By Derek Newman-Stille
Today, I chat with CanLit scholar Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay about some trends in Canadian literature, ideas of belonging and the Canadian Nation State, and Canadian music. Thank you to Sebastian for joining us here and sharing his insights.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Absolutely, I’m currently a PhD Candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. I have a broad interest in Canadian literature and cultural history, specifically how they interact with ideas of nationalism(s) and national identity.
Spec Can: A lot of people hear “Canadian Studies” and they think this means pro-nationalist. Can you tell us a little about your perceptions of nationalisms and national identity?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: That is something that I have to constantly confront within myself and my work. I think that what Canadian Studies as an interdisciplinary field of study which includes within it the possibility of a multitude of interpretations and approaches to Canada’s past and present has historically aimed to resist easy readings of nationalism. I understand why people would feel that way, however, the field was more of less created at a time in the mid-twentieth century when there was legitimate worry about the state of Canada. For many, higher education became the locus of their anxieties. We can debate in retrospect whether or not their concerns were justified, but we can’t discount that these were real concerns being expressed. The field that would eventually find its home at Trent, is now one which is actively resistant to singular readings of Canadian history. In my own work, especially some of the papers I’ve given on Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip, have demonstrated is the untenability of a unified national culture in Canada. I feel like nationalizing statements which followed The Hip around for most of their career and culminated in the CBC produced “National Celebration” is wonderful, but the sentiments tend to fall apart as soon as you begin to expose them to level of scrutiny. I think that’s a good thing, and from all the interviews and articles I’ve read with Gord Downie, he would have been the first to agree and resist that kind nationalizing message.
Spec Can: Can you tell us a bit about some of the anxieties that shaped the development of Canadian Studies?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Gladly! In my opinion, the basis of these anxieties is the question of our relationship, in the twentieth century, to Britain on the one hand, and the increasingly powerful and influential United States. I would say these tensions have underpinned Canadian history since Confederation, and arguably before, but I think they begin to take on a popularized tone in the years immediately following the Second World War with the advent of new forms of mass media. Large numbers of Canadians suddenly became acutely aware of the fact that the majority of the television and radio shows they were consuming were American and the novelists and writers, and the magazines they wrote for were as well. Add to this the fact that Canadian universities were hiring almost exclusively British or American Professors and I think it’s understandable that people became alarmed about the lack of Canadian representation in these institutions. One of the most illustrative novels from this period, in my opinion, is “The Watch that Ends the Night” by Hugh MacLennan where the main character George Stewart constantly reflects upon the generational and ideological shifts following the war and its relation to Canada’s place in the world. He’s also the host of a radio show and lives in constant fear of one day being made redundant by the growing popularity of television. These kinds of concerns would eventually lead to the Massey Report of 1951 which outlined the need for the government of Canada to intentionally promote and develop a “distinct” artistic culture. I use the word culture with hesitation as Vincent Massey was notoriously reluctant to use it in the report, due in large part to its slippery definition and my own reluctance to suggest there is any unified “culture” in Canada. We’re lucky enough here at Trent to follow in the footsteps of founding President, Professor Tom Symons, whose report “To Know Ourselves” outlined the need for Canadian content in universities. Prior to that, there was of course the more radically nationalist document “The Struggle for Canadian Universities” by Robin Matthews and James Steele. Both documents provide the rationale for Canadians teaching Canadian topics in Canada, which at the time was quite radical. It’s hard to place ourselves in that place, and I think it can be temping to under estimate just how palpable these concerns were for those involved in bringing about these changes. I just hope we never take it for granted!
Spec Can: Why, in your opinion, does Canada constantly seem to be seeking its own identity and trying to articulate what it means to be Canadian?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Ahh, the eternal question!
Spec Can: What are some of your thoughts on the subject?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: In all seriousness, this is, for me at least, the motivating question behind my work here at Trent. I think it’s based in the fact that as a nation, Canada has never really had a unified sense of self and as I said earlier, that’s absolutely a good thing! I think it’s been true at a broader constitutional level since confederation. While the original BNA Act of 1867 was a far from a perfect document, I think it achieved a certain recognition of the regional and ethnic differences of the nation, as these ideas were then recognized, again, imperfectly, and with terribly racist exclusions, but which set the stage for the next 153 years of searching for a some sort of a unified identity. I think the closest we’ve come is the Charter’s vision of a civic, constitutionally endowed right to belong to and relate to the “nation” of Canada as one chooses at an individual level. It’s imperfect, yes, but evolving and I would be out of a job if we ever settled it.
Spec Can: What got you interested in the work fo Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: You could say I was born into it, almost literally as my Mom was pregnant with me when she first saw The Tragically Hip perform. My parents are huge influences on me in many ways, but one of the biggest ways was fostering and encouraging my love of music as well as my love of reading and writing.
Spec Can: Oh wow, so it is very personal for you!
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Yes it is. The Hip’s music has always been in my life. When Gord Downie passed away in 2017, I was a year away from starting my PhD, but I remember thinking about how interesting it would be to work on a project that explored Canadian identity through their music.
