A woman and a stranger living out the Canadian paradox
A woman and a stranger living out the Canadian paradox
Canada is made up of many things and many places, but for me it begins in Winnipeg, the city where I was born. Winnipeg stays in my mind like a poem and its rhythms linger in my blood like snow songs. To this day its images fix and limit my internal climate. And though I am a writer, my bond with Canada is not so much through culture as through actual places. My love for the country is physical, biological. I believe that whatever attitudes are embodied in a land, whatever creatures lie buried in it, whatever stones and shells have crumbled into it, and whatever spirits have hovered over it will eventually reveal themselves to the people who live in it.
A country’s traditions are intangible and experienced unconsciously by its inhabitants. It may take the better part of a lifetime to recognize and affirm nationality. Some people may never experience it if the environment is not conducive or the times do not require it. But now we are living in a time of crisis which does require it, and in which — to paraphrase Jung — it is not a man’s character but his country that is his fate.
When I was growing up in the prairies in the mid-Twenties and early Thirties, we were taught in school that the sunsets of Manitoba were the most spectacular in the world, and we believed it. Climate was extreme, either hot or cold, and everything around us unfolded without ambiguity or shading. If you grow up among oceanic fields of wheat, tossed between extremes of summer and winter, you never learn to value the happy medium, and no matter where you live afterward you never stop yearning for the old totality of space.
The tendency to extremes taught by climate and landscape
was reinforced by a permissive education in a parochial school. My parents, who settled in Winnipeg before the First World War, were Russian, Jewish and socialist, and they insisted on a Yiddish language school for their children. Our classes were small, and our teachers were nearly all sentimental enlightened Europeans who, like Rousseau, believed in the goodness of men and the innocence of children. We were therefore encouraged to question our teachers, to work at our own pace, and were seldom if ever punished. Both our teachers and parents had great faith in the ultimate triumph of truth, justice and human community.
I was also exposed to “progressiveness” during two summer holidays at the OBU (One Big Union) camp in Gimli. This was a children’s camp run by the Canadian Brotherhood of Railwaymen, and the children who came there in 1928 were from Scottish, English, Polish, Icelandic, German, Russian and a few Jewish homes. More was exchanged than we realized. The children met with the camp director every morning to work out the day’s program. We called him by his first name and carried on discussions from which I learned that the world was composed of two groups — bosses and unions, oppressors and oppressed, regardless of race, creed or color. That was a big year for whoopee pants and beach pyjamas, for learning how to dive, and for making friends with children who came from a different background than my own.
Winnipeg was a good place for encounters with other cultures, but when I left the parochial school to transfer into grade five in Machray school there was no doubt about which
culture was dominant. Our teachers were Scots Tories, the descendants of Lord Selkirk’s Red River settlers. They were Frasers, Burnses and Laidlaws, who believed in God and who strove to elevate us — the children of immigrants — to a properly ordered state of grace. We listened to Bible readings, sang God Save The King and O Canada in both the English and French versions, and, if we did our work, might be rewarded with the job of hulling strawberries for lunch in the teachers’ room. For our annual school concerts we put on scenes from Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, or else some obscure but exotic drama, set preferably in China.
Even in the life of a single person like myself, living in a raw provincial city like Winnipeg, you can see the presence of paradox which is so characteristic of Canadian life. I moved from the permissive atmosphere of the Yiddish parochial school to the English Fabianism of the OBU camp, and then finally into a structured, rigid, conservative school system, without an apparent crack in my wholeness. I stepped without much consciousness from the uniculture of the Yiddish home group to the multiculture of a very mixed social group. These two cultural aspects — Yiddish and English-Canadian — did not come together in me for many long years. They simply existed side by side and I devised two codes of behavior, one to fit each world. That’s why I also had to create a third world which was my own invented one, where I could include the elements I chose from the two other worlds.
