Reconstructing National Identity

The Nation Forged in Fire-Myth and Canadian Literature

by Karin Ikas (Author)
©2018 Postdoctoral Thesis 284 Pages
Series: Canadiana, Volume 21


In the diversified and ambiguous, globally and glocally networked mobile present, national identities are challenged internally and externally in multiple ways. In Canada intellectuals and notable novelists have lately begun to remember and re-discover the significance of the First World War for their construction of a Canadian national identity. The book presents the first large-scale interdisciplinary analysis of these developments. The author of this Bourdieusian inspired literary-critical research work nails down the sociological foundations of the concept of the nation before then discussing aspects of the role of the First World War for (Canadian) national identity and the relevant memorial discourse. The reconstruction focuses on how remarkable Canadian authors – including Hugh MacLennan, Timothy Findley, Jack Hodgins, Jane Urquhart, Frances Itani and Joseph Boyden – have challenged, re-imagined and rewritten the Nation Forged in Fire-myth in the 20th and 21st century to bring to life the experiences of national minorities like women, indigenous people, migrants, war veterans, children and people with disabilities. The study shows that the literary workings on the myth, myth reconstruction and myth deconstruction is a fascinating though ambivalent and dynamic project in the Third Millennium.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Series Information
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 What is National Identity?
  • 2.1 What is a Nation?
  • 2.2 The Construction of National Identity
  • 3 Inventing the Canadian Nation
  • 3.1 The Tradition of Inventing the Canadian Nation
  • 3.2 Inventing the Nation Forged in Fire
  • 3.2.1 The Nation Forged in Fire-Myth in Contemporary Memorial Culture
  • 3.2.2 The Origin of the Nation Forged in Fire-Myth: The First World War
  • The World at War: The First World War as the Great War
  • Canada at War: The First World War as Hotbed for Inventing the Canadian Nation
  • 4 The Literary Reconstruction of the Canadian Nation Forged in Fire
  • 4.1 Concussion and a Translocation of the Nation’s Birthplace: Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising
  • 4.1.1 Introductory Note
  • 4.1.2 Barometer Rising
  • 4.1.3 Conclusion
  • 4.2 The Paradoxical Community of Isolated Individuals: Timothy Findley’s The Wars
  • 4.2.1 Introductory Note
  • 4.2.2 The Wars
  • 4.2.3 Conclusion
  • 4.3 The Returned Soldiers’ Need for Community: Jack Hodgins’ Broken Ground
  • 4.3.1 Introductory Note
  • 4.3.2 Broken Ground
  • 4.3.3 Conclusion
  • 4.4 The Canadian National Vimy Memorial and a New Epic Tale of the Birth of the Nation: Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers
  • 4.4.1 Introductory Note
  • 4.4.2 The Stone Carvers
  • 4.4.3 Conclusion
  • 4.5 The (Dis)Ability Issue: Frances Itani’s Deafening
  • 4.5.1 Introductory Note
  • 4.5.2 Deafening
  • 4.5.3 Conclusion
  • 4.6 The Native Point of View: Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road
  • 4.6.1 Introductory Note
  • 4.6.2 Three Day Road
  • 4.6.3 Conclusion
  • 5 General Conclusion and Outlook
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Works
  • Secondary Works




Herausgegeben von Klaus-Dieter Ertler und Wolfgang Klooß


Redaktionskomitee / Editorial Board / Comité de rédaction:

Petr Kylousek (Brno)

Gilles Dupuis (Montréal)

Piotr Sadkowski (Torún),

Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink (Saarbrücken)

Martin Küster (Marburg an der Lahn)

Helga E. Bories-Sawala (Bremen)

Kerstin Knopf (Bremen)

David Staines (Ottawa)

Jutta Zimmermann (Kiel)

Astrid Fellner (Saarbrücken)

Kirsten Dickhaut (Koblenz/Landau)


