Hi, Carolyn here, from We Teach Well, our mission is to promote educational equality by providing English and literature teachers wherever they may teach with truly borderless professional development options. We are inviting writers and educators from around the world to share the cultural and historical issues that sit behind the literature of their country.
Welcome again to We Teach Well’s World Lit Podcast, where we are exploring the cultural understandings that sit behind literature. Today, we are very lucky to be speaking to Dr. Jeffrey Aaron Weingarten, who’s a professor of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. He’s also the author of ‘Sharing the Past the reinvention of history in Canadian poetry since 1960’. And he’s currently working on his next book, which I think teachers everywhere will be interested in. It’s called ‘Learning to Learn – a brief guide to becoming a lifelong student’, something that all English teachers endeavour to instil in their students. So Jeff, it’s wonderful to have you. Thank you so much for joining us to talk about Canadian literature. First of all, can I ask you, what do you think is the best thing about teaching literature?
Jeffrey Weingarten 01:39
Yeah, well, first, thank you very much for inviting me. And I’m very, very happy to be here. And yeah, that question is, as I was just kind of saying to you, before we started here, it kind of an interesting question for me, because since starting at Fanshawe College, a lot of my teaching has actually been about communication in the workplace, and basic writing, basic composition. And those are funny courses to teach after teaching sort of high level theory, high level literature classes, because it’s a very easy sell, with students to say, you need to learn to write and communicate, and that’s what this course is teaching you to do. That’s, uh, you know, if you want to have any professional career ever, in anything, you need to be able to do that. So those courses are very, very easy to sell. And then when I teach literature courses, I sometimes find that it’s a little harder to convince a student of what what is a literature course? What does it offer you? What does it do for you? as I’m sure all literature teachers have encountered this challenge. And the reason I think we find it harder to sell is because literature courses, I can very easily measure the learning outcome of you know, can someone right at an adequate level or not? Can someone communicate at an adequate level or not? But is someone empathetic? Is somebody a good critical thinker? Are they compassionate? Are they creative? Those are much harder things to measure. But those are the things that you find students developing in literary and historical courses. And so if you ask me this question, six years ago, before I had ever taught any kind of vocational courses, I probably would have given an answer that was all about my research. That’s very self centered response, you know that I like doing what I like doing. It wouldn’t the amount to think much more than that. But today, answering the question is interesting for me, because I really have to think in this utilitarian way now as a teacher, because again, teaching more vocational courses and more workplace oriented courses, requires that of me. So, there, there are always two things that in recent years I’ve been thinking about when, when it comes to teaching and what, what in literature courses, I think, is really special. And one of them is the tolerance for difficulty. When I’ve taught poetry and fiction in the past, students, at some point or another, they say, this is too difficult. I don’t get it, or I don’t understand the metaphor. I don’t understand the poem, the book. And it becomes a really interesting conversation, where I turn this into a conversation about you know, what does that mean? What does it mean that something is difficult or too difficult? And so for them, the definition of too difficult kind of boils down to a couple of things. It’s taking too much time to read it, it’s too hard to understand, or they’re just not getting it, you know, whatever, whatever way. And so we play this out very socraticlly, and we talk about what is difficulty mean? And what is it to experience difficulty? Not just in literature, but like daily life? When we have difficult experiences or challenging people or challenging experiences And, you know, I start asking questions like, Well, what do you do in a difficult conversation with a friend? Or a partner or parent? Or a colleague? Or do you simply abandon that person? Do you never engage with that person again? Do you stop trying to quote unquote, like read them? I think about this now as a relatively new parent, where I have a volcanically personable child, who’s two years old. My daughter, Clio. And Clio is the most alive person I’ve ever met in my entire life. And that means she can sometimes be a lot, you know, and I say that very affectionately, because the challenge of her sometimes is that she sees and notices and observes and understands and imagines so much that big, as with all toddlers, big feelings come out, big ideas, lots of talk, and lots of language and lots of not listening, as well and lots of tantrums, right? I mean, that’s just part of being a parent. So you can imagine that these are difficult parenting experiences. But do I just stopped reading my daughter, right? Do I stop engaging, because it’s difficult. And through these discussions with my students, I think often we come to realize, and something that I often have to remind myself in, day to day, which is that the difficulty of a text is no more difficult than the difficult experience. That difficulty is this reminder that we need to slow down, take note, play closer attention and learn to tolerate the intolerable experience of not knowing something until we find resolution. Or perhaps even more intolerable experience of accepting the impossibility of resolution. With that lesson, students start to move away from the belief that we only should ever experience what’s comfortable and easy, that sometimes difficulty can be an enlargement of our experience and enlargement of ourself. It puts us in a better position to maybe understand what isn’t so concretely black or white, or right or wrong, or true or false. That we find more tolerance for ambiguity and vague realities, that we capture every single day, some of my favorite books, right? Those are the books and poems that, the ones that mystified me at first, that were a great deal of effort to read, because it’s an enjoyment that feels earned.
