The indigenous peoples of Canada, now called First Nations, were the first producers of the arts as well. The most well known works from various peoples are the iconic totem poles. Not all of these cultures erect totem poles. Totem poles were mainly built by the tribes who lived in the Pacific Northwest, centered in and around British Columbia. Its use also spread south into areas of the US states of Washington as well as north into Alaska. Most totem poles take about 6-12 months to complete, and the designs have different meanings: to tell a story, commemorate an important person’s life, etc. Totem poles weren't considered sacred at all. There were even some called “shame poles,” built to ridicule someone or publicly call them out for things like unpaid debts, cheating, other scandals, etc. It was more or less the Hearts & Darts of their world.
Early art in Canada (after European arrival) was influenced by the church primarily. Later, there was a period when the British soldiers who were stationed in the remote posts of the wilderness would paint the landscape and people they encountered during their time off which were sold back in Europe.
It would be really hard to discuss Canadian art without mentioning the Canadian Seven, a group of seven artists who painted mostly landscapes of the Canadian countryside. Their style was mainly large paintings that included bright colors drawing attention between light and dark. Although later the group expanded its membership to twenty-eight, the original seven members were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. McDonald, and Frederick Varley.
Abstract art, non-objective art, and other forms of contemporary art (“art for art’s sake”) started to take root during the 1920s and 1930s. Today, there are a variety of mediums, and many use modern technology as a means of producing art, such as graphic design, photography, etc. There was also a return to regionalism and what they identify as a truly Canadian identity and tend to mix it together with European and multicultural influences on their art. In a way, their art mimicks what they see around them.
Canadian literature (called CanLit, like British Literature is called BritLit) is pretty much classified one of two ways (or both, I suppose if you want to really complicate things): either by region, or by genre. My search brought me to Canadian comedy, something which I’ve never really thought about. When I took looked at it analytically – as I do with everything – it tends to be built around satire (as in quasi-anti-Americanism, which I probably would find hilarious. But we give it back, like the song in the South Park movie “Blame Canada”, so it’s all good), or absurdism (as in The Kids in the Hall, which helped me get through college), and even sometimes the grotesque absurdism of Tom Green (every country has one). Several comedians came out of Canada, such as Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, and Mike Myers who became famous on Saturday Night Live as well as a myriad of movies. And we can’t forget the slapstick comedy of The Red Green Show (touring Canada during Fall 2013 and US in Spring 2014!) Please YouTube it if you have no idea what I’m talking about.
There are several Canadian writers who have soared to international fame. Among the most famous names are Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient), Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale), Yann Martel (author of one of my favorite books, Life of Pi), Alistair MacLeod (who has ties to my home state of Indiana: he received his PhD from Notre Dame and taught at Indiana University for three years – always looking for those six degrees of separation).
French-Canadian literature is also prevalent, especially in Quebec as well as other areas where French is spoken. The book L’influence d’un livre by Philippe-Ignace-Francois Aubert de Gaspé is often regarded as the first French-Canadian novel. However the period between WWI and WWII proved to be the rise and metamorphosis of French-Canadian literature into contemporary genres, including topics in psychology, metaphysics, philosophy, and sociology. Melodramas and comedies emerged during this time as well. Probably one of the most well-known authors would be Acadian author Antonine Maillet. In 1979, she won the Prix Goncout, a prestigious award given for the best in French literature for her novel Pélagie la Charrette, making her the first non-European to win the esteemed prize.
Up next: music and dance