Canada Arts and Literature

Canada Arts and Literature


Both cultures in Canada – one English speaker with a Presbyterian heritage and one with the roots of pre-revolutionary, strictly Catholic French culture – are the backdrop against which literature must be viewed. The northern location, the wilderness and the great distances have created a certain Canadian mentality, which is common to both cultures, where nature can function both as opponents in the struggle to survive and as identity creators. The feeling of isolation, of being left out in a dangerous environment, is strong.

Canada Population Pyramid

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Before 1900

The literary memorials of the English and French colonies consist of travel stories, reports of important events in the life of the colony and letters. One depiction of the settler life that has survived is Susanna Moodie’s “Roughing It in the Bush” (1847). In response to British immigration, at the same time, in French Canada, a patriotic literature of historical novels that celebrated the traditional Catholic, agrarian society emerged. Most important is Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, “Les anciens Canadiens” (“The old French Canadiens”, 1863).


Popular adventure writers such as Charles Roberts, Ralph Connor and bald Robert Service created the myth of Canada as the wilderness land in the north around the turn of the century. Children’s book author LM Montgomery, with “Anne of Green Gables” (1908; “Anne at Greenkulla”) and “Emily” (1923), and Mazo De la Roche, with a romance suite initiated with “Jalna” (1927), further developed the popular tradition and made Canadian literature internationally known.

Louis Hémon’s French-language novel “Maria Chapdelaine” (1912) is a realistic portrayal of the lives of French-speaking peasants. It started a wave of realistic or naturalistic peasant novels in English and French during the interwar period. Love or bonding to the earth became the theme throughout. Best known in English Canada was Frederick Philip Grove. His “Settlers of the Marsh” (1925) is about Swedish immigrants.

The peasant novels had their counterparts in big city portrayals. In his best novels, Morley Callaghan portrayed the Depression Toronto. Hugh MacLennan was a didactic writer who described Canada’s successive modernization and the conflict between the English and French speakers in Montreal. Gabrielle Roy renewed the French-language novel with “Bonheur d’occasion” (1945; “The Trumpet of Gaze and Dreams”), which is a classic portrayal of prolific Montreal.

After 1950

Canadian society was fundamentally changed. Prosperity, modernization and a generous cultural policy created new conditions for literature. The increased US influence and political awakening in Quebec led to an intense debate on Canadian identity. Canada had a literary flourish without previously being equal. A bold and interesting literature won international recognition.

In Quebec, the French-speaking authors participated in the ongoing transformation of society. The creation of the theater language “joual” from the Quebec French was a conscious political act. Among the Joule writers should be mentioned primarily Michel Tremblay, who has developed into Canada’s perhaps most famous playwright. Hubert Aquin and Jacques Ferron unite in themselves the revolt and the author. The sense of revolution created an experimental French-language literature in which new forms, styles and genres were tried. Of the many authors, Georges Bessette, Anne Hébert and Roch Carrier can be mentioned. The literary Montreal is also represented by the English-speaking Jewish writers Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen.

The internationally most notable are the female writers from English Canada. They portray in a psychologically intrusive way man, especially woman, in modern Western society. Margaret Atwood has, through a large production of novels, poetry and criticism, become the new Canada’s foremost linguist and is now Canada’s internationally best-known author. In her later production she has continued as a satirist of modern society, often with international themes and a science fiction background. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985; “The Handmaid’s Tale”), also filmed, addresses the role of women in a future male-dominated society. “The Year of the Flood” (2009) has a planned future environmental disaster as a theme.

Margaret Laurence has chosen as an environment for her novels a small town on the prairie, which becomes universally valid. Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant and Marian Engels are other notable writers.

The writers in Western Canada strive to give their region their own history and mythology, trying to bring people and nature closer together. They often use the indigenous people’s point of view. Robert Kroetsch, Rudy Wiebe and the playwright George Ryga are the main representatives of this English-language Western literature.

