Guest curator: Carole Gerson

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


“Ode to Brant” by Pauline Johnson, 1886

Two pages of a handwritten poem signed and dated by the author, Pauline Johnson.

Handwritten poem by Pauline Johnson, 1886. (MIKAN 4936704)

This poet’s mixed Mohawk-British heritage helped shape her vision for Canada’s future. She writes that Indigenous and British-Canadians should form a “brotherhood.” And all should be loyal servants—together—of the British Empire.


Tell us about yourself

As a child, I was an obsessive reader—my friends called me a “reader-bug” because I always had my nose in a book. Perhaps that’s why I became an English professor—so that I could read as much as I wanted, and encourage others to do the same. I think that it is especially important to read works by Canadian writers, who help us to understand our history and who we are today.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

A black-and-white photograph of a bronze statue atop a large stone pedestal decorated with bronze reliefs and statues around the sides. A park with bare trees can be seen in the background.

View of the Brant Memorial in Brantford, Ontario by photographer Hannah Maynard, Park & Co. (MIKAN 3559483)

“Brant” was one of Pauline Johnson’s first published poems. She composed it for the unveiling of a statue of the Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant, in the town of Brantford on October 8, 1886, and it was included in a souvenir brochure prepared for the occasion. During Johnson’s lifetime, fans of literature often collected autographs from their favourite writers. Regarded as one of Canada’s most important poets, Johnson not only signed many copies of her books for her admirers, but also frequently wrote out her poems in longhand for them to keep.

A black-and-white newspaper column describing Pauline Johnson’s family, her work and her role in the unveiling of the Brant memorial.

An interview with Pauline Johnson by Canadian journalist Garth Grafton (Sarah Jeannette Duncan) about Johnson’s work, her family, and the unveiling of the Brant Memorial, in Woman’s World, October 14, 1886. (AMICUS 8086919)

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition.

LAC holds a large collection of letters that L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) wrote to her friend, George Boyd Macmillan, a pen pal who lived in Scotland. This correspondence lasted for many years, from 1903 to 1941. Montgomery’s letters are very long and newsy, discussing everything from the books that she read and the places she visited, to the doings of her family and her beloved cats. Over the years, the tone changes from youthful optimism to sad disappointment as she lives through the First World War and the Great Depression, giving us an inner view of the Canadian experience during a tumultuous time. Montgomery’s distinctive handwriting is less stylish than Johnson’s elegant script, perhaps reflecting her early years as teacher, when she needed to show children how to form their letters.

A black-and-white page of a letter from Lucy Maude Montgomery to George Boyd Macmillan. Discusses her love of historical books and recalls her love of fairies as a child.

A page from a letter (page 757) from Lucy Maud Montgomery to George Boyd Macmillan, a Scottish writer, dated April 7, 1904 discussing her love of historical books and fairies as a child (MIKAN 120237)

A black-and-white page of a letter from Lucy Maude Montgomery to George Boyd Macmillan. Discusses the popularity of “In Flanders Fields” and its use in election campaigns.

A page of a letter (25) from Lucy Maud Montgomery to George Boyd Macmillan, April 7, 1917 which discusses the popularity of “In Flanders Fields” and its use in election campaigns. (MIKAN 120237)

Biography

A colour photograph of a woman with short hair looking over to the side.Carole Gerson is a professor in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. Co-editor of Volume 3 (1918–1980) of History of the Book in Canada / Histoire du livre et de l’imprimé au Canada, she has published extensively on Canada’s literary and cultural history with a focus on women writers, including L.M. Montgomery and Pauline Johnson. Her book, Canadian Women in Print, 1750–1918 (2010), won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian criticism. In 2013 she received the Marie Tremaine Medal from the Bibliographical Society of Canada.

Related resources

Grist for the Mill – Poems on war, labour and progress

By Kelly Anne Griffin

Alex Gibson was an immigrant, a veteran of the First World War, a mill worker and a poet. His experiences are reflected in Grist for the Mill, a book of poetry that he self-published in 1959. A copy of this book was discovered during the processing of the archival records of the Canadian Paperworkers Union.

