What is stochastically the best book to read about Canada?

Here are reader suggestions, I am aggregating this information, do not think of these as independent recommendations from me:

Canada: A Story of Challenge by J. M. S. Careless

For Canada, read “A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul, “Clearing the Plains” by James William Daschuk, and pretty much any of Pierre Berton’s books.

I recommend “Right Honourable Men” by Michael Bliss for Canada.

Yeah, Vimy is the standard “coming of a nation” book for Canadians – although too oversentimental. The underappreciated element of that book is some weird attempt to recover Hughes’ tarnished image as a proto-Canadian.

Definitenly recommend it to non-Canadians to get a sense of common denominator Canadian “nationalism”

I would second “A Fair Country” but suggest it as part of a field entry with Saul’s “Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin”. Though neither works are above criticism, taken together they represent the best attempt available to answer the questions “Why, and how is Canada different from the United States (and western Europe).

Saul’s work is influenced by Harold Innis, particularly “The Fur Trade in Canada” (1930). This also remains worthwhile, if you feel robust enough to handle Innis’ drier-than-the-Sahara prose, and the fact that it is literally a history of the fur trade in Canada.

Canada is a hard one, esp because of the French/English duality — there’s by definition no single overarching narrative. There’s also no single overarching meta-narrative. But to get the sense of what’s up with English Canada, you could do worse than read George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, particularly the 40th anniversary edition with intro by, er, me. The issue isn’t that Grant got it right, it’s that the ways in which he was wrong, and why he remains so wrong influential, are crucial to understanding the anxieties of English speaking Canada. https://www.amazon.ca/Lament-Nation-Canadian-Nationalism-Anniversary/dp/077353010X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515422833&sr=8-1&keywords=lament+for+a+nation

For Canada, I’d suggest “The Patriot Game” by Peter Brimelow or “Lament for a Nation” by George Grant.

Canada – “The Vertical Mosaic”

For Canada, I recommend “How to be Canadian” or binge watching TSN will suffice. Also check out, trailer park boys and corner gas.

The best book about Canada is “The Patriot Game” by Peter Brimelow. Though Brimelow is now a mostly fringe figure associated with the alt-right and white nationalism, for many years he was a perfectly respected mainstream Canadian journalist who wrote for all the big newspapers and magazines up here. As a Brit, he saw Canada with a certain degree of aloof detachment, and “The Patriot Game” was his effort to write a “Unified Theory of Canada,” that focuses heavily on how Canadian politics, and the “game” of manufacturing a sense of nationalism for a rather curious, anachronistic country (he famously called it “one of the toadstools of history” — that is, something that grew up unexpectedly) provides the essence of Canadian identity. Even as Brimelow’s own reputation has declined, it is still a very widely-quoted book, and was particularly influential in the life of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

As a Canadian, I’d like to know an answer to this question. Growing up, history seemed to be a series of microaggressions (e.g. Boer war, endless fur trade disputes). It would be nice to read a more overarching narrative!

Note that several other commentators expressed displeasure with the work of John Ralston Saul.  What else might you recommend as the stochastically best book to read about Canada?

I will be aggregating information for some other countries and regions soon.


My favorite The Scotch by John Kenneth Galbraith


His being an economist, of sorts, shouldn't you consider "The non-potable Scotch: A memoir on the clansmen in Canada" by John Kenneth Galbraith?

He would at least disabuse you about the English/French duality. In the days of which he writes the French were just 'other': the split that mattered was English/Scots.

>> "...he writes the French were just 'other': the split that mattered was English/Scots."

It certainly makes it easier to understand! But sadly incomplete, no?

Robertson Davies for fiction and George Grant for non-fiction?

I think if you want to approach the Canadian experience in assembling a bibliography, you might start with historical geography rather than history per se.

A historical-sociological question interesting to explore would be the collapse of Quebec's unique culture and it's associated social forms.

For the Canada I grew up with, Davies, especially the Salterton Trilogy is very good. But Canada today is a different place -- urban, secular, and multi-ethnic. I wouldn't know what to recommend nowadays, maybe We'll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night by Joel Thomas Hynes.

Then again, there's the great anti-Canadian novel by Wyndham Lewis:


Surfacing - by Margaret Atwood gets a few key features of a "traditional" Canadian identity in there:

- Scrambled English/French heritage
- Paranoid anti-Americanism
- Nature as a touchstone / refuge

Totally excludes the west and the east but that is also a tradition.

"Paranoid anti-Americanism": hardly surprising given that "Patriots" lynched Loyalists, and that later the USA invaded Canada a couple of times. Plus they must have observed the USA's treatment of Mexico with some dismay. Living next to a stronger aggressive power must be trying.