At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Canada’s first francophone Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier ascertained that “Canada is the most unlikely region for nation building.”1 This rather casual statement is nevertheless a sign of a profound realization. It conveys the sociological finding that a nation is not a natural entity but a social construction that has to be adjusted to permanently changing needs for meaning. Laurier’s statement further alludes to the two most significant principles of that construction, namely distinction and integration. As a political community a nation is constructed distinctively, and throughout history has often been constituted by belligerent separations from other nations. Yet, at the same time, the construction is also integrative as it is geared towards an inclusion of all the heterogeneous groups of the community. This, in turn, ought to occur through the development of a cultural memory that makes it possible for the members of the varied groups to recall commonly endured political fates – of which the war, which is a major subject of this study, is one example – and by doing so, understand themselves as members of a permanent community bound by solidarity; in a word, a nation.

Canada, which according to its tenth Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King is a country with “too much geography but not enough history,”2 was indeed in a difficult and challenging position with respect to both of these constructivist principles from early on. Stretching about 3,000 miles from the Atlantic sea to the Pacific sea, or rather, as the national motto on the coats-of-arms reads: a mari usque ad mare; in short, surrounded by oceans, it could not establish a radical antagonism and bellicose hostility towards its only continental neighbor, the USA. In fact, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century and in no other place than faraway Europe that Canada came across an ultimate enemy. During the First World War, therefore, many Canadians enthusiastically embarked to training camps in England and from there to the battlefields in Belgium and France to fight not only for the British Empire but also for the ←9 | 10→international reputation of their own young Canadian nation and nation-state that had been established with the British North America Act of 1 July 1867. To this very day, the baptism of blood Canadian soldiers received on the First World War battlefields, especially in Vimy and Ypres, where they had even been successful when British and French troops had long failed, is understood as the true birth of the Canadian nation. The popular though controversial buzzword, that has by now attained the status of a foundation myth and metanarrative, namely “Canada – A Nation Forged in Fire,” is reminiscent of this and continues to make ground today. It is also significantly in the spotlight in 2017, which marks the sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation and the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Notable examples of this are the daily headlines of regional, national and international news and social media, for example “Canada 150: Battle of Vimy Ridge introduced Canada as nation on the world stage,” or the release of the Canadian Mints’ new $2 coin entitled ‘Canada 150: The Battle of Vimy Ridge.’3 The “continued emphasis on the connection between Canadian nationhood and Canada’s participation in the Great War” also runs like a red threat through the official commemoration activities of the Canadian government these days.4 Last but not least, it is reiterated in a commemorative issue by the Canadian Geographic entitled The First World War 1914–1918: 100 Ways It Shaped Canada.5

Domestically, Canada’s population was from early on one of the most ethnically and culturally heterogeneous ones in the world. Unsurprisingly, this ←10 | 11→stimulated in everyday life and soon as well in Canadian political and critical discourse an early vivid engagement with ‘multiculturalism,’ as it came to be known in the 20th century, or better with those challenging matters emergent in a multifaceted heterogeneous society ambitious to grant all its diverse citizens and groups not only equitable status but also the right to uphold their distinctiveness within a larger collective whole.6 Therefore, it is hardly surprising either that the very fact that in 1971 Canada was first in the world to introduce ‘multiculturalism’ as the official state policy served many as ultimate proof to designate Canada as an originator and paramount example for what has been conceptualized in the 1980s in international and interdisciplinary theories as ‘Multiculturalism.’ Indeed, Canada is a tapestry woven from Aboriginal, French, British and numerous other cultures from all over the world. Multiple waves of immigration and an intriguing mixture of histories, languages, regions and cultures have left their imprint and cause many Canadians to describe their national identity as unity through diversity.7

