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APRIL 4, 2017 

Let's invite Scotland to join Canada. The Scots aren't happy with the rest of Britain. They aren't happy politically with Westminster's shift to the right. They aren't happy with Brexit, and with being frog-marched out of a multinational alliance they don't wish to leave. The Scots, certainly as represented in Edinburgh, want to hold a second referendum on independence. But they're hitting a brick wall.

Read also: Brexit's ending is yet to be written

Now is the time for the Canadian government to extend an invitation. Would the Scots consider becoming a province of Canada? I know, I know. Some Scottish nationalists will throw their hands in the air – as will some Canadians. Please, hear me out.

With a population of 5.3 million, Scotland would become Canada's third largest province, after Ontario (13.9 million) and Quebec (8.3 million). Our country's current population is 36.5 million. With Scotland, in a country of 41.8 million, the new province would represent 12.6 per cent of the population, as compared with 8 per cent of the 65 million people in the U.K. And it gets better. Add the 4.7 million Canadians who claim Scottish heritage and you've got a cornerstone population of 10 million – nearly 25 per cent of the country's total. Isn't that what they call a power block?

Scotland is not contiguous with the rest of Canada. But given current communications technologies and the speed of air travel, distance has become irrelevant. Besides, Scotland is nearer to Newfoundland (3,355 kilometres) than Hawaii is to California (3,977 km). Glasgow is nearer to Halifax (4,250 km) than Halifax is to Vancouver (4,443 km). And Edinburgh is nearer to St. John's (3,450 km) than to Athens (3,825 km).

No, Scotland would not become fully independent. But even as a typical Canadian province, it would have more powers than it does now. Provincial legislatures have jurisdiction over their internal constitutions and direct taxation for provincial purposes, including for municipalities, school boards, hospitals, property and civil rights, administration of civil and criminal justice, and the list goes on. Of course, things get complicated, so let's cut to the chase. Would Scotland control its oil resources? The Constitution of Canada places natural resources under the jurisdiction of the provinces. So, yes. The answer is an emphatic yes.

Obviously, Scotland would not be a typical province. It would be unlike nine of the current ten. But consider Quebec. In 2006, the Government of Canada passed a motion recognizing "that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." Quebec has its own ministry of international relations, whose mission is to "promote and defend Quebec's interests internationally." Like Quebec, Scotland would be distinct, but differently. And Canadians know how to accommodate difference.

True, Quebec has refused to sign the Constitution Act of 1982. But constitutionally, Canada has muddled on without that signature for 35 years … and looks good to go for another 35. Does anybody imagine that, without the overwhelming support of the provinces, the federal government could unilaterally make a change on the scale of withdrawing from the European Union? Be serious.

But let's think about the EU. What if, after Brexit, Scotland applied to rejoin, not as a nation of 5.3 million, but as part of a country of 41.8 million. Obviously, it would have more clout. For Canadians, Scotland would establish a foothold in multicultural Europe. So, while the Tories in Britain and the Republicans in the United States set about creating a neo-liberal Anglosphere – anti-egalitarian, avowedly Christian, pro-Big Business, pro-military – Scotland becomes part of Canada and helps lead the way to a more progressive world. Here comes Ireland, north and south. Here comes Wales. It's a Celtic wave, and yes, it's bringing cheaper whisky.


The Globe and Mail, 28 September 2009

The late Pierre Berton liked to describe how in 1853, when Arctic explorer Leopold McClintock was searching for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin and travelling across spongy, summer-time tundra, he chanced upon cart tracks so fresh that he thought they had been made the previous day. As he studied them, slowly he realized the truth: those tracks had been made by Sir Edward Parry, another Arctic explorer – not yesterday, but thirty-three years before.

The preservative power of the Arctic has loomed large in the Canadian imagination since 1987, when Owen Beattie and John Geiger published Frozen in Time. That book contained photos of the well-preserved bodies of the first three sailors to have died during that last Franklin expedition. Dead since 1846, the three looked as if they might have died last week.

