Writing in Red and White: 10 Dundurn authors on the Canadian Identity

Writing in Red and White: 10 Dundurn authors on the Canadian Identity

Posted on June 28 by Kyle in Interview, News
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2017 marks not only Canada's 150th year as a country but Dundurn's 45th year as a publisher.

In honour of this, we asked our authors to describe how the Canadian identity or history influenced their work. Some went into great detail, some kept it simple. Here's what they said.

Canadian identity and history influence all the work I do! My books focus on the often hidden histories of this huge and diverse country, and I'm always trying to understand how we got where we are today through treaties, immigration, world conflicts and technological advances. I've had the opportunity to live and research in most corners of the country, and this experience of regional differences has really helped me too — as a Canadian and a writer. I try to reflect that in my books.

 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, author of Polar Winds

My work involves challenging what is taken for granted in representations of Canadian history. I always find evidence more compelling than memories and myths. Too often I hear people dismiss our history as boring, bland, and featureless. Our country has an abundance of compelling, alarming, shocking, rewarding, and heartening stories. As a historian, I'd like to help share even just a few.

 Gregory Klages, author of The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson

My novels are populated by diverse characters making home in Canada, including ones from my Dawoodi Bohra (a small Muslim sect) community. So identity and Canadian-ness are a big part of my work.

Farzana Doctor, author of Six Metres of Pavement and All Inclusive

Everything I’ve written has been based on events in Canadian history. From a Nazi spy who landed on the New Brunswick Bay of Fundy coast in my first short story, “The Pull of the Moon” (Descant, summer 2002); to the PEI Tenant’s League, the Slaymaker and Nichols Olympic Circus, and Confederation conferences of 1864 in my novel To the Edge of the Sea (Thistledown, 2011); to the disappearance and death of my father in my play Lullabies and Cautions (Spring Festival of New Plays, 2016); to Miss Confederation: The Diary of Mercy Anne Coles (Dundurn June 2017) — each and every one has come from a piece of Canada’s past.   

I know how strongly events and experiences in my own life – and the time period I live in – have shaped me. When writing of the past I want to understand the people and events that made up Canada. It’s not just a process to understand the present; it is to discern whether and how we’re different, and how we’re the same too. Miss Confederation chronicles a young unmarried woman’s experiences in the social whirlwind of Confederation. It offers a unique view of the events, and the people, but also of how a young woman explored the world and her part in it at this changing and pivotal time in Canadian history. I want to understand that time – from the social events and what were the important sights of the day – to Mercy Coles’ approach to and portrayal of life.

It’s not just the past though, not just history. Setting is incredibly important in my work. I explore how the geography and landscape of where we live affects us and shapes our identity. Prince Edward Island, surrounded by the ocean, circumscribed by weather, and the Bay of Fundy too, with its tides that rise and then empty completely – people, and events there are shaped by these things. Or at least I think so. When you go for a walk, is it in the light drizzle of a Victoria spring, or the soft green of southern Ontario? Is the air scented with dogwood even amidst the dusty wind of a late prairie spring? Does the fog seem to rain from the trees as in a Grand Manan New Brunswick July? The light, the air on our skin, the shape of the world in front of us – these create our identities and our world views. And the same applies to the past.   

Why, still the question is, why does Canada absorb me so? It’s CBC radio; Expo ’67; summer holidays in Prince Edward Island and Grand Manan; because I live on the prairies now; and because I read Jane Urquhart, Fred Stenson, Helen Humphries, Timothy Findley, Roy MacSkimming, Connie Gault, Riel Nason, and Anne Lazurko. 

It would seem I wouldn’t have written anything if I weren’t influenced by Canada’s history, its weather, the landscape, and its stories.

