Cultural Trends

A Likely Story: The “Diversity” Myth Consumes the Canadian Literary Scene

Bob Armstrong
March 2, 2024
If a given minority is believed to have almost no presence in a particular industry or sector, that might suggest some bias at work. Certainly worth looking into, and potentially trying to rectify. But what if widespread misunderstanding of the essential numbers is distorting public perceptions? And what if the leaders and financiers of said industry – in this case, Canadian literature – are deeply invested in advancing a false narrative? Deciding to find out what is really going on in the world of Canadian books, Winnipeg-based novelist Bob Armstrong painstakingly charted the personal demographics of hundreds of Canadian writers and matched those data against their performance in a range of Canadian literary awards, promotional programs and festivals. His findings did not exactly advance a narrative of oppression.
Cultural Trends

A Likely Story: The “Diversity” Myth Consumes the Canadian Literary Scene

Bob Armstrong
March 2, 2024
If a given minority is believed to have almost no presence in a particular industry or sector, that might suggest some bias at work. Certainly worth looking into, and potentially trying to rectify. But what if widespread misunderstanding of the essential numbers is distorting public perceptions? And what if the leaders and financiers of said industry – in this case, Canadian literature – are deeply invested in advancing a false narrative? Deciding to find out what is really going on in the world of Canadian books, Winnipeg-based novelist Bob Armstrong painstakingly charted the personal demographics of hundreds of Canadian writers and matched those data against their performance in a range of Canadian literary awards, promotional programs and festivals. His findings did not exactly advance a narrative of oppression.
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Whether you call it wokism or sensitivity to diversity, equity and inclusion, there’s no doubt the growth of a particular ideology in Canada’s major institutions and organizations has made it onto virtually every person’s radar. Less visibly – but no less damagingly – this ideology has also clamped its grip on the Canadian literary scene. Consider the following (all-too-representative) statement: “We aim to ensure that our catalogue is reflective of an inclusive and multicultural Canada. We especially welcome work by Indigenous writers, writers of colour, LGBTQ2S+ writers, deaf and disabled writers, and women.” This is from the current submission guidelines for prospective authors at Book*hug Press, a small Toronto-based literary publishing house, famous in part for changing its named from Bookthug on the grounds that the second syllable was racist.

Maybe you will take it on faith that such statements form a necessary corrective after centuries of white, male, Eurocentric domination of Canadian literature. Or maybe you last paid attention to the nation’s book output in the days of Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat. You might also be unaware that “especially welcome” often signals a policy of deliberate racial (and gender-based) exclusion carried out by government-grant-receiving publishers and literary organizations.

In fact, the literary world today is awash in an ever-growing flood of diversity-focused mentorships, scholarships, awards, festivals, special editions of journals, publisher’s statements and committees, all of which seek to justify their actions by pointing to the (alleged and assumed) white, male dominance of the literary world.

When inclusive means excluding: The Canadian literary world is awash in diversity-focused mentorships, scholarships, awards and festivals meant to battle the assumed dominance of white males; the latest Journey Prize, Canada’s national short story award (top left), was open to black writers only.

Here are a few recent Canadian examples of what are meant to be necessary correctives to such systemic bias:

