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Art and culture

Canadian culture is rooted in a blend of British, French, and Aboriginal traditions, and influenced by successive waves of emigration. American media and entertainment dominate, but various federal government programs and laws attempt to support Canadian cultural initiatives. The federally funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) provides country-wide television and radio coverage; the National Film Board provides funding and distribution support for film; and other federally funded programs support art, music and dance.


Native Expressions

Over centuries, Canada’s indigenous peoples have developed diverse modes of artistic expression that bear witness to their distinctive lifestyles and beliefs. Since the aboriginal peoples were generally nomadic, little remains of their prehistoric art. However, petroglyphs, or carvings on rock, found in various sites in British Columbia and Ontario are as much as 5,000 years old. The remains of totem poles and stone and bone carvings discovered in sites along the West Coast date back to 500BC. Decorated with representations of animals and geometric designs, Iroquoian pottery dating from 900-1600AD has been unearthed in Ontario and Quebec.

Traditional Art

Most Algonquian-speaking aboriginals (notably Abenaki, Algonquin, Cree, Mi’kmaq, Montagnais and Naskapi) are descended from nomadic peoples, who excelled in the art of beadwork (shell, bone, rock or seed) and embroideries (porcupine quills and moose or caribou hair). Caribou-hide vests and moccasins and various birchbark objects were often adorned with geometric incisions and drawings. Elaborate belts of wampum (beads made from shells) feature motifs illustrating significant events in native history. Wampum was exchanged at peace ceremonies and during the signing of treaties. The smaller, quasi-sedentary, Iroquoian-speaking groups included Hurons, Mohawks, Onondagas and Senecas. As agricultural societies, they formed semipermanent villages and constructed multifamily dwellings known as longhouses; out of their sedentary lifestyle evolved an artistic repertoire free from the constraints of nomadism. Among their most beautiful works are exquisite moosehair embroideries that gradually began incorporating floral motifs under European influence. Wooden masks known as false faces represented mythological figures associated with traditional healing practices. The native peoples of the Plains, such as the Assiniboine, Blackfoot and Cree, painted their teepees, robes of bison and rawhide containers with everyday motifs; the horse quickly became an important icon in their decoration.

The art of the Northwest Coast cultures is unlike any other in North America. Having leisure time, they developed a creative expression unequalled on the continent north of Mexico. Tall tree trunks were chiselled with designs of birds, animals, humans and mythological creatures and raised as totem poles . Their purpose varied: sometimes they were functional, serving as house corner posts; sometimes decorative, serving as the entrance to a house (a hole was made at the bottom of the pole); other times they were memorials to deceased relatives. The golden age of carving was 1850 to 1900, after the introduction of metal tools by Europeans. Haida carvers often worked in argillite, a shiny, black slatelike rock, creating miniature figures of animals and humans, totem poles and pipes.

Contemporary Works

Native art has undergone a profound transformation in recent years. Whereas artists traditionally relied on the use of natural materials such as hide and bark, today they are experimenting with canvas, acrylics, charcoal and other new media; consequently, innovative techniques have emerged, although inspiration is still drawn from social and cultural traditions. The result is a fresh, contemporary vision of aboriginal art that keeps alive the memory of the past.

Three major schools prevail in contemporary native art: Woodlands, West Coast and Inuit. Woodland artists in eastern Canada have been influenced by the iconographic style of Ojibwa Norval Morrisseau in the 1970s, in particular his renderings of mythological creatures. His contemporaries Odawa artist Daphne Odjig and Cree artist Carl Ray (1943-78) further evolved Morrisseau’s style through personal interpretation. Hailed as the country’s first native modernist, Alex Janvier, also a Morrisseau contemporary, forged a unique style. The elegant but spare representations of birds and animals by Benjamin Chee Chee (1944-77) are widely imitated. On the West Coast, a resurgence of Haida art was begun in the late 1950s under the leadership of famed artist Bill Reid (1920-98). Reid achieved worldwide recognition as the popularizer of his ancestral Haida artistic style, to which he brought modern design sensibilities and savvy. Raven and the First Men, a large carving in yellow cedar, is considered his masterpiece. The Haida style has been continued in the works of master carver Robert Davidson and his brother Reg Davidson .

