Responding to Fred Wah

Fred Wah at North of Invention (photo by Aldon Nielsen).

January 20, 2011, at North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival, Fred Wah disturbs Canada’s national imaginary.

In his talk, in the Kelly Writers House, in Philadelphia, USA, Wah describes his poetic practice as a kind of grammatical GPS that locates and disturbs the Canadian national imaginary. Formed by his experience as a person of Chinese, Scottish, and Swedish descent, Wah pays close poetic attention to the minute and overlooked in language, identifying and troubling coercive nationalistic narratives. In doing so, he practices an “alien ethnic poetics” that “locates a time and space outside and between what is signified on the nation’s surface.”

Demonstrating his poetic system of location, Wah considers the preposition “from,” in the national slogan, “from sea to sea,” reminding us that to be from Canada is to not be from Canada — it is to be from elsewhere. Recalling the Canadian government’s Chinese Exclusion Act [1], and the federal legislation that made it illegal for Indigenous people to vote until 1960, Wah locates Canada as a country founded on racist immigration policies, and a brutal and bureaucratic process of colonization.

And these are accurate coordinates. In fact, since Canada is a country based on the illegal annexation of the traditional lands of hundreds of Indigenous nations, even the communities that are actually from here (and have always been here) are not from that Canadian here.

Wah identifies his poetics and Jeff Derksen’s “public language” as interventions into this national imaginary. As is evident by the critical intensity of Wah and Derksen’s work, Canada has always been deeply invested in its own imaginary delineations; Canada has never been north of invention.

Wah notes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, the Japanese redress of 1988, and Nicole Brossard’s feminist poetics as important influences on his poetic interventions supplying vital entry points for him “to write from.” But he also emphasizes that influences can have their own complex conditions. Locating another imaginary realm, the jurisdiction of the writer over language or material, Wah recalls Brossard’s critique of his transcreations of her lesbian feminist Ma Continent (1974), and Steve McCaffery’s concern that Wah’s work with Indigenous pictograms in Pictograms from the Interior of B. C. (1975) [2] took the pictograms out of their original context. Wah’s willingness to share and thoughtfully consider these responses within the context of his present writing practice is striking and generous. It demonstrates his unflagging commitment to writing and to thinking about writing. Language play, he concludes, is serious work; we need to take care with the materials we address.

After the talk, during the question period, Derksen suggests that since the Canadian avant-garde has shifted to include a poetics that is more critically conscious of issues of race (thanks to writers like Wah), the movement should now evolve beyond the Canadian national boundaries o speak to the larger context of North America. 

But such a shift may not be in keeping with Wah’s findings.

That is, considering what Wah’s poetic location devices have demonstrated, perhaps the Canadian avant-garde needs to turn its attention even more closely to the contemporary consequences of our bogus narratives and bloody history, to the Indigenous communities in Canada, to governmental interference in Indigenous rights, sovereignty, land title, basic access to health care, education, and clean drinking water. Maybe it is time for the Canadian avant garde to poetically investigate the language of our history, to read our treaties, to understand the legal implications of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 — and, for non-Indigenous Canadians (like me), to live up to the responsibilities (past and present), the legal conditions and commitments, that we have, as people who live on these lands. [3] 

In Bob Perelman’s response to Wah’s talk, and Derksen’s comments, Perelman affirms the necessity of poetic systems of location, and reiterates Wah’s call for care. Although Perelmen acknowledges the importance of the instinctive artistic response, he suggests that intuition and immediacy require an understanding of history. Our unfreedoms, Perelman says, “are harder to perceive with our senses because we are so inured to them . . . sometimes we mistake sensual immediacy for freedom when we are actually faced with evocations of our unfreedoms.” As a Canadian living in this country that habitually defines its citizens as just and decent, it is also clear to me that we are profoundly inured to the unfreedoms of others, and that our subjectivities and freedoms are tangibly built on those unfreedoms. Take the pictographs. As Wah says, these were “undocumented,” and they probably still are, undocumented and unacknowledged. Official Canadian historic discourse and policy have rendered most Canadians illiterate in Indigenous legal systems, histories, cultures, languages, oral and inscribed expression — our national identity, and our continued appropriation of Indigenous land and resources depend on this lack of education.

From here, where I write this, on Treaty Six land, in traditional Cree territory, Wah’s poetics, his talk and the conversation that follows locate and trouble our illiteracy, the fraught privilege of our poetic play, and the national imaginary of this country. [4]



1. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, the Canadian government moved to restrict the immigration of Chinese people to Canada. The first federal anti-Chinese bill was passed in 1885. It took the form of a head tax of $50 imposed, with few exceptions, upon every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other group was targeted in this way. The Head Tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903. $500 was equivalent to two years’ wages for a Chinese laborer at the time. Meanwhile, Chinese people were denied Canadian citizenship. In all, the federal government collected $23 million through the Head Tax. Despite this “tax,” Chinese immigrants continued to come to Canada. In 1923, the Canadian Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act excluding all but a few Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Between 1923 and 1947 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, less than fifty Chinese people were allowed to come to Canada.

2. The terms commonly used for the people who lived in Canada prior to European contact are Indigenous or Aboriginal. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit are for specific groups. For the most part, in Canada, the word “Indian” is not used, unless the speaker is Indigenous or is referring to the federal government’s control over “Indian” status.

3. In 2000, at the University of Alberta (on Treaty Six land), Cree lawyer and activist Sharon Venne asked her non-Indigenous audience: “What are your treaty rights?” See Venne’s article, “Treaties Made in Good Faith.” In Canada, even if you do not live on treaty land, you still exist within a country that was founded based on a series of binding legal agreements with Indigenous Nations. See Anishinaabe law scholar John Borrow’s “Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History and Self-Government.”

4. Thanks Fred.