Of Commerce, Prudence, and Industry in Winnipeg


By Barbara Romanik

Is Canadian writing post-national? Is this a trick question? Here in Winnipeg? Here in the gassy belly, or the indigestion-ridden centre of Canada? Perhaps bloated and floating like an air pocket in Canada’s gut, I can gnaw at the truth and be contradictory. I can read national and write post-national.

Agriculture Canada by day, South Main St.

Because what I’m studying right now is early twentieth-century Canadian prairie writing, I am reading Ralph Connor, Robert Stead, and Adele Wiseman. If I were reading this stuff in Toronto, someone, maybe the editors of BRICK, would stage an intervention.

AgCan building at night

But here in Winnipeg, I feel like it’s not only geography acting on me. I mean I don’t feel post-national when I walk south of Portage and Main (going north might prove problematic and dangerous in the middle of the night). But when I walk south of Portage and Main, something about these buildings reminds me how we haven’t yet found new ways of thinking about ourselves here in the lower belly of Canada. Our worlds are still very much overshadowed by the early twentieth century myth of nation building and resource extraction. Just look at the Agriculture Canada building at 269 Main with its grain motif. Don’t tell me that if you squint its architecture isn’t slightly reminiscent of Third Reich propaganda films?

VIA Station on Main St.

Or the Union Train Station. Although it’s VIA Rail whenever I see it, I keep thinking of trains, and trains of people. Nothing about it makes me think post or outside of physical labour, the physicality of bodies, of sweat, heat and the cold.

The term post-national implies that we may have all at some point been and written national. As an immigrant perhaps like some Indigenous writers, I have never felt the privilege of being on the inside, of being fully national or Canadian. And so I am sceptical about this post-national sleight of hand, the dismissal of the history and reality of marginalization and colonization. As if it just came from the outside, from Britain and then the States. As if the people (writers included) who have made their home in Canada for several generations are not responsible for their actions. As if they lacked free will and judgment.

Portage and Main in spring

My point is that as much as we may aspire toward modernity and originality we can’t take the national out of post-national. If we have something to say as writers that is. Critics will come up with ways to talk about what we are doing, trust me I am one of them, but we don’t have to make it easy for them. After all, I am finishing a novel that is set mainly in Warsaw and Chicago, with chapters in London, Kolkota, and even in Edmonton and Fredericton. Do I hope my book’s themes resonate for a wide audience? Yes, I do. Do I hope my novel gestures towards a new way of seeing ourselves, our worlds, and that it offers something to the future? Of course, I do. But I also hope it speaks to the past, to the history of Canada—the general and the specific one which is mine.

For me, the most interesting Canadian writers are the ones who are reaching towards the future, with one foot in the past. So with that in mind I will suggest three Canadian books that I will make my students read if someone is foolish enough to ever let me teach literature: Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (1976), Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return (2001) and Marvin Francis’s city treaty (2002). I know I am supposed to say something literary but really all I can say is that these authors get IT. Madness, racism, colonialism, they get at the things that most Canadians learn to keep neatly tucked in their closets or under their beds. Yet at the same time Ondaatje, Brand and Francis have managed to write books that you really just want to take home and fuck. They’re that good. And I don’t mean the one night stand kind of fuck but the I’m taking you hostage, love of your life kind of a thing.

Robin's Donuts on York

So on this night, I retreat from Portage and Main and seek out sugar at Robin’s Donuts at Fort and York. In the artificial light, listening to the banter of the heavily made-up cashier and one of her regulars, I’m inspired to compare Winnipeg to a donut hole. It’s a very strange place to be—in it I feel completely immobilized and silent, one minute, and fearless and free to say what needs to be said, the next. Perhaps as a writer and a critic it’s the best place to be.

And another thing. If you have time to read more than three Canadian books read Connor’s The Foreigner (1909), Stead’s Grain (1926) and Wiseman’s Crackpot (1974), you know, so I have somebody to talk to, about them. Because maybe they didn’t always get it, Connor and Stead in particular, but these three writers were some of the first to actually write about Winnipeg and Manitoba. They tried to get at what it meant to live here, in the donut hole. Like Adele Wiseman’s prostitute heroine, Hoda, who goes down to Winnipeg’s City Hall to check herself for infectious diseases:

Have you ever noticed that motto up front? I mean what’s written up on that big fancy shield, right in the centre of the building, up over the front doors. You know, like, our city motto. You don’t even know your own city motto? What kind of citizen are you? I know it all right. I ought to. It say, ‘Commerce, Prudence, Industry.’ That’s my motto too, in fact. I figure if it’s good enough for my home town, it’s good enough for me. Commerce? Any time you like. Prudence? What do you think I’m doing here with the bottle? Industry? Hell, I ain’t had no complaints yet. I figure I’m a model citizen. What I want to know is where does it get me? Ten-twelve years ago, believe it or not, I was sitting here just like this, holding my sample and waiting for the doctor to tell me what a beautiful specimen I got. And here I am still sitting with the bottle. Instead of those pictures they have on that shield up there, that nobody looks at anyway, you know, the sheaf of wheat and the buffalo and stuff, they should pay me to go sit up there, just like I am now, or maybe in my bareskin, on a bench, holding the bottle in my lap. People would look then all right. Yeh.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 7, 2012 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    I’m suspicious of this post-national label myself. My own work has to do with a kind of alternate universe Weimar Republic, but I am from Canada and that is bound to influence my work whether I write about Canada or not.

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Barbara Romanik

Barbara Romanik’s collection of short fiction, 10 Things To Ask Yourself In Warsaw, was published in 2009, to acclaim everywhere except the Calgary Herald. And f*** them anyway.