Where We Started and Where We’re Heading: An Introduction to the Evolution of CanLit

by Kirsti Granholm

The Beginning

For decades, Canada has been known as one of the most multicultural hubs of the world. So when we say “Canadian literature,” what exactly does that mean? What was North American literature to the early European settlers? What was it for the Indigenous groups who have been here for thousands of years? And what is it today? How did we get here?

There is no real answer. With so many different people in Canada today, CanLit now features a range of styles and narratives. What we can say, is it represents diversity, acceptance, globalization and ultimately, a forward-thinking agenda compared to many other states around the world.

Early Indigenous Literature

The earliest works of literature in what we now know as Canada, can be traced back to the Indigenous tribes that originated in North America. Scientists are still working to determine how long Canada has been inhabited by the Indigenous populations; so far they can confirm it has been well over 12,000 years. (Canada’s First Peoples) While many early Indigenous works’ have been lost to colonialism — oral tradition has played a large role in shaping the way Indigenous stories have been preserved. First, we will take a look at some of the most influential Indigenous figures in literary history.

George Henry/Maungwudaus (1807-1851) is one of the most recognizable names in early literary history. He bravely travelled across seas to show Europeans his culture and tradition, despite the controversy surrounding the Indigenous and European relationship. He later went on to write An Account of the Chippewa Indians, who have been travelling among the Whites, in the United States, England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Belgium (1848)  (Smith, 2008) which would go on to be one of the most recognized reports from that time period.

Another important literary figure is George Copway/Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1818-1869). He wrote non-fiction diaries of his experience of conversion to Christianity. He reflected upon the changes within his community when the settlers arrived, and the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their land. (CanLit Guides)

E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake (1861-1913) is recognized as the “first creative writer of Indigenous descent to break into mainstream European literary circles” (CanLit Guides). Johnson was ahead of her time; she bravely discussed the power struggles between Indigenous communities and the Europeans. She used literature to explore the colonial relationship in Canada and went on to become a significant figure in Canadian literary history. At a time when the government was trying to assimilate all Indigenous culture, she kept it alive.

Due to colonial oppression, Indigenous peoples lost nearly everything. They were kept quiet during the residential school era, and now face unimaginable challenges due to the governments past actions. Despite the oppression during the 1900s, Chief Dan George (Geswanouth Slahoot; 1899-1981) delivered a critical speech on July 1, 1967 titled “A Lament for Confederation.” George expressed his loss of freedom and the changes in his way-of-life. He went on to say that despite colonialism, the Indigenous population can use discrimination as a tool to learn and advance from. This speech was extremely powerful and opened up perspectives of those who were ignorant to the Indigenous struggle previously. Now in current day, it serves as one of the most important speeches delivered in Canada.


Settlers began to arrive in Canada during the early 1600s, nearly a century after John Cabot commenced the first European exploration. A few decades after Cabot’s voyage, Jacques Cartier began to make trips between France and Canada, becoming responsible for naming the country Canada and sparking French influence within the state. (Canada.ca)

Some of the earliest documented literature in Canada was composed by French settlers. Before the British conquest, there were no printing presses. Instead, theatre was the most popular form of entertainment, acts such as Marc Lescarbot’s Le Théâtre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France was presented and popularized in 1606. Besides colonial accounts, it was not until the early 19th century that documents were being physically published in Canada. (Hayne, Kellett-Betsos, Mezei) Canadian literature was finally establishing after decades of colonial warfare.

There are a few critical texts that came from the French. Epîtres, satires, chansons, épigrammes, et autres pièces de vers by Michel Bibaud was published in 1830. L’Influence d’un livre by Philippe-Ignace-François Aubert de Gaspé was the first documented novel; published in 1837. Although, out of all these texts, the most widely recognized piece of literature from that time period may be François-Xaiver Garneau’s Histoire du Canada depuis sa découverte jusqu’à nos jours (1845–48); which documented the historical process of the creation of Canada.  (Hayne, Kellett-Betsos, Mezei)

Along with the French, many of the first works published in English in Canada were accounts from British settlers. This included explorers, officers and their spouses. The majority of British-written content was in regards to their voyages and geographical accounts. (Canada.ca)

A few of the earliest documented British reports include Samuel Hearne’s A Journey from Prince Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean (1795), Frances Brooke’s account of the everyday life in Quebec; The History of Emily Montague (1769), and Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s Voyages from Montreal…Through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in 1789 and 1793 (1801). (Hayne, Kellett-Betsos, Mezei)