Inuit Art

Art forms developed over centuries have brought no small renown to the inhabitants of North America’s Arctic regions.


The earliest known artifacts produced by the Inuit are small stone projectile points attributed to the Pre-Dorset and Dorset cultures in the first millennium BC. Petroglyphs attributed to these cultures have been found in the steatite (soapstone) hills of Kangiqsujuaq in Nunavik. The Thule people, generally considered to be the ancestors of the present-day Inuit, crafted small objects including combs and figurines; these early artifacts were generally associated with religious beliefs.

Beginning in the 19C, many miniature sculptures made of stone, ivory (walrus tusks) and whalebone were traded for staples such as salt and firearms, provided by Europeans. With the decline of traditional lifestyles resulting from increased contact with nonindigenous peoples, sculpture and other forms of arts and crafts gradually lost their magic or religious significance and provided a new source of income to the Inuit population.

Inuit Art Today

The term “Inuit art” evokes images of stone carvings. Abundant in the northern regions, soapstone is a soft rock ranging from greyish green to brown. Other harder rocks commonly used include green serpentine, argillite, dolomite and quartz. Modern Inuit sculptures, which can reach impressive dimensions, represent local fauna, life in the great northern regions and other arctic themes. Printmaking, sculpted caribou antlers, rock engravings and tapestries are other common art forms in the Arctic.

The most renowned centres for Inuit sculpture are the villages of Povungnituk, Inukjuak, Salluit and Ivujivik in the Nunavik region of Quebec, and Cape Dorset, Iqaluit and Pangnirtung in the territory of Nunavut. Three artists who had a profound effect on the development of Inuit sculpture are Nunavik’s Joe Talirunili (1893-1976), Davidialuk (1910-76) and Charlie Sivuarapik (1911-68). Among the foremost sculptors of the current generation are Joanassie and Peter Ittukalak from Povungnituk, and Eli Elijassiapik, Lukassie Echaluk and Abraham Pov of Inukjuak. Nunavut’s best-known carvers include Osoetuk Ipeelie, Kiawak Ashoona and Pauta Saila, all from Cape Dorset.

Inuit prints, in general, illustrate the animals, legends and traditions of the North in a highly decorative, two-dimensional style. Cape Dorset artists Kenojuak Ashevak and Lucy Qinnuayuak are well known, especially for their depiction of birds. Printmakers from Baker Lake exhibit highly individualistic styles and include artists William Noah and Simon Toookoome.

Painting and Sculpture


The arrival of French and British colonists in the early 17C introduced European aesthetics and forms to the artistic landscape. Religion dominated life in what was then New France; thus, church decoration was the focus of early Canadian art. Paintings and statuary were first imported from France, but craftsmen were soon trained locally. Decorative arts for use in the liturgy flourished; prominent sculptors of the time included brothers Noël Levasseur and Pierre-Noël Levasseur, who were commissioned to decorate ships of the French navy, as well as churches. In Quebec three generations of the Baillairgé family were widely recognized for their exquisite wood sculptures and church decoration in general. After the British victory on the Plains of Abraham (1759), religious art declined and nonreligious painting gained prominence. Artists, primarily European-trained, began producing works that focused on such popular subjects as landscapes and, above all, portraits, commissioned by an emerging and wealthy bourgeoisie. The best known among these artists is Antoine Plamondon (1802-1895), who also painted religious themes (Portrait of Sister Saint-Alphonse, 1841).

