Literature in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literature in English

Writers have described Canada in many ways: for example, as a French or English colony, a "fifty-first state," a Pacific Rim country, an arctic giant, a friendly territory or an uninhabitable wilderness.
Laurence, Margaret
Hagar Shipley's character and voice are justly praised as Laurence's most inspired creations (courtesy McClelland & Stewart).
Thomas Chandler Haliburton, author and politician
Thomas Chandler Haliburton in a lithograph by E.U. Eddis (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-6086).
Timothy Findley, writer
Timothy Findley's writing displays a broad range of subject matter, always treated with imagination (photo by Sussi).
Mordecai Richler, author
(photo by Martha Kaplan)

The term “Canadian Literature in English” refers to that which is written in what is now territorially Canada or written by Canadians abroad (see also Literature in French).

Writers have described Canada in many ways;for example, as a French or English colony, a “fifty-first state,” a Pacific Rim country, an Arctic giant, a friendly territory or an uninhabitable wilderness. Canadian literature has often had to deal with such differences in attitude, not just because many Canadian authors were born elsewhere and brought outsiders’ expectations with them, but also because popular attitudes often perpetuated stereotypes of Canada. Three pervasive stereotypes portray Canada as (1) a physical desert, (2) a cultural wasteland and (3) a raw land of investment opportunity and resource extraction. These distortions have created an audience for stereotypes, which Canadian writers sometimes reinforced by writing romantic adventures of the frozen North, in which everything local was savage or hostile and “civilization” was imported. But over time, they sought to record local experience and to use literature to shape their own culture rather than to imitate or defer to the presumptions of another society.

Insofar as Canadian culture continues to be shaped by a range of languages in use and by wide variations in geography, social experience, Indigenouscultures, immigrationpatterns and proximity to Europe, Asia and the USA, the “Canadian voice” is not uniform. Nevertheless, however much their aesthetic practices and political commitments may differ, Canadian writers bring many shared perspectives to their representations of nature, civility and human interaction, whether at home or abroad. Some critical approaches to Canadian literature have attempted to identify national or regional characteristics in literature. Other criticism (see Literature in English: Theory and Criticism) has fastened on language and formal strategies, theories of knowledge and meaning, ethics (variously defined) and the politics and psychology of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, identity and environment. “Canadian literature” does not therefore restrict itself to a particular set of topics, terms or even Canadian settings, nor does any set of topics and terms constitute a required ingredient in a Canadian book.

Motifs and Patterns

Although the national character is not always the subject of Canadian literature, the culture’s social attitudes and values can be seen in the language and forms it uses (seeLiterature in English: Language and Literary Form). For instance, communication is often achieved through tone as much as through direct statement. Irony is a dominant mode, litotes (the negative positive: not unappreciated) is a common speech pattern, trickster (rather than hero) figures recur, and a sense of humour (understatement, parody, mimicry, wry satire) punctuates much serious literary work. Some commentators have interpreted Canadian tendencies toward literary indirectness politically and psychologically, finding in it a sign of national insecurity and a group feeling of inferiority. Others argue that indirectness is a healthy demonstration of the culture’s ability to adapt an inherited tongue to its own purposes. Irony, for example, can undercut as much as apologize, and the quiet demeanour of an onlooker figure in a narrative can effectively undermine positions of ostensible power.

Several specific narrative patterns recur in Canadian writing, especially evident in fiction and life writing: (1) a community walls itself off from the wilderness (the “garrison mentality”); (2) a person leaves the homeland, adjusts to the new world, then finds the new “homeland” to be “alien”; (3) a person born in Canada feels like a permanent stranger in his or her own home; (4) people arrive in the new home only to find that they are excluded from power; (5) a person attempts to recover from the past the secret or suppressed life of a previous generation; (6) a woman struggles to come to terms with her own creativity and the inhibitions of her cultural upbringing (often told as conflict between colony and empire); (7) an apparently passive observer, surrounded by articulate tricksters and raconteurs, turns out to be able to tell both their story and his or her own, often ironically; (8) an adventurer turns failure into a form of grace; (9) a child grows up to inherit a world of promise, or a world of loss, frequently both at once; (10) a subjective historian meditates on place and memory; (11) characters celebrate space and wilderness, usually after a struggle to learn to accept that the wilderness provides spiritual therapy only on its own terms; (12) characters, adrift in a maze of words or a fog of ambiguity and anonymity, shape “acceptable fictions” into a workable life.