That’s interesting. It’s something I hadn’t thought about. I mean, the idea of difficulty, Well, two things that quickly, and then we’ll move on to Canadian themes, is the idea that it is difficult so therefore, it’s not something that they have time for. And I wonder whether if for us, I’m not sure of your age, I’m old. So for us difficulty was to be expected. And if school wasn’t difficult, if it wasn’t a bit hard, then you weren’t actually learning anything much. And I wonder whether we got the benefit of that way of viewing learning. I also wonder whether we’ve created a situation where our children or our students don’t understand the value of difficult. That we’ve tried to make learning easier and removed some of those levels. One of the things that you said that sort of resonated with me very much, is that idea of having to deal with not knowing something. For me, I just can’t, I cannot cope with knowing that somebody knows something, and I don’t, I have this pathological thing, which a lot of us do, I’m here to say, where we just need to know stuff. And so doesn’t matter if it’s difficult, because that’s what it takes to know things.
Jeffrey Weingarten 09:05
Then also the thing about difficulty, right, and it’s not even just that things are easier for students, which sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re not. If anything, actually I think, I forget where I read this, but there was some study recently about, the amount of knowledge that people are actually absorbing in school is much higher. But that being said, I think that difficulty is also an appreciation process right, realizing that it’s the lack of instant gratification. And in an era where I can Google almost anything, and get the instant answer, Encountering something where I can’t Google the answer is a very frustrating experience. Marsh McLuhan talked about the ‘all at oncesness’ of experience. And while the internet wasn’t really around at the time he was talking about that, I think that’s very much what he was talking about, intentionally or unintentionally, the ‘all at onceness of information, where whatever you want, can be instantly obtained. And unfortunately, with difficult literature, that doesn’t happen. And that’s why, unlike a math problem that someone could just, cheat and Google, ‘what is this passage about?’ requires someone to slow down and think. I was going to say there are two things I love and that’s one of them. The other one, though, is very much connected, and I’m sure we’ll get into it later, but it’s the idea of both recognition and unrecognition, that it’s very easy to find yourself in a book and appreciate that experience. But what’s very difficult, and where these conversations about difficulty often arise, are out of experiences where students find experiences they don’t recognize, where they really are put to the test to try and imagine, a wartime experience or oppression, or enslavement, or whatever else, that some students
any experience different to their own.
Jeffrey Weingarten 10:58
Yeah, exactly, just to be broken out of habit. And that is a very disruptive experience and a very difficult one. It’s a very uncomfortable,
But it’s fun.
Jeffrey Weingarten 11:08
It’s very important.
Okay, can we now move to a closer look at Canadian literature? And can I ask, what are the primary historical events that authors in Canada have responded to? I found when I did that stint teaching Canadian history, which was bizarre in itself, that there were a lot of similarities between Canadian and Australian history and ideals, I guess, because they’re both Commonwealth. One of the big differences was that Canada wasn’t a penal settlement, whereas Australia was, so were much less likely to be compliant.