Robertson Davies is one of the internationally best known writers. In the 1950’s and 1960’s he wrote spiritual comedies but went on to write novels, including “Fifth Business” (1970; “The Fifth Role”), which is considered one of the foremost Canadian novels. Another internationally acclaimed author is Timothy Findlay with dramas and novels in various styles and environments, including “The Wars” (1977; “The War”)

Characteristic of modern Canadian poetry is the experimental form. Different forms of expression can be mixed, linguistic innovations are popular and long, meditative poems are popular. Michael Ondatjee and Elisabeth Smart are typical representatives of this genre.

Farley Mowat continues the popular wilderness tradition in Canadian literature with books on the Arctic and the North Atlantic, where he takes nature’s party towards civilization. Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan are well-known literary and cultural critics who have had a considerable influence.

Canada’s literature has been extensively established on the medial world market during the decades around the turn of the millennium. At the same time, the literature has partly shifted from being Canadian identity creation to belonging to the global culture. Several Canadian works have been made into feature films. Being a Canadian author no longer means that you can only deal with Canadian themes. As a rule, these international writers already have a solid Canadian platform. Mention can be made of Michael Ondaatje with “The English Patient” (1992; “The English Patient”), which was filmed in 1996 and won nine Oscars. Ondaatje’s authorship, which has developed very strongly, has the multicultural society as well as the violence in human relationships as themes throughout. The poet Leonard Cohen has developed into a world artist in modern music with a number of well-known songs on his repertoire. Yann Martel was born in Spain and can be mentioned as one of many modern Canadian writers who grew up outside Canada. His fantasy novel “Life of Pi” (2001; “The Story of Pi”) is a good representative of the new Canadian literature. Alistair MacLeod completes another track with her novel “No Great Mischief” (1999; “No Damage Happened”), which treats eastern Canada’s traditional, family-based society and history. Douglas Coupland has become an international cult writer with his ironic depictions of contemporary high-tech popular culture in novels such as “Generation X” (1991) and “JPod” (2006).

The first written Native American literature is translated Native American rhetoric from the 17th and 18th centuries. Native American missionaries began to write religious views in the 19th century. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was one of the most famous Native American poets. Native American literature is very vivid. A dominant theme is protests against the situation of the Indians in North America.

Drama and theater

Before the 1950’s, the Canadian theater consisted mainly of guest performances by American or British ensembles or by amateur societies. Cultural awakening, nationalism and generous federal financial support have created an active and thriving theater life with a rich domestic production. Social criticism, nationalism and experimental desire are characteristic of the modern drama in Canada.

Toronto and Montreal are the major centers of English-language and French-language theater, respectively. A conscious regional theater movement in English Canada balances Toronto’s dominance. A distinctive feature for Canada is the many theater festivals.

Robertson Davies was long regarded as the leading English-language playwright with a number of satirical comedies during the 1950’s and 1960’s. George Ryga’s provocative “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” (“Rita Joe’s Enchantment”; 1971) is typical of the socially critical drama. The famous “Les Canadiens” (1977) by Rick Salutin depicts the struggle between English-speaking and French-speaking as an ice hockey match.

Marcel Dubé is perhaps the most well-known of the French-speaking dramatists with a large production of poetic dramas. In the 1960’s, a theater language was created in Quebec – joual – based on Quebec French dialects. The Joualt theater is highly socially critical and French nationalist. The main representative is Michel Tremblay.

In recent years, the experimental theater has gained an intrinsic artist in Robert Lepage, who has achieved international reputation with Ex Machina, a center for multimedia studies in Quebec. Among his scenic works of art are the 20th century exhibition “The Seven Streams of the River Ota” (1994).


Canadian film production got off to a slow start, mainly due to its proximity to the American film industry. It gave rise to an emigration of domestic talent early in our day. Famous Canadian emigrants to Hollywood include Mack Sennett, Edward Dmydruk, Glenn Ford, Fay Wray, Ted Kotcheff, John Candy, Arthur Hiller, Mary Harron, Norman Jewison, Michael J. Fox, Dan Aykroyd, Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Seth Rogen, Paul Haggis and James Cameron. For cost reasons, many American productions have also been placed primarily in Vancouver and Toronto.

