Bentley puts Canadian identity in the spotlight

English and Writing Studies professor David Bentley reacts during a conversation following his address in the President’s Lecture Series on Wednesday in the Paul Davenport Theatre.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsEnglish and Writing Studies professor David Bentley reacts during a conversation following his address in the President’s Lecture Series on Wednesday in the Paul Davenport Theatre.

Is Canada a cultural mosaic? Can it be likened to a tossed salad? An apple dangling from a tree, waiting to fall into the hands of its American neighbours? Or perhaps, as the late comedian Robin Williams once said, Canada is a loft apartment above a really great party. Or, maybe, Canada is a nice apartment, situated above a meth lab.

Whatever category the Canadian identity falls into, it falls there on account of metaphors and similes long engrained in the formation of our country, said Western English professor David Bentley.

On Wednesday, Bentley, the 2015 winner of the Killam Prize, delivered the second address in the President’s Lecture Series, Simile, Metaphor, and the Making and Perception of Canada, to a packed audience in the Paul Davenport Theatre.

During the talk, he discussed the nascence of Canada and its arrival as a nation unto itself as events that transpired on account of metaphors and similes that reflected the perception of Canada – at home, abroad and south of the border.

At the heart of metaphor, Bentley said, is a congruency that shows similarity and dissimilarity between two subjects. Canada’s identity, at the outset, was mapped on that of Britain, he explained, and our nation – a Commonwealth nation – while different in its own respect retained a reflection of its dominion state. Consider London, Ont., for instance.

By 1845, London, Ont., boasted a bridge dignified with the names Blackfriars and Wellington, “and in due course, it would have its Covent Garden Market, Oxford Street, Highbury Avenue and Mayfair Drive. The transferred names could almost fill a phone book, and, in fact do,” Bentley said.

He reminded the audience of a 19th century characterization of Canada as Aesop’s bundle of sticks – weak on its own, but strong once united through Confederation. He brought up the metaphor of Canada as the shield of Achilles, surrounded by a blue rim of ocean, used by Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Father of the Confederation, during a speech in the Legislative Assembly in May 1860, during which he said:

I see within the round of that shield, the peaks of the Western mountains and the crests of the Eastern waves, the winding Assinaboine, the five-fold lakes, the St. Lawrence, the Ottawa, the Saguenay, the St. John and the Basin of Minas. By all these flowing waters, in all the valleys they fertilize, in all the cities they visit in their courses, I see a generation of industrious, contented, moral men, free in name and, in fact, men capable of maintaining, in peace and in war, a Constitution worthy of such a country.

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From its beginnings, the formation of Canada and the Canadian identity relied on the creative, inventive and figurative. And it still does, to this day, Bentley added.

“It would be a mistake to overestimate the part played in that work by the similes and metaphors discussed here, but there can surely be little doubt that, by giving vivid, affective and memorable expression to an abstraction, the ‘bundle of sticks’ and the ‘shield of Achilles’ caught the attention of Canadians and helped to open their minds and hearts to the idea of Confederation,” he explained.

“If there is a lesson to be learned from political tropes examined here it is that to exist, communities and nations need to be envisaged imaginatively. But, a final thought and question: Is Canada not still a metaphorical country, a ‘bundle of sticks’ still waiting to be ‘well united,’ a ‘shield of Achilles’ still in the process of being forged?”

His talk was followed by a post-lecture conversation moderated by Paul Kennedy, host of CBC Radio’s Ideas. Bentley was joined on stage by English professor and department chair Bryce Traister and Western English alumna Liz Nash, to discuss the importance and relevance of the imaginative life and an education devoted to the arts and humanities.

In April, Bentley became only the fifth Killam Prize winner at Western, and the most recent winner since Economics professor John Whalley won in 2012. Other Western winners include Engineering professors Alan Davenport (1993) and Maurice Bergiougnou (1999) and Robarts Research Institute founder Henry Barnett (1988).

In academia and beyond, Bentley is credited with broadening and enriching the understanding and awareness of Canadian literature and culture across Canada, and around the world. A nationally acclaimed teacher and leading scholar of Canadian literature and culture, he founded, and is continuing editor of, Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, Canadian Poetry Press and Canadian Poetry: An Electronic Resource.

Western’s President’s Lecture Series showcases personalities of national and international prominence from the realms of academia, politics, civil service, business and the arts as a means to engaging the campus and broader community in meaningful public discourse on a wide range of important topics. It was established and hosted by President Amit Chakma earlier this year. In February, Stephen Poloz, PhD’82 (Economics), Governor of the Bank of Canada, delivered the inaugural address.