Whose Canada Is This?

Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

Canadian exceptionalism still thrives despite overwhelming evidence of ongoing systemic racism, settler-colonialism, and environmental disregard, among others; recent events include Indigenous pipeline protests, BLM demonstrations, and the discovery of over 1,300 unmarked graves around former residential schools. Morra and Henzi’s collection On the Other Side(s) of 150 and Ghadery’s acclaimed debut memoir Fuse counter this official meta-narrative by highlighting patterns of exclusion within Canadian society and its institutions. Side(s) problematizes Canada 150 through an assemblage of critical essays, counter-memories, and revisitings of national myths, foregrounding untold or unheard voices and concerns (gendered, racialized, LGBTQ2S+, anti-capitalist, environmental, from religious minorities or relegated genres . . . ). In a similar vein, Fuse navigates the intricacies of Ghadery’s Iranian and British heritage and underscores how mainstream Canadian culture excludes bodies and identities that do not fit its narrow preconceptions, resulting in a “prevalence of eating disorders and body image issues among biracial women” (xi). The covers of both books coincidentally represent figures with partially hidden faces, conveying opposite yet related meanings. While Side(s) symbolically drips red “paint” onto a portrait of John A. MacDonald (reminiscent of the splattering and dismantling of colonial statues like his), the black silhouette of a woman on the cover of Fuse seems to dream about a lush garden in an Iranian mosaic, a place free of boundaries and hate.


The offshoot of the 2017 Dublin conference “Untold Stories of The Past 150 Years,” Side(s) takes the sesquicentennial celebrations as an opportunity to re-evaluate Canadian master narratives as hegemonic discourse striving to feign historical continuity, re-inscribe the myth of Canada as a peaceful multicultural nation, and manufacture consent. Based on a body of commemoration studies, this award-winning collection exposes the role of social memory and “affiliated rituals” in naturalizing a model of Canadian identity and citizenship whose colonial heteropatriarchal underpinnings go largely unquestioned—in addition to producing a version of Canada which is easily consumable by tourists. Accordingly, the “other side(s)” of the title evoke both the underbelly of Canada 150 and the multiplicity of scholarly, artistic, and personal perspectives, eschewing binary thinking and the “two founding nations” trope.


Stressing the lack of definite answers, this collection offers several entry points and strategies for deconstructing Canadian myths, questioning “what remains untold or obscured” (11) and examining the interrelationships between present concerns and any (re)telling of the past. Noteworthy examples include the hidden history of wartime German internment camps and of slavery in Nova Scotia as well as the many competing versions of Louis Riel as cultural icon from which the real man is absent. Aware that the dominant cultural discourse—notably CanLit as institution—instrumentalizes the production of BIPOC artists among others, Morra and Henzi are preoccupied with the ethics of responsibility, good allyship, and interrogating one’s own potential complicity—what contributor Libe García Zarranz calls “response-ability.” Accordingly, the collection is framed by Indigenous authors stressing the need to recover Indigenous stories (such as residential school memoirs from the 1970s and the censored passage from Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed about her rape by a policeman) and to read them through Indigenous epistemologies, as epitomized by contributor Deanna Reder’s work with the First Voices, First Texts series.


Fuse uses a complementary angle, the coming-of-age memoir, to broach the triply taboo theme of biracial women’s mental health. Ghadery had originally planned to write about eating disorders (EDs) as manifesting “the conflicts and uncertainties surrounding the biracial female body and identity,” but needed to contextualize this issue within broader social ones and within her personal history as the daughter of a Euro-Canadian mother and a father from imperial Iran (xi). Organized by thematic connection rather than chronological order, the fifteen chapters have a digressive, musing quality that reflects this entanglement and Ghadery’s experience of mental illness as “the battered and inarticulate self” (xii). The result is a layered, incisive analysis interweaving self-reflection, social commentary, pop culture references, family dynamics, and research. Thus, Ghadery juxtaposes the skinniness of Hollywood’s Wonder Woman with the painting of a muscular dark-skinned Amazon she saw as a child. Elsewhere, she criticizes a study on biracial identity due to its omission of gender and its reference to self-acceptance, which might connote compliance.


Fuse is a gripping testimony about the toll of split allegiances, gendered double binds, and conflicting cultural expectations. One is struck by the amount of scrutiny, stereotyping, and crude remarks Ghadery experiences growing up, from casual gendered racism at school to her father’s controlling misogyny to her family’s criticism of her appearance. With excruciating candour, she details the process through which her internalized belief that she could never be good enough led to lasting issues with OCD, EDs, addiction, and self-harm. However, she writes in a spirit of compassion: as she raises her own children while recovering, she grows more accepting of her parents’ mistakes (the dedication means I love you in Farsi) and fears that readers might judge them. Beyond this, she writes to “make people feel less alone,” whether from dealing with racism, mental health struggles, or stigmatization as “bad parents” (“Hollay Ghadery”). An author on the “Surviving ED” blog, she speaks out because silence and shame are slowly killing people. Ultimately, her message is hopeful, as she believes multiracial people “are afforded the chance to experience humanity as it should be: undivided” (167).


To conclude, the messages of both books have grown even more urgent in the COVID context. The pandemic has exposed the ways in which some experiences and lives matter more than others, as denounced by Mbembe’s necropolitics and Butler’s grievability. The limits of mental health are also more obvious than ever, with eating and anxiety disorders dramatically on the rise. Hopefully, the recent Global Mental Health Summit and the growing awareness of social fractures are steps towards heeding these calls for a more empathetic world.


Works Cited

—. “The Hollay Gadhery Interview.” With James M. Fisher, Miramichi Reader, 8 Nov. 2021, miramichireader.ca/2021/11/the-hollay-ghadery-interview/.

This review “Whose Canada Is This?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 255 (2023): 173-175.

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