Vehicle for the Transmission of National Culture and Identity in Canada
A nation’s literature has traditionally been seen as a reflection of
the values, tensions, myths, and psychology that identify a national character. Australia
and Canada are many things to many people. They are places, nations and communities. They
are also ideas that change constantly in the minds of their people and in debates about
the past and the future. Benedict Anderson defines a nation as “an imagined
community”. He maintains that the members of a nation never know each other, meet or
hear each other, yet they still hold in common an image of who they are as a community of
How is a “common image” passed on to children (and to people in
general) in Australia and Canada? One of the ways in which an image is transmitted to a
nation is through literature. Sarah Corse (1997) writes that national literatures are
“consciously constructed pieces of the national culture” and that literature is “an
integral part of the process by which nation-states create themselves and distinguish
themselves from other nations”. For young readers, national literatures play a crucial
role in developing a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, of knowing who they are. In
1950, Australian author Miles Franklin argued that ‘without an indigenous literature
people can remain alien in their own soil”.
The history of children’s literature in Australia and Canada charts
trends in political and economic allegiances, reflecting both a colonial past and the
development of individual national identities. For Australians and Canadians, national
identity remains an important issue. Both countries are young, both have emerged from
colonisation, both have unique histories and both see themselves as different or distinct
from American global culture. Australians and Canadians have created images and symbols
expressing how they see themselves and these too have changed over time.
The year 1949 is seen as a symbolic watershed in Australian
historiography. War in the Pacific dispelled the last illusions of the British Empire. For
Canadians, it was their increasingly strong tie to the U.S. economy, after World War II,
that broke their strong relationship with Britain. New Australians and Canadians now
create a new Australia and a new Canada, consciously formulated to accommodate and contain
diversity within a vigorous national culture. Australia and Canada demand a future that is
no longer derivative and dependent. Australia and Canada no longer regard themselves as an
outpost of British culture and civility, but seek to promote a more “inclusive” notion
of national identity appropriate to changing global imperatives.
Commonplaces of Australian and Canadian national identity
Is there a national way of life that characterises Australian and
Canadian society? Do we have distinctive cultures and identities that distinguish us not
only from each other but from other nations? Are there common conceptions or as Diakiw
argues, “commonplaces” in culture and identity – shared values that most Australians
and Canadians can identify with, values that bind us together? Diakiw believes, like many
others, that through story and literature, the classroom becomes an important place to
discuss and debate the commonplaces that characterise national culture and identity.
Diakiw also believes that children’s literature, by including all racial and
ethnocultural origins, will play an important role in affirming Australian and Canadian
culture and identity. Many children’s books, particularly picture books, provide
valuable insights into the commonplaces of Australian and Canadian identity. He identified
10 commonplaces about Canadian identity.
Diakiw believes that it is the layering of all of these commonplaces
that produces a unique and distinctive Canadian culture. He also notes that some of these
commonplaces are in opposition to others on the list and thus create a tension that is in
itself a significant element of Canadian identity.
1. Wilderness Nations
Although the vast majority of Australians and Canadians are now largely
urban dwellers (until very recently most Canadians lived in rural areas), both countries
have vast areas of rugged wilderness that continue to dominate their histories,
mythologies and psyches, forming an indelible backdrop to their cultures and identities.
2. Countries of Diverse and Distinctive Regions
Australians and Canadians have a strong identification with the land
and it’s human history. Australian life and agriculture has been shaped by the
opportunities and limits of the natural environment. In Canada regional loyalties are
powerful, complex and distinctive. Australians and Canadians have a strong sense of place
beginning with neighbourhood or community and extending to the distinctive bio-regions of
each country. The deserts, the coastlines and the fertile plains of Australia to the
Maritimes, the Prairies and Pacific Coast of Canada. Today people create new myths and
form new attachments to the places that have become significant to them.
3. Continue to Engage in Equity Struggles
Australians and Canadians often take their democratic freedoms for
granted, but the histories of both countries are characterised by struggle. For
Anglo-Australians, the struggle to come to terms with a convict past; for Canadians the
struggle to equitably represent the diverse cultures, needs and interests of its peoples.
