“We’d Lose Our Shirt!”: How Canada’s Cultural Policy Has Shaped the Canadian Literary Canon

Rebecka Sheffield


Most scholars consider the 1951 issue of a report by the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences to be a pivotal moment in the development of Canadian literature. Later known as the Massey Report, the commission’s document outlined a number of policy recommendations and advocated for a federally supported system of arts patronage. Today, literature is one of Canada’s most mature and respected cultural industries. Writing and publishing this body of literature has also translated into profits and employment for many Canadians. According to Statistics Canada, written media contributes nearly half of the percentage share of the nation’s GDP generated from the cultural sector. As a result, the federal government has a vested interest in supporting the writing and publishing industry; the business of books not only generates wealth, but also contributes to the construction of a strong sense of national identity.

This paper explores the relationship between the Canadian literary canon and the country’s cultural policy framework. How has this framework, bolstered by the Massey Report, contributed to the development of literature as a cultural industry? Does cultural policy impact the types of books that are published in Canada? While it is neither appropriate nor possible within the scope of this paper to explore the history of Canada’s national literature in depth, it includes a brief examination of the emergence of CanLit during the 1950s, as well as review the introduction of cultural policy. A critical discussion about the impact of this relationship follows. The paper concludes with a critical review of current funding for the publishing industry.

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