Jeffrey Weingarten 11:51
Certainly, the stereotype of Canada is of this very compliant, polite country, which in some respects, I guess, is earned. And others maybe not. I think that I find I, maybe this isn’t the right time to ask you about it, I will sometime be very curious to know, as someone from Australia teaching Canadian history, what for you seem central. For me, obviously, it will be a totally different experience, because having grown up here. But also having gone through different levels of education, where there were things I literally never learned a single thing about at all, as a high schooler in Canadian history courses that I then learned about as a university student. And then there were things as a university student that I didn’t learn about until on my own, I pursued some studies as a PhD student and had to read things that were never ever once raised in all of the years that I did university. So when when we talk about primary, there’s going to be, I think, variations on the theme in this interview. So apologize if it gets repetitive, which is that there isn’t really one Canadian historical experience to speak up. Canada, I imagine mainstream Canadian history, mainstream Canadian literature may have disagreed with that up to a point in our past, until say, the 1970s 1980s, where there was a very, very firm belief in a unified Canada and the unity of the nation. But very quickly, that concept just crashes and burns. And what 1960s writers are really intent on proving, some anyway, was that there is a distinctive, unified concept of Canada, distinct Canada separate from the US separate from the British experience. And those distinctions are extremely important. You start to see many political moves in the 40s and 50s, of cutting ties with Britain, economically, and in various other ways. And there is a really terrific fear of the United States media, television radio, just ticking over Canada, and that all you know, Canadian entertainment will really just be American. And so there is a real impetus to say well, like what is Canada? What are defining things? And you see a real history boom in the 60s and on, both in like actual historical circles, like academic circles, but there are amateur historians, there are poets, novelists, playwrights, everyone is kind of tackling this question with, an unfathomable amount of funding for the first time in Canadian literary history, in the service of ‘go and dig up this history’ And I would say in the 60s, you have these vaguely nationalist agendas, where people look at things like periods of settlement or pioneer experiences, exploration literature, the two world wars, maybe more recently for that audience, but by the 70s 80s 90s, the questions ballooned into something more of a social discussion than a historical one, where it’s a very comfortable search for unity. I was just saying about easy and difficult answers. Unity is a very easy answer right, to believe that everyone is unified in the incoherence, of community or society is a much more difficult thing to chart. And that is, I think one of Canada’s struggles is that they, the writers of various eras, have really only intentionally or unintentionally exposed that there is no such thing as a single historical experience in Canada, to which everyone can point and say that’s significant. Everyone disagrees about what that might be, depending on your geographical, cultural, religious or otherwise, your context. I would say that one of the more frequently portrayed historical events of the past is probably the Meti uprisings of the 1860s in the 1880s. And basically, this is going to be a very watered down take on this, but in short, from 1869 to 1885, that roughly 15 year period, 16 year period, the Canadian government is rapidly trying to expand westward, from Ottawa all the way across to the other side of the country, the West and in the process, they are aggressively seizing land and displacing people. And they come upon community, the Red River Métis, who are part indigenous heritage part European heritage. These are people who are very opposed to being displaced by the government in the service of building a railroad and various other things that Canada’s government at that time wants to do. And they happen to have a very charismatic leader living in their community, a guy named Louie Riel, who happens also to have a very excellent knowledge of English, French, because he had lived in Montreal, and he’s just a very, very well educated person. And so he becomes a spokesperson for the community in late 1860s, and the government stonewalls. And just as they will not negotiate, they will not compromise. Riel leads a small uprising that compels the government to then negotiate. And they do get certain privileges and rights in terms of education and land, it leads to the creation of Manitoba, as a province. Riel though is very quickly villainized, and he has to actually escape from Canada. He goes south to the United States and stays there for quite a while in exile. He returns when there’s another similar incident about relocation and displacement related to the Métis 15 years later. And in this uprising, he’s captured and then executed later that year by the Canadian government. And because Riel was Catholic, French, and indigenous, he has all of these various ties. So in the first half of the 20th century, he’s very unflatteringly portrayed as like the villain of Canadian history, because he fought the government. But in the last half of the 20th century, in the spirit of the 60s and revolution, he becomes a symbol for almost any group that wants to claim him, as sort of the underdog hero. Even English Canadians begin to claim him. And certainly in indigenous communities, he becomes a symbol of revolution. So he’s portrayed though variously in poetry theater, opera, novels, he is a very, very attractive literary figure for many people. So if I had to guess I probably say Riel is maybe the only frequently returned to figure, and on those uprisings as a frequently returned to event.
