What is Canadian Studies?

As part of the core seminar for the PhD in Canadian Studies (a joint program between the Carleton University School of Canadian Studies, my home institution, and Trent University, far away in Peterborough, near Havelock, outside of which I once went to a wedding along a numbered fire route and jokingly noted how likely it was that I would never return to the area.  Turns out I lied.), which met monthly, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month.  To provide an example of the template for future students, and to trace my own evolution from ignoramus to slightly less so, I’d like to share my discussion papers with The Great Grand Blogosphere, starting with September 2010:

What is Canadian Studies?

*SPOILER ALERT* I offer no answers, only more questions!

From readings on the development of Canadian Studies, one may attain a lengthy list of Royal Commissions (including, but not limited to, the following: Aird, Massey, Fowler, O’Leary, Davey, Applebam-Hébert, Caplan-Sauvageau, Bi & Bi, and RCAP), a general sense of panic at the lack of a cohesive Canadian nationalism (intermixed with nostalgia for the loss of that nationalism), and a manic fear of the threatening imperialism (and consumerism, civil disorder, rampant individualism, ad infinitum) of an oft-unnamed neighbo(u)r.  (I’d like to take this opportunity to self-identify with a spoiler alert.  The phrases “the most dynamic nation on earth” (Grant) and “Canada’s neighbour to the south… located south of the forty-ninth parallel” (Bashevkin) refer to the United States and, in the interest of partial disclosure, I’ve spent a fair bit of my time there.)  Furthermore, one is left with a sense of dismissiveness toward the field of Canadian Studies (Bercuson et al.), anti-modernist pessimism about the loss of a distinct Canadian political tradition (Grant), distress about the state of the Canadian political arena (Smith, Campbell), unease about the French-language barriers to unity (Taylor), fear of nature (and wilderness, winning, and, again, America) (Atwood), and disgust for a policy of multiculturalism that alienates specific groups from full inclusion in the political process (Bannerji). Alongside this fearful, frightful despondence about the future (or even existence) of Canada, there is an enlightening overview of staples theory (Ray, Innis), utter admiration for the inspirational genius of Innis and his political economy meta-narrative (Watkins), praise for the burgeoning field of Canadian Studies (Symons), and encouragement to continue interdisciplinary discourse to build a meaningful future within the framework of possibilities amidst the uncertainties of Canada (Wadland, Vickers, Ruhl & Rankin).

The readings seem to suggest that the idea of Canada persists in spite of (or because of) apparently insurmountable obstacles, including, but not limited to, geography, linguistic divisions (such as First Nations, Métis, and Inuit languages and enshrined bilingualism), a problematic position as a colonizer and settler-colony (and, frequently, American cultural colony), regional disparities (political and economic), cultural insecurity, internal disputes, and external pressures. Our job as intrepid Canadianists seems to be twofold: we must analyze how and why Canada is held together, and then develop our own theories by deconstructing and building on justification(s) offered by earlier scholars, material culled from archives, and evidence from cultural, political, economic, and social relations, thereby (hopefully) achieving some deeper, interdisciplinary understanding of how the world works (and how Canada fits into the world at the international, federal, provincial, and local levels).

Cultural studies is likely here to stay, cultural protectionism is apparently experiencing a resurgence, and Canadians seem to offer a unique perspective on discourses of the center and periphery (Mookerjea et al.). However, it has been argued that the need for bottom-up histories and Canadian content has been fulfilled with the addition of Canadian components to traditional academic disciplines. According to Bercuson et al., a separate program of study with its attendant administrative needs merely drains resources from other valuable scholarly pursuits.  (This complaint is echoed for the marginal American Studies in “The Problem of an American Studies ‘Philosophy’: A Bibliography of New Directions” by Robert Sklar inAmerican Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 3, August 1975, pp. 245-262, Johns Hopkins University Press.  This has also been said of Humanistic Studies, North American Studies, and other area studies in various sources and casual conversations.)   It is, of course, possible to communicate and collaborate within an interdisciplinary and holistic framework that is not necessarily that of Canadian Studies. In this case, is Symons’s call “to know thyself” and serve the needs of the wider community enough of a rallying point to legitimate an entire interdisciplinary field devoted to Canadian Studies?

