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Review

On the Art of Being Canadian

By Sherrill Grace

November 4, 2013

Review By Sarah Stanners

Sherrill Grace’s On the Art of Being Canadian describes how Canadian painters, sculptors, actors, filmmakers, and writers, among others, have manifested their thoughts on Canadian identity in response to three distinct themes, which correspond to the book’s three chapters on the North, the world wars, and iconic national figures, respectively. Her study is decidedly concise, even though it spans the nineteenth century through to the twenty-first century. Media-specific specialists may be frustrated by Grace’s necessary exclusions and editorial choices, which is why this book is best suited for general enthusiasts of Canadian culture and for cross-disciplinary curricula such as Canadian studies. Grace’s position as the Brenda and David McLean Chair in Canadian Studies for 2003-2005 made her an ideal author to publish a book for the Brenda and David McLean Canadian Studies Series, which supports publications by McLean Fellows at the University of British Columbia. 

In Chapter 1, “Creating a Northern Nation,” Grace explores a selection of works by artists who contribute to our collective sense of the North – artists such as Charles Pachter, Don Proch, Pierre Berton, Zacharias Kunuk, and, that venerable authority on northernness, Farley Mowat. The dissemination of awe-inspiring northern narratives in Canada is largely discussed through artistic references to important Arctic explorations, which have been lodged in the minds of Canadians across the generations. This chapter is partly distilled from Grace’s larger body of work on the topic, Canada and the Idea of North (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002).

Chapter 2, “Theatres of War: Battle Fronts and Home Fronts,” is closer to Grace’s recent research than are the other two chapters. It was handy to find that Grace had reviewed her own book in the Spring 2010 issue of UBC’s Trek magazine in an article aptly entitled “On Writing ‘On the Art of Being Canadian.’” Grace describes a seminal moment for the book, which took place in the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2004 during the exhibition “Canvas of War” from the Canadian War Museum. The surprise and interest that she found her students displaying while she toured the exhibition with them was inspiring. In-the-field experience with students is the best kind of fodder for starting a scholarly text, but the majority of Grace’s chosen subjects do not strike me as being near, and certainly not dear, to younger generations. I want to know more about how “the art of being Canadian” connects to the present and beyond. With only a brief reference to contemporary artists such as Althea Thauberger, Grace just hints at the most current war art, but her depth of knowledge warrants an expedition into future areas of the arts in Canada. 

Grace’s book also deals with the invention of four iconic Canadian figures: Louis Riel, Emily Carr, Tom Thomson, and Mina Benson Hubbard. These are well-worn subjects in the Canadian arts and, apparently, in the mind of Sherrill Grace: in 2004, she published Inventing Tom Thomson with McGill-Queen’s University Press and, in the same year, also with McGill-Queen’s University Press, she edited and contributed to Mina Benson Hubbard’s A Woman’s Way through Unknown Labrador. Grace confidently presents her own voice in assessing these popular figures, but her delivery remains too close to that of a patriotic reporter. She does a wonderful job of reviewing artists that work to invent what we understand as “being Canadian,” but I craved a more critical point of view regarding what that actually implies and how accurate it really is. 

Most satisfyingly, Grace acknowledges the relatively unrecognized importance of biography to the scholarly work in her field of Canadian studies. She elaborates on the significance of biography in a note to Chapter 3, but I hope that she writes a future book on biography as a “narrative creation” and clarifies what that means to Canadian identity (170n1).

On the Art of Being Canadian by Sherrill Grace
Vancouver: UBC Press 2009. 224 pp., illus. $85.00 cloth, $32.95 paper