Gibson was born in 1893 in Scotland, and he immigrated to Canada around 1913. He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the 10th Field Ambulance Battalion. Many of the poems in his book deal with the challenges of adjusting to the often routine life of working in a paper mill after surviving the horrors of war. Many young Canadian men faced similar challenges when they returned from the war in Europe.

He contemplates the struggles of returning soldiers in “What Shall It Be”:

What shall it be when victory’s won
And our men come marching home;

Shall it mean the same as it always means –
The broken lives and the shattered dreams

And a desolate land to roam?

[…]

Answer ye men of the shop and rail –
The mill and the mine – the sea and the mail,

For answer it ye shall?
(pp. 90–92)

A black-and-white photograph showing a crowded war scene: wounded soldiers are on stretchers while soldiers mill around, with destroyed buildings in the background.

The 10th Field Ambulance Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. Gibson served in the field, caring for the wounded after battle. This devastating experience underlies his poetry. (MIKAN 3397051)

Gibson worked in the pulp and paper industry for over 38 years and was passionate about labour issues. He served in several important roles within the Canadian Paperworkers Union during his career. He even ran for federal office in the riding of Port Arthur in 1935 and 1940 for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. This party, a predecessor of the New Democratic Party, was dedicated to progressive social and labour issues. Gibson’s socialist stance is clear in nearly all of the poems in the book, which provides an informative first-hand account of working-class struggles. The plight of the worker and the need for workers to come together in a strong brotherhood are recurring themes. In “Hoboes and Heroes,” he writes about the class of society that could be called the working poor:

He said that every place he went
He found that there were thousands such as he;
Who, with the last of all their money spent
Were forced to beg for charity.

[…]

And as he spoke I sensed the bitter note.
Of dark despair, the utter lack of hope.
(pp. 77–80)

Working for over three decades in a factory, and being active in union activities, Gibson was acutely aware of the hardships and struggles in a production mill. These come up frequently in his writings. Days were long, pay was poor and conditions were not as regulated as they are today. He continually tried to improve this situation through his work with the union. The vivid picture he paints of what life was like for these men shows his empathy for his fellow workers. In the book’s dedication, he writes:

To ye who toil in the murk;
To ye who swine in the drift

Making an epic of work,
Single or double shift.

Knowing you as I do;
Living the life you live,

This is my gift to you,
All that I have to give.
(p. 3)

A black-and-white photograph of a man leaning over a grinder machine holding a plank of wood in his hands.

Worker in a pulp and paper mill operating a grinder machine. Gibson’s poetry often describes the monotonous and dangerous conditions in mills and the effects on workers. Photo taken by Harry Foster (MIKAN 3196845)

Most of Gibson’s poems cover issues relating to labour and social injustices in Canada, but some provide glimpses into important moments in history. “A Constitutional Crisis” relates the abdication of Edward VIII to wed twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, a huge scandal at the time. “A Note to the Hon. Minister of Justice” is about the jailing of Tim Buck, a leader in the labour movement. Buck’s imprisonment at Kingston Penitentiary caused much public outcry, especially among labourers like Gibson.

This collection of poems, though written primarily about personal conflicts and workers’ struggles, has an underlying tone of hope. Many of Gibson’s poems are still relevant for Canadian readers today. This is one reason why Grist for the Mill is a true treasure in the collection of Library and Archives Canada.

100th anniversary of the composition of the iconic poem “In Flanders Fields”

John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is one of the best-known literary works to emerge from the First World War. The poem’s most lasting legacy is its popularization of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those killed in war.