Bashevkin’s discussion of the problematic efforts to legitimize a specific type of pan-Canadian nationalist identity so as to retain distinctiveness by limiting influences from the United States fits neatly with Grant’s logical assertion of Canada’s redundancy in an era of modernity (Potter). How can Canada, or any country-cum-nation, maintain its distinctiveness in an era of ever-increasing permeability of borders (with exceptions), cosmopolitan and universalizing tendencies, fluidity of identities, and democratization of information access?  (Specifically, I am thinking of the Internet, which opens up a wide range of information for specific groups with certain resources [such as access to the Internet].)  Should an intangible uniqueness, legislated difference, and feigned exclusivity be the ideal towards which such nations should strive, or is it preferable to move past parochial, cultural, technological, and “new” nationalism(s) to achieve a different type of society?  (This question comes after reading Bonita Lawrence’s “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004, in which she raises these questions about self-identification and in- and out-group solidarity in the face of legislated identities under the Indian Act, Bill C-31, and other problematic labels. She seems to be asking: who benefits from such labels and distinctions? In this case, I wonder, which Canadians benefit from their adamant refusal to “become American?” Also, what’s “an American?”)

Innis’s contention that “Canada was created because of its geography” left scholars with a grand meta-narrative of the ‘staples theory,’ a narrative that later became the rallying cry for a myriad of Canadian nationalist ends. In a similar fashion, Frye has strongly influenced the development of Canadian literary theory. Grant, Innis, and Frye are credited as some of the key scholars at the forefront of what we now term Canadian Studies, but the type of nationalism expressed through their work is “problematic and incomplete” (Mookerjea et al.). Therein lies the my question about Canadian Studies: in a hegemonic, globalizing world where minority voices are frequently swallowed up by the majority, do Canadians need to agree on their national identity for Canada to survive, or is this very flexibility the means of a society’s survival in an arguably post-modern existence?


Harold Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada. 1930.

Mel Watkins, “Innis at 100: Reflections on His Legacy for Canadian Studies,” James de Finney, et.al. eds., Canadian Studies at Home and Abroad, 173-182.

George Grant, Lament for a Nation: the Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, 1965. This was a fun one to take through Canadian customs, let me tell you.  Have a look at the cover to see what I mean.

Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on Canadian Imagination, 1971.

Margaret AtwoodSurvival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, 1972.

Sylvia Bashevkin, True Patriot Love: the Politics of Canadian Nationalism, 1991.

Denis Smith, editorial, Journal of Canadian Studies, May 1966.

T.H.B. Symons, To Know Ourselves. The Report of the Commission on Canadian Studies, 1975.

John Wadland, “Voices in Search of a Conversation: an Unfinished Project,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 2000, pp. 52-76.

Jill Vickers, “Liberating Theory in Canadian Studies,” in Terry Goldie et. al. eds., Canada: Theoretical Discourse/Discours theoriques, 1994, pp. 351-372.

Charles Taylor. “A Canadian Future.” Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism. Ed. Guy Laforest. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.

Himani Bannerji, “On the Dark Side of the Nation: Politics of Multiculturalism and the State of Canada,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Autumn 1996, pp. 103-128.

Robert Campbell, editorial, “Canadian Studies at the Millennium: the Journey Continues,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 2000, pp. 5-26.

Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman and Gail Faurshcou. “Between Empires: On Cultural Studies in Canada.” in Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. Sourayan Mookerja et al. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009, pp. 1-31.

Ruhl and Rankin, forthcoming publication.

(Sorry, but you need institutional access for some of those links!  I put Google Books where I could!)

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2 Responses to What is Canadian Studies?

  1. Pingback: Canadian Studies & T.H.B. Symons: A Friendship to the End, or “Who’s Afraid of Canadian Studies?” | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

  2. Pingback: Guest Post by Kelly B | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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