Different takes on being Canadian

by Daniel McCabe

The libraries and bookstores of this country aren't starved for new anthologies of Canadian literature. Canadian short stories, Canadian poems and plays-even works of Canadian science fiction-have been neatly tucked into collections available to all. But, according to sociology professor Morton Weinfeld, there is one glaring absence in all of this anthologizing.

"There has never really been a noteworthy collection of writing about Canada. I don't mean fiction. I mean speeches, essays, other sorts of writings that touch on the different aspects of what being a Canadian is all about."

So Weinfeld decided to do something about it. Armed with funding from the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Weinfeld assembled a team of scholars who've been spending the last several months sifting through stacks of letters, speeches, op-ed articles and court transcripts, searching for what Weinfeld calls "stirring texts."

His principal partners are McGill Institute for the Study of Canada director Desmond Morton and Université de Montréal professor Danielle Juteau. The three are assisted by a pair of project researchers.

"Any other group of five people would select a whole bunch of things that we didn't," acknowledges Morton. "We're looking for what we think are examples of powerful writing. These are texts that capture something special about the circumstances of the times in which they were written. Obviously it's a subjective exercise, but there will be a wide range of views expressed in this anthology."

"We've been casting as wide a net as we can," adds Weinfeld. "The anthology will include more than just the traditional voices of English and French Canada. We'll be including the viewpoints of recent immigrants and representatives of the First Nations as well."

Conservative thinkers such as Preston Manning and his father Ernest will appear in the anthology, as will social democrats Tommy Douglas and J.S. Woodsworth. Fabled McGill professors Stephen Leacock and Hugh MacLennan will also be included, but Weinfeld cautions that scholarly texts are largely being avoided.

"We didn't seek out academic writing. The idea is to make this as accessible to as many people as possible. We want immigrants who have only been here for a year or two to be able to get some sense of their new country from this. We want high school students to refer to it."

Although officials from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship are hoping to use the project for their own purposes, Weinfeld and Morton say there's been no pressure on them to come up with a collection consisting of nothing but valentine cards to Canada.

Lucien Bouchard will put forward his passionate view that Quebec can't continue to exist within Canada. In a transcript from his trial, Louis Riel accuses Canada of badly mistreating the Métis and aboriginals. Canada's refusal to admit more than a handful of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany is dealt with.

"All in all, the good things outweigh the bad, but that's because of the way we view Canada ourselves," says Morton. "The ability of Canadians to be critical about themselves is, I think, one of their most admirable characteristics."

One of Morton's favorite pieces of writing in the anthology is a letter written by a semi-literate Ottawa Valley logger stationed in Europe during World War I. In a haphazard blend of English and French, he recounts his experiences on the warfield in a gripping dispatch to his aboriginal wife. "It's just a wonderful discovery. People for whom writing wasn't a primary business sometimes display a powerful raw gift for description," says Morton.

The team is currently negotiating with a book publisher about the project. Immigration and Citizenship is interested in publishing a pamphlet for newcomers to the country. A CD-ROM is also planned and Morton suspects that the new electronic technologies might provide the most definitive medium for the anthology.

"Modern technology is such that we don't have to be locked into a rigid list. This project can go on for a long time with new or newly discovered texts added on. This doesn't have to be a 470-page book and then we're done with it."

Weinfeld agrees. "The exciting thing is that we can invite other Canadians to be a part of this. They can e-mail us with their suggestions and tell us about the writings that moved them."