Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

Canadian writing and the language of the colonizer

Brendan Martin, the Queen's University of Belfast

This document has been adapted for the Postcolonial Literature and Culture Web from the Imperial Archive project with the kind permission of Dr Leon Litvack. It was written under his supervision as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English, the Queen's University of Belfast. [The original document last revised 18 May 1998]

During the latter part of the twentieth century, Canadian writers have looked at the effects of colonialism on the original native population. The culture of the indigenous peoples and the oral tradition used, was for a long time on the verge of being eradicated, as the enforced language of the colonizer became the accepted norm. As many contemporary authors believe that they have been marginalized, they argue that they are similar to the tribal inhabitants, becoming “...spectators, not elements in what goes on” (Weibe, Rudy. “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” Canadian Short Fiction, 274). As Canadians they are forced to use a language which is for the most part alien, employing words which have meaning for a metropolitan audience but have little relevance within a Canadian context.

In their desire for recognition and in attempting to create an independent identity, authors such as Rudy Weibe and Dennis Lee detail the problems encountered by those who wish to record their experiences, but have been denied a voice. In Where Is the Voice Coming From? , Weibe explores the position of the Cree population, whose oral language was silenced by the sterile, yet powerful voice of the colonizer. Since colonization, the history of Canada has been conveyed from the point of view of the settlers, who ignore the vivid language of the Cree, placing greater emphasis on cold fact and uniformity. While the players in history, ranging from Queen Victoria to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, are given their full titles, their existences reinforced by recorded evidence, the lack of solid fact ensures that the Cree have been almost erased from Canadian history. For Weibe, English descriptions of Almighty Voice provide little evidence of his life, as he has been allocated the role of demonized and feminized scapegoat, in contrast to the white heroes whose masculinity is never questioned. Until recently, when the oral tradition began to be recorded by native writers, including Harry Robinson and Thomas King in All My Relations, the Cree and other tribal inhabitants were unable to provide any alternative to the already existing facts, their experiences resigned to a collective “...wordless cry” (Weibe, 380). While Weibe brings native concerns to public attention, his choice of subject matter illustrates the problems existing within Canadian literature in general. Driven by a collective sense of guilt, this white reaction ultimately denies the Cree the privilege of telling their own stories.

In “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space”, Dennis Lee explores the dual dilemma faced by writers who are both colonizer and colonized. For Lee and other authors, the recurring lack of voice, indicates that contemporary Canadians have more in common with those whose voices have been eradicated. Arguing that “The colonial writer does not have words of his own...The words I knew said Britain and they said America, but they did not say my home”, Lee emphasizes the fact that he is a product of colonial society, who has learned, yet is also restricted by the colonizer’s language (Lee, Dennis. “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space.” The Post-colonial Studies Reader, 399). Having neither a voice nor language of his own, he experiences writer’s block, and to combat and overcome this problem, must take this “foreign” language and make it his own. As his experiences and national identity are unique, he believes that it is not sufficient to take a British or American story and set it within a Canadian context. Ultimately, the language must be translated before it will be relevant to his own environment and daily experiences. Translating words which relate to the Canadian experience and all this entails, including “City”, meaning “Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax” rather than the remote metropolis, Lee creates his own language and is able to resume his writing (Lee. The Post-colonial Studies Reader, 401). This language, existing independently becomes a distinct Canadian form of expression relevant to life in the late twentieth century, when to be Canadian means more than merely to be a descendant of the original native population. As many Canadians feel that they themselves are native to this country, the question of identity remains a dominant discourse within Canadian fiction, both native and national.

Postcolonial Web Canada Literature politics