Margaret Atwood Gets a Stamp of Approval

But does she speak for all Canadians as she weighs in on national issues?

The queen of CanLit is in the national spotlight. At the end of November, Canada Post issued a stamp with an image of writer and poet Margaret Atwood wearing a pensive expression against a background of lines from her poem “Spelling.” Atwood’s admirers cheer this coronation, which seems perfectly timed. It lends added gravitas to the bold public stance that Atwood has taken in the last two weeks on the uprising of truckers that has convulsed Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and parts of Quebec and made headlines around the world.

The truckers of the Freedom Convoy object to Covid restrictions and to their government’s high-handedness, and are sick of their concerns going ignored. They particularly object to vaccine mandates for cross-border travel, a measure that makes their lives even tougher. But Atwood, a writer known for her concern for marginalized members of society, wishes they would shut up and go home.

On February 4, Atwood let rip with a caustic tweet about the noise and chaos that the Freedom Convoy has brought to Ottawa, and compared being in the city in the midst of the protests to torture. Atwood also retweeted an article about a $9.8 million class-action lawsuit over the noise and disruptions and a story about an online petition calling for a tougher police response. Another tweet the next day called out alleged “Trump interference” in the furor over GoFundMe’s suspension of $9 million in donations meant for the truckers. Atwood also retweeted a positive comment about a counterprotest in Vancouver.

Atwood’s snootiness toward the truckers, a bunch of hairy guys waving the Canadian flag, and her contempt for their concerns are of a piece with the reactions of many progressives. What makes her case interesting is that Atwood has lashed out at Americans in the past for their indifference to the duskier expressions of Canadian individuality and patriotism.

“The United States does not think of its own nationalism as being anything out of the ordinary, but it has never cherished warm feelings for other peoples’. Reaction to the current Canadian wave has ranged from anger, to squeeze plays of the If-you-don’t-let-us-buy-you, we-won’t-let-you-buy-us variety, to jocular condescension,” Atwood states in her 1981 essay, originally written as a speech, “Canadian-American Relations: Surviving the Eighties.”

The essay was a slap in the face to those who disdained popular expressions of Canadian identity and yearning for freedom. Now, in the face of a sincere protest from working-class, patriotic Canadians who do a grueling job that keeps the nation running smoothly and makes Atwood’s cozy life possible, Atwood indulges in some jocular condescension of her own. Those unwashed, flag-waving, beer-guzzling rubes who dare to question the policies laid down by the country’s rich technocratic elite should all turn their trucks right around and go home to their dusky little homes and trailer parks in parts of the country that rightly have no voice.

“Americans experience themselves, individually, as small toads in the biggest and most powerful puddle in the world. Their sense of power comes from identifying with the puddle. Canadians as individuals may have more power within the puddle, since there are fewer toads in it; it’s the puddle that’s seen as powerless,” Atwood writes in the same essay.

Obviously, some of the toads don’t feel this way and are clamoring for a redress of their lack of a voice. But who cares about a bunch of toads.

No Friend of the Fallen

To be sure, many welcome Canada Post’s recognition of a highbrow writer with popular appeal. Atwood’s novels, stories, poetry, and literary criticism have engrossed readers and given the literati much to debate and argue about for well over fifty years now. Her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, presents a dystopia so richly imagined and ominous that it served as the springboard for a popular series. The decision to place Atwood on a stamp offers hope that not everyone today considers serious writers to be irrelevant and that more may come to take an interest in Atwood. It follows a decision in 2013 to honor in similar fashion the late Robertson Davies, a delightful novelist even more unabashedly literary and esoteric than Atwood.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s Canada stamp, speaking truth to power.

So, bravo for Canada Post and Margaret Atwood and all her fans. Her talents and her contribution to CanLit are not in doubt. But in a society with a history as rich and complex as Canada’s, you have to wonder whether the enshrinement of anyone can be wholly without controversy.

The furor over the upstart truckers is hardly the first occasion where Atwood has jumped into the political fray. Atwood’s political correctness has been evident for years, but she is rather selective in her sympathies.

Some may think that Atwood is a writer of moral courage in this era of cancellation, where the woke continually redefine their own rights to the exclusion of the rights of others, and freedom of expression is so often the victim. Atwood did send out a tweet on October 19 to her more than two million followers with the header “Why Can’t We Say ‘Woman’ Anymore?’” The headline was also the title of a Toronto Star op-ed piece by Rosie DiManno, linked in Atwood’s tweet, in which DiManno bemoaned the woke fad du jour of finding more inclusive substitutes for “woman.”

But the tweet is not an example of a bold politically incorrect stance on Atwood’s part. Again and again, Atwood has bent over backward to signal her endorsement of woke causes and progressive view of gender fluidity, notably by tweeting on October 23 a link to a Scientific American article whose claims include, “Arguments about innate biological differences between the sexes have persisted long past the time they should have been put to rest.” (If you think there are actually differences between men’s and women’s bodies, unlearn your prejudice fast.) Contemporary progressivism is a den of competing claims to über-victimhood, and Atwood’s retweet of the Toronto Star piece, and the vituperation that followed it, are just one of the latest circular semantic quarrels on the woke left.