Still, the multicultural nation that evolved has not always been harmonious and the multifaceted issue of survival remains a major concern for various groups, especially for the Aboriginal peoples. Moreover, to this very day ‘new’ multicultural advances and practices repeatedly provoke heated public debates,8 not only but especially also in those cases where a ‘multicultural’ opening up and transformation of traditional Canadian national symbols is aimed at. A paradigmatic example is the telling story of the Malysian-born Indian Sikh Canadian ←11 | 12→Baltej Singh Dhillon. His request to wear (for religious reasons) a turban instead of the conventional beige Stetson, which originated from British military traditions, while on active duty in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) sparked national public outcries, not so much of pure astonishment as of consternation and overt protests, which, in turn, challenged the limits of Canadian multicultural acceptance severely.9 All over Canada outraged and mainly non-colored Canadians rallied to the Canadian flag, more than 195,000 Canadians even signed petitions against Mounties wearing turbans and some filed as well a petition to defend their case in the Supreme Court of Canada. Nonetheless, on 15 March 1990 the federal solicitor general Pierre Cadieux announced in the House of Commons that Canadian policy had been amended to permit Sikhs wearing turbans in the RCMP henceforward. Although the proud Sikh Baltej Singh Dhillon came out of this victorious in the end, the whole proceedings as well as the magnitude and scale of the controversial and overtly emotional debate related to this case is another testimony to the fact that a multicultural Canada is far from being a given to this very day. In 2009, the Canadian political scientist Salim Mansur admonished in his resourceful article: “immigration and multiculturalism undermine culture and security in Canada.”10 Other leading critics like Neil Bissoondath and Peter Kivisto have pointed out that Canadian multiculturalism has not just lost its shine in recent years and therefore demands processes of renegotiation. Rather, they go as far as to assess that ←12 | 13→Canadian multiculturalism has never worked to construct any coherent sense of national identity in the first place.11 Instead, it generated numerous “other solitudes,” as Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond put it in their study by the same title where they use the term “other solitudes” specifically to capture the domestic experiences of ‘non-integration’ of many non-white Aboriginal communities in Canada.12 Thereby they appropriately enlarge the famous original stock phrase “two solitudes,” which Hugh MacLennan introduced in 1945 to point primarily at the complicated relationship between French-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians and the country’s split character.13 The latter issue, in turn, has regained considerable significance by itself in the last few years; at least since in November 2006 the Canadian Parliament accepted the motion of the then Prime Minister Stephen Harper that Quebec ought to be considered as constituting a nation within a united Canadian nation-state. Precisely, Harper’s stance read as follows: “The real question is simple: Do Quebecois make up a nation of their own in a united Canada? The answer is yes. Do Quebecois make up a nation independent from Canada? The answer is no and will always be no.”14 With this explicit reference to the notion of a united Canadian nation-state, Harper’s proposition came as a damage limitation measure given a similar – though void of the united Canada reference – proposal from the Québécois separatists, which Harper’s motion eventually managed to ward off.15 Although the eventual acceptance of ←13 | 14→Harper’s proposition by the Canadian Parliament involved no constitutional or legal grounding, this momentous political event is of great symbolic meaning. Not only does it reaffirm the two solitudes stance but it also carries it further as a still challenging and very complex issue into the presently unfolding third millennium in which just recently Spain’s denial of Catalonia’s 2017-push for independence has opened up the debate for Quebec independence again and at the same time also extended its scope to the right for self-determination of the eleven First Nations’ tribes in that Province.16

At the turn of the 20th to the 21st century with globalization and the emergence of a world-society gaining speed,17 Canada, like many other nation-states, ←14 | 15→is additionally confronted with the coming-up of new and non-traditional group configurations associated with multiplicity, transcultural and transnational clusters and networks.18 These formations, such as Ulf Hannerz’ notion of the “global ecumene,”19 mostly operate to challenge, dismantle and remake public identities and thus pile the pressure on the modern nation-state whose traditional demarcations and boundaries they transcend.20 Hence Canadian critic ←15 | 16→Erin Manning, for instance, speaks of Ephemeral Territories in an assessment of recent Canadian representations of in-betweenness, home, nation and identity in her book of 2003.21

