Postcolonial Text / Author

Book Review:
Possibly Postcolonial

Is Canada Postcolonial?: Unsettling Canadian Literature
Edited by Laura Moss
Waterloo ON [Canada]: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2003
ISBN 0-88920-416-0

Laura Moss’s timely volume is a welcome intervention in the field of postcolonial discourse in Canada. The collection emerges from the much-applauded “Is Canada Postcolonial?” conference held at the University of Manitoba in 2000. At a time when Canada has been increasingly omitted from the field of international postcolonial discourse, and when postcolonial approaches are suffering at home under the dismissive pronouncements of anti-theory pundits proclaiming a certain weariness with postcolonial inquiry as a lot of embittered old hat, this volume infuses new energy and rigour into discussions of Canadian postcoloniality.

In Canada, as in other settler-invader cultures, the very term “postcolonial” is under contestation: in the first place, because of Canada’s location within the industrialized West; secondly, because of its treatment of its aboriginal peoples and other minorities. Within Canada, various constituencies vie with one another for legitimation — what Stephen Slemon refers to in another context as the “scramble for postcolonialism.” The questions proliferate: Is Canada postcolonial? Who in Canada is postcolonial? Are some Canadians more postcolonial than others? And is the label “Canadian” even acceptable any longer? The question posed by all of the essays in this collection is “whether or not Canada and postcolonialism can be thought of together in a mutually productive relation” (Brydon 74). The answers vary, from outright skepticism to considered endorsement, and it is this diversity of perspectives that gives the volume particular value. Central is the concern voiced by numerous critics that “postcolonial” — either as a chronological term, a methodology, or a “condition” — requires constant qualification and redefinition in order for it to be effective. Diana Brydon insists on the necessity of considering postcolonialism as “a process of radical questioning” (49), while Neil Besner claims postcolonialism as a context-specific methodology, and decidedly not as an ontological or chronological marker. The constant debates about the meaning of the term, within Canada and elsewhere, may be a testament to its value for ever-changing social conditions (local and global) rather than a sign of its obsolescence.

The collection includes both theoretical meditations on the question and more text-based pieces, both of which offer distinct ways of addressing the two terms set by the title: “Canada” and “Postcolonial.” One of the main strengths of the volume is that the essays do not posit a single response to the question. This refusal “to speak in one monotonous voice” (319), as Stephen Slemon phrases it in his Afterword, is what makes the volume as powerful as it is. The collection opens with a provocative section entitled “Questioning Canadian Postcolonialism” and includes essays by George Elliott Clarke, Neil Besner, Diana Brydon, and Donna Palmateer Pennee. Brydon offers a seminal discussion of the links between postcolonial theory and globalization, positioning Canadian settler-invader theory alongside Indigenous postcolonialism and calling for an enhanced “politics of accountability” (61). Pennee’s exploration of the interrelations of culture and economics in the realm of Canadian foreign policy and Canadian Studies organizations provides a compelling account of the importance of nationalism in discussions of postcolonialism and globalization at home and abroad. Clarke’s “What Was Canada?,” in the mode of George Grant, is an invective against the Americanization of Canada and “intellectually treasonous” dismissals of Canada’s distinct colonial heritage (31). Clarke provides an eloquent call to revisit Canada’s history, a stance which is echoed by Besner’s warning against “a reductive homogenizing of Canadian history” (47) and by Brydon’s attention to “historical memory” (53). This sense of dialogue is reinvoked in the concluding section of the book where contributions by Len Findlay, Terry Goldie, Victor Ramraj, and Stephen Slemon review the preceding analyses.

Between opening and conclusion there are many incisive discussions of Canadian socio-cultural politics. Judith Leggatt’s study of the divide between Native writing and academic theory is a provocative piece that is likely to have an immense impact on future discussions of the teaching of Native literatures in Canada. Susan Gingell’s contribution is an illuminating and unflinching analysis of the institutionalization of Canadian postcolonial studies, including an assessment of the very book under discussion here. While the volume, as a whole, is marked by a spirited and invigorating sense of contest and debate, it is nevertheless driven by a shared interest in “the place of Canada in theories and practices of nationalism, postnationalism, and postcolonialism” (Moss vi). In so doing, it perhaps confirms the importance of Canadian experience as a unique (post)colonial predicament, even if the writers gathered here do not agree on what that predicament is. Together, they explore such topics as displacement, hybridity, memory, nationalism, (neo)imperialism, First Nations issues, race and ethnicity, multiculturalism, canon formation, and education. A wide range of Canadian writers and artists are discussed: Pam Perkins assesses the colonialist rhetoric in Frances Brooke’s early novel, The History of Emily Montague, while Cecily Devereux explores the debatable postcolonial status of Sara Jeannette Duncan’s The Imperialist; Mridula Nath Chakraborty analyzes the “Otherness industry” in relation to the works of Anita Rau Badami, while Chelva Kanaganayakam assesses the myth of multiculturalism in Mitra Sen’s film, Just a Little Red Dot; Manina Jones provides an insightful inquiry into the autobiographical subject in Yvonne Johnson and Rudy Wiebe’s Stolen Life, while Robert Budde offers a post-colonial study of Fred Wah, M. Nourbese Philip, and Roy Miki. Ultimately, the essays share a strategic goal: to rethink the factors that participated, and continue to participate, in the construction of a Canadian nation that occludes its colonizing role. As Slemon explains in his Afterword, “the postcolonial in these pages is an incomplete project” (320).

This book is likely to become a significant and oft-cited contribution to the theorization of Canadian culture and society. It will be of interest not only to scholars and students working in the field of Canadian literature, but also to those interested in postcolonial studies more generally. Because this volume offers both text-centred studies and metacritical meditations, it is suitable for introductory and advanced study, and might therefore be useful as a textbook for undergraduate and graduate courses in Canadian literature and postcolonial theory. In 1975, Bill New stated in Among Worlds that “searching for the national identity is a kind of congenital art form in Canada” (101). As Moss observes in her Preface to this volume, “searching for a postcolonial identity now epitomizes such an art form” (vii). One thing is sure, as Moss herself acknowledges in her paraphrase of John Berger (via Michael Ondaatje): the story of Canadian postcolonialism will never again be told “as though it were the only one” (7).

Reviewed by Cynthia Sugars, University of Ottawa

Works Cited

New, W.H.  Among Worlds: An Introduction to Modern Commonwealth and South African Fiction. Erin, ON: Press Porcepic, 1975.

Slemon, Stephen.  “The Scramble for Post-Colonialism.” 
De-Scribing Empire: Post-Colonialism and Textuality.
London: Routledge, 1994. 15-32.