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Canada, Christmas, and the Commonwealth

December 24, 2009

What topics will make their way into this year’s Christmas message from the Queen to the Commonwealth? Any predictions? When I was a child, we’d watch the Queen on our  black and white TV, post Christmas lunch. Like this poet, I may have blurred many such occasions, but HM often cited the Commonwealth in her talks. And the idea of the Commonwealth features in a series of interviews I’m conducting on the theme: “What does it mean to be Canadian?” This December, I asked a writer friend with connections to Canada, the U.K., and Australia, for her reflections.


Where were you born?  I was born in Australia, although I enjoyed many childhood trips to Canada and to Britain.

What does the Commonwealth conjure  for you?   The  idea of the Commonwealth matters a great deal to me – it really is the instrument that inscribes my family story in many ways.  My grandparents were born in Canada, then went to live in London as young adults. My grandmother was widowed in the war. She crossed the Atlantic in a ship convoy and settled in Canada. So my parents were raised in Western Canada and then moved to Australia.

Interesting that migration pattern – Yes, it was a time of straightforward entry, and I guess a sense of shared cultural values at a time when travel was a bit harder. They only moved to England in their 60s!

So something about Australia really grabbed them?  Well, jobs were available and that wasn’t always the case in Canada in the late 70s and early 80s – they settled in Perth – laid back with great weather. It was a time when Australia looked to boost population and liked “white people” of the Commonwealth – they were granted permanent residency easily. So you know, they just never got around to making a decision to leave.

You’ve spoken about how the Commonwealth, places in it, can be a repository for family memory – I see now that what emerged for me was a sense in Canada and in Britain of something I don’t see [ as much ] in Australia, a family history on the landscape.  In Canada and Britain I was able to see the streets where my family lived, places they worked – in the Vancouver of the 1950’s for instance, where my grandmother brought up my mother and of course, where I live and work today.

Do you think Canada has strong ties to this idea of a commonwealth of countries linked to the former British Empire – with the UK as a kind of “mother hub”?  I think I felt that more strongly in Australia, because perhaps of [an impression] that Australia’s ties to the UK are stronger, through language, sport – I think of cricket, rugby. I think the Australians and English have a dryer, more deadpan kind of humour, than Canadians – sharper round the edges, with more word-play.

I sometimes wonder if Canadians forget how much influence the United States has on us?   I see that here in Canada people tend to feel a stronger kinship to the Americans than to the British so that I am always also surprised when people here express much interest in England or the Commonwealth.

Does the Commonwealth matter anymore?   I don’t know that it does  – in the sense of thinking about  “new Australians,” or “new Canadians” who have come from other parts of the world such as the Vietnamese community in either Canada or Australia, or the Sudanese in Perth. People try and find a place, make a home for themselves – in Canada, in other Commonwealth countries – and I wonder if here, where the concept of the Commonwealth has some traction still, if it’s a difficult one, because it’s also related to that thing, Empire, and can be seen as an exclusionary, colonial concept.

You’ve lived outside the Commonwealth in China – any thoughts?   I think of my love for China was really seeded through early trips to Hong Kong on the way to and from Australia-Canada, which is certainly a view of Asia filtered through commonwealth eyes.

Yes. What I think of as Old Commonwealth – the Jockey Club in Hong Kong!

That’s right, I loved that – but also feel guilt infused with that ardour, so it’s not an unproblematic attachment. I first visited China in the early 1980s as a kid, lived in Hangzhou for a year in ’93 as a foreign student, in Beijing in 2000.

As a writer, any particular links come to you re this idea of Commonwealth?   Well, I think here of the Booker Prize (Man Booker Literary Prize) – this is a commonwealth prize that to me is the most anticipated literary prize of the year. And the Booker still feels significant as a Commonwealth prize as opposed to other national book prizes, which can often feel too small and parochial, too self-congratulatory and narrow.

Do you think Canadian prizes might be a bit like that?  I wouldn’t want to be unduly negative in my assessment of Canadian fiction – but perhaps  Canada struggles the most to step into a confident expression of casual nationalism in fiction, which is perhaps a much a result of the country’s geo-political situation as anything. But I also think that comments such as the one you’ll hear about Alice Munroe’s work so often – that all her stories are set in small town Ontario and why would anyone care – are answered by her how she manages to make them interesting and meaningful. You know, that sort of jibe gets leveled less at other writers who use a fixed location in their work, or any other kind of single, striking identifier, so why is it commented on in relation to her?

Good point! Any closing thoughts?  I read a lot of American fiction and of course, there’s all the writings in other languages beside English, but still, the Booker carries weight because it draws on the cultural sprawl of the commonwealth. I can’t think of another thing off the top that rests on the concept of the commonwealth so entirely and also feels so relevant.

The “cultural sprawl of the commonwealth” –  now that’s an image provoking concept. Thank you, J and happy holidays.



One Comment leave one →
  1. anne hopkinson permalink
    January 1, 2010 11:37 am

    This christmas my 24 year old daughter held “A Commonwealth Christmas” at our home while we were away visiting in Toronto. The guests were mostly UBC students, a professor or two, and a sister visiting from England. The commonwealth was partially represented: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, Nigeria, and South Africa. They created and enjoyed the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings, played games, and drank too much. I asked my daughter how it had come about, the commonwealth christmas theme, and she replied that it just dawned on them one day that they were all friends and all part of the Commonwealth. They didn’t say British Empire, they didn’t rehash the pros and cons of colonialism and independence. They joked about rugby, football, and told of wonderful journeys they had taken or were planning to make, including commonwealth countries. They talked about their ancestors, and the towns they came from, the towns they immigrated to, and the cemeteries across the globe where they are buried. These are the young generation who think of the commonwealth, if they think of it at all, as a fading connection lingering from the days of their grandparents. Once in a while it hits the news, as with Britain’s possible absence from the Games in India. Once in a while they fly to England to visit family. Their commonwealth is less historical, less substantial than mine.

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