A combination of all the aforementioned factors and developments, in turn, might have prompted Roy MacGregor to the following statement: “A CANADIAN IS . . . 32,146,547 different things altogether — and counting. A far more telling question, perhaps, might be ‘What is Canada?’”22 That way the columnist of Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail responded to the question of self-definition in Canada in the global era, turning almost abruptly to the particular issue of Canadian national identity. Scott W. See strikes a similar chord and concedes that Canadians “at the dawn of the 21st century” are not only “quite aware of the complexity of their identities” but also of the very fact that the issue of “constructing a modern nation” is still a priority.23 For poet and novelist Janice Kulyk Keefer, herself a second-generation Canadian immigrant with Polish-Ukrainian roots, this has to do with the very fact that since the early nineties “Canada’s fabled mosaic is […] seriously cracked.”24 She provides the following evidence to substantiate her thesis: “a still smouldering Québec separatism, Prairie alienation, disaffection with former urban centres and a subsequent drive towards a radical regional fracture.”25 To this she adds the “project of some of Canada’s native people to create the region of Nunavut in the far north, and the impressive drive of other native groups towards self-government.”26←16 | 17→For Eva Mackey, therefore, contemporary Canada is metaphorically speaking still The House of Difference with a marked increase of inherent contentious debates about Cultural Politics and National Identity whereby the real scale of the regained interest in the Canadian national identity issue has not yet been fully acknowledged.27 Peter Kivisto takes an equivalent line of reasoning. He makes specific references to the fact that separatism and disintegration are among the major challenges Canada as a nation-state has to meet while advancing further into the global era of the 21st century. In his words:

[Canada] confronts not only the issues related to an immigrant-receiving nation, but also those associated with a mobilized ethnic nationalism, [namely] the Québécois separatist movement that, if successful, will result in the break-up of Canada […]; related to this type of ethnonationalism is the increasing political assertiveness of indigenous people who were the historic victims of colonialism, […] the First Nations people of Canada.28

One may refer at this point also to J.J. McCullough who confirmed and renewed Peter Kivisto’s observations fifteen years later. In an article for The Washington Post, the Canadian political commentator identifies “high immigration, weakening assimilation and unqualified aboriginal conciliation” as some of the major challenges for Canada whilst negotiating her identity and purpose on the 150th anniversary of Confederation, also known as the 150th birthday of Canada, in 2017.29

In this increasingly diversified and ambiguous, globally and glocally networked mobile present30 and its multifaceted separatist cleavages where Canadian ←17 | 18→national identity is challenged internally and externally in multiple ways, leading Canadian intellectuals have begun to remember, rediscover, re-explore and rewrite the significance of the First World War for their very construction of a Canadian national identity. In short: the metanarrative of Canada as ‘A Nation Forged in Fire’ is back in the debate. It implies, as mentioned above, that the true birth of the Canadian nation originates from the baptism of blood Canadians perceived in the First World War. The epitome of this Nation Forged in Fire-myth is the alleged patriotic cry of the Canadian Brigadier-General Alexander Ross during the decisive battle of the Vimy Ridge conquest in 1917:

These lines are still appealing to a significant number of Canadians to this very day, and they keep reappearing, and ever more strongly, in various forms, landscapes and discourses of commemoration as will be illustrated in detail in Section 3.2. The contemporary popularity of the Nation Forged in Fire-myth becomes also clear in grand gestures of public national remembrance. A most recent example is the 100th anniversary celebration of the legendary victory of the Canadian troops in Vimy Ridge in 1917. On 9 April 2017, the contemporary Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasized the multicultural significance of this myth-making and nation-building battle in his anniversary address at the memorial site in France among others with the following words:

The burden they bore, and the country they made. Because this, too, is why we’re here. Why we remember. For in their ultimate sacrifice, these ordinary, yet extraordinary, men of the British dominion fought for the first time as the people of one country. Francophone, Anglophone, New Canadians, Indigenous Peoples. Side by side, united here at Vimy in the four divisions of the Canadian Corps. It is by their sacrifice that Canada became an independent signatory to the Treaty of Versailles. In that sense, Canada was born here.32

