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Literary Cities

Canadian Literary Cities
by Douglas Ivison, Lakehead University and
Marcel Barriault, Library and Archives Canada

Despite the enduring mythologies of the wilderness and the North, Canada is an urban country and most Canadians live in or close to a handful of large cities. Yet, in the dominant critical and popular understanding of Canadian literature, it has been seen as a literature of rural and wilderness landscapes rather than urban ones. There is in fact a long history of works that explore the changing particularities of Canadian urban experience and how Canadian cities define us.

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The Dominion in 1983, by Ralph Centennius, [Peterborough, Ont.: Toker], 1883


Cities have long been understood to exemplify civilization and, more recently, modernity. Some earlier Canadian writers, such as Archibald Lampman in The City of the End of Things (1895) and other poems, articulated a fear of urbanization and the industrialization associated with it. Others embraced the city as a sign of Canada's development. For example, The Dominion in 1983 (1883), a prophetic pamphlet by the pseudonymous Ralph Centennius, imagined a Dominion replete with major cities, with Montréal and Toronto being amongst the world's greatest.

In early 20th-century Canadian literature, such as Sara Jeanette Duncan's The Imperialist (1904) or Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), cities were frequently an off-stage presence. It was not until J.G. Sime's Our Little Life (1921) that a Canadian city, a fictionalized Montréal, became the subject of the type of detailed portrait of urban life that American writers had long been writing about their own metropolises. Between the wars, many other novels of Canadian urban life were published, most notably by Morley Callaghan. Cities also provided a setting for class and socio-economic injustice, as in two novels of the Depression-era city, Irene Baird's Waste Heritage (1939) and Hugh Garner's Cabbagetown (1950).

In the post-war period, cities became an increasingly important subject for both fiction writers and poets. Big cities were sometimes seen as stifling and alienating environments, as in Gabrielle Roy's depiction of Montréal in Bonheur d'occasion (1945) or Margaret Laurence's portrait of Toronto in The Diviners (1974). By contrast, writers as diverse as Roger Lemelin in Les Plouffe (1948), Hugh MacLennan in The Watch That Ends the Night (1959), Leonard Cohen in Beautiful Losers (1966), Dennis Lee in Civil Elegies (1968), and Michel Tremblay in La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte (1978), found in the streets of Canada's major cities the setting for their meditations on identity, both national and personal.

The cultural diversity of Canada's cities was reflected in an attention to cities as sites of ethnic difference and cross-cultural contact. Mordecai Richler, for example, examined the Jewish community's place in the culturally contested space of Montréal, most famously in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). Similarly, Austin Clarke, in novels such as The Meeting Point (1967), explored the experiences of West Indian immigrants in Toronto, emphasizing the racism they encountered. More recently, authors writing in French have explored the relationship between their adopted cities and their lands of origin, whether it be Haiti in Émile Ollivier's Paysage de l'aveugle (1977), Austria in Monique Bosco's Babel-opéra (1989), Lebanon in Nadine Ltaif's Entre les fleuves (1991), or China in Ying Chen's Les lettres chinoises (1993).

Canada's major writers frequently turn to cities for setting and subject. Margaret Atwood explores the influence of Toronto's urban environment upon identity and memory in works such as Cat's Eye (1988). With its focus on the construction of the infrastructure of Toronto, and the exploitation and injustice without which the city could not have been built, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion (1987) has become perhaps the definitive city novel in Canadian fiction.

For several authors writing in French, their musings on cities are inextricably linked to reflections on identity, and what they term "américanité." The reality of belonging to a French-language entity in the predominantly English-language context of North America has produced such pivotal works as Jacques Poulin's Volkswagen Blues (1984), Nicole Brossard's Le désert mauve (1987), Gérard Bouchard's Mistouk (2002) and Jean Babineau's Vortex (2004).

For many contemporary Canadian writers, it is the multicultural, postmodern, consumer-driven city that defines Canadian experience. In Noise (1998), Russell Smith dismisses nostalgic attempts to posit the rural and wilderness as authentically Canadian, proposing instead that contemporary artists need to come to grips with fragmented urban experience. In her poetry and fiction, such as Thirsty (2002) and What We All Long For (2005), Dionne Brand explores the beauty and brutality of Toronto, suggesting in the latter novel that the collision of cultures and identities of the global city has the potential to produce a new Canada of hope and possibility, simultaneously marked by conflict and ambiguity.

In recent years, too, Aboriginal writers have begun to explore the urban experiences of Aboriginal peoples. Plays such as Daniel David Moses's Coyote City (1988) and Darrell Dennis' Tales of an Urban Indian (2003) and the poetry of Gregory Scofield grapple with the challenges and contradictions that urban life poses for their cultural identity.

By focussing more and more on urban literature, Canadian writers are shaping a new Canada-one in which yesterday's mythologies have little relevance. In writing about cities, authors are depicting today's Canada, with all of its contradictions, ambiguities, injustices, opportunities, desires, and hopes.