My childhood was dominated by a jumble of such kaleidoscopic fragments. On our Sunday picnics we would drive
out past the white houses of Ukrainian farmers with their gardens of bright zinnias and dahlias. When my mother was bedridden one winter, a Mennonite spinster became our housekeeper. She hung little bunches of artificial violets and golden calendar pictures in her room, baked raisin pies and hotbreads, told us Bible stories and forbade us to sing or be joyful at meals. Some time later my father impulsively bought a farm along the river in St. Vital, a few miles out of Winnipeg. He used to take all four of us children along with him after school while he spare-time farmed. There we caught frogs, picked mushrooms, and made friends with the children of some Métis tenants who showed us where lady’s-slipper grew in the dry creek beds.
Back in the city, I tagged along after a neighbor’s daughter to Saturday morning classes at the Art Institute. One of my teachers was Le Moine FitzGerald. He seemed no different than the other teachers, except that at Christmas he sent his pupils an elegant hand-printed card.
Then came the Depression. In one way at least the Thirties were like today — young people could not find jobs. The boys I knew who were out of high school and not at college were also out of work and riding the boxcars between Halifax and Vancouver. One of them joined the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion, went to Spain, and began writing novels. Another worked at organizing the unemployed, and still another managed a coop store in Timmins. My special high-school friend signed up for three years with the army so he could save enough money
years army to go to college and study law. We
contuined on page 42
EXILE from page 40 used to hike up into the Gatineau hills outside Ottawa every Thanksgiving, light a fire, cook our lunch and read poetry to each other.
Then, as now, I felt an outsider as far as being an English Canadian was concerned. The message that had come through to me in public school in Winnipeg, and again in high school in Ottawa, was that to be a Canadian was to be English, to have your mother in the IODE and your father in the Rotarians. English was definitely top dog in Canada until after the Second World War. But I was Jewish, and the child of Russian immigrants who were so critical of the economic system that the conductor on the streetcar near where I lived was once moved to ask, “Your daddy is a Bolshevik isn’t he, little girl?”
Although I couldn’t identify with the English, I felt ambivalent about my parents’ immigrant status and my own Jewishness. The injustice of being excluded from certain things because I was Jewish often embittered my life. When I came to the University of Toronto in the Thirties, there were separate sororities for Jews and Gentiles. The Muskoka resorts advertised themselves as being for Gentiles only, and the sign NO JEWS ALLOWED was a commonplace. Sometimes the sign was varied to read NO JEWS OR DOGS ALLOWED. And no Jew could get a job teaching English in a Canadian university until after the Second World War.
It took me most of my life to bring together and accept my three traditions — the Jewish, the Russian and the Canadian. When I first began to teach I could
never quite get over the miracle of talking to undergraduates about Chaucer and Shakespeare when every single one of us was scarcely 100 years away from absolute wilderness. The British culture in Canada did not Canadianize me. And the French culture? Until I moved to Montreal in 1945 it was something I had read about in textbooks, or associated with churches when we crossed the river into St. Boniface, or with Maria Chapdelaine picking blueberries in northern Quebec. At home it was the other language on the shredded wheat box, the deciphering of which saved my breakfasts from boredom. And yet today, just as in my childhood, if I had to choose a single image as being representative of Canada, the one that flashes across my mind is the engraved profile of Jacques Cartier in his flat King Henry VIII hat. And the sound that I think of as most typical is a voice speaking English with a French-Canadian accent and intonation.
The unconscious unerringly chooses the symbols that best express its purpose; but the symbols change with the setting even if the purpose remains the same. This was brought home to me dramatically in 1968 when I took a year off to study in London. Soon after I arrived I began to meet the same dismal figure wherever I went — in the Marble Arch underground, outside theatres in Piccadilly, on rainy days in Portobello Road. It was that of an old man with a leonine face framed in harshly cut grey hair; he always wore the same long coat.
In retrospect I realize that the old man was a symbol of old age and death.
