Fall 2009 - Volume 12 Number 4
|Reviews||Canada Exposed/Le Canada à découvert.
Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009.
Perhaps it was the afterglow of Expo 67. Perhaps it was an echo of the thrill of victory at the moment of the last successful Toronto Maple Leaf race for the Stanley Cup (ever?). More likely, it was the yeasty rebelliousness of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
For those who missed it, an important element in the brief eruption of youthful political engagement, the inspirations in Canada at least were remarkably diverse and somewhat counter-intuitive.
One was the conservative philosopher George Grant’s account of the futility of nationalism in a world dominated by the United States, the greatest technological empire to date. He uttered a dirge uttered in full threnody that paradoxically unleashed a pack of left-wing nationalists who took his message as a call for revitalization rather than a lamentation.
Another was the very model of the dignified business executive, Walter Gordon, who typified bourgeois nationalism in his call for Canadian commerce and manufacturing interests to display some quiet patriotism. As Liberal finance minister, his courageous stand against continentalism cost him his cabinet post.
A third was Mr. Gordon’s choice of the puckish Mel Watkins to lead an inquiry into foreign ownership of the Canadian economy. Almost immediately after the publication of the Watkins Report, its reedy academic author was catapulted Watkins into the position of the principal intellectual force behind a uniquely Canadian radical organization. With the odd and bizarrely self-deprecation name of the “Waffle” movement, it was a faction that sought to propel the NDP to the left and fully into nationalist mode. So terrified was the NDP establishment that the “ginger group” was crushed by the Ontario wing of the party establishment at a meeting held in Orillia, Ontario (the model of Canada’s primal humourist, Stephen Butler Leacock’s tranquil town of Mariposa).
Whatever may have prompted it, the confluence of old tories, nationalist entrepreneurs and counter-cultural leftists formed a critical mass that was a catalyst for a new idea: Canadian Studies.
So it was that on an unusually dull and depressing February afternoon in 1969, I received a phone call from my old friend Peter J. Spratt. About a year earlier, Peter had been appointed Chair of the Liberal Studies Division at Seneca College in Toronto. “How would you like,” he asked, “to come up with the curricula for a new college program in Canadian Studies?”
The task seemed more enjoyable or at least energizing than anything outside my office window a few miles away at York University. So, I flexed my fingers, approached a keyboard and went to work. In extraordinarily short order, I’d produced skeletal outlines for ten courses. They were to become the basis for Canada’s first (and probably only) postsecondary program which offered thematic, interdisciplinary and team-taught courses, and which were mandatory! Beginning in the Fall of 1969, no one was permitted to graduate from Seneca without at least one full credit in Canadian Studies.
The first group included the usual suspects: Urban Studies, Art & Society, Mass Media, Canadian-American Relations, English-French Relations and Multiculturalism. Within a year or two, course in Industrial Relations and Labour History, Women in Canada, Foreign Policy and Canada and the Third World had been added.
Personally, the program was an unanticipated and unplanned life-changer because, within six months, I’d been hired to teach and to oversee the program. Equally unanticipated and unplanned has been the fact that I have remained at Senecawith only occasional breaksever since.
Canadian Studies did not fare so well. For a number of reasons, the program fell out of favour. It was disassembled in stages and remains only in the form of a few course titles that bear no resemblance to the original “mission.” I shouldn’t feel badly, though, for almost every other initiative of that era has faded and been forgotten as well. The Association of Canadian Community Colleges, for example, used to take Canadian Studies seriously. It had a robust Canadian Studies office and published Communiqué: Canadian Studies and The Canadian Studies Bulletin for years. Even Ottawa got into it, with a Canadian Studies Bureau housed in the offices of the Secretary of State, later to be called Heritage Canada. Now? Not so much.
It was, therefore, with equal measures of nostalgia and trepidation that I opened up the book here under review. It had previously struck me as odd that W. L. Morton’s iconic volume, The Canadian Identity, had originally been made available by the University of Wisconsin Press. It now seemed equally strange that a collection of papers that had been presented at the Biennial Conference of the International Council for Canadian Studies in association with Carleton University and the University of Ottawa should have found its publisher in Brussels.