Art was the means of depicting topography. British army officers were sent to Quebec to paint topographic views of the colony for military purposes. Some of these works, inspired by the romantic ideals of late 18C England, are best exemplified by the carefully executed watercolours of officer Thomas Davies (1737-1812).


Secular art blossomed in the early 19C with such works as William Berczy’s (1744-1813) Neoclassical painting The Woolsey Family and his portrait of Mohawk chief Joseph Brant. The expanding middle class wanted portraits of themselves. their pets and horses—as well as their pastimes and business ventures. Robert Clow Todd (1809-1866) was commissioned by the Gilmour family to paint its shipyards ( Wolfe’s Cove, Québec, 1840), for example.

Throughout the 19C, the arrival of European artists had a decisive impact on Canadian painting. Paul Kane (1810-71), born in Ireland, came to Canada as a child. He travelled the country extensively; his detailed portraits of native peoples ( The Death of Omoxesisixany c.1856) are of significant historical interest today. Dutch-born Cornelius Kreighoff (1815-72) captured colourful French Canadian rural life in unprecedented detail in The Habitant Farm (1856) and other paintings. He is known for his superb landscapes and scenes of daily life in the Montreal region.

By the mid-19C Montreal had evolved into a sophisticated city, prosperous and interested in the arts. The oldest art gallery in Quebec, the Art Association of Montreal, was founded in 1860, the forerunner of Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts. In Ottawa, governor general the Marquess of Lorne created the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1880, which eventually became the National Gallery of Canada. At this time, however, most artists trained in Paris (then the art capital of the world). though the subject matter of both their paintings and sculpted works was largely Canadian.

Early 20C

At the onset of the 20C, the influence of the so-called Paris school was visible in Canadian art, particularly in the works of Quebec artist Wyatt Eaton (1849-1896) and Montreal art professor William Brymner (1855-1925), one of the first Canadians to study abroad; his painting A Wreath of Flowers (1884) is an embodiment of French techniques. Their followers include Impressionist-style painters Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté (1869-1937), Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942) and James Wilson Morrice (1865-1924). Robert Harris (1849-1919) left Prince Edward Island to train in Paris, but returned to execute perhaps the most prestigious commission in Canada, The Fathers of Confederation (1883); thereafter, Harris became one of Canada’s eminent portraitists. Hailing from London, Ontario, Paul Peel (1860-92) studied and lived abroad, though he exhibited in Canada. His works, several of which were controversial (A Venetian Bather and After the Bath) , gained him international attention.


The turn of the 20C was the era of great commemorative monuments. Among the most notable sculptors in Quebec were artist-architect Napoléon Bourassa (1827-1916) and the celebrated Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850-1917). Alfred Laliberté (1878-1953) fashioned sculptures along the fluid lines of the Art-Nouveau style while maintaining an academic approach. Suzor-Côté, a close friend of Laliberté, used the same Art-Nouveau techniques to create a series of bronze works. In the 1930s the Art-Deco style influenced several Canadian sculptors, including Torontonian Elizabeth Wyn Wood (Passing Rain) .

Cubism, constructivism and other European styles did not surface in Canadian sculpture until the early 1950s, when they were evident in the works of Anne Kahane and Louis Archambault. Following World War II, Canadian sculpture was invigorated by the availability of many new materials, which fostered experimentation in techniques and shapes. A movement known as structurism developed in the 1950s, particularly in the Prairie provinces, under the guidance of Eli Bornstein. In the 1960s talented painters Michael Snow and Les Levine established reputations based largely on their sculpted works: Snow’s stainless steel forms and Levine’s plastic modules. Yves Trudeau and Gerald Gladstone experimented with welded-steel constructions. Otto Rogers in Saskatoon and John Nugent in Regina also worked with steel. Sorel Etrog is recognized for his signature knotted-bronze works, which suggest the influence of cubism, and Robert Murray is internationally known for his large, colourful metal structures. Ed Aelenak and Walter Redinger turned to fibreglass for their constructions, while Michael Hayden created his kinetic works from neon tubing.