For both countries, past imperialism, immigration, racism and the rights of women,
labourers and Indigenous people are also part of the continuing struggle for equity.
While most Australians and Canadians reject the language of moral correctness, we
recognise a strong strand of morality in the Australian and Canadian character.
Australians are attuned to a sense of right and wrong not reflected in the morality that
is supported by authority, law and rule. For Australians it is represented most clearly in
public discourse as ‘a fair go’. For Canadians it is an earnestness that compels them
to ‘keep on going’. Both Australians and Canadians are propelled by a strong sense of
community expressed through the rights of individuals and groups.
4. Possess a Strong Sense of Social Welfare
Compared with many older European cultures, Australia and Canada have a
relatively flat class structure. Social fluidity is apparent and widely supported.
Egalitarianism is reflected in an acceptance of difference and a wish to encourage
tolerance of diversity and pluralism. Not all Australians and Canadians, however, are
strongly pluralist or supportive of diversity. This tendency towards levelling of
differences is also reflected in Australia’s ready sympathy for the underdog. For
Canadians it is a sense of social responsibility and seriousness. Current social trends
which see a growing gap between high income earners and low income earners may, over time,
erode this traditional element of Australian and Canadian identity.
5. Strong Indigenous/Aboriginal Heritage
Australian Aboriginal people have occupied Australia for at least
40,000 years, while Native Canadians are now believed to have migrated to North America
more than 50,000 years ago. The influence of Indigenous people on European settlement in
both Australia and Canada has become part of a collective heritage which is only now being
recognised and valued.
6. Immigrant Nations
The expansion and modernisation of Australia and Canada was achieved
through the arrival of many immigrant groups from England, Ireland, Scotland, and in
Canada, from France. Successive ‘waves’ of Chinese, German and Italian immigrants, to
name but a few, also contributed to cultural diversity. More recently immigrants from
Vietnam, India, South America and the Caribbean have also arrived. Long before European
colonisation, the indigenous peoples already co-existed as multi-cultural entities.
Canada’s Multiculturalism Act, passed through parliament in 1971, promotes ‘diversity
united by identity’.
7. Nations Founded on European Traditions
Australia and Canada both share a colonial past. In Australia with the
arrival of the British, in Canada with occupation first by the French and then by the
British. The “building blocks” of our cultures are firmly located in the traditions of
European civilisation and Empire, and for Canada, in a nation that is officially
8. Possess Enormous Resources and Maintain a High Standard of Living
Widely identified as belonging to “young” countries, Australians
and Canadians show a readiness to embrace innovation not found in societies more closely
bound by traditional codes and expectations. This quality brings a flexibility to the
Australian and Canadian character. Australians and Canadians are seen to be buoyant and
lively, with an eagerness to explore and adopt new ideas and innovations, with a penchant
for risk-taking and adventure. Not all, however, have equal access to the national wealth,
with many Aboriginal and Inuit communities in particular still living in conditions where
their social and physical needs are not being met.
9. Are Rich in Cultural Traditions in the Arts, Sports and Popular
National identity is shaped in significant ways by the way we use our
leisure time. Traditionally, Australia has been seen as a sporting culture because many
Australians use their leisure time to participate in sport as a player or spectator.
Canadians are also involved in popular participatory sports such as ice hockey, curling,
baseball and skiing.
While Australians have been ready to see themselves as athletic, we have been slow to
recognise that we contribute significantly to a global intellectual and artistic culture.
This view of Australian identity runs counter to stereotypes which sees Australians as
anti-intellectual, or as merely bronzed “sun worshippers”. Canadians have always
regarded their culture as rich in the arts, although many Canadians fear (as do many
Australians) that the continuous barrage of mass media from the United States puts
Canadian (and Australian) culture at risk.
10. Serve as Peace-keepers for the World
Australians and Canadians have willingly fulfilled their role as
peacekeepers in the global community, feeling proud of their international stature as
countries that can be trusted and relied upon, particularly in times of crisis. Australian
and Canadian citizens also have a long tradition of involvement with peace movements,
speaking out against war and militarism.
Dr Joyce Bainbridge
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
University of Western Sydney, Australia