- Five Children's Texts and a Critique of Canadian Identity
Elizabeth A. Galway, in From Nursery Rhymes to Nationhood: Children's Literature and the Construction of Canadian Identity, interrogates the frequently racist and imperial sentiments that permeated early characterizations of Canada. In doing so, Galway cites J. W. Bengough's 1897 response to Rudyard Kipling's characterization of Canada in "Our Lady of the Snows":
The title is pretty, I grant you, And I know you meant to be kind,But I wish you could hit on another Less risky, if you don't mind.Of course, as implying my "whiteness," I modestly murmur "It goes,"But I fear few will give that meaning To "Our Lady of the Snows." [End Page 154] You see, there's a prevalent notion— Which does me a grievous wrong—That my climate is almost Arctic, And my winters ten months long.Perhaps that is your idea, For it's widespread, goodness knows!And this phrase will make it more so— "Our Lady of the Snows."(149)
The last four lines in the first stanza of Bengough's "Canada to Kipling" suggest that Kipling's poem reinscribes a vision of Canada that privileges its Anglo-Saxon inhabitants. Indeed, Kipling's insistence on reading Canada's climate through a feminizing and potentially racist lens reveals his own ideological investment in empire. Bengough's poem refutes the idea that Canada is beset by "winters ten months long" and exposes at least one way in which Canada's natural environment could be unjustly recruited for the purposes of "whitewashing" Britain's erstwhile colony. With Bengough, Galway insists that racist and imperial sentiments existed in tension with images of the nation that emphasized diversity. The tension between these two extremes of representation provoked continual shifts in understandings of what it meant to be "Canadian" following Confederation in 1867 (10-11).
A number of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century literatures about Canada struggle "to reconcile the ideology of empire with an increasing awareness of the need for independence" (Galway 10). Yet, literatures ostensibly written for children during this period constitute a particularly rich body of texts through which to explore fluctuations in Canadian identity. Not only did children's literatures reflect the concerns of the adult society that created them, but they also engendered a space wherein adults could engage fantasies about childhood and national identity (5). The fact that early children's literatures were a means of instilling patriotic pride in young readers only makes them more valuable for examining early constructions of Canadian identity.
Scholars have nevertheless tended to neglect the role that early Canadian children's literatures may have played in shaping the nation. While many scholars stress the influential nature of children's literatures, few consider how these texts might enable more sophisticated understandings of Canada and "Canadianness" (Galway 6). From Nursery Rhymes to Nationhood redresses the conspicuous absence of children's literatures in studies of Canada by attending to how early literatures for young readers express, undermine, or challenge dominant discourses of Canadian nationalism.
Visions of the nation that rely on aggressive assertions of masculinity, for example, find a correlative in the boys' adventure stories that were published in Canada...