Canadian Multiculturalism in Margaret Atwood's Short Fiction

Hausarbeit, 2017

18 Seiten, Note: 1,3









1. Introduction

The general tendency in Germany has always seemed to pull against the idea of a multicultural society. With the ongoing waves of asylum seekers entering Germany, the topic of Multiculturalism is more present than ever. Many people here clearly and publicly state their discontent towards letting foreigners enter and become part of this country. Back in 2010, the German chancellor Angela Merkel along with CSU leader Horst Seehofer already stated that Multiculturalism has failed in Germany1. During a CDU conference in Berlin, Merkel had to ask Immigrants to integrate themselves more into German culture and to acquire better knowledge of the German language2.

A plea like Merkel's might be necessary here in Germany, but can be considered almost redundant in Canada. Canada is considered the best role model for a functioning multicultural nation and proves that the idea of Multiculturalism can in fact work. It has introduced the concept of Multiculturalism some 40 years ago and made it its mission on a governmental level to solve all problems related to a multicultural society. Of course a theme as important as this, will also find its way into said nation's literature. When thinking about canonical Canadian literature, one of the first names to stumble across will with certainty be Margaret Atwood. In their work The Canadian 100: The Most Influential Canadians of the 21st Century the two Canadian historians Rowlandson and Granatstein, placed Atwood 5th on their list3, which - according to Reingard Nischik - is “ a gratifyingly high position for someone who is neither a politician nor an industrial magnate, but a writer by profession.”4

In the following term paper I will address aspects of Multiculturalism in Margaret Atwood's Short Fiction. First, I will give a brief overview of the historical development as well as the political measures that were taken on Canada's way from a bilingual to a multicultural nation. Secondly, I will analyze two of Atwood's Short Stories, namely “The man from Mars” and “Dancing Girls” which were both published in the Short Story Collection “Dancing Girls and Other Stories” from 1982. I chose these particular Short Stories because they were written at earlier stages of the development of Multiculturalism and also because they show two very different approaches on how to deal with intercultural contact on a day to day basis.

During the second part of this term paper, I will give an analysis of the plot and the characters, and grasp the way Atwood portrays Multiculturalism in both Short Stories, respectively. Finally, I will summarize my findings and give a brief recapitulation.


Canada has always been regarded to be a nation that has openly welcomed the high number of Immigrants that's reached its shores. Starting with the British explorers who entered the country in the 18th century until today, immigration has always contributed majorly to its population growth. Since 2006, immigration even makes up two thirds of Canada's growth in population.5 But instead of seeing the cultural diversity as a threat to the Canadian identity, the vast majority of Canadians embrace and even celebrates it. A CBC online survey from 2010 interviewed 1500 adults about their attitude towards Multiculturalism in Canada. 75% of the participants called Canada a “welcoming place for all ethnicities”6.

But what does Multiculturalism exactly mean? The Oxford Dictionary defines Multiculturalism as “[t]he presence of, or support for the presence of, several distinct cultural or ethnic groups within a society”7. This definition states two aspects of the concept of Multiculturalism. Firstly, the mere presence of different people with diverse ethnic backgrounds living within one society, and secondly, the tolerance towards and the support of that society.

The above mentioned support of ethnic minorities is considered a priority by the Canadian government. It is strongly enforced through a variety of laws and regulations, which are deeply embedded in Canada's history.

The foundation for Multiculturalism was laid when Canada acknowledged its bicultural status; Because, before becoming a multicultural nation, Canada was bilingual and therefore bicultural. This bicultural identity was first officialized by the Constitution Act of 1867 and later further enforced by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963.8 Another significant step towards Multiculturalism was the coinage of the term as such. ‘Multiculturalism' as a descriptive term for the Canadian nation was first used in 1964 by Professor Charles Hobart from the University of Alberta. He referred to Canada as a “multicultural society” during his presentation for the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews.9 In 1965, Paul Yuzyk, a Canadian senator, referred to Canada as "a multicultural nation" in his influential maiden speech. During this speech he demanded Multiculturalism to become a policy and caused a nationwide debate on that topic10. He is remembered as a key figure in the development of Multiculturalism in Canada.