Budding Nationalism

World War I profoundly affected artists who regarded Canada as a proud young nation to be accepted on its own terms: why look to Europe, they felt. Trained in commercial design, Tom Thomson (1877-1917), an expert outdoorsman, painted Algonquin Park and other parts of Ontario in a bold new way. Thomson’s vibrant colors and intense brushwork infused his paintings of the rugged terrain with a vitality that leaps from the canvas. The West Wind and The Jack Pine are among his best-known works. Like-minded artist-friends based in Toronto formed the Group of Seven in 1920, the first truly Canadian school, which included Lawren Harris (1885-1970), J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932) and A.Y. Jackson (1892-1974). Harris’ austere depictions of the Canadian landscape, in particular North Shore, Lake Superior (1926), inspired the country’s new modernists. Influenced by members of the Group of Seven, Carl Schaefer, painting in the 1930s, imbued psychological and sociological symbolism into his renderings of the Canadian landscape ( Ontario Farmhouse, 1934). Another painter profoundly attached to the Canadian landscape, particularly that of British Columbia, was Victoria-born Emily Carr (1871-1945), Canada’s first prominent female artist; her reverence for native art and culture, as well as nature, manifested itself in her unique style. Ontario-born David Milne (1882-1953) emphasized form and brush technique over subject matter; his paintings exhibited a wide variety of subjects, from cityscapes and rural scenes to still life ( Water Lilies and the Sunday Paper, 1929).

In the 1930s Montreal artists began to rebel against the “wild landscape nationalism” of the Group of Seven. A staunch critic of the group, John Lyman (1886-1967) attempted to redirect Canadian art according to the precepts of the Paris school of thought. In 1939 he created the Contemporary Arts Society and organized a group known as the Modernists. Its members included Marc-Aurèle Fortin (1888-1970), Goodridge Roberts (1904-74), and Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-60).

The Post-War Era

World War II marked a turning point in the evolution of Canadian art. In 1940 Alfred Pellan (1906-88) returned to Quebec from France to exhibit paintings influenced by Picasso and other proponents of Cubism. Paul-Émile Borduas and several fellow artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), founded the Automatist group, whose paintings reflected Surrealism’s goal of transferring the creative impulses of the psyche to the canvas. As a response to the spontaneity of the Automatists, Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant founded the Plasticist group (1955) with the intent of freeing painting from the Surrealist idiom through the use of an abstract geometric vocabulary; form and color were key elements of their work.

After World War II, however, no single school of thought prevailed over the inspirational and creative effervescence of contemporary art, although several Montreal painters, such as Yves Gaucher and Ulysse Comtois, and sculptors Armand Vaillancourt, Charles Daudelin and Robert Roussil, exhibited intensely individual modes of expression. Throughout Canada, artists strove to develop their own highly personal styles, like the representational art ( To Prince Edward Island, 1965) of Atlantic artist Alex Colville (b.1920) or William Kurulek’s (1927-77) personal reminiscences of Ukrainian prairie life.

The Contemporary Scene

In recent years, Canadian art has evolved alongside major international currents; it has distanced itself from traditional painting while emphasizing more diversified forms and techniques, including “installation,” a primarily sculptural idiom that also includes other art forms, such as painting and photography. Among its proponents are Betty Goodwin, Barbara Steinman, Geneviève Cadieux, Jocelyne Alloucherie and Dominique Blain. Art becomes “performance,” having little intrinsic worth, in the mixed-media installations of such artists as Toronto-based A.A. Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal. As new technologies emerge (lasers, computers, holograms), Canadian artists continue to express themselves in different genres and contexts. Contemporary movements aside, the precise realism of the paintings by Robert Bateman, who depicts animals in their natural habitats, remains popular with an international as well as a domestic buying public.

