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BriefsReportTable of ContentReport IndexRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and SciencesRoyal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences

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1. The ancient capital of Canada was founded in 1608. Half a century earlier Jacques Cartier published in France an account of his voyage up the St. Lawrence in 1534. This was the first work, or to be more precise, the first important literary document inspired by Canada. It would, perhaps, be going too far to claim the great explorer from St. Malo as the first Canadian man of letters, but at least we can maintain that Canada has enjoyed an association with literature from its earliest beginnings.

2. But this early association did not produce any precocious results. In fact, from the evidence we have received from writers' societies, from editors, from literary organizations and from the authors of the two Special Studies prepared for us on Canadian literature, we must conclude that, among the various means of artistic expression in Canada, literature has taken a second place, and indeed has fallen far behind painting. We have found general agreement that Canadian letters have no such great names as Morrice, Jackson, Harris, Thomson, Gagnon and Pellan in painting, names as famous abroad as in their own country.


3. Is it true, then, that we are a people without a literature? To this question we have had similar replies from different sources. Defining the term "Canadian literature" as the reflection in works of imagination of the interests, the ideals and the character of our people, the author of one of our studies states that Canada cannot yet show an adequate number of works that correspond to this description.

"The unpalatable truth is", he continues, "that today in Canada there exists no body of creative writing which reflects adequately, or with more than limited insight, the nature of the Canadian people and the historic forces which have made them what they are."1

4. In turn, the writer of the study on the literature of French Canada, while granting that a national literature must express certain fundamental traits of the population and the unique qualities of the country in which this population lives and develops, maintains that apart from these local


details, literature, to be truly national, must be recognized as characteristic of the nation by other nations, and that it must in consequence have the human appeal and the aesthetic value to awaken the interest and sympathy, and to arouse the admiration of other peoples.

"Paradoxical as it may seem, it is true to say that literature cannot be considered as the genuine voice of a nation until this literature is accepted as a credible witness by other nations. Only therefore when literature is related to man's universal experience, when it has enough human appeal and aesthetic value to awaken the interest and arouse the admiration of other peoples and when at the same time it can give voice to the special character of the people from which it arises--only when it fulfills all these conditions can it properly be called national."2

5. One of our authorities treats literature as documentary material in the highest sense of the word; the other judges it according to its power to express human nature as much as for its artistic quality. Both, from these differing but not opposing points of view, agree that neither in French nor in English have we yet a truly national literature.

6. The two studies were in further agreement in suggesting that the presence of our two languages is not an insurmountable barrier to the appearance of a national literature, but that it is a retarding factor, one of the numerous difficulties with which we must contend. In the view of all those who have expressed to us their opinion on Canadian letters, the existence of our two languages is recognized as a permanent factor of our Canadian civilization, like our geography and our federal system. Among all the artists, scholars and specialists who appeared before us, the painters and the writers showed themselves most aware of the necessity for the co-existence of the English and the French elements of Canada, and at the same time were the most eager to draw from these rich sources all the intellectual and artistic wealth which they contain.

7. It is for this reason that the Canadian Authors Association recommends "that any aids granted to writers be extended proportionately to writers using both languages; and that any agency created by the Government should deal with both organizations".3 The French counterpart of the Canadian Authors Association, the Société des Ecrivains Canadiens, inquired:

"Can it be denied that it is the essential duty of Canadian writers, of either language, to devote their talents and their efforts to the spread of intellectual culture, taking into account the ethnical differences and historical facts? Can it be denied that Canada is in a particularly advantageous position because of its privilege of being able to benefit by all that is best in English and French culture?"4

"Advantageous position" seems an appropriate phrase, considering that


our writers are the heirs of the two great literary traditions of the western world. At the same time it is a position which cannot but complicate our progress towards a national literature, since our efforts to this end must proceed along two great routes which are parallel, but different.

8. Moreover, students of Canadian literature still find themselves faced with the question of the form that this Canadian national literature will take. Shall we have some day a national literature "which includes without distinction the English and French parts of our literature?" This seems to be impossible, states the author of our special study on letters in French Canada,

"since the very structure of present-day Canada, which is based upon the loyalty of the French and the English-speaking groups alike to their origins and to their different language traditions makes impossible in Canada the existence of one homogeneous literature that would not be clearly differentiated."5

9. Not only the critics but the briefs agree that Canadian literature has not yet achieved the status of a "national literature". "The inarticulate nature of the average Canadian's patriotism results from the lack of a native literature commensurate with Canada's physical, industrial, scientific and academic stature, and with the proved character of its people"; this we read in the brief of the Canadian Authors Association.6 And in the brief of the Société des Ecrivains Canadiens we find that:

"The phenomena which have marked the progress of our country in the economic and political realm may be found in the intellectual field with the difference that the gradual elevation is very much slower in the latter than in the others. Economic maturity has come at the same time as political maturity, when it did not precede it to some extent. But intellectual maturity, we repeat, is still to come."7

The Canadian Writers' Committee expressed a still more pessimistic view:

"As an agricultural and industrial nation Canada ranks high in the world. But as a cultured nation exploring the human mind and soul she ranks low. She has excused herself because of the size of her population, her youth and the battle she has had to wage wresting the country from nature. Those last two excuses are valid no longer, the first one never was."8

10. If, on the other hand, one accepts the views of the young writers of the First Statement Press, Canadian letters for some years have been proceeding steadily towards the beginning of a truly national literature. Since the 1930's when the publication of a book was not too frequent an event, the situation has much improved. Then too, periodical reviews and magazines were practically closed to Canadian writers who, in consequence, had no means of conveying their ideas to the reading public.