You’ve touched on the idea of the different ways events have been taken, seen, interpreted? Are there variations across provinces?
Jeffrey Weingarten 18:42
Yeah, so by the late 1960s, mid to late 1960s. So maybe a tiny bit of background here that in the 1950s, radio stations, colleges, universities, or colleges, universities, radios, stations, television, they’re all going broke very quickly. And there is a real fear, as I said earlier about being overtaken by US education, media, and so on. And the government, by the end of the 1950s dedicates itself to funding the arts. This, of course, has not lasted. But at that time, it was a very important thing with the interest of culture being conscious policy, deliberate policy to create a flourishing Canadian culture. Prior to that period, prior to 1960, publishing basically happens in Toronto, you have small publishers in Vancouver, Montreal, but generally speaking writers who want to get published, they go to Toronto. So you don’t actually have as much variation as you might expect, because many writers conform to a style that will be appealing to you Toronto audience because they want the Toronto publisher to publish. And that’s how a lot of history becomes boiled down to Ontario history when it’s supposed to be Canadian history. And then in the 60s, there’s something, that in my book I refer to as the ‘regionalist turn’ and I think other people use this phrase as well, which is that some writers, because of total ignorance, like John Newlove says he very ignorantly didn’t know it was a bad thing to write about places other than Toronto. And so he began writing about the prairies. And people loved him for it. They celebrated him as prairie poets, you know, speaking about what it’s like to live and grow up on the prairies. And he inspires many young prairie writers to begin writing unashamedly unabashedly about their own prairie experience. So you do have some accidental figures like that. And Newlove would very frequently say it was all an accident, ‘If I’d known better, I wouldn’t have written but the prairies’. But then those kinds of moments, these decisive pivotal acts that help people say it is ok now to talk about the prairies, it’s okay to talk about the maritimes. You do have writers in the 60s, 70s, and beyond looking to different inspirations, find it is okay now to write about those places. And also, because with that funding explosion at the end of the 50s, there are publishing houses that spring up all around from 1960 to 1990. In that 30 year period, publishing houses, could be found all across Canada, that point, so you don’t need to appeal to that Toronto market, same way. But I imagine that before that time, it probably was a very lonely experience to be a writer trying to write about your locale and feeling embarrassed about it, that it might limit your audience or might limit your success as a writer. But then what you do have after that is an outpouring of stories about the local. So often, this translates to family histories, books about family history, poems about family history plays about local history in local historical events. It also develops a very comfortable regionalist pride, you know that people look, look locally ina lot of the writing.
When I think Canadian literature, the work I think of first is ‘Shipping News’ and then almost anything by Margaret Atwood. The ‘Shipping News’ I actually taught at a Canadian school. I learned about Newfoundland, and I can’t imagine that book coming from anywhere else. There’s a barrenness, I think about the book and I can imagine it fitting into that very rugged, cold space.
Jeffrey Weingarten 22:48
‘The Shipping News’, I certainly have read, I read it in high school, but it was never taught in university, because Annie Proulx’s I also believe, I’m not 100% sure on, but I believe she’s also an American author writing about Canada. But I’d have to double check that I’m not sure
Just shows how much I need this podcast. And so again, like I said at the outset of the interview, it’s interesting to hear what people outside of Canada pick when they teach Canada, Annie Proulx’s an award winning author, that book, if I recall, won the Pulitzer the Nobel or something, Something. It’s a hard read, though.
Jeffrey Weingarten 23:27
It was something very prestigious. I remember I again, I haven’t looked at that book since I was 15. So everyone will forgive my lack of memory here. But those are both award winning books, very celebrated, made into motion pictures, that had some success in the box office. And yet there are tons of Canadian books that if you asked, you know, Canadian to name, what they’ve read, those are probably two books that wouldn’t occur. You’re probably more likely to have someone say, you know, in an undergrad course, that they read Margaret Atwood, as you’d said, for sure, or Michael Ondaatje, Alice Monroe, especially since she won the Nobel.
