Making Great Art in the Great White North

Voltaire once dismissed Canada as nothing more than “a few acres of snow.” But by now, most would admit we have a little more happening up here than that—at least a little gravy with our mashed potatoes, as Jian Ghomeshi once assured Billy Bob Thornton.

The purpose understanding Canadian distinctiveness, however, extends beyond petty jabs, beyond poutine and Beavertails. Knowing what it means to define a book, film or play as Canadian means understanding how that designation helps our cultural industries thrive. Or, perhaps, how it sets them up for failure.

Does self-conscious “Canadianness” limit an artist’s success, whether to the edges of our borders or to audiences of committed cultural nationalists? That’s one question at the centre of Spur’s upcoming, town-hall-style Back Talk event, for which we’re inviting bloggers, journalists and big thinkers of all kinds to submit their thoughts in a 750-word response by 11:59 p.m. on April 8.

To get your ideas flowing, and possibly your blood boiling, here’s a collection of quotes culled from a recent Literary Review of Canada summer reading piece, in which authors from Esi Edugyan to John Ralston Saul take stock of how outsiders have depicted our country.

Jenn Hadfield, in “Narnia No Moose”:

 Alberta’s a miserable monochrome —
a bootcamp of little brown birds,
no moose,
the grey, grey grass of home.

John Irving, in A Prayer for Owen Meany:

“But don’t you see how your … opinions can be disturbing?” a Canadian confides to him. “It’s very American—to have opinions … as strong as your opinions. It’s very Canadian to distrust strong opinions.”

Wyndham Lewis in Self Condemned, on his protagonists move to “Momaco,” a thinly fictionalized Toronto:

“His withdrawal from that into an outlandish culture-less world  . . . the necessity of accepting this tenth-rate alternative to what had been his backgrounds before his resignation [from an English university].”

For more depictions of Canada from writers worldwide, you can read the original piece, as published in the LRC.

But more importantly, get your ticket to attend our Back Talk forum at the OISE Auditorium on April 13, 4 p.m.!


Spur is a national festival of politics, art and ideas and is a catalyst for change in Canada.

Through nationally relevant and locally nuanced discussions, presentations and performances, the festival seeks to spur its participants to action on issues affecting Canadians. Feisty, multi-partisan, forward-looking, and solution-driven, this national railway of ideas will provide Canada with vital new cultural infrastructure for the 21st century.

Founded in 2013, the festival has already grown from three to five Canadian cities, with plans for further expansion across the country. Produced by the Literary Review of Canada in partnership with Diaspora Dialogues, Spur prides itself on its community partnerships, cultural connections and a focus on accessibility and diversity.

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