate the evolution of Canadian identity. In Thirty Acres and Barometer Rising, old primordial loyalties and traditions are assaulted by continuing interference from, respectively, the United States and the British Empire, in the individual peripheries in Canada held by each country. In Surfacing, some fifty years after the events in the other two novels, a modern Canada has been established; quite apart from the fact of Québécois separatism, Canadian identity is compromised by a form of mental colonization, by a convergence of socio-economic structures and cultural attitudes which makes urban Canada only an extension of the urban United States and transforms the Canadian wilderness into a frontier marginalized and abused by Canadians just as it was by Americans. Canadian identity shifts from an external focus to an internal focus, from an enemy outside Canada’s territory to one coming from within.

Thoughts, opinions, commentaries, fatwas?

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2003 at 9:52 am

Posted in Assorted

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