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Literature and Writing

Canadian Literature

languages of Canada, Canadian Literature, partisanship, plurality, hindrance

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Canadian Literature, literature of the peoples of Canada. Although Canadian literature enjoys an international presence today, as a whole it developed slowly. It began in the 17th century and achieved its distinctive character only after Canada gained independence from Britain in 1867. From the beginnings of European colonization in the 1600s until nationhood, various factors affected cultural development in the territory now known as Canada. From colonial times on, European Canadians were divided into two distinct populations: French-speaking and English-speaking. Although many people were bilingual (as are many Canadians today), the partisanship of these two groups, coupled with large numbers of immigrants who spoke other languages, proved to be divisive in any progress toward a single national literature. Rather than commit themselves to uniformity as the basis of their culture, Canadians instead accepted plurality (diversity) as a workable alternative.

Other factors also worked against a uniform national culture. As Canada’s boundaries rapidly expanded, its settlements became widely scattered. This complicated transportation and communication, thereby impeding the distribution of goods, including books. Canada did not have a revolution as the United States did. Canada’s slow population growth resulted in an evolutionary process of cultural development that continues today.

Finally, Canada has experienced tensions as a result of horizontal pulls across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain and France, and a vertical pull across the 49th parallel to the United States. Centers of publication long lay outside Canada. Although Halifax, Montreal, and Toronto had all emerged as literary environments by the 1850s, literature from Britain and the United States flooded into Canada without hindrance. Under such circumstances, a sense of a separate Canadian literary identity was achieved only slowly and with sustained effort.

By the 1960s, the Canadian literary scene had blossomed. More volumes of poetry, fiction, drama, and critical studies appeared yearly than formerly had appeared in a decade. New Canadian-owned publishing firms opened. In high schools and universities, courses in Canadian literature proliferated. Nevertheless, the literary achievement of the last decades of the 20th century is firmly rooted in Canada's literary past; it is the harvest of many decades of thoughtful cultivation.

Most Canadian literature is written in English or French; other languages in which it appears include Gaelic, German, Icelandic, Ukrainian, Yiddish, and the many languages of Canada’s original inhabitants, among them Cree, Haida, Inuktitut, and Ojibwa.


Smart, Patricia, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor of French, Carleton University. Author of "Ecrire dans la maison du pere" and "Les Femmes du refud global". Winner of the 1988 Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction in French.

McNeilly, Kevin, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor, University of British Columbia.

New, William H., B.Ed., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor, University of British Columbia. Author of "A History of Canadian Literature".

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