It's doubtful Margaret Atwood is motivated by historical events in 1813 or earlier. While we're at it, the 'loyalists' who settled in the Canadian Maritimes numbered about 30,000.

I don't know that it is properly stochastic, but if you want a sporting angle I enjoyed The Meaning of Puck, by Bruce Dowbiggin, looking at Canadian culture and politics through the lens of how Canadians think about hockey. Also the CBC miniseries Hockey: A People's History is an interesting look at Canadian history and self-identity through hockey (including examples of Americans messing (per the CBC, anyway) with their pure game).

I really enjoyed John Ibbitson's 'The Polite Revolution', though I read it at an age when I hadn't seen much of the world. The best book about our national obsession is Ken Dryden's 'The Game'.

English: Two Solitudes by Hugh Maclennan (fiction), Roughing it in the Bush (non-fiction) by Susanna Moodie
Quebecois: L'Appel de la race by Lionel Groulx (fiction), Les insolences du Frère Untel by Jean-Paul Desbiens (non-fiction)

>>Quebecois: L’Appel de la race by Lionel Groulx (fiction), Les insolences du Frère Untel by Jean-Paul Desbiens (non-fiction)

Really? Both your suggestions are written by Catholic Priests in the early 20th Century. One of them is a notorious anti-semite.

Better to try « Le Rêve de Champlain » by David Hackett Fischer, which is exceptional, or perhaps "Une histoire du Québec racontée par Jacques Lacoursière" if you are looking for a fairly neutral book written by a native,

Quebec is nothing if not Catholic. Like it or not, the history is what it is. I am unfamiliar with your alternatives which are no doubt better than mine, this being a stoachastic list and all. I liked Desbiens’ critique of public schools which seems like a timely topic as does Groulx moving exploration of identity. Change the names, religions, and races and you have books covering popular contemporary topics except better written than what is being printed today.

Quebec is nothing if not Catholic.

Prior to 1960, before it decayed in to a collecting pool of Francophone Pottersvilles.

One of them is a notorious anti-semite.

Two questions:

1. Did he write something instructive?

2. Was Mordechai Richler's nose out of joint about something?

A given answer to one does not preclude any answer to the other.

The best book on Canada is a children's book, The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier. You can see the animated version here:


It's brilliant! His first novel, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, is also brilliant.

I've read this story to my daughter a hundred times, and I would happily read it to her another hundred times.

Don't read this (or watch the film) because it gives a deep insight into Canada -- it says nothing true about English Canada, and little about modern Quebec. Appreciate it as art.

"The Rise and Fall of an Incomplete Legend: Frozen Englishmen in the Canadian Prairies During the Winter of 1906-07", by Joe Cherwinski. A great read.

That was the winter that also inspired Wallace Stegner's short story "Genesis". Stegner's "Wolf Willow" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain" are also wonderful historical fictions of growing up on the Canadian praries.

There are also some pretty decent graphic novels that deal with Canadian culture and history. I'm thinking of Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography or Jeff Lemire's Essex County Trilogy.

This also looks fun & related: Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada https://www.amazon.ca/dp/0676976441/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_N42AAbF81ES5H
(I am reading it right now)

"Canada: A Story of Challenge by J. M. S. Careless" - is this a punny joke? Translated to normal English from PC-speak, the title reads: "Canada: A Story of Trouble" by I.A.M. Careless?!

Or maybe "Canada: A Story Of Problems"...

I'm with Art Deco-- Tyler would enjoy Fifth Business.

The whole trilogy is good and I bet Jordan Peterson has read it, being Canadian and all.

I don't own his book Maps of Meaning yet, but since it's about the diverse yet similar ways we find contentment, meaning and happiness in life, and since he seems (repeat seems; I'm not an expert) to be some kind of Jungian, as Robertson Davies was, and since you can hardly have grown up in, or lived in proximity to, Canada without running across Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies (and Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat) I would be surprised if he hadn't read Robertson Davies. We can accuse him of a lot, but it seems he's well read and hardworking.

What was your point, though? I can't tell if you were just pulling a Rayward and rambling or whether there's a cheap shot embedded in there about Jordan Peterson.

Just a harmless quip brought to mind by exactly what you said about Davies being a Jungian and Tyler's recent obsession with Peterson. I actually think Peterson is a positive force in the world.

Thanks for clarifying, cheers. I've never fathomed the Jung stuff myself, but Peterson quotes him somewhere and it is really quite interesting: (my paraphrase) "people don't need to be 'happy', rather they need to have a project".

