In 1972, famed Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote Survival: A Thematic Guide To Canadian Literature. Atwood claimed in the book that ‘survival’ was a central theme in Canadian fiction, building on similar claims by writers like Northrop Frye and D.G. Jones. The book was controversial when it was published, but the role of ‘survival’ in Canada runs much deeper than many people realize. Survival isn’t just a theme in our literature, but also of our history. In the aftermath of Canada Day, it’s an ideal time to consider the role of survival. Different groups have come to Canada as a place of refuge long before Confederation or even the British Conquest.
Many impoverished French women came to New France, the colony that would later become Quebec, as the ‘filles du roi’, or ‘Daughters of the King’, finding a better life in Montreal or Quebec City than they would in France. When the Americans drove out supporters of the British Crown during the American Revolution, many of the United Empire Loyalists fled north to the colonies Britain won from France in the Seven Years War, becoming some of the first Anglophone Canadians. Famines plagued Ireland in the 19th century, leading many Irish to find new homes and prospects in Canada.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a massive immigration boom as people came to Canada from all over the world. Many of these people were leaving behind despotic regimes. As just one example, Alberta’s rich Ukrainian heritage comes in part from Catholic Oblate priests like our own Father Albert Lacombe arranging for Ukrainians fleeing the tyranny of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. During and after the World Wars, people came to Canada to find better lives than they could in post-war Europe, or to flee from the brutal oppressions of Communism and Nazism. Since the Second World War, Canada has become a home for people fleeing conflicts in places ranging from Vietnam in the 1960s to Syria today.
Unfortunately, survival in Canada also has its darker side too. The most obvious example is with Indigenous people who’ve had to survive everything from violent government coercion to hateful insults and physical assaults to the ruining of their food supplies by settler Canadians. Black immigrants fleeing American slavery or Jim Crow often found that things weren’t much better for them in Canada; the destruction of Africville in Halifax being one example of what they had to survive. Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and trying to find refuge in Canada before the Second World War were forcibly sent back to their deaths. Canadians whose backgrounds were from enemy nations during the World Wars, such as Germans, Japanese and Austrians, were interned in camps and often had their property stolen.
Survival isn’t just an element of Canadian fiction. It’s also an important element of our history, not just for Canada as a whole but also for individual peoples’ own family histories. Too often, we overlook those stories, but they’re often an important factor in who we are.
Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.