The east coast of Canada experienced the earliest literary development; The Halifax Gazette was the first newspaper to be published in Canada, the first edition was posted in 1752. The Upper Canada Gazette was established in 1793 by Louis Roy, which became the first newspaper in Ontario. Leading William Brown and Thomas Gilmore to establish The Quebec Gazette/La Gazette de Québec in 1794. (Yarhi, 2017)

By 1829, the Methodist Book Room opened and became the first publishing house in Canada. Ninety years later, in 1919, it was renamed The Ryerson Press, and by 1970 it was bought out by American company, McGraw-Hill. (Robert Fulford, 2017)

After the first publishing house opened in Canada, other companies followed and began to open up other publishing houses, including Oxford University Press (1904), (The Canadian Encyclopedia) University of Toronto Press (1901), (University of Toronto Press) and Macmillan Company of Canada (1905). (McMaster University Library) By the early 1900s, the Canadian publishing industry was in full-swing.

Many literary careers were launched after the Canadian publishing industry was established. Timeless works came from the birth of the industry, some of these acclaimed authors include; Lucy Maud Montgomery, Alice Monroe, Margaret Atwood, Grey Owl, Nellie McClung, John McCrae, Northrop Frye and so many more.

Children’s Publishing in Canada

The Canadian children’s book publishing industry took flight years after the industry itself was established. It was not until late in the 1900s that children’s book publishing in Canada became a recognizable market. (The Canadian Encyclopedia)

At the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, the oldest Canadian children’s book in the library is titled An Illustrated Comic Alphabet by Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon. It was published in 1859 by Oxford University Press.

The development of the children’s publishing industry can be traced through the popularization of different genres for children. Jon C. Stott’s article with The Canadian Encyclopedia categorizes these genres, along with some of their most popular titles:

The Animal Story

Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton (1898)

Beautiful Joe by Margaret Marshall Saunders (1994)

The Kindred of the Wild by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (1902)

Red Fox by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (1905)

Ki-yu: A Story of Panthers by Roderick Haig-Brown (1934)

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford (1960)

The Adventure Story

The Settlers in Canada by Frederick Marryat (1844)

With Wolfe in Canada by G.A. Henry (1886)

Hudson’s Bay by R.M. Ballantyne (1848)

Canadian Crusoes by Catharine Parr Traill (1852)

Frozen Fire by James Houston (1977)

Historical Fiction

Adventure at the Mill by Barbara Bramwell and Heather Bramwell (1963)

Treason at York by John F. Hayes (1949)

Cariboo Trail by Christie Harris (1957)

Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker (1977)

The Story of Canada by Janet Lunn and Christopher Moore (1992)

The School Story and Social Realism

Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor (1902)

Sowing Seeds in Danny by Nellie McClung (1908)

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)

Far From Shore by Kevin Major (1980)

No Word for Good-bye by John Craig (1969)


The Sun Horse by Catherine Anthony Clark (1951)

Beyond the Dark River by Monica Hughes (1979)

A Walk Out of the World by Ruth Nichols (1969)

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang by Mordecai Richler (1975)

The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn (1981)


Tales of Nanabozho by Dorothy Reid (1963)

Tales the Elders Told by Basil Johnson (1981)

Canadian Wonder Tales by Cyrus Macmillan (1918)

The White Archer by James Houston (1967)

The Singing Basket by Kit Pearson, illustrated by Ann Blades (1990)


Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee (1974)

Do Whales Jump at Night? Edited by Florence McNeil (1990)

Gulliband by Susan Musgraves (1974)

Don’t Eat Spiders by Robert Heidbreder (1985)

Down by Jim Long’s Stage by Al Pittman (1976)

Picture Books

Mary of Mile 18 by Ann Blades (1971)

Children of the Yukon by Ted Harrison (1977)

A Prairie Boy’s Winter by William Kurelek (1973)

A Prairie Boy’s Summer by William Kurelek (1975)

The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko (1980)


Inook and the Sun by Henry Beissel (1974)

The Windigo by Dennis Foon (1978)

Tikta’liktak by Brian Baisley, adapted in Joyce Doolittles’ Eight Plays for Young People (1984)

Academic Study

The Republic of Childhood by Sheila Egoff (1967, 1975, 1990)

Children’s Literature in Canada by Elizabeth Waterson (1992)

Canadian Books for Children by Raymond E. Jones and Jon C. Stott (2000)

Writers on Writing by and David Booth (1989)

This extensive list provides you with context surrounding the development of children’s literature in Canada. From the basic animal or adventure story, all the way to historical academia—the strides made within the industry are very impressive. In over 150 years, Canada has gone from having no children’s books, to being an international leader in literature. To read more from the Stott article, click here. (Stott, 2008)

Modern Day CanLit

In more recent years, Canadian literature has certainly made its mark on the international market. A few decades ago, Canadian literature was virtually unknown to the world.

