Canada Reads 2020 Debates

Canada Reads is a yearly book award competition hosted by the CBC with the goal of finding the one book every Canadian should read. Naturally, as an American, I felt my opinion was needed in this conversation. I’m kidding! However, I choose to read and follow along to better appreciate Canadian culture. I thought it was a success.

The book is chosen via a series of debates that happens over the course of four days. Five books are chosen from a long list of candidates. I don’t know how the long list is chosen or how the final five are chosen. However, once chosen a celebrity is chosen to defend each book. During the debates, they defend each book and discuss the flaws in the other books. Every year, there is a specific theme in addition to “a book every Canadian should read”. This year it was “a book to bring Canadians into focus.”

The last 2 or 3 years, a memoir has won, and I think part of that can be put on the vagueness of the prompts. The ambiguity of these ends up putting more weight on nonfiction books. That was definitely a theme this year. Several of the defenders had an idiotic obsession with nonfiction being superior, but I digress. Let’s save that for now.

At the end of each day (an hour debate) the defenders vote on a book to remove, Survivor style. The next day, everyone returns to discuss and defend, but the ones voted out obviously are no longer in the running. They are still a part of the discussion and get a vote on which book can be removed.

For my original thoughts you can watch my vlog (above) or read my blog post about it. A lot of my opinions have changed after the debates, but not my personal feelings of the books.

The debates were postponed back in March because of the pandemic. First they said, “let’s make it virtual!” People didn’t like that because they had gotten tickets to go live. Four months later, the CBC finally did the show virtually. They should have done that the first time; did they actually think things would get back to normal soon? There is always next year. Which, I absolutely intend to try for tickets for next year.

Day 1

I missed the first day of Canada reads. Actually, I missed most of the days live airing. They were broadcast on CBC radio and live on YouTube. It was at 11 AM eastern everyday, and that wasn’t a good time for me. Of course, I just went back and watched it. I didn’t watch all of it because I saw it after day 2, and I didn’t care about the book. Radicalized by Cory Doctorow was fine. I enjoyed it because I enjoy dystopian fiction. However, it wasn’t focused on Canadian issues. It was focused on American issues. Then the issues it did handle were heavy handed and ineffective at convincing anyone who doesn’t already agree with the author. The women debaters made some great points about its one dimensional and sexist portrayal of women. Author Jale Richardson said in a post discussion on Instagram that she had a problem with Akil, the defender, saying he chose this book because it talks about Black Lives Matter, and he thought a white man was the best person to talk about that. Richardson made some great points about the importance of own voices. I also felt like Akil (and to a lesser extent the defender of From the Ashes) was a little sexist. He was overly defensive when confronted with the sexist aspects of his book and with the other books that dealt with sexism.

Day 2

The second day was the biggest surprise yet. From the Ashes by Jessie Thistle was voted out. It was a memoir about his life as an indigenous kid who was from a broken home, fell into drug use, and lived for a time homeless before going back to school and getting a job as a professor. There was no question that this was the expected winner among the viewers. It dealt with drug use, homelessness, and indigenous issues. From my limited experience in Canada, those seem like some very pressing issues at the moment. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened. Part of me wonders if they did it knowing it had the best chance at a winning. The vagueness of the rules allows virtually anything. That is really my biggest problem with these debates; it feels like it could be as set up as Drag Race.

The indigenous defender made some interesting points about how the book was triggering. How, to many, it may be moving and educational, but to many in the indigenous community the story is worn out and exhausting. I thought it was a really intriguing perspective especially as we consider what all of Canada should read. Unfortunately, I am still skeptical because the theme of a broken home and drug use was used in her book too, Son of a Trickster. I loved that book, but I don’t understand how she can criticize From the Ashes for it while it is there in her book. Honestly, I’ve watched it several times trying to understand.

Day 3

On the third day, Small Game Hunting was voted out. I couldn’t help but agree. It was really for the same reasons I made in my blog/vlog. You can check it out for more there. Overall, it just isn’t as accessible, but when it comes to what it says and how it says it, amazing.

Day 4

The last day we get to Son of a Trickster vs We Have Always Been Here. In the end it felt like it came down to fiction vs nonfiction and the queer Muslim memoir, We Have Always Been Here, won. That debate was made earlier in the week, and the host (after serious push back from viewers) made it clear that this wasn’t a discussion of fiction vs nonfiction. They both have plenty to say. Of course, that didn’t stop it from being an unspoken agreement among our biased panelists. I think that is another problem with this process. I don’t trust our debaters to be the most objective. They are influenced by their biases and by the feelings during the debate.

One point made during the debate was style, and that, to me, should have mattered more. We Have Always Been Here was fantastic. The topic is moving and is well written. What it doesn’t do is break the mold. Son of a Trickster got flack for its open ended ending, but the defender made, what I thought was a great point, that it is wrong to try and judge this indigenous work from a colonial perspective. We have a preconceived notion of what makes a good book, and she posits Son of Trickster shouldn’t have to fit that mold to be good. I agreed. It was a great book. It was accessible. It dealt with issues related to some indigenous people while exploring some forms of indigenous mythology, and I think that is something Canadians should be more familiar with.

Conclusion

In the end, I loved the process. Author Jale Richardson said the great thing about Canada Reads isn’t just because it promotes good books; it is the discussion and debates it facilitates to get people talking about books. I absolutely agree. While I didn’t agree with the all the results or leave confident in the process, I still loved the experience. I can’t wait to read the picks for next year, and if I am lucky, I’ll go to the debates live!

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