Yet a recent visit to their gravesites on Beechey Island suggests that the preservative power of the Arctic may have met its match – and that match is us. It also reminded me that while Canadians have grown fond of talking about Arctic sovereignty and developing the North, we are failing to take concrete, relatively inexpensive actions that could make a difference both today and tomorrow.

Where to begin? This was my third visit to Beechey Island with Adventure Canada, a conservation-minded travel company based in Mississauga. And the history-rich island, the most famous site in the Arctic, is so confusingly degraded that only on this occasion did I finally sort out what happened where, exactly, in the 1840s and ’50s.

Arriving in two ships late in 1846, the Franklin expedition spent one winter on Beechey before sailing south to its terrible fate. Four years later, in August 1850, American explorer Elisha Kent Kane was among the first men to discover this site. The artistic, articulate Kane sketched the three gravestones, copied their inscriptions, and scoured the area, turning up countless artefacts.

A quarter mile from the graves, he found a neat pile of more than 600 preserved-meat cans. Emptied of food, these cans had been filled with limestone pebbles, “perhaps to serve as convenient ballast on boating expeditions.”

Today, of all that Kane described, only the three headstones (and the bodies before and beneath them) remain – and those headstones are not the originals, which are preserved in Yellowknife, but facsimiles, two of which have been accidentally switched.

The site is further confused by a fourth headstone, which marks the grave of a sailor named Thomas Morgan who died here in 1854; and also by what looks like an unmarked grave, but is in fact the original location of a memorial to Joseph-Rene Bellot, a searcher who died nearby in 1853.

Franklin’s original campsite is today nothing but a shallow pit, unmarked. The 600 pebble-filled tin cans are long gone. About eighty-five of them have been moved a couple of kilometres west to the ruins of Northumberland House, a storehouse erected in 1852-53 in case Franklin should return.

There, half-buried in the sand, those 85 cans form a rusty cross, itself badly damaged. Nearby stand a number of memorials – some of them significant, like Lady Franklin’s monument to Bellot, others irrelevant. Standing amidst this archaeological chaos, where well-meaning but unaware visitors have bent cans and broken beams, I found myself thinking that they must have arrived unprepared and unguided. A priceless historical record is being destroyed – part of our cultural heritage. And I wondered: Should visitors be banned?

I thought then of a young Inuk woman, a guide I had met a few days before at Kugluktuk, an Inuit settlement at the mouth of the Coppermine River. In 1771, Samuel Hearne had reached that location after an arduous, months-long journey from Churchill on Hudson Bay. To this guide, I had described what Hearne had seen -- seals, tide water markings, an array of islands – and she had been able to lead me to where Hearne must have stood: a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Coppermine River.

That location, the first point charted on the northern coast of North America, and also along the Northwest Passage, remains devoid of signage. After I had spoken of the site to those who accompanied us, and as we walked back into town, the young woman told me, “We need more of these ships stopping here.” She was alluding to the fact that ships bring much-needed spending to any northern community they visit.

Now, on Beechey Island, as I stood amidst the archaeological confusion, I rejected the idea of banning visitors. And surveillance, given the isolation of many sites, is obviously impossible. What we need, I realized anew, is interpretative and cautionary signage at every significant historical site in the north. We should start with Beechey Island, which is both busy and jeopardized, and move on to sites like the mouth of the Coppermine River and Victory Point on King William Island, near where Franklin’s ships got trapped in the ice.

At each site, well-designed interpretive signage should explain and map what exists and caution visitors to ensure that it remains intact. These same interpretative materials should be distributed to travel companies that regularly venture into the Arctic. And those companies should be encouraged or even compelled to follow the example of Adventure Canada, which brings archaeologists, historians and conservationists on every voyage.

As the Northwest Passage becomes increasingly viable, the Arctic will attract more visitors. Relevant sites need protection. And the territory of Nunavut, with a population of 30,000, can hardly be expected to shoulder responsibility. The federal government should act immediately to protect and develop Canada’s exploration history as a natural resource.