And so, if you were going to and this is the question I usually ask later, but maybe this is the right time to ask it. If a teacher were looking to include some Canadian literature to teach, who would you suggest? A writer or a word? That really represents Canada and being Canadian?
Jeffrey Weingarten 24:30
So I’m gonna be more long winded here, then maybe you’re hoping
I don’t mind long winded. Okay, good. Now long winded is my ‘mo’ so the question is difficult to answer and I’ll answer it in the context, something that I’ve written quite recently, an article on the poet Al Purdy. Al purdy has been widely proclaimed the quintessential Canadian poet, I think, is the phrase that one, one writer use. And I find that to be such an interesting phrase, because the reality of Canada is that there is no quintessential Canadian. So the core value behind any recommendation and Canadian literature, any syllabus, you know, of books, the core value has to be the abandonment of any belief in a core Canadian self or identity. So in the article that I’m talking about, I pointed out through a quick Google search and Google Books, if you Google, the most important Canadian writer, or the most important Canadian poet or novelist, like just variants of that, you’ll find many, many books and articles where some critic says this person is the most Canadian or the most important Canadian writer. And what I pointed out in my article is that it becomes a very useless measure of a writers talent to conflate our personal taste with national importance. Because there’s only be one most important writer, you can’t make 50 claims to the most important writer in Canada, when all 50 are different. There’s an excellent interview with David Bowie of all people, totally non-Canadian reference,. David Bowie was on MTV in the 1980s, and he asked the interviewer, why don’t you play black artists on MTV? And the interviewer, this is on YouTube, if you go look it up, It’s a really fascinating interview, and the interviewer says that we don’t play many black artists, because he says 17 year old viewers wouldn’t really understand why we’re doing that, or they wouldn’t really appreciate the talent of a black musician, because you know, your average 17 year old viewer, isn’t that socially aware. David Bowie looks them in the eye and says, ‘do you think a black 17 year old viewer would appreciate it and understand it? And interviewers just dead in his tracks, realizing that what he was really saying his 17 year old white viewers might not. And so this ties into how difficult it is to then say, ‘well, what is the one text you’d recommend? Because any text I’d recommend, as the one text is inevitably my one text. And it’s my context, my references. And an often what I find I have to do as a teacher and as a reader is I have to consciously move beyond that. So so you told me in advance, you’re gonna ask me a question, I thought really long and hard about it. And especially that, as I think when does when they finish doctorate, decide to have as little to do with their topic for as long as they can sort of take a break from it. And so I had… I get that, I’m in the middle of a PhD. And yeah, I’m looking forward to the day, I don’t have to do any more reading on that particular topic. Well, yeah, like I decided, after I finished my PhD, that I really was going to try and take a break and read more outside of Canada, because I just spent five years reading nothing but Canada. And so it’s interesting to then think back and say, well, from that experience, what are a couple of texts that still stand out to me that still have an impact on me. And so there are four that I came up with, and this is four of the list that could have been 100, to be clear. Even four was very, very difficult to come up with and, and I say these four with the full understanding that these are four that had an impact on me, but that to someone else might have no impact at all. And I’ll give a very good example. So one of the texts I’d recommend is Al Purdy’s ‘Beyond Remembering’ which is his Collected Poems. In my article on Al Purdy that I was just talking about, which is a book that just came out last year, I believe, it’s called ‘Echo in the Mountains’ And it’s a collection of essays about Al Purdy. And in that essay, I point out that I had asked an indigenous writer named Louise Halfe, ‘how had Al Purdy influenced her writing? And she had said to me in conversation, she’d never read him. And, and it was this very revelatory moment for me where I just thought, you know, it was brought up through university to believe that Al Purdy was the most Canadian writer and the most important writer. And here’s a wildly successful indigenous writer, who is saying, ‘I’ve never read him’ and yet she’s had a whole career, and a whole block of writers that come to her to look for guidance as young writers. And that was, for me, a very revelatory moment, I realized that, you know, this concept of the