Criticism at that time, so far as it existed at all, was confined to writers of a previous age. There has been a great change. In the opinion of the young writers of the First Statement Press, Canadian poetry, turning away from the theme of nature to the theme of human experience, has had a constantly increasing influence. In prose, too, we are told, English-speaking writers have finally succeeded in bridging partly the gulf between Canadian literature and Canadian society.

11. In short, although all our informants agree that Canada has not yet established a national literature, there is also general agreement that, in spite of the obstacles in the way, much progress has recently been made. We were particularly impressed by the optimism of our younger writers.


12. One association expressed regret at the delay in the appearance of a national literature since this is the greatest of all forces making for national unity. But our literature must first find its centre of gravity. At the moment, so the critics have told us, our writers are subject to the pull of a variety of forces. Traditions still strong and vigorous exert an influence upon our letters from England and France; Canadian writers still feel the pull of these historic ties. On the other hand, the literature of the United States, which in the last thirty years has acquired an increasing international reputation, exercises an impact which is beneficial in many respects no doubt, but which, at the same time, may be almost overpowering. The author of our special study on letters in French Canada referred to "a crisis of orientation", a crisis which he would like to see resolved by more energetic efforts to maintain those fundamental characteristics common to the literatures of Great Britain and France. On the other hand, there are those who deplore the respect paid to those principles and forms which come to us from Europe as literary survivals of the spirit of colonialism.

13. Without taking sides on this matter we do think it important to comment on the efforts of those literary groups belonging to various schools of thought which strive to defend Canadian literature against the deluge of the less worthy American publications. These, we are told, threaten our national values, corrupt our literary taste and endanger the livelihood of our writers. According to the Canadian Writers' Committee:

"A mass of outside values is dumped into our cities and towns and homes. . . . We would like to see the development of a little Canadian independence, some say in who we are, and what we think, and how we feel and what we do. . . . The fault is not America's but ours."9


14. Immunity from alien influences would not, of course, be sufficient in itself to create a national literature; but it would at least make possible a climate in which the Canadian writer would find himself more at home, where he would be better understood, and where he would find the opportunity for more frequent spiritual contacts with a society which would be more fully Canadian. For if our writers are uncertain of the road ahead, their uncertainty, it seems, is derived from the general confusion in a society with no fixed values and no generally accepted standards.


15. It may be that the Canadian writer, whether in English or French, has not yet reached that level of universalism which would permit his work to awaken echoes outside our country as well as within it; he may still have some way to go before finding "a Canadian cadence", to borrow the expression of an English-speaking critic; it may be that he is producing novels too naive in their structure, lacking dramatic and poetic force, novels which are too descriptive and not sufficiently analytic, that the tempo of our books is not sufficiently rapid and warm, that true poetry is rare with us and the theatre almost non-existent. In spite of these weaknesses it remains true that we have an important number of writers finely gifted who, if their work were sustained by greater interest and symphathy [sic] in their own country, might succeed in giving to our literature the stimulus which has hitherto been lacking.

16. We have been told of a dozen or more remarkably gifted writers in English, and as many in French. What explanation, it has been asked, can there be other than their environment for the fact that none of them has produced "a book which, in Miltonic phrase, the world will not willingly let die", as the author of one of our studies has expressed it.10 In Canada, it seems, the cultural environment is hostile or at least indifferent to the writer. If so, the interests of literature can best be served by improving conditions of work for our authors.

17. In a series of remarkable articles published in 1949 in the United States, Stephen Spender described the loneliness of the North American writer. This same theme had been discussed in 1946 by a French-speaking critic in a review published simultaneously in Montreal and in Paris; and we have found a similar point of view expressed in various briefs which have been presented to us. "The loneliness of the Canadian writer is not, as we might believe, that of a man absolutely ignored, a man who has something to say and who suffers from the fact that no one will listen to him," the same critic has written.


"His loneliness is much more profound than that. Any Canadian writer of talent can make himself heard by several thousands of his compatriots if he does not compel them to think too seriously about certain contemporary values, and if he does not disturb them in what might be called their intellectual comfort."11

18. If we have properly understood what we have been told, the Canadian writer suffers from the fact that he is not sufficiently recognized in our national life, that his work is not considered necessary to the life of his country; and it is this isolation which prevents his making his full contribution. It seems therefore to be necessary to find some way of helping our Canadian writers to become an integral part of their environment and, at the same time, to give them a sense of their importance in this environment.

19. Interested societies and groups of writers have made a variety of proposals to us. The Canadian Authors Association would like to extend the present system of awards now offered to writers, such as the annual awards of the Governor General, but also to have them accompanied by a prize in money to be granted by the Canadian Government. It has also been proposed that fellowships, such as those of the Guggenheim Foundation, should be established to enable writers of proven competence to devote an entire year or more to the preparation of a serious literary work. Finally, while it was recognized that the C.B.C. had already given help to our writers by commissioning scripts from them, by presenting book reviews, and in general by recognizing them and their place in our national life, it has been proposed to us that the national radio call even more frequently upon the services of Canadian writers.

* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.

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