Globe and Mail, Sept. 10 2014

Spending money to search for the two long-lost Franklin ships never made sense to me. Why not devote those millions of dollars to creating Arctic infrastructure? Building a dock at Pond Inlet, for example. After all, I argued, we have known for more than a century what happened to Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition.

 In 1846, while searching for the Northwest Passage in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Franklin got trapped in pack ice off the northwestern corner of King William Island. He died on board, and his starving men trekked south, seeking help or better hunting.

They found neither, and the final survivors resorted to cannibalism. All of this is well-established. End of story. Short of discovering records or logbooks, I did not see that we could learn much more.

Certainly, I accepted the argument that discovering one of the ships would enhance Canada’s claim to the Arctic, at least symbolically. Several countries, including the United States, challenge this country’s claim to ownership of the Northwest Passage. They argue that it is an international strait.

While the two Franklin ships have already been designated as national historic sites no matter their location, the actual discovery of a ship would increase Canada’s chances of having UNESCO declare its location a World Heritage Site.

That declaration would strengthen this country’s claim to control of the Northwest Passage. As the waterway becomes increasingly open to shipping, that control becomes crucial to enforcing laws regarding environmental protection. So far, so good.

What’s most exciting about this discovery, however, is the where of it.

The ship has been found not in the primary search area, but off a small island to the southwest of King William Island. It appears to be Hat Island, one of the Royal Geographical Society Islands.

The discovery at this location vindicates Inuit testimony. Not only that: In conjunction with that testimony, it suggests an explanation for a major anomaly, one that has troubled historians for more than century, in the so-called “standard version” of what happened to the Franklin expedition.

That anomaly is the north-facing lifeboat, with two bodies in it, that Leopold McClintock discovered in 1859 on the west coast of King William Island. According to the one-page record he found farther north, near Victory Point, Franklin’s men had abandoned their ship to travel south seeking help. Why, then, was the lifeboat facing north?

The location of this latest discovery suggests a possibility that has merely been floated in the past. Franklin’s two ships may have gotten separated. And some men may have been aboard this newly discovered vessel as it travelled south, carried probably by the ice.

In her 2008 book Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers, Dorothy Eber writes of interviewing contemporary Inuit who relayed traditional stories of a ship that sank off Hat Island. As a child, her book tells us, Mabel Angulalik “heard that her own relatives had come upon what they thought were pieces of a ship’s wreckage buried in sand … to the east of Hat Island.” She believes that Inuit shamans might have sunk the ship.

Whatever forces sank the ship, the discovery at this location, taken together with the north-facing lifeboat, suggests that some men from this ship set out to return to the other one – the ship at the so-called “point of abandonment” to the north. This would also explain why only several dozen men were known to have trekked south. At least some of the others would have been on this ship.

This finding also offers further irrefutable proof, if any were needed, that Franklin discovered a navigable Northwest Passage as far south as King William Island. Recently, several historians have argued that because a stretch of coastline remained unmapped into the 1850s, that section had yet to be discovered. Clearly, Franklin sailed right along that unmapped coast, and left evidence that he had done so. The argument is specious.

The discovered ship is apparently in relatively shallow waters, which means it is accessible to further exploration. The boilers on the Erebus and Terror were markedly different in design, which should allow for identification of the ship. Other artifacts will undoubtedly turn up, although records, papers, and logbooks will probably not be among them.

This discovery is already attracting international headlines. As a symbol of Canada’s supremacy in the Northwest Passage, the finding is invaluable. It shows that we have have sufficient control over these waters that we can uncover the Arctic’s greatest secrets. Oh – and that we can revolutionize exploration history while we are at it.


Canadian Geographic, December 2014

The discovery of one of Sir John Franklin’s lost ships reminds us that Canadian history does not exist in a vacuum. It demonstrates that the demise of the 1845 Franklin expedition was far more complex and protracted than we knew. And it vindicates not just the Inuit but also, and equally, the Arctic explorers who charted our northern archipelago while searching for the Royal Navy ships. For Canadians, most of whom live along the American border, the discovery means we have to rewrite a foundational myth that underscores our national identity as a northern people.

