As individuals, we make up our own abridged histories. When at a pub or a dinner party, we have a kind of condensed bio that we like to spout off when meeting new people, a single sentence we utter in order to quickly and efficiently convey our story. "I teach economics at McGill, but I grew up on Vancouver Island." What is fascinating to me is that we get to write, what is essentially the blurb, for our very own autobiography. As well as rewrite it, again and again, as much as we deem fit. And when you look at it that way, it's almost understandable that we might approach such a sentence, our own endorsement after all, somewhat forgivingly, that we might give ourselves the benefit of other people's doubt.
And if you zoom out a little further, you'll find that we do the same thing on a cultural level. The French tend to describe and poke fun of themselves in a certain light, as do the British, the Americans, and so on. But in my experience, nothing is quite as quaint as the way Canadians see themselves. We have collectively written a blurb that is both bland and benevolent; we are, say the authoritative words that we've scribbled within our own quotation marks, an inoffensive people borne from an inoffensive past. But what I learned while doing the research for my second novel, Believing Cedric (2011), is that this blurb we've written is complete and utter hogwash.
One of the main aspects of mistaken Canadian identity is our penchant for non-violence. However, any archival digging, anywhere in the country, will unveil a myriad of references to bloody robberies-gone-wrong, shootouts, and union strife that is complete with goon tactics and radical backlash, with a few dynamite sticks thrown into houses for good measure. And, yes, one might argue that these could be seen as isolated events brought about by individuals, but some deeper digging soon finds more than enough dirt on the hands of the state.
To name just a few examples that I explore in the novel: The local corruption that hindered the containment of - and even bolstered the number of victims to - the Spanish influenza; the opportunistic labour camps for Ukrainians during the Second World War (which remained open and functioning a full two years after the war ended); the underhanded textile-mill schemes to boost population; the first inner-city housing 'project', which, until recently, was a failure of a model that North America based most of its subsequent projects on; and the embarrassingly colonial reservation system for First Nations communities, whose housing and conditions still remain abysmal.
It is that false, heartening way that we like to see ourselves that I wanted to explore through the loose format of a novel, which meant stitching it all together with a compelling narrative and some engaging characters. I also use these little known (and often unsightly) historical contexts, to ask some big questions, about our identity, about life, death, and consciousness. However, running through it all is this idea of writing our own national blurb, the uncomfortable ease, and even danger, of seeing our past as being both bland and fair. It's interesting to me that, through researching and writing the novel, I have come to believe, strangely, that we are more than that. We are richer, and poorer, than the words on our cover.