Less than 10 years later, namely in 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau publicly declared that the policy of Multiculturalism would be realized in Canada, which made it the “first country in the world to adopt Multiculturalism as an official policy”11.

The Government under the 18th Prime Minister Brian Mulroney finally introduced the Canadian Multiculturalism Act on July 21, 1988 “[a]n Act for the preservation and enhancement of multiculturalism in Canada”12.

As Richter mentions in her work Creating the National Mosaic, “Canada is the only country worldwide with a formal constitution that has incorporated multiculturalism in this document”13, which clearly shows how highly prioritized their multicultural identity in fact is. With growing numbers of citizens of non-Canadian origin, Canada has implemented a variety of laws and programs in order to further strengthen its multicultural identity. The CIC14 for example, has introduced a program that focuses on “[b]uilding an integrated, socially cohesive society; Helping federal and public institutions to respond to the needs of a diverse society; and engaging in discussions on Multiculturalism at the international level.”15 The CIC also “provides approximately $8.5 million in annual funding to non-governmental [...] organizations to support long-term [...] projects and local events that foster intercultural [...] understanding [...].”16

Public events such as the Black History Month or the Asian Heritage Month are proof of how the demographics of Canadian immigrants have changed. While the first immigration waves mostly consisted of other Europeans, which where therefore mainly white immigrants, newer statistics show a much more diverse ethnic background. In 1996, only 11% of the Canadian population was of non-European origin, whereas the National Household Survey of 2011 already counted 19%.17

The fact that Canada's immigrants originate from more than 200 different source countries18 makes Canada's population especially diverse and colorful.

A metaphor that is often used when describing the Canadian approach to Multiculturalism is the so called “Canadian Mosaic”, a term coined by John Murray Gibbon in his work Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation19.

In this analogy, the different pieces of the mosaic describe the many citizens from different cultures that merge together and function harmonically as one nation. Just like every stone in a mosaic remains unchanged while still contributing to the final piece of art as a whole, every Canadian immigrant gets to stay him- or herself, without losing his or her cultural identity. The metaphor of the Canadian Mosaic can be distinguished from the American idea of the Melting Pot, where people of different ethnic backgrounds are “thrown” into one Melting Pot and merge into a new race - the American. The result is a citizen who has left behind his former identity and assimilated to the American culture. In a mosaic on the other hand, each piece keeps its properties while still fitting perfectly with the other pieces.

The choice of metaphor both nations use to describe their ideal version of Multiculturalism emphasizes once again how much Canadians actually find beauty in the variety of cultures coming together and forming one great nation.



As described in the chapters above, the concept of a multicultural nation is heavily appreciated by the great majority of Canadians today. However, it is understandable that it takes many people some time to adjust to a new situation. When Margaret Atwood published her Short Story collection Dancing Girls and other Stories in 1982, the Canadian Government was still working on realizing the policies on Multiculturalism. Of course, the attitude towards the idea of a multicultural Canada 30 years ago differed from todays.

The following analysis will disclose how the flagship Canadian Margaret Atwood depicts early multicultural contact in her Short Fiction.

First I will regard more closely will be The Man from Mars, the first Short Story in her collection Dancing Girls and other Stories.

Since The Man from Mars is a very plot driven Short Story I will give my analysis in a chronological order, because it emphasizes the development of the characters throughout the story. While doing so, I will explain and analyze their intercultural exchange and show that putting Multiculturalism into practice can sometimes be a quite difficult task.

The Man from Mars revolves around the female protagonist Christine and her encounter with a person from a foreign nation. The story takes place in a Canadian town north of Montreal, in the English speaking part of Canada. Atwood doesn't further specify the location of the town, which could indicate that an encounter like Christine's could happen anywhere in the country. Christine is described as a rather unattractive and not exactly feminine girl, she has a “chunky 20 21 22 reddish face” , is rather overweight and “above average height” .

At the beginning of the story Christine is approached by a stranger who asks for directions. The reader only learns details about the stranger's physical appearance, but never about his character, background or even his name.