Literature and Language


In large measure, Canadian literature resonates with a rich sense of place. Whether in the explorers’ journals of the early 17-18C, the diaries and novels of 19C immigrant settlers, or the poems and literary works of the 20C and 21C, writers grapple with what it means to be Canadian.

Early Works

Throughout the era of exploration and colonization, the literature of New France was limited to travel memoirs (Cartier, Champlain), stories, descriptive writings (Sagard, Charlevoix) and the famous historical missives known as the Relations, written by Jesuit missionaries, who recorded their lives and work in the New World. In 1837 Philippe Aubert de Gaspé published the first French-Canadian novel L’influence d’un livre, based primarily on legends. The first fiction novels were influenced mainly by rural traditions, as evidenced in The Canadians of Old (Les Anciens Canadiens) , written in 1863 by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé senior. Historical novels, inspired by François-Xavier Garneau’s History of Canada (Histoire du Canada) published in the 1840s, became very popular in the mid-1800s, as did the romantic poetry of Octave Crémazie (1827-79) and Louis-Honoré Fréchette (1839-1908). English settlers, such as Susanna Moodie, described the challenges of making a home in the Canadian wilderness ( Roughing It in the Bush, 1852).

The Emergence of Canadian Literature

Canadian Confederation, in 1867, engendered confidence: Canada became a nation and its writers found their voice. “Confederation Poets” Duncan Campbell Scott and Archibald Lampman celebrated the realities of the Canadian landscape; Scott particularly admired Québécois and native culture. Meanwhile, anthropomorphization of wild animals, à la Beatrix Potter, characterized books by Charles G.D. Roberts, while his contemporary Ernest Thompson Seton wrote from a more scientific point of view. Children’s literature blossomed at the end of the 19C with Margaret Marshall Saunders’ Beautiful Joe and, in 1908, when Lucy Maud Montgomery began her enduring Anne of Green Gables series. The early 20C brought the humorous poems of Robert Service, the poet of the Yukon, who has also been dubbed “Canada’s Kipling.”

Quebec’s early-20C writing was dominated by the nationalist works of writer and historian Lionel Groulx (1878-1967), leader of the “Action française,” and by the poet Émile Nelligan (1879-1941). In 1916 French-born Louis Hémon’s novel Maria Chapdelaine, depicting life in rural Quebec, was published posthumously, and is now translated into eight languages. In 1933 Claude-Henri Grignon wrote his celebrated novel The Woman and the Miser (Un homme et son péché) . The story of survival, this time in the parched prairies, resurfaced in the first novel of Sinclair Ross, As for Me and My House (1941); and later, Northern Manitoba’s wilderness was the setting for Gabrielle Roy’s Where Nests the Water Hen (1951).

Post-War Perplexities

Urbanization and the trauma of World War II resulted in greater introspection among Canadian writers as they questioned the established order. Novelist Robert Charbonneau abandoned his tales of rural life for psychological novels. The McGill Group of poets (F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith, among others) paralleled the Group of Seven’s avant-garde approach to painting. Meanwhile, feminist authors Madge Macbeth and others examined how urbanization and post-war reality affected women in society. Other writers grappled with racism, immigration and social upheaval. Frederick Philip Grove, who described Swedish immigrants taming the prairies in his novel Settlers of the Marsh, is credited with introducing realism into Canadian literature. Mazo de la Roche penned the Jalna series, chronicling how generations of a Southern Ontario family adapted to life there between the years 1927-60. Farther west, in Victoria, BC, artist Emily Carr’s autobiographies introduced the world to West Coast native art and sensibilities.