Writing about their society, many writers of short fiction, thenovel, autobiography or memoir, biography, poetry and drama have recurrently portrayed particular historical figures, both to reveal their intrinsic interest and implicitly to suggest how they epitomize certain cultural attributes or qualities of character. Such figures include Samuel Hearne, Louis Riel, Susanna Moodie, Sir John A. Macdonald, Emily Carr and William Lyon Mackenzie. In the retelling, sometimes transposed from their own time into the present, each possesses a vision but remains an ordinary human being, one with frailties, not a conventional hero. Characteristically, Canadian writing resists the binaries associated with perfectionism (right-wrong, good-evil, hero-villain ), embracing notions of multiple alternatives, working pluralities, multivoicedness and negotiated or evolving resolution instead. In narrative, violence generally functions as an instigation of action and as a penultimate event rather than as a solution or act of closure. Repeatedly, individual rights balance against community responsibilities. In more recent drama, poetry, and prose—even in much popular genre writing (see Popular Literature in English)—open endings predominate over conventional strategies of closure, inviting readers/listeners to participate in the play of alternatives and possibilities.


Settings often possess a symbolic dimension. CatholicQuébec recurrently figures in anglophone writing as a land of mystery, attractive but enthralling and morally dangerous; Ontario as an enigmatic blend of moral uprightness and moral evasiveness; Atlantic Canada as a repository of old values; the North as a land of vision; the Prairies as a land of isolation and acquisition; and the West Coast as a dream of the future in which people often mistakenly believe. Europe often appears as the home of refinement, deceit, and discrimination; the United States as a land of crass achievement and tangible success; and Africa as the embodiment of all that seems “other” to Protestant rationalism. In recent writing, Latin America and Asia (both East and South) are frequently configured as sites of political entanglement, which is expressed through inheritance and family ties or embodied in the complexities of larger communities. Within Canada, the land itself is recurrently associated with power, whether as property, region, a hostile force, a godly gift, the basis for resource extraction, the site of communication, the contested territory of competing cultural claims, the border or the ecological medium in which human life integrates with all other living beings in Nature.

Although most Canadians live in cities, until recently writers used rural and small-town settings more frequently than urban ones, and to the degree that they adapted conventional adventure and pastoral formulas to Canadian settings, they seldom questioned unstated assumptions about status and race. From early on in Canadian literature, however, essayists (see Essay in English) and travel writers (see Travel Literature) analyzed and challenged as well as celebrated Canadian political life. Often, women writers used fiction and autobiography to reveal social divisions within Canada that male adventure writers ignored or underplayed, and to suggest reforms. Recent writing by both women and men focuses more directly and fully on urban life as well as on social issues (ethnicity, gender, poverty, health, education) that transcend setting.

“Regional” writing also conveys political stances. The term is used in two ways: to refer to places ruled by a real or imagined centre, and to configure the variant parts that make up a collective unit or community. By rejecting a single definition of “Canada,” writing about regional distinctiveness sometimes declares separatist claims on identity and power and in other instances asserts the viability of a nation with a plural character (seeRegionalism in Literature). Increasingly, Indigenous writers and writers who draw on backgrounds other than western European ones have examined the political opportunities of Canadian pluralism, but also the social limitations of local convention.


A rough chronological guide to changes and developments in Canadian writing should not be equated with a simple chart of “progress”; each age (Colonial, Early National, Interwar and Postwar, Contemporary) reveals differing conventions, preoccupations and accomplishments. Hence, as fashions and critical tastes change over time, so do determinations of value and significance.

Canadian literature in English can be said to begin in the early 17th century with Jacobean poetry in Newfoundland; in the decades that followed with numerous explorers writing narratives of contact (seeExploration Literature); or in the mid-18th century with the epistolary fiction of the English garrison community in Québec. After 1776, in the Loyalistsettlements of Upper Canada and the Maritimes, many writers turned to political verse satire (see Humorous Writing in English; Literature and Politics). Newly founded newspapersand magazines(see alsoLiterary Magazines in English) became venues for political commentary, both conservative and reform-minded, as well as for literary expression, which in the 19th century generally followed Romantic, Sentimental and Orientalist fashions in Britain. Some scathing satire emerged in Nova Scotia. Novels and dramas followed historical romance and Gothic paradigms, as did most long poems. Mid-19th century autobiographies set in present day Ontario provide insight into daily life: Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852), Catharine Parr Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada (1836) and Anna Brownell Jameson’s Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838) highlight British women’s various attitudes toward settlement, while the Nishnaabe missionary George Copway’s memoir The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-Bowh (1847) both celebrates Christianity and emphasizes the value of Indigenous law, land use and religion. Short personal sketches of persons and places formed the basis for much travel writing and for the short fiction that emerged as a new genre during the 19th century. Folksong and folktale survive, but Native oral literature received scant literary attention until the later 19th century.