The French Problem

For the record, Atwood has shown she is quite capable of venom toward the downtrodden as long as they are not people the woke left cares about. In Survival, her 1972 survey of themes in Canadian literature, Atwood explicitly acknowledges that both anglophones and francophones have had to fight to survive and to keep their customs and traditions alive in a land beset by harsh climes and political conflicts.

For all that, some of the portrayals of French Canadians in Atwood’s work are decidedly harsh and border on caricature. You should go and read a novel that came out the very same year as Survival yet appears in places to be from the pen of a different author. That novel is Surfacing, Atwood’s first-person account of a young woman, whose name we never learn, who sets out with her boyfriend and another couple into the wilds of northern Quebec one summer. The protagonist spent parts of her early youth there but has not been back in many years, and it is a shock for her to run into people whose first language is not English and who seem to look askance at outsiders.

When she enters a store in a remote rural area, the French-speakers there are not just different. Atwood renders them as provincial, faintly menacing rubes who retaliate for what they see at outsiders’ condescension by speaking a mangled, cartoonish English in a really in-your-face way, as if to say, “This what you want? Are you happy now?” Atwood’s portrayal of these people is cruel, and she appears to want the reader to identify wholly with the protagonist, who cannot get away from the dumb rubes fast enough and lards later parts of her interior monologue with explicit distaste for the French, though she also hates Americans aplenty. If you think that the “dueling banjos” scene in Deliverance is cruel, check out Surfacing.

Lest anyone assume that such prejudice against French Canadians was a common tic or reflex among Anglo-Canadian authors of the time, consider the work of Montreal writer John Buell, whose career hit high gear in the 1960s and 1970s and whom literary critic Edmund Wilson praised for his “excellent novels.” Buell’s 1976 novel Playground has thematic and structural parallels with Surfacing, but the attitudes on display are notably different. In this expertly written novel, Montreal businessman Spence Morrison gets lost in the course of a solo trip to the wilds of northern Quebec, and comes close to starving to death and losing his mind as he wanders all alone in hope of finding someone, anyone.

At the end, when Morrison (spoiler alert!) at last comes upon a settlement, we feel his awe and relief at the sound of voices speaking in French, and it’s not just because he gets to live another day. The French are representatives of order, stability. In Buell’s debut novel from 1959, The Pyx, Anglo and French detectives in Montreal share a shopworn bonhomie. You can see this in even sharper relief in Harvey Hart’s outstanding (little-seen) 1973 screen adaptation of the novel, in which Christopher Plummer’s Sgt. Jim Henderson responds to a call about a woman having fallen from a tall building. Or did someone push her? On arriving at the scene, another detective is impressed to hear that Henderson now works with French-Canadian cop Pierre Paquette. “You’re working with Paquette, the eager beaver?” “Why, do you know him?” Henderson replies. “Know him? I’m surprised he didn’t get to her before she hit the ground!” the other rejoins.

Atwood departs from the spirit of such bonhomie in her mean-spirited portrayals. No one is likely to take Atwood to task over this, of course. With some exceptions, cancellation these days is for white male authors who have the temerity to think aloud or in print. But the second-class status of the French in Canada is a very real issue, and is not about to get any better as a result of anything Atwood has said or done.

In 2013, the year that Canada Post honored Robertson Davies, one of the most horrific events in Canada’s modern history unfolded in the town of Lac-Mégantic in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. On the night of July 6, a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway freight train carrying loads of crude oil and parked on a hill above the town while its conductor slept in a hotel downtown unexpectedly rolled down the hill and derailed. The resulting blast killed 47 people and leveled much of Lac-Mégantic. A number of factors led to the brake failure, but the catastrophe would never have happened if, as per longstanding custom, the train had had a second conductor to assume oversight while the first one was off duty.

Bruce Campbell’s excellent The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied details the relaxation of safety rules and requirements that MMA, an American firm headquartered in Maine, demanded from Ottawa from the 1980s on. The Anglo-Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney was one of the most anti-regulation leaders in the nation’s history, and changes initiated under his watch and later stripped Transport Canada of the power to require companies to follow safety rules and protocols. Transport Canada had to resort to issuing toothless “letters of concern.” When MMA wanted to switch from two conductors to one conductor per freight train on the Lac-Mégantic and other routes to save money, there was little the regulatory body could do to stop it. Though this was not the only factor involved, forty-seven French Canadians died as a result. It is only one of the recent episodes in a long history of horrendous neglect and mistreatment of a people.

Margaret Atwood is a writer of substantial talent, but in today’s parlance, she has “othered” French Canadians. If we are really to care about these things as much as the woke demand, then we might ask whether placing her on a postage stamp rubs salt into still fresh wounds.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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