My immediate reaction to the content of the book was mixed. There are, let me quickly say, no poorly written, incompetently argued or otherwise badly flawed contributions. Each and every author has something of importance to say and all say it well. As with most books that are cobbled together from academic conferences not severely limited in scope from the outset, there is a certain absence of an obvious overall theme or a combining purpose. Well-formed pearls seem to lie upon a table, unconnected by a string.
This is as expected. Canadian Studies is, after all, a very broad field. The subject matter, in the case of this anthology, runs all the way from homelessness in Canadian fiction to colonial cemeteries, and from problems of translation of English-Canadian fiction into Spanish to the recovery of pedestrian space in Montréal. Most of the chapters relate in some manner to what we might conveniently call the “humanities”; but, that is an even more elastic term than Canadian Studies.
There was, however, a string or a theme, if you prefer. It was evident in the overt or covert negativity that wound through the diversity as a common thread.
Negativity? Yes, the conference that gave rise to these essays had made only one demand upon prospective participants. The original call for papers was quite clear. Presenters were “to explore the ‘underbelly’ of Canada’s past and present, its scandals, failures, shortcomings, weak spots.” The goal was to discover “how Canadians have responded to the malignant, the unsatisfactory, the indecent, and what their response tells us about Canadian society, past, present and future.” Here, at last, was evidence that the slide into mediocrity or extermination that had characterized the dismantling of academic Canadian Studies or, worse, the transformation of critical inquiry into banal celebration was not complete or permanent. The words of the conference’s organizers could easily be taken as an invitation to an unlikely heroism. They might foretell the rise of an otherwise undistinguished individual overcomes enormous hardship and personal lack of character to achieve … mediocrity. They might betoken an instance of the alleged national personality or character for whom survival is triumph enough.
Scanning the table of contents, I immediately noticed a primal absence. In a contemporary collection that studies of weaknesses and failures in Canada, the most obvious instance was missing: Canadian Studies itself; but, I nonetheless pressed on.
Rather than reading from start to finish, I “cherry-picked.” The underlying and organizing principles that sustained Seneca’s original program were associated with “political economy.” Most of us who taught in the program were social scientists of one sort or another and so, although one or two courses were inviting to teachers of what were once known as “arts and letters” and of “culture” more-or-less inclusively defined, most were more narrowly concerned with the allocation of power and control in Canadian society. Whether coming from the politics of the left, right or centre (and there were robust supporters from across the spectrum), we did not indulge greatly in “identity politics” or in worries about “representation” and the “appropriation of voice.” We certainly had no great interest in colonial cuisine, quilting or poetry. Antiquarianism and aesthetics were of the past, and postcolonialism and radical feminism were not yet fully formed. I therefore went to my comfort zone, insofar as I could find it.
The first item to catch my attention was what turned out to be Diana Covell’s excellent analysis of women in the steel industry. Combining issues of class and gender in a comparative study of Canada and Australia, she delighted me by mentioning old friends and acquaintances who had been chroniclers or participants in the trade union politics of United Steelworkers Local 1005 in Hamilton, Ontario. Reading about dimly remembered events and people whom I’d known in the past was strangely enlivening. As names were mentioned, faces reappeared: Debbie Field, academic, head of a Trotskyist faction and a steelworker by choice immediately caught my attention, as did Bill Freeman, Local 1005 historian, municipal politician and now a successful children’s author. The connection was compelling.
Other chapters took their turn. And each one offered insight and information that refreshed topics with which I had some familiarity or, more importantly, introduced me to others that I had avoided (my fault, not theirs) or inexplicably missed. No longer just comfortable but eager, I settled down to learn something new.
The exploration of social issues such as the wrecking of traditional aboriginal culture in Québec traced familiar ground, but it did so with a twist: Anne De Stechter’s a tale of redemption as told “exposed” me to Huron-Wendat visual culture as a “source of economic autonomy and continuity of traditional culture.” In language and in art from 19th-century embroideries to tasteful tourist souvenirs, I was impressed by the quality of the artifacts and the apparent resilience of the people. Here was malignancy, of coursenot least in the reduction of a whole cultural tradition to the sale of tourist souvenirs; but here also, to rehearse Margaret Atwood’s word, was substantiation of “survival.”