Early National

In the years leading up to Confederation and during the five decades following, much attention turned to literacy and political organization. Schools and universities opened, as did several Carnegie Libraries, part of a network of public libraries across North America financied by the fortune of Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Writers celebrated their newfound nationalism and were drawn variously to such enterprises as the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Institut Canadien, the Royal Society of Canada, the Canada FirstMovement and Imperial Federation (see Imperialism). Philosophical and scientific writing flourished, encouraging thoughtful discourse across language lines. Travel (within Canada and abroad) encouraged other kinds of contact, and with it both impressionistic and reportorial writing. By the end of the 19th century, writers like Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far) addressed racism against Chinese North Americans, while proponents of Women’s Suffrage and Prohibition wrote stories and essays that focused on issues of social change.

Many other social assumptions nevertheless remained largely unexamined. While attention turned to First Nations’ oral tales, writers treated them (despite the emergence of First Nations writers publishing in English) as “simple” texts, suitable in translation (if expurgated) mainly to entertain children. Tales and poems about “Indians,” such as Duncan Campbell Scott’s “The Onondaga Madonna” (1894), largely assumed that First Nations people were “a dying race” and their several complex cultures unsophisticated. Poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) drew on her Mohawk and British heritage to challenge these stereotypes and address the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canadians. Nevertheless, the romance of the “Indians” was matched by a continuing romance of Empire. Ontario- and Maritime-based Canadian culture remained dominantly Celtic and anglocentric. Early creative narratives from the Prairies and the West Coast, while recurrently probing the real-life travails of immigrants and the exigencies of farm and forest management, were largely overshadowed in the popular imagination by Ontario romances of Presbyterian conversion.

By the early 20th century, many Canadian books won widespread international popularity, notably L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables (1908), a humorous tale of an orphan’s life in Prince Edward Island. C.G.D. Roberts’s and E.T. Seton’s seemingly realistic animal tales provide other examples, as do the comic sketches of Stephen Leacock , which parodied literary stereotypes and dealt ironically with social platitudes. In poetry, the Confederation group (William Wilfred Campbell, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, Charles G.D. Roberts, Duncan Campbell Scott and Fredrick George Scott) produced the most important writings of the late 19th century; committed to closely observed details, they variously reshaped how the lyric represented nature, winter and the Canadian landscape.

Interwar and Postwar

Cultural and social attitudes changed during and after the First World War. One creative generation was lost but another emerged, objecting both to imperial assumptions of militarism and the language associated with it (see The First World War in Canadian Literature). New magazines affirmed the independence of Canadian thought. New prizes were established to recognize Canadian literary accomplishment. In the fiction of the 1920s, while some popular family chronicles continued to affirm conventional class distinctions, antiwar novels and class critiques began to appear, a trend magnified during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many writers focussed on uprooted or marginalized individuals and the troubled lives of non-English-speaking immigrants. Novelists championed industrial workers’ rights and sought fresh, more direct forms of speech, spurning the sentimental romance in favour of a more “realistic” (some called it a more “violent”) vocabulary. American literary practice—and the international avant-garde of postwar Paris—drew writers such as John Glassco and Morley Callagham; the short story genre thrived, espousing forms that resisted narrative closure.

Young writers also rejected received social values by mounting left-wing agitprop drama, writing dramas that satirized nationalist pageantry, publishing erotica, finding inspiration in the Group of Seven painters, and embracing the modernist dicta of the poet T.S. Eliot and others. Chief among emerging Canadian poets at this time were those associated with the “McGill” (or “Montreal”) Group, especially F.R. Scott for his commitment to social justice and Abraham Klein for his passionate embrace of his Jewish heritage. Over succeeding decades Dorothy Livesay became the voice of socialist feminism and Scott, with the poet-critic A.J.M. Smith, became an influential anthologist, shaping the early teaching of Canadian literature.