When I came home the old man disappeared and his place was taken by an image of myself running through fields until I fell down and died from exhaustion. Death is death, but who wouldn’t rather die from running in fields than from sitting in subway stations?
After the war jobs were plentiful, I had a profession — social work — which I enjoyed, and exciting things were happening in Canadian literary circles. But I still didn’t think about the Canadian part of being a Canadian poet, any more than I thought about the woman part of being a woman poet, or the Jewish part of being a Jewish poet.
Yet all these factors have influenced my work, usually without any effort of will on my part. At certain points in my life some elements have been more on my mind than others, and now we are living in a time where we can no longer afford to take the Canadian part of ourselves for granted. We have to think about it and interpret it.
I don’t mean that we have to interpret it in clichés and stereotypes. The local color of Mountie uniforms and snowflecked sleigh rides can’t hide certain melancholy realities, and we will never cover our nakedness with a maple leaf. Neither can we suddenly produce a rich old tradition just by wishing we had one. And it is no use dragging out the artifacts of the Indians and Eskimos and sentimentalizing over them. You can’t transform history into art with name lists and roll calls. Art is a process that grows out of the relationship between a people and their country. The painters and writers and composers are the ones who articulate this relationship, but all the people must have had a share in forming it.
And so the issue of being a Canadian never loomed large until I began to teach in a university. Even then, it never occurred to me to question the fact that two thirds of my colleagues came from the British Isles or the United States. It was only after I began to realize that the internationalism of scholarship was purely a one-way thing, and that these colleagues had no interest in anything Canadian, that my old feelings of being an outsider revived.
It wasn’t just my sensitivity to all kinds of exile that made me react. Here are some random examples of the kind of incident that spoils the atmosphere and setting within which I work. One year I put the poetry of A. M. Klein on my course in modern literature. The chairman called me in and told me I could teach Klein if I liked, but to leave his name off the list. The reason? It wouldn’t look good for the department if anyone outside the university saw such an unknown name on one of our reading lists! Admittedly this happened five years ago, but it still rankles. Until
two years ago, any second-rate British or American writer or scholar would be invited as visiting speaker ahead of a firstrate Canadian one. The reason is simple. Neither Englishmen nor Americans read Canadian writing; it just is not a part of their background or interest, so how should they know what’s good and what’s bad in Canada?
One of the questions that is repeatedly asked by my American and British colleagues is: what do you mean by Canadian? For a long time I naively tried to find an answer, but now I’ve stopped. I simply say that it is not up to us to explain what we mean by Canadian; those who are really interested will be able to find out for themselves. Can you picture any Canadian teaching in France or England or the United States continually challenging his host country to define its nationality every time it was suggested they should teach the national literature or hire their own citizens?
In my university we do offer courses in Canadian literature, but it has been a struggle to achieve this. Six years ago every suggestion that Canadian literature be taught was met with a polite amused silence just as if some eccentric spinster had proposed a course in basket weaving. Later, when it became acceptable to teach Canadian literature, every new course was and still is endlessly disputed and “balanced” by similar courses in American and English literature. One colleague suggested that we should base our decision on reason, and reason alone. After all, how important was Canadian literature when çompared to the other great literatures of the world? How many languages have Canadian writers been translated into as compared with British, American, South African, Australian and West Indian writers?
Do Americans ask, before they hang up the photograph of their President in every post office of the country, how he compares with other statesmen of the world, or if he would be elected in other countries? No, because the reason for hanging his photograph is simply that he’s President. And the reason we should teach Canadian literature is not because it is the best in the world, but because it is ours.
I feel lucky that I can still escape into my old world — that inner place where along the line of smoky hills the crimson maple still stands. The landscape, at least, responds to me with the assurance that I am part of it and that this is home. But I recognize that it is an escape and that mere atmospheric presences will change nothing. Feeling is useless unless it can be translated into action, and action for me is words that reach people. The real Canada is not to be found in the myths and mystiques of landscape alone. It exists largely in living people; in myself and in other Canadians. ■
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