quintessential Canadian text is problematic. So I do recommend Al Purdy with full recognition that you don’t need to read Al Purdy to understand Canada, depending from where you want to read about Canada, from what perspective or context. Purdy is an attractive poet to read because he was a working class, high school dropout who was dedicated to poetry and yet failed to produce a single good poem until he was about 40 years old, even though he began writing at the age of 13, desperately trying to get published and couldn’t and what he did publish up until 1960, was not very good. So, he is a very late bloomer as a poet. And yet, when he does finally find his voice, it’s the voice of a very working class figure. He’s very much a celebrity poet in the 60s and 70s, and 80s, in Canada and beyond, until his death in 2000. Because he’s so relatable, as a working class writer who doesn’t aim for kind of high intellectual poetry, even though it’s very deep, very profound writing. There are many levels of Purdy in the article. So that’s certainly one. I would also recommend Alice Munro anything by her, because Alice Munro was the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize, and I think it’s an obligation that I should recommend her. She’s a writer who is the most magnificent creator of characters. The Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan had said once that great writing is about people, not ideas. Monro was the person who writes people. And I’ve always sort of said that Atwood is the person that writes ideas, but Monro writes people, and I can’t think of a story I’ve read by Alice Monro, that doesn’t end with some kind of a gut punch, where I feel profoundly affected by that story. I find she sticks with me better than most other authors do. So those are two, I’d recommend. The other I’m going to recommend, in a topical way, because this just came up in my newsfeed recently is Marlene Nourbese Philip, a poet and experimental poet, a novelist and essayist and beyond, who had said recently that her audience were United States that she didn’t feel that her career had been made in Canada, even though she is a Canadian writer. And she is a writer whose poems really have stuck with me all these years, because they are so incredibly experimental and difficult and challenging. She writes in all directions on the pages, she breaks language into pieces, and then reconstitutes it in unpredictable ways. She’s a very experimental writer, but there is such confidence and power in the writing and it is about the issue of oppression of women of people of color and and how do you write against oppression. And there’s just such power in the writing, I can’t do the writing any justice, one just has to simply go read her books. One, the first book I’d read by her was ‘She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks’. So very highly recommended. And then the last is Marie Campbell, and Maria Campbell’s ‘Halfbreed.’ And this was, for me, the first book that I’d read as a non indigenous person, that unpacks the history, or partial history of indigenous people living in Canada. I don’t think before reading it, as a graduate student finding it on my own, was never taught to me it was never recommended to me, before reading it, I don’t think I was capable of really confronting just how terribly, terribly problematic and broken and oppressive even Canada can be. Despite its stature in the world as this progressive place. So if any of your listeners are really trying to be become better people with a better knowledge of Canada, I would say probably among all of these four recommendations, Maria Campbell’s had the most impact on me, I read books that I have loved and enjoyed, maybe more. But there’s certainly no book in my entire life that’s been more important to me as a person and as a reader than than Campbell’s book. It’s a really important portrayal of growing up indigenous in Canada and and just how credibly difficult and problematic, it can be.
Jeffrey Weingarten 34:12
M Nourbese Philip is her name, and the title of the first book I read by her was “She Tries her Tongue.” She wrote something recently called ‘Zong,’ which is a fantastic collection of poetry about slave trade and greed and this, but the first book I read by her was called She tries her tongue, her silence, softly breaks.
Thank you. That one sounds fascinating.
Jeffrey Weingarten 34:44
It is, she should be more popular in Canada than she is. I’m not sure why she isn’t studied more here, but she should be.
Can I ask you, you’ve spoken about it in a sort of roundabout way before but the differences between Canada and the US. There is this idea that some people from outside may have. And they sometimes see Canada as sort of an extension of the US. And I remember a Canadian person telling me quite some time ago, he said that hockey is supposed to be the national sport of Canada, but it’s actually trying to convince people that we’re not American.