In the wake of the Second World War came a mix of propaganda, pacifist rhetoric, parodies of military ineptitude, and a new wave of progressivist writers, by turns humanist, anticlerical, community-minded and intellectually anarchist. Notable names include Irving Layton, Earle Birney, Gabrielle Roy (who remains one of the best- known francophone writers in translation), P.K. Page and George Woodcock. In the 1940s and 1950s, social policies were being drafted that would shape a Canadian sense of community for decades to come. New Literary Periodicals demanded a sharper, more locally grounded language. Radio technology also served this end. Public radio, established in 1932, led to a wave of cross-country spoken-word broadcasts, talks, dramas, readings of short stories and children’s programs, all reconfirming the sounds of Canadian speech as a literary medium, especially from 1943 on. Novelists such as Hugh MacLennan and Sinclair Ross urned again to local settings, rendering the prairies, the Maritimes and Montreal as sites of personal and political trauma. Critics now praise more highly the innovative stylistic practice of Ethel Wilson for her insights into women’s lives; Malcolm Lowry for his symphonies of despair and transient joy; Sheila Watson for her rendering of life as an elliptical mythology; and in a career that would last for half a century, Mordecai Richler for his frank and animated cultural politics.

Contemporary: Three Generations

Several social developments markedly changed Canadian society in the years following 1960. The large “baby-boom” generation matured, with the vocal “X” and “Y” generations following; immigration policies were altered to allow greater numbers of new citizens from Asia, Africa and Latin America; startling technological developments (from radio to the Internet) collapsed notions of space and sped up communication. All these changes had an impact on literary topics and techniques. Cross-border and cross-cultural contacts validated notions of cultural “hybridity” as a social norm, challenging conventional definitions of “ethnic purity” and “fixed identity.” Family biographies shifted focus from single lives onto lives-in-context. Multimedia presentations challenged conventions regarding the unity of literary form. Bilingual texts, triptychs (in fiction and drama), and discontinuous narratives in fiction and poetry all deliberately disrupted conventional linearity as a literary technique. Numerous integrated (but discontinuous) collections of short fiction appeared called sequences, cycles or “composite narratives.” Some of the major writers of these decades had just been emerging in the 1950s: Richler and two of the world’s foremost authors of short fiction, Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, whose stories embed more than announce, reveal more than parade. They would be joined by Alistair MacLeod , Clark Blaise and numerous others.

The number of Canadian universities, small presses, accessible academic and literary periodicals (from Canadian Literature to Geist), courses in Canadian literature and creative writing schools also increased, in part because of the recommendations of the Massey Commission and the emergence of the Canada Council in the 1950s. Further government policies led to such social developments as the Charter Of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, but a sudden shift to policies that favoured fiscal restraint and cultural cutbacks occurred in the early 21st century and have persisted; the publishing industry, libraries, public media and scholarship were all affected. New technologies opened up opportunities for local (and frequently more innovative) publishing (including experiments in syllabic and concrete poetry, mixed-media presentations, performance poetry and other formats), yet they did not guarantee access to publicity and sales. Coteries came and went; so did scores of journals and papers. Newspapers faced hardships, and some stopped publishing print editions; this was due in part to a readership that had shifted to online news sources. Publishers of formula fiction remained monetarily successful. Some writers of mystery and science fiction achieved international stardom and praise for their literary achievements, as in the case of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1986), Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003, 2009 and 2013). But publishing houses that had thrived in the 1960s when American control over the information industry was resisted faced closure in the 2010s with the increasing influence of electronic publishing and multinational corporations. The CBC’s annual Canada Reads contest, which began in 2002, pits a selection of books against one another, each with its own celebrity endorsement. The event promotes Canadian writing and emphasizes the importance of a reading public yet simplifies literature and contributes to a competitive literary culture. Likewise, a plethora of prizes, often with corporate sponsorship, began to construct literature as spectacle. Many bookstores nevertheless closed.