By project one can mean just about anything: collecting memorabilia, throwing successful dinner parties, building a house, being a better dad or mom or friend, getting fit and keeping fit, fighting some polluter, or ... er, standing up to those who wish to legislate political correctness, etc.

I know you didn't ask, but here are some projects friends of mine and my teenage son are engaged in, just to show the variety of "things-that-can-give-meaning": levelling up in a hard video game; visiting every decent coffee shop in a big town, and rating their coffees; competing in a Masters tournament; building a new workshop; taking up archery; becoming an accountant as a second career out of curiosity; keeping a theatre school solvent.

Not a book, but if you want a quick study in Quebec you should watch Mon Oncle Antoine. https://www.amazon.com/Mon-Oncle-Antoine-Criterion-Collection/dp/B00180R04K/

About the people commenting against John Ralston Saul: they barely know who he is, and have almost certainly never read a single word written by him. They hate him because in their minds he's part of some deep state Liberal Party establishment, mostly based on the fact that he's married to former Governor General Adrian Clarkson, about whom they know very little ... and if you check their IP addresses, I'd bet 5 to 1 they're in Saskatchewan or Alberta.

I’ve read a couple of his books, several articles and check in on Twitter occasionally. He retweeted a story the other day that concluded the following about Trump:

“(Trump) is the first president to fail to defend the nation from an attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power — and to resist the investigation of that attack.”

Forget about Trump. The thing is that this paragraph is loony tunes BS (especially considering that this “attack” was likely a contrived excuse to spy on Trump).

And yet Saul apparently thinks that story is reasonable and true.

So when I read Saul explaining something obscure and historical about the Metis, I need to trust that his interpretation is reasonable and true. But when I crosscheck his perspective against something I can verify, I know his perspective can be loony tunes BS.

And for that reason, he’s probably not worth reading.

You can reach the same conclusion about pretty much any author on Twitter. Someone who's never read any of, say, Nassim Taleb's books could look at his Twitter account and find many, many reasons to dismiss him and ignore his books. But they would be missing out on something much more interesting than his Twitter account.

Taking note of Taleb's prognostications in 2008 and 2009 and comparing them to what actually happened is sufficient reason to stop paying attention to Taleb.

What if the U.S. had annexed Canada? We tried, more than once. Indeed, the U.S. invaded Canada in 1775 at the start of the Revolutionary War. The rebel forces were defeated, and the Revolutionary War sparked another invasion, of loyalists leaving the U.S. for Canada, which would make annexation rather difficult. But we Americans are tenacious. We invaded Canada again during the War of 1812. Yet despite our population advantage (there were 7.5 million people in the U.S. and only about 500,000 in Canada), the United States had “too many incompetent officers and too many raw, untrained recruits” to defeat the Canadians according to Donald R. Hickey, a history professor at Wayne State College and author of various books on the War of 1812. More recently, Canada has taken on a renewed significance in America, as many Americans have threatened to move to Canada since Donald Trump's election. And Trump has threatened war against Canada, a trade war. It's 1775 all over again. O Canada.

Give it time. Once the water runs out, there will be a Ukraine (Syria?) crisis in Canada. All it takes is a little bit of sudden instability (where did that come from? hmm) and then: "won't somebody please swoop in to save Canada, and its abundant water resources too!" 50 more years of Canada, max ...

Ok, I suspect you are a loon, and I'm glad you have provided Rambling Ray with a friend who shares wacky conspiracy theories. But let me ask you this.

Assuming, just for a second, that the scenario you outline is realistic, then surely there must be -- somewhere deep in the bowels of the NSA or the CIA -- some at least rudimentary plans for this contingency? Now have you ever heard anything about it? I have not and I've followed stories about our gov't and our northern neighbour for years, as I live nearby.

The most I've heard is vague talk about using some BC lakes and rivers to serve as the conduit to "canal" or "channel" some water to the States from Alaska. This may or may not be viable, but it suggests itself because of the geography of said lakes and rivers, as you can see if you look at a map of BC.

Look, even at the height of the Cold War against a ruthless Russian/Soviet enemy, we were practically paralyzed by a tinpot ranting dictator living on a poverty stricken island approx. 90 miles off our shore (Cuba). And so within 50 years we're going to invade and occupy a massive geographical region with a population over 30 million? (You can't even compare the Ukraine and Syria. In the latter, Russia is propping up a dictator and lobbing bombs to show off weaponry to possible buyers, while re: the former, it has a long history of enmity with Ukraine, going back centuries, an enmity that includes the starvation of some 5 million Ukrainians. The worst we've done to Canada is take a couple of hockey franchises south.)