The first feature film – “Evangeline” – was made in 1914, but even then production remained sporadic. The only feature film that deserves the epithet classic is “The Viking” (1931), a romantic drama filmed on site among sealfishers in Newfoundland. In contrast, Canada has a rich documentary film tradition. As early as 1900, Canadian Pacific Railway produced films with the aim of encouraging immigration to the country.

When Briton John Grierson was appointed head of the newly formed National Film Board in 1939, a period began to make Canada one of the world’s leading documentary and animated nations, the latter represented primarily by Norman McLaren. In order to support the domestic feature film, the Canadian Film Development Corp. was formed in 1967, and the results did not wait. Ted Kotcheff’s “Born Smart” (1974) became an international success. Even the French-speaking Canada was now allowed to talk about eg. Claude Jutra’s youth depiction “Mon oncle Antoine” (1971).

From the end of the 1970’s came a series of feature films that were noted far beyond the borders of the country, eg. Ivan Reitman’s comedy “Klantskallarna” (1979), David Cronenberg’s science fiction films “Scanners” (1980) and “Videodrome” (1982) and Patricia Rozema’s “Mermaid’s Song” (1987).

Among French-speaking directors, Denys Arcand became internationally known for eg. “The Fall of the American Empire” (1986) and the noted “Cannes of Montreal” in 1989 (Cannes). Atom Egoyan, of Armenian origin, has since the 1990’s profiled itself with a number of original works, including “The Calendar” (1993), “Exotica” (1994) and “True Lies” (2005).

Major international film festivals are held annually in the country’s three production centers: Montreal and Toronto, a smaller one in Vancouver. In Canada, about 35 feature films are produced each year.


The Catholic Church dominated the often anonymous art of French Canada during the 17th and 18th centuries. Typical motifs are portraits of nuns, votive images and events in the life of the church. Church ornaments and religious wood sculptures are characteristic of the era. Contemporary art in English Canada sought the exotic in nature: e.g. waterfalls, ice formations and mountains. Heroic battalion paintings and portraits of generals and allied Indian chiefs also exist. The growing interest in the North American West during the 19th century created a market for art with Canadian motifs: the Prairie, the Rocky Mountains, the Indians and the picturesque French Canadians. Two artists that became extremely popular at this time were Paul Kane and Cornelius Krieghoff. In the 1840’s, Kane took part in a number of criminal trips in western North America and described in a romantic way the Canadian West and Indians in a suite of paintings. Krieghoff portrayed the life of French Canadian farmers in playful genre images.

The ever-better communications with Europe caused modern French movements in art life, especially Impressionism, to have a rapid impact. The so-called French school also came to dominate the art from the 1890’s. Among the names to mention are George Reid, Ozias Leduc and James Morrice. In the 1910’s, a reaction arose in Toronto against the prevailing taste of art. Some painters in Group of Seven wanted to create a new and genuine Canadian art. They were mainly landscape painters and chose their motifs from the Ontario wilderness, influenced by Norwegian art in particular and by expressionism. Famous names are AY Jackson, Tom Thomson and Frederick H. Varley. Another and more heterogeneous collection of artists from different parts of Canada appeared under the group name Canadian Group of Painters. They all painted in the same style as Group of Seven, with strong expressionistic features. The most interesting of the artists outside the Group of Seven is Emily Carr from British Columbia. In almost total artistic isolation, she created a number of suggestive images with motifs drawn from Native American culture on the West Coast islands.