Throughout the decades from 1960 onward, while there has been some evidence of a literary return to older forms of expression and fundamentalist redefinitions of ethics, writers more characteristically in each generation embraced social justice and reformist causes: for women’s rights (see Women’s Movement), for gay and lesbian equality (See Homosexuality), against colonialism and against increasing poverty. Children’s literature, an enterprise that flourished at this time, ranging from nonsense verse to problem-centred novels for young adults, addressed some of these same issues of race, gender, alcohol, drug abuse and social identity. Science writing, social history, life writing, environmental inquiry and other forms of “creative nonfiction” also frequently combined discovery with protest. Critiques of social arrogance in one decade (foreign wars, napalm, racism) morphed into critiques of other disparities in the next (discrimination by sex, gender, ethnicity, economics). Margaret Atwood embraced the new nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s (with the Centennial celebrations in 1967) but later tempered her observations in dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which challenges government control over women’s bodies. Robertson Davies’s Jungian novels expressed one pervasive understanding of myth and psychology; Robert Kroetsch’s poems and tales deconstructed such conventions and rerooted the epic in everyday vernacular experience. Language and literary form again became subjects for analysis and theoretical discussion, as in the work of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye, as well as territories for dispute, as when Nicole Brossard’s critiques of French grammar influenced feminist writers in English, or when, in much of 21st-century fiction, conventional vulgarities became normative (and therefore potentially radical, culturally upsetting) speech.

The Writers Union of Canada formed in 1973, reflecting writers’ numbers and endeavouring to help deal with the challenges they face.

Other writers addressed cultural, social, and political alternatives in Canadian society, some of which were longstanding, others deriving from more recent changes in population, technology, language and communication. Many of these writers sought a balance between criticism of social practice (racism, passive dismissal, restrictive legislation) and celebration of social potential. A great number of Métis and First Nations writers have provided important commentary, variously critiquing colonialism and celebrating Indigenous life. More specifically (although authors address multiple topics in each work), Maria Campbell’s Half-Breed (1973), Lee Maracle’s Bobbi Lee (1973) and Jeannette Armstrong’s Slash (1985) depict journeys toward political consciousness; Ruby Slipperjack’s Honour the Sun (1987), Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed (1996), and Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000) represent childhood and adolescence; Thomas King’s The Truth about Stories (2003) highlights the value of Indigenous creation stories; Marie Clements’s Burning Vision (2003) and Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass (2010) consider environment and land use; Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road (2005) and Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse (2012) address the residential school system, which has been further investigated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2008–15). The poet Robert Bringhursttranslated some of the great classic Haida oral tales, Al Purdy created poetry out of the rhythms of ordinary speech, Jack Hodgins turned Vancouver Island idiosyncrasy into a comedy of human aspiration, George Elliott Clarke and Wayde Compton called attention to Black writing in Canada, and increasing numbers of writers (including Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje and Wayson Choy) drew on their Asian heritage both to reflect on adaptations to difference and to dramatize the challenges and rewards of a fractured or shared history.

Developments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, the “war on terror,” and climate change awareness underscored global interconnectedness. While regions and places continued to provide inspiration for contemporary fiction, as in David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children (2001) and André Alexis’s Pastoral (2014), stress was often laid on globalization’s impact on specific locales, as in Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief (1999) and Lisa Moore’s February (2009). Environmental concerns were made central in Hiromi Goto’s The Kappa Child (2001), Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013), Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle (2014), and Rita Wong’s Forage (2008) and undercurrent (2015), which share concerns about the global ramifications of overconsumption, waste disposal and polluted water. With a similar planetary focus, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003, 2009 and 2013) explores the frailty of national borders in the wake of climate change.

Globalization notwithstanding, literary interest in the nation-state persisted. Canadian writers’ attention to the United States increased after the September 11th terrorist attacks and Canada’s subsequent involvement in the “war on terror.” Dionne Brand’s encyclopedic Inventory (2006) and Douglas Coupland’s apocalyptic narrative Player One (2010) respond to the violence generated by terrorism and war. Historical narratives have provided an alternative way of engaging with Canada’s southern neighbour: Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (2011) and Alix Hawley’s All True Not a Lie in It (2015) reinterpret myths of the American west, whereas characters’ movement between American and Canadian settings in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man (2011) suggests that the two countries have a shared history, in some respects at least. Perspectives on contemporary human migration, in the form of refugees and illegal immigrants, is provided in John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children (2015) and Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal (2015), thereby giving pause to literal and metaphoric borders, as well as the complex and multiple networks that connect people, places, environments and countries in a globalized era.

Further Reading