 Anne McDonald, author of Miss Confederation

As a writer (primarily of musical theatre) I have always been interested in exploring my Canadian identity. This began about thirty years ago with my exploration of my own genealogical roots, of how my ancestors came to Georgian Bay in the 1850s as teachers to the Anishnabek people. This eventually became my first book, When We Both Got To Heaven, which Dundurn published in 2002. Then I began to look at the roots of Canadian musical theatre, which resulted in Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Music Theatre, which Dundurn published in 2006. The latter was part history, part manifesto in its encouragement for writers to create works that reflect their individual (and thereby Canadian) views of the world.

— Mel Atkey, author of When We Both Got To Heaven and Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre

The Canadian identity immensley influenced my work. Totally, because I write about Canadian submarines, church history and the fur trade.

— Julie H. Ferguson, author of Through a Canadian Periscope, James Douglas, and Sing a New Song

My work with Dundurn is based on the variety of cultures that make up the Canadian identity. My novels for children and young adults, are written to help them understand the colourful and yet sometimes dark history of our country's growth. So many people of older generations have thanked me for telling the Cherry Blossom stories they can now share the history of the Japanese Internment with their children and grandchildren.

— Jennifer Maruno, author of the Cherry Blossom series. 

Canadian history has a profound influence in my work as two somewhat related topics in Canadian history are precisely what I have written about. Before I became involved, the history of the Avro Arrow contained many unanswered questions such as who was behind the termination of the project and who had ordered the destruction of the completed aircraft, all technical information and the reduction of production equipment to scrap. Was the aircraft as good as advertised and how much had it cost? These were questions that had intrigued me for many years.

In the early eighties, after reading what I believed were odd historical accounts that the design was technologically flawed, I embarked on a journey of research, reaching out to those that had developed and built the aircraft while delving into thousands of archival records which had allegedly been destroyed but, which I was able to find and have declassified in Canada, the United States and Great Britain.

The result was my first book published in 1994, “Storms of Controversy: The Secret Avro Arrow Files Revealed”. In it, I answered those questions that had seemingly eluded others. I reproduced many key government documents that had not seen the light of day since they were written back in the fifties. The result created its own storm of controversy between still passionate supporters of the project and those equally opposed.

In my second effort I wrote about an unusual aspect of Canadiana, also related to the arrow project, the history of unidentified flying objects in Canada. The UFO Files, The Canadian Connection Exposed was published in 1997. Again, working from newly declassified records I detailed the role of the various Canadian agencies involved in dealing with the UFO phenomena namely, the National Research Council, the Department of National Defence, the RCMP and A.V. Roe Canada, on contract to develop a real flying saucer for the United States Air Force.

In 2003, I followed with Requiem for A Giant: A.V. Roe Canada and the Avro Arrow. In this book new records helped tell the story of the company and the other projects that were being considered or that had also been terminated, such as the C102 Jetliner, the first commercial regional/inter-city jet to fly in the world back in 1949. In the case of the Jetliner, declassified documents revealed that foreign purchases had been approved, a fact contrary to what had been espoused in some history books, that the jet could not be sold. Also included in “Requiem” was a more detailed analysis of the costs of the Arrow project, based on declassified audit summaries.

While the bulk of the material in each book is based as noted on information which I had requested be declassified, I offer my own opinions and discuss continuing areas of speculation. On the whole though, with the inclusion of photocopies and transcripts of actual records, the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions on what have been and continue to be a couple of very interesting and intriguing episodes in Canadian history.

 Palmiro Campagna, author of Storms of Controversy, The UFO Files, and Requiem for a Giant

I am, to my core, Canadian, so, by osmosis, everything I write reflects that upbringing. The history and memories I have created as a Canadian over my lifetime, and the history of Canada as a country, work hand in hand to give me invaluable insights that help me in my writing.

— Suzanne Kingsmill, author of Cordi O'Callaghan Mysteries

Canada made an enormous sacrifice to preserve democracy during both world wars, but our country has not received the recognition it deserves. In my novel Bird's Eye View, I tried to highlight the contribution of Canadians at home and abroad during the Second World War. Women, in particular, have not been honoured for their wartime work. My novel is the only one ever written featuring a Canadian woman in uniform as the main character.

 Elinor Florence, author of Wildwood and Bird's Eye View