Modernism has long had a hard time gaining a foothold in a Canada dominated by national art. The breakthrough came in Quebec in 1948 when Paul-Émile Borduas published his manifesto Réfus global (‘Total refusal’), which also gained great political significance. Borduas wanted to break the old church dominance of the Quebec painting (and in society at large) and replace the outdated traditions with something new, where the subconscious, the surreal, rule. automatism, known as Bordua’s avant-garde movement, meant the definitive breakthrough for non-figurative art in Canada. Bordua’s own artistic development went from a French-influenced surrealism to very simple contrasts in black and white. Another automaton is Alfred Pellan. Modern art in the rest of Canada encompasses a number of disparate and regionally rooted artists. Alexander Colville from Nova Scotia introduced his so-called magical realism. On the west coast, East Asian and Native American influences are evident, with an interesting cultural mix as a result. Many of the artists in central Canada are influenced by American art, especially by Jackson Pollock.

Michael Snow from Toronto has developed into one of Canada’s most internationally renowned artists. Snow is a jazz musician, filmmaker and visual artist whose installations have been shown all over the world. The so-called Vancouver School has developed a new art style called photo-conceptualism, where Stan Douglas’s video installation from 1998 “Win, Place or Show” is a typical example. A theme within the movement is to show Vancouver’s place in Canada and in the world. Jeff Wall is a photographer and has established himself as one of the foremost photo artists with his large format images. His themes are social and political in images such as “Mimic” (1982). Wall was awarded the Hasselblad Award in 2002.

The Inuit art in Canada was discovered by the international art world in the 1950’s and has been heavily exploited, which has not always been in favor of quality. The most important means of expression are sculptures, often very small, of soapstone and bones. Stones that have to be imported from the south due to exploitation are becoming more common. The aesthetic variations are very large between the scattered settlements. Two centers, the West Coast and Eastern Canada, dominate contemporary Native American art. The art of the West Coast Indians, mainly painted wooden sculptures in the form of masks and totem poles, is deeply rooted in their culture. Several of the artists are internationally renowned, e.g. William Reid. The so-called legend painters, including Norval Morrisseau, in eastern Canada, portrays with an exciting imagery the myths of his tribes. Rebecca Belmore hails from Ontario but now lives in Vancouver and is one of the most esteemed modern Canadian artists, especially her installations. She represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2005. Edward Poitras, born in Saskatchewan, is a champion, works with several techniques in the modernist tradition and has utilized digital information in his art.

The success of Inuit and Native American art has become an important factor in these people’s quest for equality in North America. Their art has enriched Canadian culture both through their own achievements and through their influence on Canadian artists. The indigenous people have contributed greatly to giving Canada its special identity.


The first permanent buildings in Canada were erected during the 17th and 18th centuries along the Saint Lawrence River by the French colonizers. In the first place, they were farmhouses and parish churches. The farmhouses were built in the same way as in Normandy, where most of the colonizers emigrated, while the parish churches were designed according to Romanesque tradition with elements of simple baroque details.

A pervasive feature of 19th-century Canadian architecture was the desire to mark Canada’s identity. To this end stood, among other things. the first churches model far into the century. So e.g. let abbé Pierre Confroy build some thirty parish churches around Montreal in this “traditional” simple baroque style. Church of Lacadie (1810). Around Quebec, architect Thomas Baillairgé built several similar churches, including Sainte-Famille in Île d’Orléans (1834). Exaggerated British style ideals were also used – the Georgian building style, often called “Loyalist Architecture”, dominated in Canada during the early 19th century. Several examples of this architecture are preserved in Nova Scotia, e.g. Province House, Halifax (1811-18) by John Merrick, in New Brunswick and in the city of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Other historicizing architectural styles also became popular. Neoclassical bank buildings were erected throughout Canada, such as the Bank of Montreal (1846-48) by John Wells. The neo-Gothic was introduced by James O’Donnell through his bold reorganization of the Notre-Dame Church in Montreal in 1824–29. The most famous neo-Gothic building in Canada is the Parliament Building in Ottawa, originally built in 1861-67 by Thomas Fuller but rebuilt and expanded after the fire in 1916. Long ago, official buildings in Canada came to be erected primarily in a medieval castle-like style. Toronto City Hall (1890) by Edward Lennox is a clear example of this architecture with its low powerful pillars and square towers.