McCrae is thought to have written the poem during the second week of the Second Battle of Ypres while he was stationed at what later became the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station, just north of the town of Ypres. McCrae, a Major and military doctor, was second-in-command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The exact circumstances in which the poem was written, however, remain the stuff of legend. The most cited stories of the poem’s origin centre on McCrae’s grief over the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, an officer of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery who was killed by a direct hit from a German shell on the morning of May 2. One account says that McCrae was so distraught after his friend’s funeral (for which McCrae, himself, said the committal service in the absence of a chaplain) that he composed the poem in just 20 minutes as a means of calming himself down. Another story has it that McCrae was seen writing his poem the next day, May 3, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance while looking at Helmer’s grave and the poppies that had sprung up near the dressing station. His commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison, tells a third story: that McCrae drafted his poem while passing time between the arrivals of wounded soldiers. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the Imperial War Museum in England has a tracing of an original holograph of the poem, written by McCrae for Captain Tyndale-Lea, which claims that McCrae wrote the poem on April 29, 1915, three days before Lieutenant Helmer’s death.

The handwritten poem on yellowed paper in very faded ink.

A copy of “In Flanders Fields” written in John McCrae’s hand. Morrison was a friend and the commanding officer of the poet as well as a physician, December 8, 1915 (MIKAN 179238)

How the poem was submitted for publication is also a matter of speculation. By one account, McCrae threw the poem away but it was recovered by another soldier and sent to a London newspaper. Possibly McCrae himself submitted it, as he made a number of handwritten copies to give to friends shortly after drafting it. The poem was printed by Punch magazine on December 8, 1915. Within months it became the most popular poem of the war.

While no institution is known to have John McCrae’s original first draft of the poem, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has two manuscript versions of it, both written and signed by McCrae. One is dated December 8, 1915 and is part of a collection donated to LAC by Major-General Sir Edward W.B. Morrison, who was McCrae’s friend and fellow officer. The other is typed on paper and is part of a collection of documents donated by James Edward Hervey McDonald, an original member of the Group of Seven painters. LAC also holds an extensive and richly detailed collection of John McCrae’s letters and diaries, spanning much of his life, from childhood to shortly before his death from pneumonia in January 1918.

Black-and-white photograph showing a man in military uniform sitting down on steps with a dog at his side.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae and his dog Bonneau, circa 1914 (MIKAN 3192003)

Additional Resources

The Governor General’s Literary Awards for 2013

The Governor General’s Literary Awards are given annually to the best English-language and the best French-language book in each of the seven categories of Fiction, Literary Non-fiction, Poetry, Drama, Children’s Literature (text), Children’s Literature (illustration) and Translation.

Every year, Library and Archives Canada works to ensure that each Canadian nominee is acquired, catalogued and made available prior to the final announcement of the winners. Usually, this is done through legal deposit, but in some cases the nominated books are not published in Canada and need to be acquired through other means so that a complete selection of the Governor General’s nominees are preserved for future generations.

Congratulations to all!

Fiction
English
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (AMICUS 41787649)
French
Quand les guêpes se taisent, by Stéphanie Pelletier (AMICUS 40915742)

Poetry
English
North End Love Songs, by Katherena Vermette (AMICUS 40823688)
French
Pour les désespérés seulement, by René Lapierre (AMICUS 40824154)

Drama
English
Fault Lines, by Nicolas Billon (AMICUS 41530643)
French
Bienveillance, by Fanny Britt (AMICUS 41316358)

Non-Fiction
English
Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page, by Sandra Djwa (AMICUS 40812690)
French
Aimer, enseigner, by Yvon Rivard (AMICUS 40909709)

Children’s Text
English
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, by Teresa Toten (AMICUS 41749214)
French
À l’ombre de la grande maison, by Geneviève Mativat (AMICUS 40696767)

Children’s Illustration
English
Northwest Passage, by Matt James (AMICUS 40320781)
French
Jane, le renard et moi, by Isabelle Arsenault (AMICUS 41921688)

Translation
English
The Major Verbs, by Donald Winkler (AMICUS 40717619)
French
L’enfant du jeudi, by Sophie Voillot (AMICUS 40772400)