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The Role of Literature in the Development of Canadian Culture

Canadian literature is defined by the contribution of written composition by Canadian authors. Because of Canada’s multiculturalism and strong bilingualism, Canadian literature includes both French and English speaking writers of various genres, including poetry and prose, fiction and others.

Keep reading to learn more about Canada’s diverse culture of literature, find out who some of the most famous writers are, and see examples of famous Canadian authors’ writing.

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Canadian Literature

Canadian 19th-Century Literature Contributions of Prose and Poetry

The first known writers of prose and poetry in Canada began hen-scratching in diaries, journals and letters as far back as European colonization in the 1500s. However, poetry only began to increase in popularity in the 19th century. Some famous Canadian poets of the 19th century include Al Purdy, Alan Sullivan, Arthur Stringer and John McCrea. Here is a little bit about these Canadian authors and some of their best-loved poems.

1. Al Purdy (1918 – 2000)

Born in Ontario, Canada, Al Purdy was a free-verse poet. His contributions to Canadian poetry included 39 poetry books, He is known as Canada’s “unofficial poet laureate.” Many of his poems include details of the life and culture seen growing up in Canada.

The Last Picture In The World

A hunched grey shape

framed by leaves

with lake water behind

standing on our

a little point of land

like a small monk

in a green monastery


Almost sculpture

except that it’s alive

Brooding immobile permanent

for half an hour

a blue heron

and it occurs to me

that if I were to die at this moment

that picture would accompany me

wherever I am going

for part of the way

Al Purdy

2. Alan Sullivan (1868 – 1947)

Born in Montreal, Canada, Alan Sullivan was a 19th-century Canadian poet. He was also the author of several short stories. One of his most prominent works included the historical novel, The Great Divide, written in 1935. The Great Divide details the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway being built. Here is another piece of poetry that was composed by Alan Sullivan.

The Little Street

Listen. The clop of wooden soles still sounds

along this crudely cobbled alleyway,

a washerwoman sings a rondelet,

and two young truants haggle over rounds

of jacks. Somewhere an unseen bell resounds,

tolling the passage of an August day;

yet nothing moves. These shutters never sway.

These children never leave their checkered bounds.

beside the entryway. The clouds diffuse

a drop of rain or flush with sunset’s blush.

No bargeman hauls; no windmill fills a sluice.

Upon some far-off field of war, a truce

as time stands still beneath the artist’s brush.

Alan Sullivan

3. Arther Stringer (1874-1950)

Arthur Stringer was another famous Canadian poet. Born in Chatham, Ontario, Stringer was also a screenwriter and a novelist who later moved to the USA. He has published over 50 books during his career. He has also contributed to film scripts and written several articles in his lifetime. One of his catchphrases included;

 “Society, my dear, is like salt water, good to swim in but hard to swallow.”


From hill to hill he harried me;

He stalked me day and night;

He neither knew nor hated me;

Nor his nor mine the fight.

He killed the man who stood by me,

For such they made his law;

Then foot by foot I fought to him,

Who neither knew nor saw.

I trained my rifle on his heart;

He leapt up in the air.

The screaming ball tore through his breast,

And lay embedded there.

Lay hot embedded there, and yet

Hissed home o’er hill and sea

Straight to the aching heart of one

Who’d wronged not mine nor me?

Arthur Stringer

4. John McCrea (1872 – 1918)

John McCrae was a doctor and a Canadian teacher who began writing poetry as a student. Born in Guelph, Ontario, he was well-known for his poem In Flanders Fields.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: 

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high. 

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

 In Flanders fields.

John McCrea

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In Flanders Field, a poem written by John McCrea, a 19th-century poet.

Canadian 20th-Century Literature Contributions of Poetry and Prose

The 20th-century saw many changes and advancements to Canadian poetry. It put a new spin on creativity and opened up several new genres of poetry including:

  • Confessional poetry
  • New formalism
  • Concrete poetry
  • Visual poetry
  • Slam poetry

French-Canadian poetry also blossomed in the 20th-century, developing a strong, passionate voice among authors with vibrant imagery. Notable poets of this era included Leanard Cohen, Irving Layton, and Margaret Atwood. Here is a little more information about these incredible authors and some of their best-loved poems:

1. Leonard Cohen ( 1934 – 2016)

Leanard Cohen was a famous Canadian poet born in Westmount, Montreal. He was also a talented musician who later moved to Los Angeles, California. Despite his move, he continued to have strong heritage roots in Canada.

Beneath My Hands

Beneath my hands

your small breasts

are the upturned bellies

of breathing fallen sparrows.

Wherever you move

I hear the sounds of closing wings

of falling wings.

I am speechless

because you have fallen beside me

because your eyelashes

are the spines of tiny fragile animals.

I dread the time

when your mouth

begins to call me hunter.

When you call me close

to tell me

your body is not beautiful

I want to summon

the eyes and hidden mouths

of stone and light and water

to testify against you.

I want them

to surrender before you

the trembling rhyme of your face

from their deep caskets.

When you call me close

to tell me

your body is not beautiful

I want my body and my hands

to be pools

for your looking and laughing.

Leonard Cohen

2. Irving Layton (1912 – 2006)

Irving Layton was another inspirational Canadian poet from the 20th-century. His works of literature have been enjoyed by many readers over the years.

Hills and hills

The hills

remind me

of you

Not because

they curve soft and warm

lovely and firm

under the Greek sun

Or flow

towards the horizon

in slow limpid waves

falling away mysteriously

at the edge of the sea

So that I can only surmise

they’re being there

beyond my gaze

and stare into the greyness

But because

a long time ago

you stared at them

as I am staring now

Irving Layton

  1. Margaret Atwood (1939 – )

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer of poetry, prose, children’s books and fiction novels. Best known as a novelist, she has also published over 20 books of poetry. Most of her poetry is inspired by fairy tales. She has also won numerous awards throughout her lifetime of achievements as a famous Canadian author. 