Spec Can: Speaking of reading and writing, you mentioned that your research involves Canadian literature. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Yes, of course! I’ll admit that my interest in Canadian literature tends towards the conventional ‘big names’ of the post-war period through to 1960s and 70s and mainly with fiction. I spend a lot of time with Hugh MacLennan, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Adele Wiseman, Leonard Cohen, Robertson Davies etc. I’m also quite interested in the journalistic work of Peter Gzowski. My main interest, however, is in exploring how their work interacted with larger historical or social themes of those decades in a Canadian context. It’s also the period of time when the idea of what we might call “CanLit” today really took shape alongside the necessary publishing industry. Today, there’s a lot of criticism of CanLit both as an idea and an industry, much of which I think is absolutely warranted and important. The idea, in Alicia Elliot’s provocative words, that CanLit is a raging dumpster fire motivates me to figure out how the fire got started. In a way, my focus on these writers is an attempt to perform a crime scene analysis to find out how the fire got started, while it’s still raging, because it most certainly is!
Spec Can: What are some of the social themes that you notice keep being explored in CanLit?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: I think the biggest thing historically, and it’s no surprise given the overall theme of our discussion, is the pervasive questioning of identity within Canada. To add to this, however, there is a constant theme of belonging, both to a community and within the nation of Canada itself. I don’t think that these are necessarily unique to CanLit, but I do feel that the way Canada is constituted almost begs these questions rise up in literature written within it and about people living here, no matter where they were born. On a side note, I’ve always found it interesting that some of our foremost contemporary writers here in Canada came here as adults and have written so movingly about the experience and challenges of coming to live in Canada. Writers like Dionne Brand, Michael Ondaatje, and Rawi Hage spring immediately to mind when I think of this specific aspect of CanLit.
Spec Can: What ideas of belonging are explored particularly amongst marginalized Canadians? And what does this say about Canada’s portrayal of itself as a “multicultural” and “welcoming” community?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: I think that it’s important to separate the concept of multiculturalism from its legislative history. As legislation, it gives a name to the embodied experience of marginalized peoples in Canada without doing much to actively change the circumstances of their experience of belonging within the nation. You don’t have to dig very deep into the writing of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Canada, both presently and historically, to understand the fact that issues of belonging have been at stake within the geographic space we now call Canada since the beginning of colonization and that these voices, though historically under represented and under studied, have always provided a critique of the Canadian state as a welcoming space. I think it’s also important to recognize that the context out of which Official Multiculturalism came about was at a time of resurgent Québec nationalism which was seen as a legitimate threat to the unity of Canadian federalism. Playing minority interests off of each other is hardly the definition of being warm and welcoming, but it has certainly served its purpose of keeping the federation together, at least for now!
Spec Can: What are some other trends you are noticing in CanLit?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: I think the larger academic discussion over the past few years has been to rigorously question the project of CanLit. The collection “Refuse: CanLit in Ruins” has brought to popular attention the ways in which the publishing industry has worked to further marginalize BIPOC voices as well as those of women and members of the two spirit community. One of the most powerful arguments coming out of that collection is Joshua Whitehead’s commitment to remain accountable to community while the larger CanLit project continues to remain complicit in exclusionary and silencing practises. I don’t want to co-opt Whitehead’s words here or use them to make arguments about other writers and their relations, but I do think that discussions around accountability to community instead of institutions is a major trend and conversation happening right now amongst writers and academics surrounding literary work in Canada. I think it’s extremely important.
Spec Can: What things need to change to actually make CanLit responsible to the public? How can we make a socially just literature?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: I think a really important thing is to gain an understanding of the history of the writing in this country. Part of why I’m so interested in reading works written from the 1940s onwards is that it serves to remind us that the issues we’re discussing have a history and that they’re not new discussions in any way. I think we’re better equipped to talk about the present when we have a firm understanding of the past. When I read people like Margaret Laurence, I get the sense that she would have been at the front lines of current debates surrounding racial justice and the necessity of the recognition of Indigenous rights. She, like all of us, was writing out of her own context and circumstance and is limited by that, but I think it’s humbling to be reminded that we’re part of an ongoing conversation about the concept of justice and are hopefully always making progress while also recognizing where new forms of injustice are located and never settling the conversation, either with the past or the future.
Spec Can: To wrap up our interview, is there anything further you would like to add?
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay: Thank you so much for the opportunity! This has been a lot of fun!
Spec Can: I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview and share your insights with us.
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay is a PhD Candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. My main research interests include twentieth century Canadian literature and popular culture, specifically the interaction between political movements/ideologies and expressions of Canadian cultural nationalism(s) in texts written between 1940 and 1990. To this end, I have written and presented papers on the Tragically Hip and Gord Downie through the lens of cultural and celebrity studies. A related interest is in Canadian life-writing and biography in all its forms from across the twentieth century. I am currently working alongside Dr Whitney Lackenbauer, on the editing and publication of an Arctic Memoirs Series which will bring to light previously unpublished memoirs in accessible e-book format.
Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)