Jeffrey Weingarten 35:32
There’s a wonderful comedy sketch show from the 1990s in Canada, called the Kids in the Hall’ if anyone can find it. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I laughed hysterically watching the show. And there’s one sketch where a character is on vacation. And someone asks him, ‘Are you an American?’ And he says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, I’m Canadian. It’s like an American, we just don’t have guns.’ So I mean, it’s this is certainly I think, if you wanted to be cheeky about it, you could say that’s certainly one difference. We don’t have the same patriotic attachment to guns as Americans do. But there are pockets of people in Canada do have that attachment. I think when you’re talking about Canada versus the US, the big mistake that people make is the difference of kind with a difference of degree. These are not the same thing. Canada and the US are very similar in many ways, just a degree of control or power or impact that certain attitudes, or certain kinds of people havie in Canada is just different. So for example, in Canada, there’s far less mainstream fear about social welfare policies, we have universal health care. And there have been pilot programs for universal basic incomes. Unfortunately, this was a program that was being run in Ontario, that was then cancelled by a conservative government, but there was at very least in attempt to run pilot. We have an official policy of multiculturalism, just like Australia does. In fact, we were the first country in modern history to officially have this policy, 1971 I think in Australia, 77. Something there abouts. So, so we were the first two countries, I believe, to ever have that policy, official policy of multiculturalism. And yet, there are conservative undertones or populist undertones and issues like racism, and, you know, histories of slavery and segregation and things that are so long standing issues that are not fully resolved. There are many people in Canada that are still anti science, just this past week. In fact, I think yesterday, there was a bar in London, Ontario that had posted a sign outside that was vehemently anti mask, anti COVID, and anti lockdown and anti immigrant. And they were attacked in the media, for this policy, this sign that they were posting that was perceived by many to be very racist, and anti science. We have a history of internment camps for the Japanese during the Second World War, people were interned without cause. There are histories of residential schools were indigenous people had their children taken away at various ages, without any notification, without any legal recourse. And many of these children were abused in these schools, and some of them died. There’s a disproportionate amount of adoption and child services issues when it comes to indigenous people in Canada, I think the stat is, indigenous families are six to eight times more likely to have their children taken away by Child Services in Canada than non indigenous. So there are still many deep, deep, deep, effective issues here of racism, populism. And I just don’t think they necessarily go as far or get as popular in Canada as they might the United States. So when in the past, federal leaders have tried to run on policies that were perceived to be zenaphobic. They were not received as well by voters. And the most recent one I can think of is Stephen Harper, who had a very problematic policy about Muslim traditional clothing. And he lost an election in a landslide. Now, he didn’t lose because of that. He’d already been in power for quite a while, and it was just time, but I don’t think that that did anything to boost his popularity, whereas in the United States you saw Donald Trump was very, you know, celebrated by the right for his position on banning Muslims from coming into the country.
Yeah. Okay, now for the even more airy fairy thing that’s difficult to nail value systems that sit behind Canadian literature. Understanding that there is no one story, but what would you say were the values that Canadians most respect, or are most committed to.
