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History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

The Canadian Essence: What will it mean to be
a Canadian in the 21st century?

Carol Shields, Novelist, Manitoba

Canadians in the 21st century will be better educated and they will be exposed to the arts earlier than their parents, thanks to audience development programs which is currently a priority with the Canada Council, thanks to artists in the schools programs, thanks, at least in some provinces, to schooling which includes arts — not as an enrichment but as a fundamental educational component — and thanks to a certain unquantifiable bustle in the air for which multiculturalism is partly responsible.

And thanks, also, to the re-invigoration and restoration of funding in the Canada Council, after a period of impoverishment and cynicism.

We sometimes forget how new the idea of Canadian culture is. The Canada Council is just 40 years old, founded in 1957. That was the year I immigrated to Canada. In that year we became a country that decided it could afford its own culture. Change followed very rapidly.

Today, certain elements of our culture are in danger. Some theatres are seeing their subscription base eroded; certain opera companies in a deficit position.

There is a large part of the citizenry who cannot afford to participate in the culture, or who are unaware of its existence. But on the whole our culture life is becoming more accessible, available, widespread and vibrant.

Our government invested in culture and the investment has paid off. And it has paid off economically.

We now have close to a million cultural workers in Canada; that is, seven per cent of the population are involved in the cultural industry. It feeds our souls and it feeds our economy.

If we value national unity we understand that our definition and our shared experience grows out of the ownership of a body of aesthetic expressions and response.

Support in the 21st century will certainly have to continue. Let me state this clearly; the iron rule that governs the Canadian cultural economy is this: the arts we know and enjoy in Canada could not, would not and never will be able to survive as strictly commercial ventures in our small, but interdependent, marketplace.

Instead of thinking lumber industries, think clusters of cottage industries; large and small theatres, large and small galleries and so forth.

If we are to at least maintain the level of public and individual support for the arts, we have to understand that our cultural enterprise is not structured like our industrial enterprises.

The culture of Canada is not a collection of commercial companies, but a whole network of interconnected and interdependent elements — and individuals — working along. If any are weakened, the whole is in danger.

It is not possible to downsize culture itself, because culture takes on the world and insists on excellence.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine an ophthalmologist performing a delicate feat of eye surgery. She brings to her task the best equipment and the most highly-developed techniques. She does not perform a cheap, cut-rate operation because there is insufficient cash. That would be bad medicine.

In the same way, a serious writer does not write a bad book because the audience is small and the compensation paltry. He writes the best book he can.

Even if we did not believe that our literature reflected the norms of our society, or interrogated our communally-held notions of good, or possessed the power to open new moral dimensions, then it would still be of value for us to think about what our literature might look like in the 21st century.

The instant and almost universal acceptance of the novel in the West — and we always think of 1740, about that date — tells me that we are not about to witness the death of this form in the next 100 years.

Its shape will change, surely. It has always been in a state of change. The problem-solution set-up of early 20th century novels — some of those novels that were on the big list you’ve been reading about lately — were too formulaic.

It did not relate to the lives of women or minorities, it trafficked too freely in artificial moments of revelation and too neatly in terms of closure.

Today, film performs the world of action superbly, leaving to the novel, by default, that more interesting world, to me anyway, of how people think.

But will there be readers to complete the reader-writer arc? This is perhaps the most interesting question for the next century; the future of the book as we know it, and it’s one that I hope will stir discussion.

I am hopeful.

In a world which thinks more and more in terms of mass audience, the movement of print between writer and reader remains one of the most intimate of connections.

We talk about mass market books or best-sellers, but we should be talking about the real enchantment of the written word, however widely disseminated: one consciousness speaking directly into the ear, or eye, of another single consciousness.

Who could ask for a more sublime form of human communication!