  • The 2022 version of Canada’s national short story award, the Journey Prize, was limited to black writers only (in a country where black people made up 4.3 percent of the population in 2021);
  • The Festival of Literary Diversity has emerged as one of Canada’s most well-funded and heavily publicized literary festivals, featuring only writers who are black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC), plus a few whites who are disabled or trans/non-binary. The festival’s founder and director has been a regular on CBC Radio’s national arts and culture shows for years;
  • Penguin Random House Canada recently announced it will accept unsolicited manuscripts – but only from BIPOC and LGBT+ authors. Venerable Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart also announced a special opening for unsolicited manuscripts as “part of our ongoing commitment to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and racialized writers”;
  • The Writers’ Union of Canada runs an Ontario Arts Council-funded conference called BIPOC Writers Connect, in which established BIPOC writers read manuscripts and offer advice on writing and grant applications to emerging BIPOC writers;
  • Diaspora Dialogues, a federally and provincially funded non-profit organization, has launched a new fellowship program restricted to women or non-binary BIPOC writers who are new immigrants or refugees. Based on profiles on the organization’s website, BIPOC writers, mostly women, make up a little over two-thirds of the 170 writers who have been mentored since the group’s founding in 2005;
  • VS Books, an imprint of Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press, only publishes BIPOC writers;
  • ECW Press, one of Canada’s most prominent independent publishers, has announced a mentorship program for BIPOC writers;
  • Children’s book publishers have instituted similar policies, with Annick Press launching a mentorship program for BIPOC writers, while Tundra Book Group is “only accepting” submissions from “underrepresented communities”, a practice mirrored at houses like KidsCan and Second Story, thereby explicitly excluding many established children’s book authors and illustrators, as detailed in this recent C2C essay;
  • Many Canadian literary journals (which receive most of their revenue from government agencies), including Prairie Fire, Grain, Room, The Fiddlehead, Prism International, The Malahat Review and CV2, have created special Indigenous or BIPOC issues, some of them more than once, despite, of course, running works by Indigenous and BIPOC writers in their regular issues; and
  • Atlantic Canada Publishers announced a writer-in-residence position in Halifax (12.2 percent BIPOC at last census) for BIPOC writers.

All of these actions are rationalized on the grounds that they are necessary to give excluded voices a chance to be heard. All are defended by prominent figures in the literary world – writers, academics, agents, editors – who still talk about the white, male CanLit canon as if the Canadian literary world hadn’t evolved since the 1950s, and who use this white, male domination as the reason for all of those special calls for Indigenous writers, writers of colour, women writers, LGBT writers and so on.

Perhaps this is in part because Canadians, like their American neighbours, overestimate how many people of colour there are in their country. In 2013, the Center for American Progress and the Rockefeller Foundation released a study that showed Americans on average estimated that people of colour (including Latinos) made up 49 percent of the U.S. population, when the actual figure was 37 percent. In 2001, Gallup found that on average, Americans estimated that 33 percent of the U.S. population was black, when the census showed the actual proportion to be 12.5 percent (it’s currently 13 percent).

This distorted perception is likely even greater in Canada where, according to the 2021 census, visible minorities and Indigenous people combined made up just over 30 percent of the population, compared to only 15 percent as recently as 1996, according to Statistics Canada. If you think Group X makes up a much larger share of the population than it actually does, seeing that group represented in proportion to its true share of the population would look like under-representation. This still doesn’t explain, however, why Canadians might see CanLit as traditionally male, given that it emerged into prominence in the 1960s and ’70s with Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro as standard-bearers.

Proportional misperceptions: According to Canada’s 2021 census, “visible” minorities made up just over 30 percent of Canada’s population, an increase from the 13 percent estimated for 1991; if people think a group makes up a bigger share of the population than it actually does, it’s easy to assume it is underrepresented in various activities and occupations. (Source of pie-charts: Wikipedia)

It is taken as given that the Canadian literary establishment continues to teach, publish, promote and reward white, male writers at the expense of women and Indigenous and visible minority writers. For years, I’ve been reading essays with titles like “The Unbearable Whiteness of Canadian Literature” (an actual headline used by The Walrus, the magazine that strives to be Canada’s New Yorker) and feeling that this vision is sharply disconnected from the reality of what gets published and promoted today.

So, armed with not a penny in government research funding, I recently did some research. First, I calculated the ratios of white to BIPOC writers and male to female writers among those shortlisted for the annual Giller Prize, Canada’s most high-profile literary award, which began in 1992. I performed the same calculations for writers featured on CBC’s Canada Reads, the nation’s most high-profile book promotion, on the air since 2002. This was aimed at providing a snapshot of Canada’s most successful writers of the last three decades. I also examined a sample of the lists of writers participating in literary festivals and who were featured in a selection of CBC “Writers to Watch” articles over the last few years. This was done in order to see whether the literary establishment is displaying biases right now.

