Canadian novelist, poet, and critic Cyril Dabydeen spoke at Lakehead University this past February. His talk "Being Canadian" was part of the University's McLeod Lecture Series which connects distinguished literary academics with the Thunder Bay community.
Dabydeen's visit also had a deeply personal significance.
As a Lakehead grad whose sojourn in Northwestern Ontario was crucial to his artistic development, he was keen to return to his alma mater to share what being Canadian means to him.
Cyril Dabydeen HBA'73
Dabydeen was born in Guyana to parents of Indian ancestry. He moved to Canada in 1970 and completed an HBA (English) in 1973 at Lakehead University followed by two master's degrees at Queen's University. He is currently a sessional professor at the University of Ottawa.
Even before Dabydeen came to Canada, he had established a reputation as a talented writer. He won the Sandbach Parker Gold Medal for poetry in 1964 and the A.J. Seymour Lyric Poetry Prize in 1967.
Since then, he has published nearly 20 books and won many other awards for his work. His writing has appeared in more than 70 literary magazines and anthologies worldwide. Dabydeen has also published nearly 100 book reviews and academic papers.
Writing is his way of "…mythologizing the ground upon which I walk." This mythic aspect surfaces throughout his work, whether it's in his book titles, like Stoning the Wind, Dark Swirl, and The Wizard Swami, or when Dabydeen compares the sound of a storm in Thunder Bay to an elephant howling.
Dabydeen is intrigued by other writers' thoughts regarding the purpose of literature. Distinguished Guyanese author Sir Wilson Harris, for example, believes that the aim of writers is to explore the bottomless pool of origins. Margaret Atwood defines works of fiction as reflections of the highest forms of human consciousness on how we live on earth. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes uses the metaphor of the agora to describe the novel: the place where all voices are heard and respected. Lakehead's Agora, Dabydeen says, reflects Fuentes' definition.
Dabydeen describes himself as a "hybrid writer" whose ideas and work reflect multiple influences and identities. Three of his cultural identities include: a native of Guyana and the Caribbean, a man with Indian roots, and a Canadian.
"I spent my summers tree planting. I am proud to say that I planted roughly a quarter-million trees while living in bush camps for weeks at a time."
- Cyril Dabydeen
Arriving from the Caribbean to what he calls "Canada's Heartland," Dabydeen had some formative experiences that defined his character and his sense of Canadian nationhood. He remembers his professors at Lakehead as "authentic Canadians" and he draws upon his recollections of life in Northwestern Ontario for inspiration when he writes.
One memory in particular resonates with Dabydeen. "I spent my summers tree planting. I am proud to say that I planted roughly a quarter-million trees while living in bush camps for weeks at a time." He jokes that he only got lost in the forest five or six times.
During his tree-planting days, Dabydeen met many people from diverse backgrounds – from American draft dodgers to First Nations Canadians. One friend in particular, an Aboriginal man named Larry, became the subject of a poem called Ojibway, which he recited during his McLeod lecture.
Several Canadian musicians, including Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, and Neil Young, have been an inspiration too. Dabydeen also remembers the drama of the 1972 Canada - Russia Hockey series and Pierre Trudeau's multiculturalism policies. These were all important pieces of Canadian culture in the early 1970s that shaped his feelings about what it means to be Canadian.
As a professor at the University of Ottawa, Dabydeen has taught many students and often asks them to describe a Canadian. He has been given a wide variety of answers, and shares a few of his favourites.
A Nigerian student said a Canadian "…is someone who gives help to a stranger, [who] gives love," while another student claimed Canadians are "people who bring justice to those who deserve it." Others kidded that a Canadian is "a Mexican with sweaters" and that "an American is a Canadian with an attitude." It's clear that being Canadian is different for everyone.
Dabydeen argues that what constitutes Canadian culture is an ongoing debate, much like that of beauty or art. Who is to decide what is truly Canadian culture, art, or beauty? These are merely opinions, not definitions.
The audience at Dabydeen's talk enjoyed hearing him read several selections of his poetry interspersed with anecdotes about what motivated him to write each piece. Surprisingly, most of them traced back to his time spent in Northwestern Ontario and his experiences of becoming Canadian.
As he reminded his listeners on that wintry night, "It is not your ethnicity that becomes destiny, but it is your geography that becomes destiny."
Bianca Kelos completed an internship with Lakehead University's Marketing Support and Media Relations departments as part of her Public Relations diploma with the University of Western Ontario. She will be starting a Bachelor of Education degree at Lakehead University this fall.