A characteristic feature of Canadian construction around the turn of the 1900’s was the many large hotel facilities built along the railways. At the same time, skyscrapers also began to be erected in the larger cities. Only after 1945 did international modernism break through in Canada, when major redevelopments were made in the city’s central business district. Examples are Place Ville-Marie in Montreal (1960) by IM Pei and Dominion Center in Toronto (1964-69) by Mies van der Rohe. Other prominent modernist buildings were the new Toronto City Hall (1958-65) by Finnish Viljo Revell and The Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia (1963-65) by Swedish kitten Arthur Erickson. International attention attracted Moshe Safdie’s cube-built residential building ‘Habitat’, erected for the Expo 1967 exhibition in Montreal.

The architecture of Canada in the 1970’s and 1980’s was characterized by a greater variety of variation than earlier modernism; regional and ethnic characteristics are emphasized and traditional forms appear. For reasons of climate, large atria are built, e.g. Eaton Center in Toronto, or various buildings and features under one roof, e.g. Place Bonaventure in Montreal. Energy-efficient construction is becoming more and more common. An interesting example of this is the Atria North Toronto office complex by Ron Thom, from 1980.

Canadian architecture during the decades around the turn of the millennium follows previous trends, but new designs are also developing. Tradition, regional character and modernism try to unite, but residential areas are often built in the old Georgian or Victorian style. New and ever-larger commercial buildings are being erected; West Edmonton Mall was the world’s largest shopping center until 2004. One of the prime examples of postmodern construction in Canada is Vancouver Public Libary (1995) by architects Moshe Safdie, Richard Archambault and Barry Downs. The postmodernist style also characterizes the skyscraper architecture, e.g. 1000 de la Gauchetière in Montreal (1992). Several city centers have been developed when old factory buildings were rebuilt, e.g. Queen’s Quay Terminal in Toronto (1983). Frank O. Gehry, based in Los Angeles,


Classical music and folk music

Canada’s music life, in the Western sense, is a result of the various traditions brought by European immigrants.

Around 1600 musical results of the colonization policy of the French are marked in eastern Canada. The music in the 17th century was almost exclusively linked to the church. No more established concert system existed until the mid-1800’s, and the music was largely performed by amateurs, with occasional guest performances by professional artists. The repertoire was European, which also applied to church music and the popular folk and dance repertoire.

In practice, it was not until around 1960 that there was some balance in the music life from coast to coast. One step in the equalization is the documentary series with several hundred discs that Canadian radio has produced since 1955. Among other disc series that exclusively focused on Canadian artists and preferably new domestic music can be mentioned McGill University Records (since 1975). In 1959 the Canadian Music Center was established in Toronto (later with branches in other provinces) with the task of disseminating information on Canadian music.

Symphony orchestras in Montreal and Toronto (both dating back to the turn of the 1900’s) and The National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa (founded in 1969) are notable for orchestras of high international standard. Among professional choirs, Festival Singers of Canada (founded in 1954) takes on an international ranking, including through numerous tours and phonograms.

Thus, it was mainly in modern times that Canadian composers, such as Harry Somers (1925–99) and Claude Vivier (1948–83), were able to profile themselves. A current composer and conductor is Scott Macmillan (born 1955) whose “Celtic Mass for the Sea” (1991) is performed annually. Among musicians, the African-American counterpart Portia White (1911–68) and pianist Glenn Gould should be mentioned.

The country’s genuinely indigenous music among various indigenous groups has at times been threatened by destruction, from the efforts of colonialists and missionaries in the 17th century to the offering in today’s mass media. Much has gradually changed in the societal patterns of the original residents and thereby in their ritual practice of music.

However, since the end of the 19th century, ethnographers have recorded, recorded and commented on a disappearing repertoire. In addition, various First Nations groups have increasingly asserted their intrinsic value and traditions by presenting, on a large scale, and as a tourist attraction, age-old ritual dances and songs, which may be counted as Canada’s only truly indigenous music treasure. A spectacular Inuit vocal style is the so-called katajjaq (larynx). Various melodic and rhythmic features were incorporated during the 1980’s with world music in the ethnically rooted rock music of the time.