Literary misperceptions: It’s strange that Canadian literature is still thought to be dominated by males (particularly, white males) when “CanLit” emerged to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s largely thanks to Margaret Laurence (left), Margaret Atwood (middle) and Alice Munro (right). (Sources of photos: (left) Dave Buchan/Vancouver Sun; (right) John Reeves, Library and Archives Canada, 1980-194 NPC, e008295854-v6)

Here’s what I found.

The five or six books shortlisted for the Giller Prize each year have been fairly evenly divided between men (72) and women (81). White writers (120) appear at first glance somewhat over-represented relative to BIPOC writers (38), if you don’t consider Canada’s shifting demographics since 1992. The 32 percent of Giller shortlist positions occupied by BIPOC writers since 1992 should be compared to the BIPOC share of the Canadian population over time, which was about 14 percent when the Giller began and just over 30 percent at the 2021 census. It is therefore hard to discern either a male or a white bias in the Giller Prize. It’s worth noting as well that 14 BIPOC writers have won the Giller outright over the 32-year study period, a 44 percent showing that gives BIPOC nominees a much better batting average than the others.

Turning to Canada Reads, in the 23 seasons since it debuted in 2002 (including the upcoming event in March 2024), it has achieved almost a perfect 50/50 male/female split – 58 men, 57 women. As for the racial breakdown, BIPOC writers are substantially over-represented relative to Canada’s current population, getting about 48 percent of 115 spots in the annual battle of the books.

I’m confident the Giller Prize and Canada Reads are not anomalies and that, especially for the last decade, many other institutions in literary culture would show a similar or even more marked tendency. I recall in 2018 when the five-book shortlist for the City of Toronto Book Prize was 100 percent comprised of BIPOC writers and this was hailed in one headline as “diverse”. As if there is no diversity of insight or experience among the other 43 percent of Torontonians (based on demographics in this Toronto census backgrounder).

It might be argued that the make-up of two prominent awards doesn’t indicate the publishing industry as a whole lacks a pro-white-male bias. But it seems improbable that Canada’s leading literary gatekeepers – editors, publishers and prominent authors – would continue to exercise such a bias in their day-to-day work, such as when selecting manuscripts for publication, but then set it aside when sitting on award juries and handing out prizes that make writers famous and help them get further ahead.

Arguably a more relevant issue than what the past 30 years have looked like is examining which kinds of writers are being published today. And perhaps more importantly, of those who are being published, which writers have the promotional resources of their publishers placed at their disposal to give them a chance at meaningful sales?

To gauge these questions, I counted the comparative numbers of male/female and white/BIPOC writers at four randomly selected literary festivals: Ottawa and Vancouver in 2019, and Eden Mills (near Guelph, Ontario) and Winnipeg in 2020. I did the same with two “Writers to Watch” articles for each of 2018, 2019 and 2020 published on the CBC Books website. Such preview pieces, common on literary media and important for building awareness of new books, are a gauge of which new releases have had the most marketing support from their publishers.

The Vancouver festival featured 108 writers: 61 women, three trans/non-binary and 44 men. Of those 108 writers, 62 (57 percent) were white and 46 (43 percent) were BIPOC. The Ottawa festival was 58 percent female and 35 percent BIPOC. The Eden Mills festival was 61 percent female and 39 percent BIPOC, while the Winnipeg writers’ festival was 50 percent female and 33 percent BIPOC. (The Winnipeg racial tally was skewed somewhat by a contingent of Francophone writers, all but one of whom was white. Among Anglophone writers at the 2020 Winnipeg festival, 39 percent were BIPOC). This evidence suggests that, at Canadian writers’ festivals, women and BIPOC writers are represented in numbers greater than their share of the population.

The story was little different in CBC Books’ “Writers to Watch” pieces. Looking at two of these per year for three years, I came up with a total of 74 books by men versus 124 by women getting this kind of valuable advance promotion, and 133 by white authors versus 86 by BIPOC authors. So, a 40 percent share for BIPOC writers and a 63 percent share for women.

You may have recoiled a little at the idea that I spent many hours googling hundreds of individual writers in order to count and classify them by gender and racial category. Me too. I’m appalled that I found it necessary to do this in order to statistically evaluate and (depending on what I found) either confirm or counter the narrative of ongoing white, male hegemony in current Canadian literary circles.

