Defining the Canadian mind: A new book explores our country’s intellectual legacy

“The search for a Canadian identity,” as writer Margaret Atwood once put it, “is like a dog chasing its own tail.” Defining the Canadian mind may seem like a similar effort in futility. However, author Andy Lamey aims to do just that with his latest book, The Canadian Mind: Essays on Writers and Thinkers.

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Lamey, a former journalist who now teaches philosophy at the University of California – San Diego, has collected 10 essays here, some of them previously published. They cover a broad range of notables including Margaret Atwood, Conrad Black, and David Frum on topics as diverse as literary nationalism and cultural appropriation.

At the outset of the book, Lamey wonders if there is anything to learn by examining a group of writers and thinkers who have nothing in common except for their connection to Canada. He believes there is, but in a way that is often overlooked here at home.

Lamey argues there is enormous interest beyond our borders in how we reconcile the country’s English, French, and Indigenous identities.

“Canada has been like a laboratory for political ideas that have been formulated by Canadian political philosophers,” he said. “And they have captured Canadian political experience in thought and articulated a way for diverse nations to live together under one state.”

“That has, I think, been Canada’s real intellectual legacy,” he added.

Lamey feels our 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms is far more influential than the much more celebrated U.S. Constitution.

“If you think about the sort of questions we’ve had to grapple with, the endless debates about distinct society and what role Quebec plays in Canada — those debates, in many ways, are much more similar to debates in other countries that also are defined by different national groups trying to live together,” he said.

“Canada has tried to figure out a way for groups to live together in a way that respects the rights of individuals, but also allows some expression of collective cultural identity, and that’s much more common compared to the American way of doing things.”

Lamey begins the book by exploring the concept of literary nationalism, which he points out usually takes root in societies that are anxious about the influence of a foreign power — in our case the United States. He argues it’s the sort of thing that a country eventually grows out of.

“There was a certain kind of intensity to Canadian cultural nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s,” he explained. “You see that anxiety in, for example, a reluctance to criticize Canadian authors.”

He credits Margaret Atwood and her generation of Canadian writers and thinkers for helping to change that.

“When they were coming to consciousness in Canada in the ’50s and early 1960s, you didn’t have literary presses that specialized in Canadian books, you didn’t have theaters that put on Canadian plays, you didn’t have Canadian Studies programs. Those are all kind of a natural feature of the cultural landscape that we take for granted today.”

“So, we’ve, in part, been able to outgrow that anxious period, because Canadian culture, it’s not perfect, but it has a much more secure foothold than it did back then.”

One of the more contentious debates raised in the book surrounds cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. Lamey devotes an entire essay to Joseph Boyden and his 2013 novel, The Orenda. Lamey argues that, while it was wrong for Boyden to claim non-existent Indigenous ancestry, it doesn’t mean people should stop reading Boyden’s work.

“We are still left with a good book, and the argument that there is something inherently wrong with, in this case, a white writer writing about Indigenous subjects…that idea should itself be up for critical discussion and debate,” he said.

“I think when you really look into it, it’s actually a not very helpful view.”

Not helpful, argues Lamey, because it pulls focus away from the work and back towards the author in a way that Lamey believes ultimately devalues literature.

“There is often kind of a cruel edge that creeps into those discussions. And if we could avoid that, if this could be the springboard to reconsidering that, that would, indeed, be a welcome development.”

A happy by-product of The Canadian Mind is the urge to seek out the works Lamey discusses in the book and read them for yourself. And reading that inspires more reading is hardly a bad thing.

“As a critic, I definitely want to be an ambassador for many of the writers I write about,” he admitted. “Yeah, the more the merrier!”

The Canadian Mind: Essays on Writers and Thinkers is published by Sutherland House Books.

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