by W.D. Valgardson
ELEVEN CANADIAN WRITERS jammed onto the stage in Oslo, Norway, all asked to describe where Canadian literature is going in the `90s. Rudy Wiebe starts off with an attack on white writers who write from an Indian point of view. Aritha van Herk picks up the attack and tells the audience that an Indian writer she knows has an anti-Kinsella poem. Heather Spears adds that she`s never forgiven Margaret Laurence (poor Margaret, so easily hurt, so generous, so dead) for writing a story from the point of view of a black person.
Rudy argues that white people mustn`t write about Indians unless they treat them with respect. Like him, one assumes. Stephen Scobie says that The Temptations of Big Bear was a great book when it was published, but he wonders if it would be a great book if published today.
Meech Lake has failed. Western Canada is seriously discussing separation. Quebec is acting like an independent country. Free trade and the GST are almost certain to destroy the Canadian publishing industry. Mulroney is determined to dismantle the CBC and the NFB. And the major topic is whether W. P. Kinsella has the right to choose a particular point of view when he writes fiction...
The third triannual conference of the Nordic Association for Canadian Studies is in full swing. The audience loves the infighting. "The Canadians," one of them says later, "are so human." Another isn`t so impressed. "We settled all this ten years ago," he says.
And yet Rudy has touched a central thread that winds its way through the entire conference.
"Support the Mowhawks (sic)," has been sprayed on a building in Oslo. Oka is even on the news with subtitles. Billy Diamond, the Cree chief, is here to deliver an impassioned keynote address called "The Development of the North: Confrontation and Conflict." There`s a panel on economic development of the Arctic, another on political devolution. But it`s Oka that people talk about. Oka about which there are constant rumours. Oka and counter-demonstrators being brutalized by police. The secret of Canadian injustice out in the open for one and all to see.
During the three days of the conference, there are more than 70 panels and papers. They range from Jorn Carlsen`s "Jen Munk`s Search for the North-west Passage 1619-1620" to Christopher Armitage`s "The North, True or Illusionary, in English Canadian Literature." Bengt Steiffert of Lund University, one of the pillars of the NACS (the other two are Per Seyersted, University of Oslo, and Jorn Carlsen, University of Arhus), heads a panel on teaching Canadian literature in Scandinavia. On the panel are representatives from each country. Their stories are much the same with minor variations. Overall, Canadian studies are so new that everyone is a pioneer. In Denmark, until after the Second World War, the focus was so strongly on England that to pass an English language course, the student had to speak with an English accent. American accent, Australian accent, Canadian accent, the student failed. This focus has changed. Another general area of agreement was that Canadian teaching materials were hard to get and needed to be more interesting. Merete Born, author of Canada Profile and a teacher of Canadian literature in a Danish high school, pointed out that students choose their area of study. They are drawn to study the United States. Therefore, it is imperative that good Canadian materials be provided.
How little is known about Canada was made clear from the results of an exercise given to Danish students. A class was given the name Canada and told to spontaneously react with associations. The results were as follows: English, O`Canada, Gretzky, British Columbia, Montreal, maple, RCMP, French, Vancouver, NHL, Ben Johnson, Calgary, Quebec. Pause for a moment, dear reader, and think that when someone from Scandinavia meets you, you are the sum total of that list.
On the first night, a conference dinner was held in the Maritime Museum. The Breakwater Troupe entertained us with songs from Newfoundland. Breakwater Books was also the only Canadian publisher with a display of books and catalogues. The NACS isn`t Frankfurt. Or even Gothenberg. But the people here are the ones who create the conditions for deals to be cut at book fairs. They are the proselytizers and the true believers. The NFB should be here showing films. Canadian publishers should be here with their book displays. Canadian artists should be exhibited in an art show. The CBC should have a presence.
If, three years from now in Helsinki, support isn`t provided, the gentleman I met in a beer garden will never change his mind. He asked me if I was an American. I said no, I was a Canadian writer and he replied, "That`s impossible. All Canadian writers are women and they`re all called Margaret."