Other striking examples include the reopening of the Canadian National War Museum in 2005, or the repatriation of Canada’s Unknown Soldier to Canada’s National War Memorial in Ottawa at the very turn of the third millennium. Additionally, there is a large array of previously released and digitized documentary, autobiographical and fictional First World War writings. Because of these developments, David Mackenzie ascertained, and rightly so, that “no one who seriously studies Canada in the modern era can ignore the First World War.”33 A new generation of Canadian historians, therefore, has lately begun to reassess the relevance of Canada’s First World War experiences to the very fabric of Canadian nationhood in the 21st century.34 ←19 | 20→

Sociocultural and in particular literary scholarship, however, continues to neglect these developments to a large extent. This research gap is very striking, given the fact that not only earlier First World War novels are currently regaining an ever-more growing popularity among the reading public in Canada. Even more, several contemporary Canadian authors – including renowned writers like Jane Urquhart, Jack Hodgins, Frances Itani and Joseph Boyden – have also returned to Canada’s experiences in the First World War in their literary imagination and have begun to rewrite and reimagine ‘The Nation Forged in Fire’-myth in notable ways. In today’s increasingly borderless and transgressive world, they thereby revive a tradition that for long used to be intertwined with a rather restrictive Canadian national identity debate. In many ways, therefore, this seems in conflict with popular debates about transnational and transcultural identity formation processes in an overall multiethnic Canadian sociocultural and literary memorial discourse.35 This is all the more so as the renarrated myth originates from the invention of a tradition that excludes the experiences of newer, post-First World War immigrant communities from Asia, the Pacific Rim and the Caribbean whose ancestors have not contributed to this initial act of blood baptism in the European war battlefields from which the Canadian Nation allegedly emerged. Accordingly, it is so far not only but mostly Anglophone members of the literati who attempt to (re)construct a Canadian national identity in precarious ‘glocal’ times by retelling and renegotiating this rather problematic and limited ‘Nation Forged in Fire’-myth in literary narratives that have won many prizes, found a large readership and often quickly turned into bestsellers. Moreover, those few literary scholars who have recently published ←20 | 21→some selected critical studies and collections on the First World War, memory and identity in Canadian literature do not yet go far enough in their assessments of the interdisciplinary, and here especially the sociological, parameters of the concept of nation and its sustained intricacies with the memory of war.36 To my knowledge, no literary scholar has yet spent significant space attempting to nail down the sociological foundations of the concept of the nation first before then discussing aspects of (re)constructing or challenging a Canadian national identity in the First World War context through arts and literature.

Given the broad, yet for an apparently multiethnic Canada surprising, popular appeal of the aforementioned literary works on the one hand and the present lack of adequate literary analyses and scholarly research on this subject matter on the other hand, one can agree with Alice Munro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. With the title and publication venue of her relevant First World War narrative of 1995, the revered Anglophone Canadian short-story writer from Ontario indicated that to “Be Carried Away” into the Canadian First World War history and its commemorative narrative reimagination is part of Canada’s Open Secrets.37 Moreover, a seminal and yet to be answered question arises. Precisely, do these presently so popular First World War literary texts still simply carry forward the discourse of an official (Anglophone-driven) nationalism or do they function more as powerful imaginative sites for contesting what Faye Hammill recently called an Anglophone political and cultural élite’s “exclusionary social narrative of national consolidation”38?

At this stage, one thing, at least, is for sure: it would be both premature and wrong to categorize, even denounce, or dismiss this corpus of First World War literary texts as simply a new facet or an updating of White Civility, as Coleman ←21 | 22→termed the white Anglo-centric Literary Project of English Canada unfolding between 1820 and 1950.39 The issue is much more complex and multifaceted, as among others the fact shows that in 2006, when Joseph Boyden released his relevant, and soon best-selling, First World War novel Three Day Road, the first Canadian author with Aboriginal roots has started to engage critically with the Nation Forged in Fire-theme as well.