What might lie behind the Canadian literary world’s insistence on continuing to fight a battle that appears to have been long since won?

At one level, the publishing industry is chasing a market. There’s no denying that some of the biggest sales successes in Canada in recent years have been books on racism and racial identity, written by BIPOC writers. Publishers and agents, aware of the reported 800,000 worldwide sales for Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel The Book of Negroes, the 250,000 copies of Michelle Good’s 2020 novel Five Little Indians, and the 100,000 copies of Cherie Dimaline’s young-adult science fiction novel The Marrow Thieves may be hoping for the next big Canadian hit.

A battle won: Some of Canada’s most successful books in recent years, such as Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians and Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, were written by BIPOC writers on the topics of racism and racial identity.

In this, they are assisted by the growth of “decolonization” and related movements in the educational sector. School systems are a not insignificant source of book sales and actions such as the Peel District School Board’s mass culling of books published before 2008 create demand for works to fill those newly empty shelves. There’s a large market for didactic literature, like Good’s novel, that teaches a lesson on racism, residential schools or reconciliation.

Most books don’t become bestsellers, though, and most Canadian authors aren’t published by the Canadian operations of the big international publishers, but with small independents: ECW, Coach House, Arsenal Pulp, House of Anansi and a constellation of smaller regional companies. For these publishers, book sales aren’t even necessarily the most important source of revenue. These businesses benefit from a variety of Canadian cultural funding programs offered by the federal, provincial and even municipal governments. For them, meeting or exceeding diversity goals is a good way to show that they’re on side with the lofty rhetoric of cultural funding bodies. Diversity (or “diversity”) keeps the funding taps open; satisfying their donors has become their business model, or at least a big part of it. That goes double for literary journals, for many writers an essential stepping stone to getting a book published. Literary journals are almost entirely dependent on government funding.

When you add up all the available grants, the total is not insignificant. One of the major supports is the Canada Book Fund, currently set at $39 million per year, $30 million of which is divided among about 125 small and mid-sized publishers. In addition, the literary arts in 2022-23 received $41 million of the $360 million budget of the Canada Council for the Arts (Canada’s largest arts-funding body), with funds for literary organizations like journals and festivals as well as highly competitive grants of up to $30,000 for individual writers. Add to that funds from the various provincial or municipal arts-funding bodies, such as the Manitoba Arts Council, which dispenses a small portion of its 2022-23 grant total of $11 million to organizations and individuals in the literary arts.

Still, it’s important to acknowledge that running a small Canadian publishing house or literary journal is a labour of love rather than a luxurious ride on a government gravy train. The total government funding for Canada’s literary arts probably amounts to something over $100 million per year, supporting several thousand modestly paid individuals – barely a rounding error in the estimated $37 billion planned in government incentives to attract three electric vehicle battery plants to Canada. And an incredible bargain to help keep the literary world aboard the “diversity” bandwagon.

Following the money: For many publishers, book sales are not the most important source of revenue; they instead rely on government-funded cultural programs and need to stay aboard the “diversity” bandwagon to keep the funding taps open. (Source of photo: Drop of Light/Shutterstock)

You may not worry much about the plight of straight white guys in Canadian literature. But people like me may not be the only ones disadvantaged. The emphasis placed on racial and gender identity by literary gatekeepers may force BIPOC writers themselves to limit their vision to the most obvious “identity” perspectives, leading to a parade of trauma and victimhood narratives, stripped of complexity and nuance. The recent film American Fiction, based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, satirizes this phenomenon, depicting a black professor and author of serious literary fiction who becomes so frustrated at the success of a novel filled with “ghetto” clichés that he writes an even worse, and more clichéd, novel. When he sends it off under a pseudonym as an angry joke to his agent, it becomes a hit.

I am not calling for contracts, publicity and awards to be given out on a demographically proportional basis. Women buy more books than men, so it’s no surprise if more women want to write and there’s no injustice in the industry catering to women’s interests when it comes to signing and promoting authors. The experience of being in a racial or cultural minority might be more likely to inspire people to become writers – witness the flowering of American Jewish literature in the 20th century. The desire to write and the talent to do it very well make for a rare combination and we can’t expect that combination to show up by quota. Maybe the “disproportionate” results I see are purely innocent, based on the merit of authors and the demands of the marketplace.