Obviously, the story of Franklin and the search he inspired belongs to British history. But that narrative belongs equally to Canadian history, albeit with a different emphasis, if only because so much of it happened in what would later become Canadian territory. Even those chapters that arose elsewhere, because they affected what occurred here, belong to our history. The Franklin saga has dual nationality.

The discovery of the ship demonstrates that the so-called “standard reconstruction” of what happened to the lost expedition has to be radically rewritten. British historians created the original story around the “Victory Point Record,” the only written document ever recovered from the expedition. Consisting of a single sheet of paper, it indicated that in April 1848, 105 men abandoned the two ships, which had been trapped in the pack ice since September 1846. It added that Franklin had died in June 1847, and that, under Captain Francis Crozier, the men were making for the mouth of what is now called the Back River.

Starting from this single piece of paper, historians devised a basic narrative according to which all 105 men trekked south. A party of 30 or so probably turned back to fetch food, and a few may have reached the ships, but everyone succumbed in 1848 to cold, starvation, and scurvy. In 1854, explorer John Rae relayed Inuit testimony that some of the final survivors had been driven to cannibalism. Victorian England contrived to erase this from the public record. The “standard reconstruction” ignores cannibalism, and also insists that the last survivors completed the Northwest Passage: “they forged the last link with their lives.”

The discovery of the Franklin ship off the west coast of Adelaide Peninsula explodes this version of events. The best indications of how, exactly, can be found in Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, a 1991 book by Canadian David C. Woodman. Drawing on Inuit oral history, Woodman argues that virtually all of the men returned to the ships after hunting in 1848. One vessel got crushed by pack ice and, as several Inuit watched, helpless, sank with many men on board. The other ship was carried south by ice (to where it has just been discovered), and the last survivors abandoned it in 1851.

How does this new rendition vindicate the Arctic explorers? Simple: Woodman created his counter-reconstruction, which has just been corroborated in many particulars, by sifting through Inuit testimony as gathered and recorded by explorers. Without the papers, journals, and published books of key sojourners, Woodman’s work would not exist. Crucial eye-witness accounts would never have survived in the detail that makes them so vivid, and so utterly convincing.

Woodman draws mainly on the work of five explorers:

   John Rae interviewed numerous Inuit, among them the highly articulate In-nook-poo-zhee-jook, in 1854. He reported what he had learned, including the cannibalism, and indicated where the disaster unfolded.

   Five years later, dispatched by Lady Franklin, Leopold McClintock found skeletons, relics, and the paper record on King William Island.

   In the late 1860s, with the help of Ebierbing and Tookoolito, outstanding Inuit translaters, Charles Francis Hall gathered eyewitness accounts, including reports that a ship had sunk near an island off the west coast of Adelaide Peninsula. That would be the newly discovered vessel.

   In 1878-80, Frederick Schwatka located skeletons at Starvation Cove on that same peninsula, and added detail to Hall’s findings.

   While traversing the Northwest Passage by dogsled in 1921-24, Greenlander Knud Rasmussen added yet more detail because he spoke fluent Inuktitut.

These are still early days. Parks Canada researchers may discover relics, bodies, or even logbooks that will further transform our understanding. These revelations will generate controversy and conflicting interpretations. But this we know: as we thrash out a radical revision of one of Canada’s foundational myths, integrating scientific revelations of the past half century, we will rely primarily on the testimony and work of both the Inuit and the Arctic explorers.


[Newsflash: By the criteria outlined in what follows: Ed O'Loughlin's 2017 novel, Minds of Winter, is triumphantly Canadian.]

Globe and Mail
August 8, 2009

The literary mavens are at it again, demanding to know how we define "a Canadian author." This time, the inspiration is the just-released long list for the Man Booker Prize - a list apparently devoid of Canadians.

