What makes literature 'truly Canadian'?

A critical look at the annual Canada Reads competition and the pursuit of the great Canadian novel

Four of the five books CBC recommends all Canadians should read.
Four of the five books CBC recommends all Canadians should read.

What’s the novel all Canadians should read? That’s the question at the core of CBC’s Canada Reads competition.

I followed along with Canada Reads this year by reading all five of the shortlisted books in six weeks — a task that proved more trying than I anticipated.

According to the CBC website, Canada Reads, which began in 2001, consists of “five Canadian personalities [selecting] the book they think Canadians should read. Each personality selects a book to defend and the books are eliminated one by one until a winner is declared.”

This year, the list included:

  • Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, defended by entrepreneur and author Bruce Poon Tip
  • Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz, defended by award-winning activist Farah Mohamed
  • Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter, defended by actor and retired wrestler Adam Copeland
  • The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami, defended by actor and author Vinay Virmani
  • The Illegal by Lawrence Hill, defended by six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes

The theme of this year’s competition, which took place from March 21 until March 24, was ‘starting over’. Throughout the four-day debate, the five Canadian personalities discussed the merits of each novel in relation to the theme and Canadian identity.

The question of what it means to be ‘truly Canadian’ was a controversial one throughout the debate. Conversations surrounding narrative settings and the background of characters brought out the fiercest arguments between the books’ defenders.

In the end, Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal was selected as the winner. Hill’s novel depicts the struggle of Keita, a boy trying to survive in a nation purging itself of refugees.

“It’s heavy, it’s lively, it’s playful, and it gave me hope. It brings humanity to the struggle,” reads a quote by Clara Hughes from the debate on the CBC website.

As an avid reader of Canadian literature, I’ve found Canada Reads to be a great way to inspire Canadians to get excited about books written by local authors. The debate on whether a book aptly depicts being Canadian is problematic, however, as a large part of Canadian identity is diversity in all forms — the inability to pinpoint a certain identity to appropriately represent the whole.

It also shouldn’t fall to five representatives to define what it means to be Canadian and judge how well a novel represents that definition on behalf of an entire population.

Each book provides varying perspectives on Canadian identity and the theme of starting over, and the characters — like many Canadians — have a variety of experiences and backgrounds that affect their perspectives.

But while I have my qualms about the competition, I enjoyed the opportunity to read a number of Canadian novels I may not have otherwise picked up. They all provided unique conceptions of new beginnings.

The novels all told stories of perseverance and tenacity, their protagonists holding strong in the face of adversity and inspiring readers to do the same.

Whether it was starting fresh in the same town, like the protagonist Henry in Minister Without Portfolio, moving to a new place as part of a transformation, like Birdie inTracey Lindberg’s Birdie, or being constantly on the move, like Keita in The Illegal, each of the characters used circumstances beyond their control as a transformative experience.

Although I finished all the books in the short time I allotted myself, if you plan on following along with Canada Reads in upcoming years, I would suggest giving yourself more time than you think you’ll need.

That way, instead of frantically flipping through the pages the night before the debate and missing out on the details, you can enjoy the greatest part of reading — immersing yourself in a story that provides a new understanding of the world around you. 

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