Jeffrey Weingarten 40:34
So these are obviously they shift with time periods. I mean, if you look in the 19th century, Canadian literature, is first and foremost, very preoccupied with imitating British forms and reflecting not on immigration into Canada, but the emigration away from Britain. So there is always this kind of core reference back to Britain as the focal point of literature, that happens most of the 19th century, especially an exploration literature, and then in that late century, you have writers who are starting to gradually feel a bit more comfortable writing about distinctly Canadian landscape, distinctly Canadian, you know, surroundings and events. So you do see some of that emerging. But I would say that, from 1800 ish, until the 1970s, there is a preoccupation with unifying the country in mainstream literature. And that comes at, you know, that comes to the detriment of any literature that doesn’t do that. So for example, we have a dearth of indigenous writers being received in Canada, from 1900 to 1970 ish. There are many, many, many reasons why, but in large part, even after 1970, indigenous writers find it, that they have to sometimes hide their identities as indigenous to get published. And I know, in particular, one writer who told me she deliberately did not identify as indigenous, so that she could publish her books. So the value systems have been, up until very recently, circa 1970, I think, very oppressive in search of this unifying concept of Canada. And then since then, I think that you still have old guard, you know, critics and readers, some of them are not old at all, but they are old guard, who still value that discussion of community immunity. But I think more recently, what you see is a real emphasis on what in a lot of Canadian cultural theory is regarded as position. From what position do you approach Canada? So if I’m, you know, a British born aristocrats, I might love Robertson Davies, who writes in the kind of wry British humour style. If I’m, if I’m a young indigenous reader, someone like Greg Scofield, or Louise Halfe, or Maria Campbell, might be much more important. So, perspective and position are, I think, central concepts, which, which it’s kind of a cop out for answering your question, but it’s a way of saying that there isn’t a central value, there’s a respect for various values, and, and an effort to identify what are the various and diverse and sometimes conflictual values in Canadian culture and literature. So we think about things like exclusion and inclusion, both canons and in books, consciously or unconscious exclusion and inclusion. We think about things like the old arguments about unifying versus newer arguments about multiculturalism. And then I think more recently, you start to have discussions in Canadian literature about power dynamics, whether those be colonial power dynamics, or sexual power dynamics, and where is power located? And how is it abused or used? and by whom? And how does someone find power in, their writing, and in the culture? And where does that come from? And so obviously, these are very general brushes I’m painting with here. But suffice it to say that there I think, the real dilemma or not dilemma, but the real debate, and approach that I would say responsible teacher would take in a Canadian literature course, is to really try to imagine Canada from different perspectives, or maybe the laying of railroads in the you know, the 1880s. Maybe that wasn’t the most important political achievement in Canadian history. Maybe for someone else, one of the most important political moments is a figure like Viola Desmond, walking in 1946 into the all white section of a Halifax theater and sitting down, as a person of color. And then being arrested as an activist, you know, that the what is central? What matters? What is important? in Canada more than I think in most places, but maybe not, I don’t know, but certainly in Canada, the relativity of that kind of concept of value, and importance of an event or person, that relativity, I think is an essential thing to understand about Canada.
One final question, because I know that your time is limited. This is something that I’m finding interesting talking to different people. Is there a genre of literature that is most suited to the Canadian experience?
Jeffrey Weingarten 46:02
Um, again, different areas, different genres. So what we call micro histories, like local histories, were extremely popular in the 60s, 70s, 80s. Things like nonfiction memoirs, autobiographies, local histories, family history, especially, a big part of my book, ‘Sharing the Past” is about how important family history became in telling of Canadian history after 1960. And that becomes in its own right a genre of Canadian writing, in fiction, and poetry and nonfiction, and across every kind of format. I mean, is there one particular genre? I don’t think necessarily there is, there are at different times writers that value different things, I think it was T.E. Hulme was on a train going across the prairies, when he said that the prairies for him, inspired him to imagine imagism in modernist poetry because of the bareness of the prairies. So that poetry and bareness and you know, economical modernist poetry speaks to the landscape of the prairies. In some ways someone might make the argument that poetry is therefore, you know, very natural form for people to adopt in Canada, but, again, it’s a question of approach. I think, for many indigenous writers memoir has been the preferred approach, whether memoiristic, kind of poetry and fiction, or just straight up memoir, nonfiction writing. There is a lot of storytelling about experience. And I think that is certainly been one of the dominating concerns in Canadian writing since 1970. When this ideal of the Canadian identity kind of fractured, and people began to think about Canadian identities instead of a singular identity
That is so helpful. Jeffrey, I can’t thank you enough for spending this time with us, and giving us the benefit of your massive amount of knowledge in Canadian history. As always, I’ll chase down the writers and works that have been mentioned and include those with the show notes when the episode goes live. Thank you again, Thank you very much. For more information about our organization you can visit us at weteachwell.com and if you have any questions or would like to send some suggestions of literature you’d like to know more about, then email us at [email protected] We hope you are enjoying this podcast and please, if you are, make sure to like it, share it with your friends, and subscribe to our mailing list so that you can stay up to date with all of our latest news initiatives and upcoming episodes.
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