People often ask, what makes Canadian literature different from American? Canada and the United States have always been compared, whether it is through literature, sports, entertainment, policy or politics. It is a part of the friendly rivalry we share in North America.

But the answer to that question is constantly changing. How Canada identifies compared to the United States is recognized within our subjectivity. Canada represents acceptance, multiculturalism and a progressive, ever-changing state. Compared to our southern neighbours, who are faithfully bound to the American constitution. In Canada, you do not have to shape and shift to the dominant cultures within the state. You are free to celebrate your heritage, while adding a piece of it to the Canadian puzzle.

These themes are definitely recognized within Canadian literature. Canada boasts a rich variety of talented authors, illustrators, artists, colourists, publishers and scholars from an array of backgrounds. So when people ask, what makes CanLit different? the answer is that everyone is different. Besides the Indigenous populations, we are all immigrants — which puts Canada at the centre of diversity.

What’s next?

The literary community in Canada is always throwing curveballs. You never know what to expect with so many innovative writers currently active. Within the past couple of years, Canada has led the way in creating diverse content. Many publishers have made it their mission to ensure they are making content that represents everyone. And now that is exactly what we are seeing being published. There has been a huge push for representation for the LGBTQ+ community, for people of colour, for the Indigenous communities, and the creation of accessible content for anyone.

You can expect more diverse content on the shelves within the next few years. The whole literary community in Canada is working hard to create more content in other languages such as French, Cree and Ojibway. There are projects planned to create braille books, and technology is working just as hard to help continue to create accessible literature, both for adults and children.

What is happening right now in Canadian literature is really special. It sure has come a long way since our early beginnings of settlers’ diaries and one-page news recaps. Children’s book publishing specifically has advanced rapidly within the last few decades, thanks to a growing interest in promoting literacy amongst Canadian youth. The more support that goes towards Canadian literature, the more exceptional work we see come out year after year. I don’t know about you, but I can only see it going up from here.


“1967 and “Lament for a Confederation”.” CanLit Guides. November 5, 2013. Accessed June 25, 2019. http://canlitguides.ca/canlit-guides-editorial-team/indigenous-literary-history-1960s-1990/1967-and-lament-for-a-confederation/.

“About UTP.” University of Toronto Press. Accessed June 25, 2019. https://utorontopress.com/ca/about-utp.

“Children’s Literature in English.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. August 5, 2008. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/childrens-literature-in-english.

“Discover Canada – Canada’s History.” Canada.ca. October 26, 2015. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/discover-canada/read-online/canadas-history.html.

“E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake).” CanLit Guides. November 22, 2013. Accessed June 24, 2019. http://canlitguides.ca/canlit-guides-editorial-team/e-pauline-johnson-tekahionwake/.

Fulford, Robert. “How the Death of the Ryerson Press Made a Canadian Institution out of Something That Wasn’t.” National Post. May 09, 2017. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://nationalpost.com/entertainment/books/how-the-death-of-the-ryerson-press-made-a-canadian-institution-out-of-something-that-wasnt.

“George Copway.” CanLit Guides. November 22, 2017. Accessed June 24, 2019. http://canlitguides.ca/canlit-guides-editorial-team/orature-and-literature/george-copway/.

Hayne, David M., Kellett-Betsos, Kathleen., Mezei, Kathy.“Canadian Literature.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/art/Canadian-literature.

“Literary History.” CanLit Guides, 5 Nov. 2013,  http://canlitguides.ca/canlit-guides-editorial-team/an-introduction-to-indigenous-literatures-in-canada/literary-history/.

“Macmillan Company of Canada Fonds.” McMaster University Library. Accessed June 25, 2019. https://archives.mcmaster.ca/index.php/macmillan-company-of-canada-fonds.

“Oxford University Press.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. February 7, 2006. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/oxford-university-press-emc.

Smith, Donald B. “George Henry (Maungwudaus).” The Canadian Encyclopedia. February 4, 2008. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/george-henry.

Stott, Jon C. “Children’s Literature in English.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. August 5, 2008. Accessed June 25, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/childrens-literature-in-english.

“The First Peoples of Canada.” Canada’s First Peoples. Accessed June 24, 2019. http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com/fp_groups/fp_groups_origins.html.

Yarhi, Eli. “First Newspapers in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. June 19, 2017. Accessed June 24, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/first-newspapers-in-canada.