In the 1950s Montreal modernists Irving Layton, Milton Acorn and Al Purdy changed the face of Canadian poetry; they influenced future generations of poets, including Gwendolyn MacEwen ( The Shadow-Maker, 1969), with an earthy, streetwise style, freed from the taboos of subject matter and language. Poets Gaston Miron (1928-96), Gatien Lapointe and Fernand Ouellette instilled energy into Quebec literature during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. New novelists rose to prominence, and already well-known writers became associated with the finest of Quebec letters, among them Anne Hébert ( Kamouraska, 1973) and Yves Thériault (Agaguk) . Nova Scotia-born novelist Hugh MacLennan (1907-90), a professor at Montreal’s McGill University, focused on contemporary life, and became the first major English-speaking writer to forge a national character for the country. His best-selling novel Two Solitudes (1945) confronted the issue of Quebec’s relationship to the rest of Canada. Well-known Anglophone Quebec novelist Mordecai Richler (1931–2001) (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) has won numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix du Gouverneur Général. In the 1960s and 70s, poet-singer-novelist Leonard Cohen wrote of the sexual revolution and resistance to the Vietnam War. The times were characterized by a broad diversity of styles, most notably the psychological novel. Prominent authors from this extremely prolific period of literature include Louis Hamelin (La rage) and Monique Larue (True Copies/Copies conformes) . In chronicling the building of Canada’s transcontinental railroad (The National Dream: The Great Railway 1871-1881) , Pierre Berton infused Canadian historical writing with a compelling new style and gained immediate commercial success. Best-selling author Farley Mowat (Never Cry Wolf, Sea of Slaughter) remains Canada’s champion of the environment with his compelling recountings of humanity’s destructive impact.

Contemporary Currents

Beginning with the late 1960s and continuing into the 21C, the fertile years of Canadian writing have produced a harvest of talented authors who probe the Canadian consciousness and explore the nation’s cultural mosaic: Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) , Margaret Laurence (The Stone Angel, The Diviners) , Timothy Findley (The Wars) , Robertson Davies (The Deptford Trilogy) , Joy Kogawa (Obasan) and Rudy Wiebe (The Temptations of Big Bear) , among others. Atwood’s book Survival elevated the internationally acclaimed author to guru status, to the point where her questioning of Canadianness became a yardstick of Canadian culture. It is fitting that, in the year 2000, Atwood should win Britain’s most coveted literary prize, The Booker. Along with other world writers working in a multitude of genres, Canadian authors, such as Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost) , Alice Munro (Lives of Girls and Women, Runaway) and New Brunswick’s Antonine Maillet have won international honours.


Canada is a land of immigrants. A population of 5 million in 1900 grew to 12 million by the end of World War II and to more than 32 million in 2006, thanks largely to immigration. Considered to be the “founding” nations, the British and the French are the largest populations (37 and 32 percent respectively). To reflect this composition, Canada is officially bilingual. The largest concentration of French-speaking people is in Quebec, but Francophones are found in every province. The federal government tries to provide services in both languages nationwide. There are significant numbers of Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Dutch and Poles, especially in the Prairie provinces, and of aboriginal peoples, resulting in an interesting mosaic of cultures across the country.

“Canada could have enjoyed:

English government, French culture, and American know-how.

Instead it ended up with:

English know-how, French government, and American culture.”

John Robert Colombo, Oh Canada, 1965

Canada practises institutional bilingualism: English and French are the official languages for all federal and judicial bodies, federally mandated administrative agencies and Crown corporations. The practice has spread to provincial governments and some parts of the private sector. However, in the province of Quebec, the official language is French. In Nunavut, official languages are Inukitut and English; since the territory is part of Canada, all federal communications are also in French.

Music and Dance

Canada’s Music

From throat singing to classical music and rock, Canada’s multifarious musical genres hum with creativity. Every region boasts its form of traditional music, whether the Celtic rhythms of Cape Breton Island; the Irish, Scottish and French fiddle music found in Quebec and Eastern Ontario; or the Inuit throat singing heard in Nunavut. Today, singers Susan Aglukark and the duo named Tudjaat continue to popularize Inuit songs. Montreal is known for its international jazz festival and great jazz musician Oscar Peterson. Other Canadian jazz artists include trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, be-bopper Moe Kaffman, Claude Ranger and mainstream musician James Galloway. Quebec’s widely-acclaimed Cirque du Soleil (Circus of the Sun) delights audiences around the world with its innovative and enchanting blend of traditional music, circus entertainment, theatre and dance.