Put away your Leninist fantasies. We are a commercial empire, not a land grabbing imperial one. I mean, we haven't even grabbed Iraq's oil. Nor did we kick out Saddam from Kuwait in order to grab ITS oil.

Besides, Canada might even want to sell us water. It sells us electricity, among other things. That's our 2nd biggest trading partner. And a good friend. (We are their main trading partner; a whopping 75% of its trade is with us.)

Speculative prognostication =/= conspiracy theory

There is no way the United States would ever conquer Canada. It's population is too far left (comparatively) to be easily integrated into the Union without altering the political balance. As well, Canadians would not welcome annexation and most likely would resist. It wouldn't necessarily be a physical resistance, but Canada is a country with a strong and rich political heritage that wouldn't easily be subdued.

Then there's the practical matter: Canada is an extremely friendly border region that (sortof) defends and governs itself. Canada is a free, educated country with strong property rights - there's no need for the States to annex it, as it just buy it.

It's been an axiom for over a hundred years that Canadians will instinctively recoil from anything that likens them to Americans. (So, you get your budweiser drinking Quebecker who puts on his Dockers and gets into his Ford to swing into Maine to check for something from Home Depot, while listening devotedly to the Montreal Canadiens hockey game against the Sun Belt whatsits, and meanwhile not having a clue whether PSG is a drug conglomerate or a "soccer" team.)

The most important thing to note is the unrelenting hostility to America for its patriotism. But I would hazard a guess and say that Canada is in the top 3 when it comes to saturating your country with your own flag. Just check out any major sporting event in Canada, like hockey, curling, hockey, establishing human rights "courts", hockey and skiing.

But they are still pretty polite up there. The hostility is hopefully not that deep, but it is wide. I think it comes from being a smaller country (power, economy) slightly fearful of a bigger brasher neighbour, and from the British influence, as the Brits have a long tradition of looking down their noses at the gauche Americans.

Finally, read "Caesars of the Wilderness". Or "Company of Adventurers". Great history, fine stories, and you'll learn a lot about the northern part of America, with its significantly different history.

"The most important thing to note is the unrelenting hostility to America for its patriotism."

I think the thing that gets under the skin of Canadians is a general disdain from Americans. It's right next door, it's a significant trading partner, but few seem bothered to take any interest. A common joke is that most Americans wouldn't be able to pick out Canada on a map.

@gunther: I agree with you. American indifference of Canada does get under Canadians' skins. But here's what Canadians don't appreciate: Americans are just as ignorant of themselves as they are of other people. Go to New England, and a shocking number have never been to Boston even. So forget about them traveling beyond the region. Go to the Deep South and you find the same parochialism. The United States is probably 6 or 10 different countries in one, where there is so profound insularity and localism. Canada is just another chunk of geography to ignore in the North American landscape.


The sad thing about Canada is that they’ve taken a rather impressive history and identity and meltednit down into a self-satisfied “we’re not American!”

You’re not the most innovative, dynamic, wealthy, entrepreneurial defender of individual liberty.

Congratulations, I guess.

The most important thing to note is the unrelenting hostility to America for its patriotism. But I would hazard a guess and say that Canada is in the top 3 when it comes to saturating your country with your own flag. Just check out any major sporting event in Canada, like hockey, curling, hockey, establishing human rights “courts”, hockey and skiing.

But they are still pretty polite up there. The hostility is hopefully not that deep, but it is wide. I think it comes from being a smaller country (power, economy) slightly fearful of a bigger brasher neighbour, and from the British influence, as the Brits have a long tradition of looking down their noses at the gauche Americans.

Your caricature doesn't actually hit the mark.

Canadians don't object to American patriotism, it's fine to love your country and be proud of it, we are.

What we object to is American exceptionalism, the very obnoxious habit that many Americans have to claim to be the best and greatest at everything, and to think that everyone's dream is to move to their country and/or be more American. It's not that you're proud, it's that you claim to be better than others that draws the ire of people from other nations.

We're also in the same position of any small country next to a larger one with a similar culture, your cultural outputs are much more numerous and better funded and tend to swamp our own, even in our own country. Therefore we do rally around those parts of our culture where we can clearly define ourselves, such as a positive view of diversity, winter, hockey, curling, and aboriginal culture. The flag might be more common closer to the border (where people feel culturally threatened and want to establish their identity), but in my experience it's not nearly as common as it is in the US.

"Growing up, history seemed to be a series of microaggressions (e.g. Boer war, endless fur trade disputes)."

Wot? I don't understand this use of "microaggressions." Those aren't "micro" at all -- tens of thousands of people died in the Boer War! Those are real aggressions! It's absurd to compare those with modern "microaggressions" like someone asking you where your ancestors were from.

