Literature and Politics | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literature and Politics

Literature and Politics

This subject is usually examined in 3 categories: the political content in works of literature; the political activities of writers and their organizations to secure respect, recognition and economic independence; and relations between writers and the state respecting the rights of the author and of literature (see AUTHORS AND THEIR MILIEU).

From the beginning, Canadian history has presented highly political subjects for our literature. European nations struggled for territorial possession and for favourable boundary decisions. Christian missionaries and settlers struggled with the aborigines for souls and space for settlement. Settlement groups disputed among themselves and with outsiders the nature of the society that was forming. Later, history and literature were shaped by tension between the individual and the community, between "authority" and "personal freedom," between imperial powers and the national will for self-determination. Finally the continuing global tension between socialist and liberal-capitalist ideologies is mirrored in Canadian literature.

Since early times, relations between literature and politics have been manifested in the organization of many literary interest groups, formed to make members' work better known, to encourage production, to pressure governments and other patrons for support, and to secure an atmosphere in which writers can produce well and profitably. Such organizations have been born and have died according to the energy of their members and the liveliness of the political and social issues with which they have been engaged.

The first in what is now Canada may have been the ORDRE DE BON TEMPS (Order of Good Cheer), founded by Samuel de CHAMPLAIN in ACADIA in 1606 to entertain the colonists through the long winter with literary creations and scientific studies. Usually claimed as the oldest, however, is the LITERARY AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF QUEBEC, fd 1824, a largely English organization despite its location. The later francophone INSTITUT CANADIEN, fd 1844, had over 700 members, a large library and connections with France. It was liberal, and for a short time some members favoured annexation of Canada East (Québec) to the US. The Institut was attacked by Monseigneur Ignace BOURGET for its willingness to spread secular ideas. It diminished in the 1860s and 1870s largely because of church opposition to its progressive policies, and it faded away at the turn of the century. The École littéraire de Montréal (1895) concerned itself principally with aesthetic matters and is renowned for having among its members Émile NELLIGAN, Albert Lozeau and Albert Ferland.

In English Canada the claims of literature were often expressed in MECHANICS' INSTITUTES, which appeared as early as the 1820s in many cities "to afford instruction in the principles of the arts and in the wonders of science and useful knowledge." Literary and historical societies also developed in Montréal, Toronto, Halifax, Saint John and Winnipeg as the century progressed. One of the most publicly volatile organizations in the 19th century was the CANADA FIRST movement. Formed in Ottawa in 1868, with a platform that united political nationalism and the encouragement of literature and culture, it eventually became a political party. Unsuccessful in politics, it nevertheless had a significant effect on the production of literature and the establishment of a Canadian tradition in the arts.

In 1921 the CANADIAN AUTHORS ASSOCIATION was founded "to foster and develop a climate favourable to the creative arts, to promote recognition of Canadian writers and their work." Support for the CAA was strong, and in its first 3 years it lobbied hard for COPYRIGHT legislation to safeguard the interests of Canadian authors. A francophone section was created in 1922, and it became, in 1936, the Société des écrivains canadiens.

The CAA involved itself with the production of periodicals and poetry anthologies. It helped to create the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARDS (1937) and was the precursor of more recently created literary organizations devoted to the rights and well-being of writers, such as the LEAGUE OF CANADIAN POETS (1966), the Newfoundland Writers Guild (1968), Playwrights Canada (1972), the WRITERS' UNION OF CANADA (1973) and the UNION DES ÉCRIVAINS QUÉBÉCOIS (1977).

The claims of writers, and indeed all artists, to organized support by government was considered sympathetically in the 1951 report of the Massey Royal Commission on NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE ARTS, LETTERS AND SCIENCES. This report led in 1957 to the creation of the CANADA COUNCIL, which has transformed the relation of writers and other artists to government. Today, provincial councils parallel and supplement the Canada Council's work, providing financial and other support for people in the arts.

The grants, literary awards and support structures that have developed since 1957 have been criticized; however, some claim that public money is spent badly upon people who have little talent, and for the production of inferior works; others feel that public support of artists introduces political bias in the production of literary work and invites writers to censor themselves in order to please the governments of the day. Nevertheless, Canadian governments follow the pattern of governments elsewhere, actively supporting the production of literature through various agencies.

Naturally, writers espousing political ideas or policies that are distinctly opposed to the governments of the day have found themselves in tense situations, despite the widespread belief that Canadians have full freedom of expression. For example, in 1933 a mock trial drama, Eight Men Speak, played to an audience of 1500 in Toronto. The play alleged that Canadian Communist Party leader Tim BUCK, recently arrested with others under an eccentric and unpopular s98 of the Criminal Code, had an attempt made upon his life by a prison guard who acted with approval of people in the government. Police moved in on the play, effectively suspending its life until it was published in book form in 1976. The effect upon the general sense of literary freedom caused by such individual acts of government intervention cannot be measured. But at various times actions initiated or sanctioned by governments and their agencies have made it clear that the state has disapproved of some kinds of literature.

Novels and other literary forms dealing with political events or beliefs are numerous. A few representative works that show Canadian authors' wide range of political interest are Irene Baird's novel Waste Heritage (1939), concerned with unemployment in the GREAT DEPRESSION; George RYGA's play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967), dealing with the plight of native people; Richard ROHMER's novel Ultimatum (1973), about conflict between Canada and the US; Hubert AQUIN's novel PROCHAIN ÉPISODE (1965), dealing with the psychology of Québec separatism; and Ivan Shaffer's novel The Medicine Man (1975), exploring conflict arising between large corporate interests and reformist members of the Canadian House of Commons.

In a less confrontational way writers have treated the political nature of life in Canada from the earliest times. John RICHARDSON'S WACOUSTA (1832), William KIRBY's The GOLDEN DOG (1877) and Philippe AUBERT DE GASPÉ Sr's, Les ANCIENS CANADIENS (1863) all deal, each in its own way, with the character of the Canadian community and the nature of the political order. That theme has continued unflaggingly as a subject of literature to our day.

Because modern Canada continues to debate REGIONALISM and centralism, ANARCHISM and communitarianism, national independence and association with US power, socialism and capitalism, and independence or federal association for Québec, the country's literature exhibits a continuing political dimension.

Literary associations occupy themselves with many of these questions, and theories of literary creation in Canada tend to be closely associated with the political views of those who construct the theories. Indeed, the character of Canada's internal and external relations ensures that the literature of the country, which began in the midst of strong political tensions, will continue in a similar milieu. Our nation provides an especially clear argument that a country's literature and its politics are inseparable and affect each other on many visible and invisible levels.

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