To grasp the emergence of these literary texts within an overall pluricentric, multilayered Canadian literature and in due consideration of the complex interrelationship between culture and power, arts and political/socio-economic forces discussed by critics such as Smaro Kamboureli, Lorraine York, Graham Huggan and Sarah M. Corse,40 some key theoretical insights from Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of symbolic power41 are advantageous. According to Bourdieu, practices occur in ‘fields,’ which he understands as structured arenas of class conflict and status competitions that mediate the relationship between cultural practice and social structure. Based on this, he sees literature as a differentiated social and ←22 | 23→cultural microcosm, too. This ‘literary field,’ he argues, follows its own logic. Moreover, it gains certain autonomy while competing for cultural legitimation and domination within the field of power of the social macrocosm.42 The acquired autonomy, in turn, is relative to the literary field’s capability to break the extrinsic power and constraints of the social macrocosm, especially of politics and economics, and to operate by its very own rules as a widely “autonomous universe endowed with specific principles of evaluation of practices and works.”43 Within the field, the players, for their part, wield intrinsic power. This, they accomplish in two ways: first, they authorize particular players to attribute value and prestige to certain works of literature produced in the field; second, they critically assess other works and players in an effort to further develop and strengthen their very own standing and build on their very own reputation in the field. The players hence occupy ambiguous and often precarious positions here. They are both products of and key actors in the genetic constitution of the literary field as a network of objective relations and as a battlefield where one has to follow the existent rules and act according to established power structures and balances unless one is able to change them in an endeavor to upgrade one’s very own position. Overall, there are two groups of players here: the producers of literature, that is to say the authors, and the agents of literature, namely publishers, reviewers, critics, educators, teachers and journalists. Significantly, the latter group has the greatest power to bestow cultural capital and to tear apart or consecrate an author or a literary work. In short, the agents are seminal in determining the status and reputation of an author and a literary text. Nevertheless, the authors themselves can successfully influence their own reputation and status as well once they are able to make evaluative statements about other works and writers that will eventually come to be accredited, adopted and reproduced by various other players in the field.

According to Bourdieu, a major task for research lies in relating the origin and story of literary works to the story of the interacting players and their interdependencies in the field as well as to the individual author’s ‘habitus.’ The ‘habitus’ he sees as the unity of an author’s specific, origin-related, patterns of thought, perception and action. This dynamic system of background-related social dispositions is in dialectic proportion to the acquirable positions.44 In the ever-changing constellation of habitus and literary world, an author finds him- or ←23 | 24→herself confronted with a particular situation specific to the field’s current fabric and his or her disposition. Through discursive interactions with other players in the field, the author is inevitably taking a stand and setting a position that makes him or her discernible. Consequently, what counts is not just an author’s intentional or subliminal will for distinction from other past and contemporary authors within the field. Rather, it is also, and more significantly, the fact that he or she is distinguished and differentiated while the power play of reconstituting the dominated-dominant relations in the literary field continues. A crux of the research matter, therefore, is to learn more about this social construction of power, literary prestige and reputation as well as the mechanisms that drive the producers and agents of literature in the field. Another factor that must be taken into account when pursuing a Bourdieusian inspired literary-critical research work is the fact that for Bourdieu the emergence of an autonomous literary field implies a symbolic revolution. In his words:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
First World War National Identity Cultural Memory Ethnic Minorities Indigenous Peoples First Nations Disability Residential Schools War Memorials Myth
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 284 pp.

Biographical notes

Karin Ikas (Author)

Karin Ikas is an Associate Professor of English, North American and Postcolonial Studies. She studied at the universities of Würzburg (Germany) and Texas (UT Austin) and was a visiting scholar at various universities in the USA, Canada, South Africa and Australia. She received her Ph.D. in English and North American Studies and Didactics at Würzburg University with overall excellence (summa cum laude). Her doctoral thesis on modern Chicana Literature won the Daimler Chrysler Foundation’s "Academy Award for Intercultural Studies 2001." Her Habilitation she obtained in Anglophone Literary and Cultural Studies at the Goethe University Frankfurt/Main (Germany). Homi K. Bhabha (Harvard) prefaced her co-edited book Communicating in the Third Space.


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