What's the matter with John Ralston Saul?

What does "stochastically" mean in this context?

I think it means the best book about Canada, not for a particular person whose blog you sometimes read, but for a randomly selected person.

It means the person using the word is being pretentious.

I'm guessing he means random.

He must mean the other definition, i.e., "involving chance or probability." In other words, "give me your closest probabilistic estimate of the best book about Canada." I think it's a math joke or something.

I don't even have a guess as to the best book about Canada, so I'll just suggest listening to the first three Broken Social Scene records over and over again.

I think Tyler's just using stochastic as a fancy synonym for random. (Which it isn't, quite, but it's kind of an econ geek joke.)

Francis Parkman's France and England in North America

The Culture Shock! edition on Canada is the best. The prose isn't patronizing but the cartoons are. In other words, it's perfect.


Conrad Black's Rise to Greatness series. Three books covering the whole gamut of Canadian history. Hefty reads but more detail than most.

And speaking as one of the wacky right wingers from Alberta John Ralston Saul's work is decent but I find his non Canadian specifc work better than his Canadian history books. Saul does a better job of covering first nations relations than just about anyone else right now though.

In the spirit of suggesting "Lucky Jim" to someone who wants to understand academia, I would suggest "Solomon Gursky Was Here" for Canada...

Almost the only fictional world I would not be appalled to wake up tomorrow to find myself living in is the beautiful and ecstatic fictional universe created by Lynn Johnson from the well-drawn random joys of what ordinary Canadians apparently view as an ordinary life: average aging spouse, house near a city, two likeable kids, lovable big fluffy dog, et cetera.

Not much there about Vimy Ridge or the Plains of Abraham (although there are echoes of what Gretzky went through when his beloved father fell ill) but, back in the day in the 80s when I was a 'USAAF' officer (a real officer, not a JAG or a doc or a chaplain - although they too are all real officers in wartime) I served with a couple of Canadians, and they did not talk much about Vimy Ridge of the Plains of Abraham either.

Rewrite: "created by Lynn JohnsTon from the well-drawn STOCHASTIC joys of what ordinary Canadians apparently view as an ordinary life".

Which Lionel Groulx was anti-semite? The one who told Québécois to take lessons for theit industriousness or the one who said that antisemitism was not only a crime but a blasphemy againt God's chosen people?

Presumably the Lionel Groulx who wrote this in Action Nationale in 1933:

"Within six months or a year, the Jewish problem could be resolved," Groulx wrote, "not only in Montreal but from one end of the province of Quebec to the other. There would be no more Jews here other than those who could survive by living off one another."

I remember reading the Canadian Establishment by Peter Newman when I lived in Canada and thinking it was a good book. Canada has a much more stable establishment than the US and that's one reason why it has a handle on policies like immigration. It was also a widely read book about Canada among Canadians and very dishy.

“Canada and The Canadian Question” by Goldwin Smith is an excellent mid-19th Century book about Canada as a North American society that has aged remarkably well.

What is the difference between a stochastically good book and an ordinary good book? Does the former come with a random number generator?

I did some data analysis on the best Canadian books and wrote about my findings here: http://www.the10and3.com/the-most-loved-canadian-books-what-the-data-says/

Now, for the best book about Canada - I'd say The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What It Means for Our Future by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. It provides a great overview of the views/mentality that help make Canada what it is.

A joke:

Poor Canada! She was supposed to have English government, French culture, and American can-do. Instead she got French government, American culture, and English can-do.

Solomon Gursky was here
Mordecai Richler

My son (American) went to Mcgill. I have loved visiting Montreal, and I think Canadians are awesome. Americans (including me) know so little about our neighbors up North.

One thing Americans have little knowledge of is The Quiet Revolution, which awakened the Francophones to assert their position in Quebec/Canadian society. An outward sign of this is that in 1978, Je me souviens (I remember) replaced the tourist-oriented motto La belle province on Quebec's license plates.

McGill is an English speaking enclave. In the 1970's as part of The Quiet Revolution, it instituted affirmative action for Francophone students who had previously attended in very small numbers.

Virtually every street in Montreal is named after a Catholic saint or other Catholic reference. One of the city's nicknames is the City of Spires for the huge number of Catholic churches (most apparently inactive). Like Ireland Quebec has a history of strong Catholic affilation due apparently to the same cause--oppression by the English majority

I would love to read a good book which deals specifically with the history of Quebec.

Pierre Trudeau's Federalism and the French Canadians is the great Canadian work of unreliable narrator fiction.

Comments for this post are closed