Unintended consequences? CanLit’s growing obsession with racial and gender identity by literary gatekeepers may pressure BIPOC authors to limit their vision to victimhood and trauma narratives; the novel Erasure, recently made into the film American Fiction (right), satirized this phenomenon. (Source of right screenshot: MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Except that they are accompanied by countless indicators of a literary culture that is working to create much more disproportionate results in the future, once all those current beneficiaries of race-based emerging writer awards and mentorships are ready to move into positions of literary leadership. If literary gatekeepers – the publishers, editors, conference organizers and the like behind those exclusionary measures I referred to above – are going to use race-based criteria to bar the majority of the nation’s population from many of their programs and publications, there had better be compelling evidence to justify those measures.

But the success of BIPOC writers over the last two or three decades, and especially in the last five years, suggests that these extraordinary measures are not justified. Remember, books promoted between 2018 and 2020 were written and landed publishing deals before the affirmative action initiatives I listed above, and yet BIPOC writers already managed to be moderately over-represented in Canadian literary circles. (And that some of these measures target women generally because they’ve been excluded from Canadian literature is so preposterous as to be laughable.)

But far from easing off the affirmative action, the people piloting the good ship CanLit are pushing the throttle harder. Jesse Wente, “chairperson” of the Canada Council, in an interview with the Toronto Star called the institution he headed a “colonial” organization and described his mission as reducing the harm it causes to Indigenous, black and other communities. Given that this is the man who campaigned to destroy the career of author Hal Niedzviecki over an awkwardly worded call for writers to bridge cultures (the so-called Appropriation Prize kerfuffle of 2017), we can guess what this might mean.

In my own province of Manitoba, the government-funded arts council recently announced a new set of “strategic priorities” focused on equity, diversity, reconciliation and projects that “build communities.” The money quote in this document: “Refine program assessment criteria that favour a Eurocentric concept of excellence to instead focus on impact.”

Pushing the throttle: Canada Council chair Jesse Wente (top) calls the institution he runs a “colonial” organization and has vowed to reduce the alleged harm it does to minority groups; Wente campaigned to destroy the career of writer Hal Niedzviecki (bottom) over an awkwardly worded call for writers to bridge cultures. (Sources of photos: (top) Joanna Eldredge Morrissey; (bottom) CBC)

What could possibly be done when so many publishers, agents, editors, academics, prominent authors and funding bodies are pushing harder than ever for identity-based affirmative action? A change in the federal government, which seems likely, might bring in new leadership at Canadian Heritage and the Canada Council that is less sympathetic to race-based program criteria. So the next federal election may put the brakes on some of these measures.

Perhaps more significantly, though, we may be able to count on boredom and frustration among readers and writers who are tiring of literature becoming a mere subsidiary branch of the greater social justice movement. How many Canadian Percival Everetts are there who are just as tired of trauma narratives as the protagonist of American Fiction? And how many book buyers have grown tired of being told again and again that equity and diversity are good and racism is bad?

It will be, admittedly, a steep and long mountain to climb. If you look up Canadian writers online, increasingly you find that they define themselves immediately in racial terms, whether they are black or white, Asian or Indigenous or any combination. Often, the writer will include a health diagnosis of some sort, especially in cases where there’s no other potential affirmative action hook: “Jane Smith is a settler of mixed Finnish and Irish ancestry living with long Covid and bipolar disorder on the unceded lands of the Anishinaabe.” Perhaps a culture that encourages writers to view themselves as individuals first and group members second would be more likely to produce the kind of exciting, unpredictable literature that encourages readers to shell out cash and turn the page.

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg-based novelist. His last novel, Prodigies, was published in the United States by Five Star/Gale after Canadian publishers and agents turned it down, going on to win the 2021 Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. Armstrong previously wrote a weekly book news column for the Winnipeg Free Press for 12 years.

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