Canada’s classical music tradition was under way in colonial times, with concert announcements appearing in newspapers as early as 1751. Quebec City had a concert hall by 1764 and Halifax audiences were delighted by performances of the music of Handel, Bach and Mozart. The 1840s exposed Canadians to international touring performers such as singer Jenny Lind. Local and regional musical societies—the precursors of today’s philharmonic orchestras—sprang up around the country. The years between the world wars saw Canada’s first musician to achieve national stature (and the only Canadian musician ever knighted): noted conductor Sir Ernest Macmillan (1893-1973). He founded one of Canada’s first string quartets, and his composition Two Sketches for Strings became a Canadian classic. Other Canadians of renown included singer Rodolphe Plamondon, pianist Léo-Pol Morin and violinist Kathleen Parlow. Conductor Wilfrid Pelletier (1896-1982) launched Montreal’s dynamic music scene while Claude Champagne (1891-1965), composer of the Symphonie gaspésienne, opened the way for numerous other composers. Internationally renowned Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-82) retired from concert tours in 1964, concentrating on studio recordings; he is noted in particular for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Yet another classical genre was internationally popularized by guitarist Liona Boyd (b.1950), who branched into New Age music via her 1986 recording Persona.

Several outstanding Canadian voices—contralto Maureen Forrester and father and son baritones Louis and Gino Quilico among them—are heard on the opera stages of Milan, New York, Paris and London, as well as in home-town concert halls in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Composer R. Murray Schafer’s Ra premiered in 1983 and at 11 hours in length remains Canada’s most experimental theatrical-music experience. The country sustains several opera companies, including the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, Opera du Québec, Opera du Montréal, and companies in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton. Opera Lyra performs in the nation’s capital of Ottawa.

Canada’s folk music boasts a varied tapestry of prominent singer-songwriters: balladeers Ian Tyson (Ian and Sylvia), Anne Murray, Stan Rogers (1949-83) and Gordon Lightfoot (his Canadian Railroad Trilogy became a classic); Alberta-born folk-jazz singer Joni Mitchell; Celtic songster Loreena McKennitt; and Quebec “chansonneur” Gilles Vigneault, whose song Mon Pays (Gens de mon pays) became the separatist movement’s anthem in the late 1960s. Incidentially, the originators of Canada’s national anthem, O Canada, were two French-Canadians; Adolphe-Basile Routhier (1839-1920) wrote the lyrics and Calixa Lavallée (1842-91) composed the music.

The rock music of Robert Charlebois reflected a more critical social outlook typical of the 1960s. At that time, large-scale shows and a recording industry heavily influenced by American culture were adding a whole new dimension to Canada’s music scene. The California counterculture was echoed in the music of groups such as Harmonium and Beau Dommage. During the early 1970s, bands like the Guess Who burst on the scene with their now-classic American Woman, whose lyrics became the anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement. The Quebec rock group Offenbach also rose to prominence in the 1970s and Ginette Reno is considered one of the province’s most acclaimed pop singers. In 1987 lead singer Robbie Robertson of The Band established his solo career as a rock singer-songwriter of world note. The 1990s witnessed the phenomenal rise of Quebec’s diva Céline Dion, whose acclaim today extends worldwide. Canada’s contemporary rock bands include Bare Naked Ladies, Nickelback and the Maritime’s Great Big Sea. Contemporary popular single artists include Bryan Adams, k.d. lang, Colin James, country-western crooner Shania Twain and jazz artist Diana Krall.