Or no, wait: Turns out Ed O'Loughlin, the Dublin-based, 42-year-old author of Not Untrue and Not Unkind , was born in Toronto. O'Loughlin spent his first six years in Edmonton, and his next 36 in other countries, mostly Ireland. No matter: One writer calls him Canada's "torchbearer," while a headline declares him "the only Canadian long-listed" for the prestigious Man Booker.

At that point, the literati begin to agonize - and not for the first time. What makes an author Canadian? Place of birth? Current residence? When does an immigrant author become a Canadian? What happens when a Canadian-born writer turns American? Confusion, angst, disgruntlement: This is what comes of investigating authors instead of books.

A couple of years ago, here in The Globe and Mail, I reviewed a historical novel that recreated the harrowing true story of the final expedition of Sir John Franklin. As most readers know, Franklin disappeared into the Arctic in 1845 with two ships and 128 men, leaving behind a welter of questions.

Because the Franklin tragedy stands at the heart of Canadian history, it has attracted the attention of authors as diverse as Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, John Geiger, Rudy Wiebe, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Mordecai Richler.

The novel I reviewed, The Terror , transformed the Franklin saga into a supernatural, hell-bent narrative. I declared the book a tour de force and added: "The author's nationality notwithstanding, this novel is far more deserving of specifically Canadian attention than the majority of the books that, come autumn, we will see short-listed for this country's most prestigious literary prizes."

This prediction was a no-brainer. Despite its manifest relevance to Canadian readers, The Terror was not even eligible for most of this country's literary awards. Why not? Well, because it was written by Dan Simmons, an American.

At that point, I began to wonder. When we talk about a work of Canadian literature, wouldn't we be wiser to look at the book and not at the nationality of its author? Wouldn't it be wiser to ask: Does a given work speak specifically to Canadians, as distinct from Albanians, Bolivians, Belgians or Americans? If it does, then isn't that enough to make it a Canadian work?

Take a novel written by a native Canadian and set in Canada. Obviously, it's Canadian. But of course a work can be Canadian without being set here. If a novel is written by someone who came of age in this country, and so was psychologically shaped by this place, his or her creations can only be Canadian. Attitude and sensibility inform a literary work no matter what the setting, which is why Mavis Gallant will forever speak to Canadians.

English literature offers an illustration: The Lord of the Rings , by J. R. R. Tolkien. That trilogy is set not in England, but in Middle-earth, yet it remains as jolly-old-English as a pint of bitter. If anyone disputed this, I believe I could demonstrate the Englishness of that epic.

Giving priority to the work over the author is no revolutionary idea. When scholars hunt the first Canadian novel, they invariably turn up The History of Emily Montague . Set in 18th-century Quebec, it was written by Frances Brooke, an Englishwoman who spent a year in the colonial wilds. She wrote numerous other books that have nothing to do with Canada, and scholars rightly claim none of them for this country.

Consider Malcolm Lowry, also born and raised in England. He is best known for Under the Volcano , a modernist masterpiece set in Mexico. He wrote much of it in British Columbia, but the book shows no evidence of that. And I don't see that we can claim it for Canadian literature. Lowry's October Ferry to Gabriola , however, is set in the Gulf Islands. Clearly it belongs to Canadian literature, as well as to British. It illustrates the point that a work can belong to two or more national literatures.

The same is true of certain works of Brian Moore. His novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne , set in his native Ireland, can not be considered Canadian. But The Luck of Ginger Coffey is set in Montreal and speaks directly to Canadians, and so belongs to the literature of this country as well as to that of Ireland.

In 2010, Richard Ford, the celebrated American author, will publish "a novel of revenge and violent retribution set on the Saskatchewan prairie." This work, titled Canada , will rightly be recognized as an American novel. Because of its subject matter, however, it will speak specifically to Canadians. So yes, it will also belong to Canadian literature. It will have dual nationality.

