To put Canadian Literature on the map, we need to make our stories required reading in schools
When I was a high school student in the early 2000s, the English language curriculum was almost exclusively composed of Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle titles. When I got to CEGEP, there were a few Leonard Cohen poems, but even then, it was mostly Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, and Joyce. In 2021, the situation remains largely unchanged. CanLit is still overlooked in Canadian classrooms. As an English teacher, I know this first hand because I ignored it for years in my own classroom.
For over six years, I ignored Canadian literature while planning the English curriculum at the Montreal high schools I worked at. As did most of my colleagues. I had my students read the classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm. Plenty of yanks and Brits graced my list, but no Canucks. Not one. When the budget allowed for acquiring new titles, I ordered Brave New World. But most of the time, we had to make do with weathered copies of The Outsiders.
I could have introduced my students to Montreal’s own Mordecai Richler. We could have delved into the dystopian futures penned by Nobel-favourite Margaret Atwood. My own high school teachers introduced me to neither of the two heavyweights, but both are authors whose work I admire and have devoured for pleasure. In my eyes, literature with a capital L.
Most jarring of all, I am a Canadian author myself. I am surrounded by local authors in my social circles. I bump into them in the street when walking to cafes in my neighbourhood. So, how then did my reading list fail to include a single local voice?
The truth is I had not consciously decided to prioritize the writings of foreign authors; it had just never clicked. I didn’t come to terms with the massive blind spot in my story selection until I started teaching at CEGEP. There, I noticed that a colleague was teaching the Marrow Thieves, a novel written by Métis author Cherie Dimaline. On another reading list, I saw Indian Horse, a contemporary novel by the late Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese.
In Quebec as in Ontario and other provinces, teaching CanLit may technically be encouraged, but it is not mandated. The end result is that Canadian writing remains largely unknown to many Canadians, the same readers who can easily name a dozen novels penned by writers from abroad. Without the canonizing platform of the high school classroom, the books I should have read as a student and later should have taught as a teacher slipped my mind.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has raised the stakes. Independent Canadian publishers and the writers who depend on book sales are on the ropes, more reliant on arts funding than perhaps any time in recent history. Providing a platform for Canadian writers can only help alleviate CanLit’s reliance on financial assistance.
Stories are vehicles for sharing values, visions, and experiences. They are accounts that show us where we have been and where are heading. Through them we chart new courses. Stories create dialogue across and within provinces, territories, and nations. Therefore, shunning our own stories denies us the discovery of what lies in our own backyards, in our own hearts. It means we will continue to revert to Brits and Americans for our literary educations, for our records of life as it is experienced.
If we value our storytellers, then we need to create more space for them to tell their stories. Otherwise, CanLit, and by extension, a part of Canadian culture, will continue to be foreign to Canadian audiences.