Christine soon recognizes that he is in fact a foreigner yet doesn't bother to further ask him about his origin. To her, he is “oriental without a doubt, though perhaps not Chinese”20 21 22 23. This almost ignorant behavior is very common in western culture. For Christine and the majority of western citizens it is enough to know that a person is foreign. Generalizations are quickly made without questioning the actual background of the person one is confronted with. In the story, Christine even compares her encounter with him to the Egyptian party of her United Nations Club, even though it is well known that there is a great difference in ethnicity and culture between Egypt and any Asian country. To Christine on the other hand, his true origin is redundant. For her it is sufficient to merely point out that he is “a person from another culture”24.

She politely gives him the directions he asked for and the reader gets the impression that Christine sees herself as a philanthropist for helping that boy.

The stranger is further described as badly groomed and curious looking. His jacket doesn't fit him properly and appears to be old, “with threads at the edges”25 of his sleeves. Atwood clearly works with stereotypes here. His physical appearance, his distinct smell26 and his foreign accent distinguish the stranger even more from the local Canadians. Also, the reader gets the impression that the boy must be poor, or at least not able to afford a new and proper fitting jacket, which is another stereotypical preconception not only Canadians, but western people in general often have about immigrants.

After giving him the directions he needed, Christine wants to leave. The stranger on the other hand demands her to exchange names, by writing them down on a piece of paper. Christine, who thinks the act of writing down ones name is part of his culture, complies.27 However, the reader never learns the foreign boy's name. Christine only tells us that it is “an odd assemblage of Gs, Ys and Ns”28. The fact that she doesn't want to deal with learning his name also indicates that to Christine, the foreigner isn't an individual person but one of many immigrants, whose name is too distinct and too difficult to closer deal with. She seems polite on a superficial level, but doesn't even have the courtesy to properly learn his name. The fact that his name is never mentioned also plays into the title: This “Man from Mars”, whom we know nothing about, stays mysterious for the reader as well as for Christine. By not giving us his name, Atwood alienates him even more and makes it a lot harder for the reader to identify with him.

Later that day, her mother tells her that “a person from another culture” called the house and encourages Christine to invite him over for tea. Even though Christine doesn't seem particularly fond of the idea, her mother convinces her that it would be a “nice gesture”29. Christine's mother is presented as the stereotypical suburban, white housewife. She has hired a girl to do the house hold chores and considers it work to arrange flowers in vases30. It appears that she never got a college education herself, because she “had only a hazy idea of what an exam was”31. At the beginning, Christine's mother thinks that the person on the other end of the phone was French and she seems excited about inviting him over for tea. When he finally arrives and she gets a glimpse of his physical appearance, she loses all of her interest and pretends to be busy.


1 cf. <>.

2 cf. <>.

3cf. Rawlinson, The Canadian 100: the 100 most influential Canadians of the twentieth century.

4Nischik, Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact , p. 1.

5 <>.

6 <>.

7 <>.

8 cf. Coche, Language Policies at the Federal Level in Canada: Costs and Benefits in 2006, p. 11.

9 cf. Richter, Creating the National Mosaic: Multiculturalism in Canadian Children's Literature from 1950 to 1994, p. 36.

10 cf. Richter, Creating the National Mosaic: Multiculturalism in Canadian Children's Literature from 1950 to 1994, p. 37.

11 <>.

12 <>.

13 Richter, Creating the National Mosaic: Multiculturalism in Canadian Children's Literature from 1950 to 1994, p. 36

14 CIC stands for „ Citizenship and Immigration Canada“.

15 <>.

16 <>.

17 <>.

18 <>.

19 Murray, Canadian mosaic: The making of a northern nation.

20 Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 9.

21 cf. Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 15.

22 Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 10.

23 Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 10.

24 Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p.10.

25 Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p.11.

26 cf. Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 10.

27 cf. Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p.11.

28 Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 11.

29 cf. Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 16.

30 cf. Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 13.

31 Atwood, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, p. 13.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 18 Seiten


Canadian Multiculturalism in Margaret Atwood's Short Fiction
Universität Konstanz  (Literaturwissenschaft)
American Literature and Culture
ISBN (Buch)
Margaret Atwood, Canada, Canadian Literature, Melting Pot, Multiculturalism, Racism, Culture, Atwoo, dancing girls, the man from mars
Arbeit zitieren
Anonym, 2017, Canadian Multiculturalism in Margaret Atwood's Short Fiction, München, GRIN Verlag,


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