What about The Tenderness of Wolves , by Stef Penny? That mystery is set in Canada in the 1860s. The author is a Scot who never visited this country - but clearly, that is irrelevant. Thanks to geography and history, the novel speaks specifically to Canadians. It belongs to Canadian literature. And the same is true of certain works by American Howard Norman and Scotland's Margaret Elphinstone.

So much for books produced by foreign writers. Situating works by Canadian immigrant authors is equally entertaining. But here I would observe that if we accept looking at literature through the prism of nationality, rather than through genre, for example, then the words "Canadian literature" have to mean something.

To my mind, Canadian literature is variously bilingual, multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, postcolonial, postmodern and even multinational. But is it postnational? At this final fork in our argument, then, we take the nationalist path identified by Rudyard Griffiths ( Who We Are: A Citizen's Manifesto ) rather than the internationalist one highlighted by Pico Iyer, who has suggested that Canada has a postnational literature.

I would say no, it does not. Canadians contribute to international literature, certainly. But this country, Canada, has a Canadian literature. And immigrant authors - among them Austin Clarke, Michael Ondaatje, Dionne Brand, Neil Bissoondath, Nalo Hopkinson and Rawi Hage - are producing some of its most exciting works.

Immigrant Canadian authors face extra choices. They can speak to Canadians, to readers of a native land, to a particular diaspora, or they can go international and address Americans, Indians and Belgians as directly as Canadians. This last is the Pico Iyer option, and both M. G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry have chosen it.

A Fine Balance , set in India, shows what can result. Critics have argued that Mistry could not have written this shining novel while living in India, and probably they are correct. But the novel reflects nothing of Canada, speaks equally to Canadians and Norwegians, and could have been written in England, Ireland, France, the United States or you name it.

Whenever he chooses, Mistry can write a Canadian novel - and probably a towering one. To call A Fine Balance a Canadian work, however, is like laying claim to Under the Volcano . It's wishful thinking.

And that leaves only Ed O'Loughlin and his Man Booker contender, Not Untrue and Not Unkind . The product of a sensibility shaped elsewhere, the novel focuses on an Irish foreign correspondent who shuttles between Dublin and Africa. To see it claimed as Canadian is embarrassing.


Globe and Mail, August 15, 2009

If we look at literature from a national perspective, as distinct from taking a generic, thematic or period approach, we have to clarify what belongs and why. Here in Canada, we have drifted into defining Canadian Literature according to authorial nationality. We say it is literature written by Canadians.

But then we face a question: How do we define Canadian? Looking at Ed O'Loughlin, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, we discover that he was born in Toronto and lived in Canada for his first six years. And some of us end up claiming that a novel written by an Irishman, and set in Ireland and Africa, is Canadian.

Instead of falling repeatedly into this trap, I say we forget the author and his or her nationality. Instead, let's look at the naked book and ask: Does this work belong to Canadian literature? No biography, no authorial opinions. Is this book of special interest to Canadians? Is it set in Canada? Does it feature Canadian characters? Does it explore Canadian themes? Does it manifest a sensibility that is distinctly Canadian? Is it relevant in some unexpected way?

I am suggesting that we follow those countless scholars who have long since identified The History of Emily Montague as the first Canadian novel. Author Frances Brooke (1724-1789) was English. Yet she wrote a novel that belongs to this place – and so to Canadian literature. Why can't other foreign nationals do the same?

Certainly, I can make a case for Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale or Mavis Gallant's Stories From the Fifteenth District, which could only have been written by Canadians; and also for a memoir set partly in this country. Conversely, I see no way to claim Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano – not without going outside the book. Nor do I see anything Canadian about Brian Moore's Judith Hearne.

On the other hand, I can make a case for his The Luck of Ginger Coffey, set in Montreal – and likewise for Rawi Hage's Cockroach, Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion and Dionne Brand's What We All Long For. In these last, all written by authors born outside Canada, we see on-page proof of “civic identification.”

Will posterity accept less? I doubt it. One hundred years from now, if people are still studying Canadian literature, those who prepare reading lists won't be contemplating an author's persona or promotional strategies. They will make choices based on the books in front of them.
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.