Once engrossed, I moved quickly and easily through varieties of form and substance. Krzystof Jarosz writes well (in Frenchfive of the twenty-two chapters are in Canada’s “other” official language) about suicide among young people adroitly moving from the social stage set by Durkheim to the desolation of a particular post-adolescent in Bertrand Gervais’ novel Gazole. There is little that can count as negativity more than the taking of one’s own life.
Not each chapter was equally captivating, but I regard that more as a defect in the reader than in the writers. Those more artistically inclined, moreover, might shy away from Florence Cartigny’s exploration of rural communities in Saskatchewan, if only because its public policy focus requires the reading of bar charts depicting unemployment and median wage rates. That would be a mistake, just as it would be an error for a empirical social scientists to skip over Coral Ann Howell’s and Eva-Marie Kröller’s revision of Atwood’s Survivalthe foundational Anglophone document in the serious treatment of English-Canadian literaturein light of the publication of The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature.
My point, you see, is that this book is an enduringly and entirely engaging collage. As its title implies, it invites readers of all kinds to disrobe, removing their special and specialized intellectual garments and to expose themselves to earnest and intelligent writers who, in turn, will expose them to aspects of Canadian society about which they may have been hazily aware, but had not really seen. Of course, it is not easy to give up old habits of perception and interpretation. I was prepared to enter alien waters in the arts, but I wanted to retain a secure mooring point at the end. So, I left to the end Andrea Terry’s study of Canadian heritage and holidays, an inquiry into the “depoliticization” of the past in the maintenance of historic homes. A critique of selective remembrance as an element in what I prefer to call social amnesia was what I expected, and it was what I got up to a point; then, I was presented with a provocative argument that connected a somewhat re-jigged construction of Ontario’s Victorian past at Mackenzie House in Toronto and Dundurn Castle in Hamilton to the contemporary and somewhat self-contradictory federal policy of multiculturalism. In less than thirteen pages of text, I was taken on a ride that began with a discussion of 19th-century Christmas celebrations and ended with a surprising interrogation of my own assumptions concerning immigration, assimilation and cultural continuity in Canada.
At the end, to revisit the metaphor, it seemed I had been treated to close to two dozen pearls. The organizational string of scandals and short-comings was serviceable, but I needed to design my own in order to craft a useable necklace. Forty years ago, that design was available. It seemed, however, to annoy the congealing and so to be hegemonic corporate culture. It identified and may have encouraged ruptures and tears in the technological empire that George Grant had criticized for its homogenization and battery of young radicals had rejected for its impulse to control and to repress and to suppress any excessive interest in social justice.
It was true that those of us who were active in promoting Canadian Studies had seen political economy as the necessary thread and as the key to mapping power and oppression as the first step to a tenable version of both personal emancipation of public justice had been, quite simply, defeated. We had decamped, dispersed and travelled down (always down) our own paths. Some of us became rancorous, disillusioned and even resentful of the postmodernist affectations of those who purport to be 21st-century dissidents. Others, resigned to failure, but with durable beliefs and principle, significantly lowered our sights and grudgingly accepted the new sensibilities. Still others chose to embrace the authorities and to enjoy the perks and peaks of careerism as we saw that Canadian Studies as it used to be (as it was meant to be) were numbered.
But in some coherent sense Canada Exposed/Le Canada à découvert showed me that Canadian Studies was not dead. The book offered a sense of revival and an opportunity for a recommitment to the notion that the underlying valuesome sense of community and solidaritystill mattered. Awash in virtuality, deprived of depth and buffeted by corporate communications that obscure and infantilize, the writing in this book revivified a certain excitement in learning and in doing more.
It is certainly too late for people like me to dust off the past or to imagine that old dreams and desires might flap Phoenix wings to some good purpose. Still, I detect that there is still something in the wind, and that a new generation might yet discover that there is a certain nobility in disclosing it and exposing it, perhaps in over to recover it … so to speak.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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