Early European explorers, such as John Cabot, chronicled the traditional dances of the aboriginal peoples. Later, in the early 19C, Edmond Curtis photographed West Coast native peoples; his remarkable footage of Native Americans dancing in their war canoes makes for unforgettable viewing. It was not until the early 20C, when Anna Pavlova toured the country several times, that ballet truly arrived in Canada. The country’s first professional company was the renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet, founded in 1949. British dancer Celia Franca established the National Ballet of Canada in 1951 in Toronto. Montreal’s Les Grandes Ballets Canadiens followed in 1958. All of these companies continue to stage splendid performances throughout Canada and abroad. Canadian ballerinas Karen Kain and Evelyn Hart have endeared themselves to their fellow countrymen, and choreographers Brian Macdonald and James Kudelka have gained wide recognition.

Modern dance in Canada owes its existence to European and American dancers and choreographers who established schools and troupes in the country. The Toronto Dance Theatre (1968) was established by Patricia Beatty, Peter Randazzo and David Earle, who trained in the techniques of American dance pioneer Martha Graham. In the early 1970s, former member of the Winnipeg Ballet Rachel Browne founded the dance company Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD). Also in the 1970s, Montreal became a centre for the genre, following the opening of the experimental troupe La Groupe de la Place Royale. Vancouver-based Karen Jamieson and choreographer Conrad Alexandrowicz explored new forms of expression. Today Canadian modern dance continues to evolve, becoming less dependent upon the external influences that initiated it.


Although most films shown in Canada are imported from the US, Canadians factor significantly in a surprising number of major films—as actors, directors and animators. Canadian locations are frequently chosen for their lower production costs and visual similarity to the US. Vancouver and Toronto have thriving production companies and employ many actors as extras in international films. Quebec has long had a vibrant film industry, with both a local and international market for French-language films.

Founded in 1939, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), a federal institution, has acquired an international reputation for animated films, such as Crac! in 1982 by two-time Oscar-winner Frédéric Back ( The Man Who Planted Trees, 1988). In 1999 the NFB’s When the Day Breaks (by Wendy Tilby) won the Palme d’or prize for Best Short Film at Cannes. The NFB is also known for its documentary tradition, which evolved into a new genre known as “cinéma-vérité,” a widely recognized trend in Quebec’s film industry, best seen in the works of Pierre Perrault ( The Moontrap, 1963; Wake up, mes bons amis!, 1970) and Michel Brault ( Les Ordres, 1974). Reflecting the growing importance of animation in cinema, the Ottawa International Animation Festival has become North America’s largest and most important showcase for the genre and the second largest in the world since its founding in 1976.

Canada produces about 40 feature films per year with budgets of $3.5 million or more. Almost 40 percent of financing for English-language features and some 80 percent of funding for French-language features is provided by government.

Noted Canadian directors include Claude Jutra, who won international fame for Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) and Kamouraska (1973), based on Anne Hébert’s novel; Denys Arcand reached European and American audiences with his films The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and J esus of Montreal (1989), the latter receiving nominations at Cannes and Hollywood. Once reviled in Canadian Parliament as a public menace, director David Cronenberg has unnerved film-goers with his gripping treatment of dark subjects—from his first commercial breakthrough, Scanners (1981) to The Fly (1986), then Crash (1996) and A History of Violence (2005). The films of Toronto-based director Atom Egoyan are more works of art than traditional movies; with The Sweet Hereafter (1997), he became a player in American commercial cinema. In 2002 his film Ararat premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The Statement (2004) is the most recent in a string of award-winning films by Norman Jewison that include his Oscar-winning The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), Fiddler On The Roof (1971) and Moonstruck (1987). Best known as the director of Titanic (1997), James C­ameron also wrote and directed The Terminator (1984) and directed a series of successful science-fiction action films like Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Paul Gross’ directorial debut, Men with Brooms (2002), became the top-grossing English-Canadian film of the last 20 years. Numerous awards for Western-Canadian director Gary Burns’ waydowntown (2002) followed the critical success of his Kitchen Party (1998).

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