Who are the Canadians?

          This extract is from the novel "Cat's Eye" written in 1988 by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. Atwood is not only an author but also a poet and a critic of the literary world. She has actively campaigned for the rights of artists and freedom of expression and among her best known novels are The Blind Assassin, for which she got England's Booker Prize, Alias Grace, The Edible Woman and The Handmaid's Tale, which was made into a film. Her writing is characterized by a wicked sense of humor and caustic remarks. She invented herself not only as a writer, but as a writer that wanted to tell her stories in her own way. There was really little choice. As she says now, when she first got the idea she wanted to be a writer "there were no living role models," for a young Canadian woman. The title of this particular extract called "Who are the Canadians?" questions the Canadian identity.

          Historically, throughout the 17th and 18th century, both France and Britain competed for domination over the Canadian territories so each of them sent as many settlers as possible to assert their claims over the land. In 1759, General James Wolfe led British forces in the defeat of French troops and in 1774 the Quebec Act gave French Canadians political rights and religious freedom under British rule. With the breaking up of the British Empire, Canada was granted dominion status in 1867 and although in the 1920s, the Dominion of Canada began to seek out greater independence from Britain, it still remained loyal to the larger Commonwealth, respecting its basic values, conventions and procedures. For many years, the English Canadian identity was largely defined by British influences, and a desire among many Canadians to retain British culture and traditions. French-speaking residents were more independent-minded, and often called themselves Canadians and wished for a country which would not always depend on Great Britain for political direction or financing. Since World War II, Canadians have struggled to decide what it is exactly that makes them Canadian. Though Canadians continue to recognize Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, the British aspect of the national identity today is barely evoked anymore.

          In this extract, the narrator, Elaine, is remembering her schooldays in Toronto just after WWII. Through the description of Miss Lumley, the new teacher, and their classroom activities, we observe the weight of the British influence: "things are more British than they were last year" We also notice the child's budding (developing) awareness of a Canadian identity... "but we aren't real Britons, because we are also Canadians."

          There is a photo of the King and Queen in the classroom which reminds us that Canada is part of the Commonwealth. They are dressed in the state robes worn for official ceremonies and they look stately and imposing. The photo is placed on the wall behind the children so they have the impression they're always being watched by these two solemn figures of authority.

          The prestige and strength of Britain is here reflected in Miss Lumley's words: "the sun never sets on te British Empire" She's quoting a well-known saying which means that the British Empire was so big, stretching from East to West, that it was always daytime somewhere in the Empire.

          Miss Lumley's words and activities show she is proud to be part of it. She is in full admiration for the British values and does all to shape the children's minds accordingly ("this is what we should be like: steadfast, loyal, courageous and heroic). Instead of learning facts about Canada, they have to draw the British flag ("memorizing the various crosses") and pinpoint the countries belonging to the British Empire on the map. ("all the pink parts of the map").

          According to Miss Lumley, the presence of the British brings civilisation to a country along with modern conveniences such as railroads, postal services and electricity. When they are not there, the natives behave like barbarians, cutting out children's tongues and eating enemies' hearts, fighting among themselves and not wearing proper clothes.

          She makes her students stand up to sing "God Save the King" and "Rule Britannia". They sing it as the Britons would. Although they also sing the patriotic Canadian song : "The Maple Leaf Forever", we notice in the lyrics that the thistle, symbol of Scotland, the shamrock, symbol of Ireland and the rose, symbol of England, entangle the maple leaf, symbol of Canada, forever. This shows how interdependent Canada and Britain are.

          It is interesting to notice that the leek, national symbol of Wales, a country also part of Britain, is missing. This may be explained by the fact that Wales was one of the first countries annexed to England and their identity was completely wiped out. There is no symbol or colour for Wales (a red dragon on red and green horizontal stripes) on the Union Jack either. the British flag is made up of three crosses: the red cross of St George, for England; the white diagonal cross of St Andrew, for Scotland and the red diagonal cross of St Patrick, for Ireland.

          Elaine observes that although Canada has its own flag, the Union Jack remains at the top and there are no saints for her country. In the same way, her words "This isn't quite as good" ,comparing the Canadian national anthem to the the British "Rule Britannia", show us she and most probably the other kids in the class feel inferior. This confirmed when we discover a few lines further that the children find it difficult to draw the maple leaf, symbol of the country. Psychologically, they do not think they are as good as real Britons who live in Britain because they are Canadians so only British "by adoption", second hand Brits.

          It is interesting to analyse Elaine's gradual perception of her identity. At first, we get the impression that she's reciting the lessons her teacher has taught her without questioning them. This can be seen in paragraph 2, in which a very simplistic version is given of the civilising effect of the British Empire. Also in lines 31-4, we can see the childishness of the narrator when she says that Wolfe's name makes her think of a dog and the way she understands literally that Wolfe conquered the French so there should not be any left. However, behind these seemingly naive sentences, we can detect the ironic note of the writer, making fun of the way the British see themselves (in paragraph 2) and poking fun at the great hero, Wolfe, by comparing him to a dog.

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