Love is not a profession

genteel or otherwise

sex is not dentistry

the slick filling of aches and cavities

you are not my doctor

you are not my cure,

nobody has that

power, you are merely a fellow/traveller

Give up this medical concern,

buttoned, attentive,

permit yourself anger

and permit me mine

which needs neither

your approval nor your surprise

which does not need to be made legal

which is not against a disease

but against you,

which does not need to be understood

or washed or cauterized,

which needs instead

to be said and said.

Permit me the present tense.

Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood is famous for her contributions made to 20th-century literature.

Fiction Contributions Made to Canadian Literature

Canada, a country rich in culture, has plenty of great fiction authors to boast about. Canadian fiction was discovered in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Popular fiction authors from the early years, included Marshal Saunders, Stephen Leacock and Nellie McClung, among several others. Nowadays, it’s difficult to find any of their books still in print. 

20th-century famous Canadian fiction authors included Margaret Atwood, Thomas King, Alice Munroe and many other brilliant authors who helped define Canada. Many of these authors are still just as popular today in Canada and worldwide as they were at the start of their writing careers.

Many Canadian fiction writers have a vast amount to write about, from multiculturalism, beautiful scenic landscapes, to famous cultural traditions that never seem to get stale to readers. Canada also has several Indigenous voices who enjoy sharing their stories with readers around the world.

Canadian literature offers something for everyone to enjoy whether you are young or old.

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Canadian literature has something for everyone to enjoy whether you are young or old.

Fictional Books of Literature Set In Canada

1. M. Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables 

 Anne of Green Gables tells the tale of Anne Shirley, a young orphan who was sent to a home that was looking for a boy to adopt, not an eleven-year-old rambunctious, freckled red-haired girl. 

Nevertheless, Shiley’s kind-hearted personality and witty charm ended up winning the entire family over. 

Set in a fictional town on their farm in the fictional town of Avonlea in Prince Edward Island, Canada, the setting of the book features similar characteristics and trademarks of the current Canadian province. The only difference is the made-up town name.

Being a curious child with a great imagination, Shirley spends no time at all getting to know her neighbours. She adapts quite well to her new surroundings and thrives within the close-knit small farming community of Avonlea.

2. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin 

Margaret Atwood is a well-known Canadian author. Her novel The Handmade Tale helped lead her to global success when it was made into a television series and movie.

The Blind Assassin was published in 2000 by McClelland and Stewart Publishing House. The novel was set in Port Ticonderoga, a fictional town in Ontario, Canada. Some scenes also take place in Toronto, Ontario.

The novel begins in 1945 with the strange death of Laura Chase, a young woman from the area. A few decades after the death of her sister, Iris tells the readers tales of childhood memories. She also recounts other deaths that have plagued their rich family’s history.

Richly layered stories open up the long-lost family secrets that have haunted the Chase family for years. The novel finishes off with an outstanding final plot twist. Atwood is certainly a must-read Canadian author.

3. Louise Penny’s Novel Still Life

Still, Life by Louise Penny is the first novel in her mystery series. Set in Montreal, Canada, it didn’t take long for Still Life to become one of the author’s best-selling books.

Armand Gamache, the Chief of Police for the Surete du Quebec, is called to the scene of a murder that takes place in the outskirts of Montreal.

The body of a well-known woman from the small town of Three Pines was discovered in the bushes. The town’s people are convinced it was just a hunting accident. But, Gamache has a hunch there’s something sinister happening in the small Montreal village and it was no accident. 

Penny’s novel, Still Life, is a contagious book that will quickly turn the pages to find out what happens next. The setting in this novel vividly details Canadian culture. 

 4. Farley Mowat’s Novel Never Cry, Wolf

 Never Cry Wolf is set in Manitoba, Canada in 1948. A young biologist arrives on the scene to investigate the dwindling population of caribous in the area.

 Community members thought that the decline of the caribou was simply the result of an overpopulation of wolves in the area. 

Mowat camps out on the outskirts of the small community of Manitoba, expecting to catch some devilish creatures in the act. But instead, he discovers the beauty found in wolves and their powerful displays of affection, loyalty and wisdom. 

The setting of Keewatin Barren Lands in Manitoba displays vivid imagery of rich nature and scenic views.

 5. Peter Heller’s Novel The River

The last of our fiction novels is The River by Peter Heller. Set on a Northern Canadian river. Jack and Wynn quickly realize that their peaceful canoe trip down the Madawaska river is being jeopardized by an out-of-control raging forest fire.

 Through their journey to safety, they come across other characters in the book, including a pair of drunken Texas fools who ignore their warning about the fire, and a man and woman arguing loudly on the river bank. 

 When the fire has been subdued, they see the same man paddling alone on the river. But, where is the woman?

 Another must-read book of Canadian literature, that has vivid imagery of Northern Canadians.

Final Thoughts About Canadian Literature

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A Canadian flag among red and white rocks, a symbol of Canadian literature.

The written works of Canadian authors found in Canadian literature, deeply reflect our country’s culture, origin, bilingualism and diversity.

Canadian literature through the creation of stories, poetry, prose, fiction, and other genres has helped to create an expression that instills images in the minds of young and old readers, worldwide. 

Literature is a useful tool to help readers understand experiences they have never had the pleasure of encountering personally, but they can venture there through books.


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