Canadian popular music has evolved in parallel with, and sometimes via, the United States in that Canada’s own music industry has long been substandard. Today, Canadian popular music is a multicultural melting pot of almost greater variety than in its neighboring country. At the same time, there are unique popular genres and styles that originate partly from the country’s native residents and partly from the French and British settlers.

Canada has a strong folk singing tradition, especially in the former French colony of Quebec. Some of the early popular folk singers were La Bolduc (1894–1941), whose specialty was so-called touring, a popular song with nonsense harangues, and Jacques Labrecque (1917–95).

A large number of Canadian musicians and artists have made international careers through the United States. The first bestselling record artist was the orchestra leader Guy Lombardo (1902–77) and his big band The Royal Canadians. During the 1940’s, two of jazz’s big names appeared, the composer and arranger Gil Evans and jazz pianist Oscar Peterson.

The organizer and orchestra conductor Percy Faith (1908–76) became known as one of the foremost in the easy listening genre (including a recording of Hugo Alfvén’s “Swedish Rhapsody”). Other artists who celebrated international success during the 1950’s were country singer Hank Snow (1914-99), the vocal quartet the Crew Cuts, mainly through their recording of the “Sh-boom” 1954 (the first rock’n’roll album on the Billboard list) as well as teen idol Paul Anka, whose long career took off in 1957 with his own song “Diana”.

During the poetic and socially conscious wave of the 1960’s-1970’s, such chancellors (vispoets) as Félix Leclerc (1914-88), Gilles Vigneault (born 1928) and Robert Charlebois (born 1944) became important front figures, not least in the independence movement for Québec. During this era, more internationally acclaimed singer / songwriters emerged as Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, all of whom have had successful careers in the United States.

An internationally renowned folk music group from Quebec is La bottine souriante (formed in 1976), j who often uses feet or spoons as a rhythm instrument – typical style features in Canadian folk music. Traditional violin music with British-Celtic ancestry in the East Coast regions has been highlighted and modernized by artists such as the folk rock group Figgy Duff (formed 1976), singer Mary Jane Lamond (born 1960) and eccentric violinist Ashley MacIsaac (born 1975). The Celtic music tradition is also the basis for the harpist and singer Loreena McKennitt’s (born 1957) world music.

Over time, Inuit folk music has been mixed with British features and country, which can be heard by artists such as accordionist Simeonie Keenainik and pop singer Susan Aglukark (born 1967). The most renowned in this type of music is the protest singer Buffy Sainte-Marie (born 1941).

Since Canada’s music industry has developed extensively since the early 1970’s, several artists in pop, country and rock, such as Anne Murray (born 1945), Bryan Adams, kd lang, Shania Twain (born 1965), Céline Dion, Alanis Morissette and the Rush groups (formed in 1968) and Arcade Fire, were able to make international careers from home. The young pop singer Justin Bieber is a new type of artist phenomenon whose celebrity is largely based on social media. Singer Avril Lavigne also belongs to the young generation’s best-selling artists.

Metal and industrial are genres with strong attachments in the country. Among hip hop artists should be mentioned rapper Drake (born 1986).

Canada hosts one of the world’s largest jazz festivals, the annual The Montreal International Jazz Festival. Pianist Diana Krall and singer Michael Bublé (born 1975) are among the great names of contemporary jazz.


Canada has had a number of ballets and dance groups since the mid-1900’s. The development in the ballet field in the UK provided impetus, and in 1949 the first, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet was formed. The next ensemble, the National Ballet of Canada, was brought to Toronto and led for many years by Celia Franca. The Danish Erik Bruhn also made a big effort. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal was founded in 1957. The three ballets have close contact with British choreographers and also with other leading international dancers, keeping a classic repertoire alive. Among domestic choreographers, Brian MacDonald should be mentioned.

Canada Arts and Literature