Long before the vast region that is now Canada was explored and settled by Europeans, it was home to a number of aboriginal peoples. Each group had its own culture and language, but the groups were similar in some ways. Like aboriginal tribes in other parts of the world, they had stories about the creation of the world and humanity, their natural surroundings, and animals that behaved like humans and, in some cases, actually became human beings. One of the common elements in these tribal stories was the inclusion of a trickster figure, whose function was to add suspense and humor to narratives.
How and when orally transmitted aboriginal stories became literature, which by definition means something that has been written down, is difficult to determine. Although the Canadian aboriginal peoples depended primarily on the oral transmission of their cultural heritage, contemporary observers reported that some tribes recorded texts on wampum or in hieroglyphic letters inscribed on birch bark. The first alphabetical transcriptions and translations of the poetry of the Canadian aboriginal peoples can be found in letters written by Jesuit missionaries and British and French military officers to their friends in Europe. The Jesuit missionaries taught their own writing system to aboriginal children.
In the late nineteenth century, Tekahionwake (1861-1913), a First Nations poet, became famous for English-language poems about her culture. The daughter of a Mohawk chief and his English wife, Emily Pauline Johnson, she was one of the most popular writers of the period. Between 1892 and 1910, she made several reading tours of Canada, the United States, and England, often wearing native dress. Her most famous book was the poetry collection Flint and Feather (1912).
More than half a century passed before poems by an aboriginal author about the heritage of the First Nations, the Inuit, or the Métis again became popular. The chapbook Sweetgrass (1971) contained poems by three Métis writers. It was followed by such works as Okanagan Indian Poems and Short Stories (1974) and Wisdom of Indian Poetry (1976). The Mi’kmaq-Canadian Rita Joe (1932-2007) published her first volume, Poems of Rita Joe (1978). Among the other poets to gain prominence during the following decades were Jeannette Armstrong (born 1948), Beth Cuthand (born 1949), and Daniel David Moses (born 1952). Although their works consistently reflect their dedication to preserving their cultural heritage, they also deal with contemporary issues, ranging from the status of Native women to social and political injustices both in Canada and elsewhere in the world.
Early francophone poetry
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French established settlements in Nova Scotia and in Quebec. In 1713, most of the area in Nova Scotia, which was known as Acadia, was turned over to the British, but the French held onto the rest of their settlements in Canada until the fall of Quebec in 1759. With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, England took over New France. However, many of the people in the Maritime Provinces and most of the natives of Quebec continue to speak and write in French. The nationalistic fervor of the 1960’s impelled those who lived there to insist on being called Québécois, leaving the label “French Canadian” for the French-speaking Canadians in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the western provinces. In this essay, however, the authors of francophone works will be referred to by the more general term.
The earliest French Canadian works to appear were written by travelers and missionaries and published in France. However, after a printing press was established in Quebec in 1764, bilingual and French-language newspapers appeared. They published poems by such writers as the French dramatist Joseph Quesnel (1746-1809). In 1830, Michel Bibaud (1782-1857) published the first book of French Canadian poetry, Épîtres, satire, chansons, épigrammes et autres pièces en vers (epistles, satire, songs, epigrams, and other...
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