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.


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!

Canada Reads 2020: Reading, Reviewing and Discussing

Canada Reads is a yearly competition where 20(ish?) Canadian authors are selected to compete as the one book all of Canada should read. Those books are narrowed down to 5 to meet the years theme: One book to bring Canada into focus. This is clearly a very vague description, but I suppose it isn’t meant to be very specific. Still, the goal is to have them defended in a public debate setting. Note: the debates have been postponed pending the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

A friend shared the announcement of this with me back in January. I had just started my YouTube channel, and I got super excited at the idea of doing a video about them! I’m a graduate student from the States living in Canada. I’ve been here for nearly four years, and I thought it would be fun to familiarize myself with more Canadian authors.

I decided to treat this like a “readathon” where my goal was to read them all in the first week of March. In the end, I think it took 8 or 9 days, but that was good enough! Above, you can watch my vlog of the experience where I discuss my thoughts as I read them as well as my overall thoughts on who I think should win. It was a fantastic experience. I loved all of these books, and I am so glad I decided to read these. Part of me worried that this type of literary competition might consist of very cerebral books that might be a bit taxing to read in one week (back to back). Overall, I don’t think they were.

I found most of these books to be very accessible and a delight to read. I’m going to provide a review of each below with some context as to how well I think they satisfy the “theme” of the year. Then I’ll do a final discussion of who I think should win at the end of the blog.

Alayna Fender defending Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles

This is a story about a small town in Newfoundland (I think). It centers around a group of people who work or go to this restaurant in the town. The long and the short of it, this is a novel about toxic masculinity, gas-lighting, and other forms of mental and physical abuse. It touches on blame and mental health and the effect our actions have on those around us.

This was the hardest novel I read for this challenge. I found myself being as intrigued as I was infuriated. The writing was so weird and confusing at first. Coles uses the local dialect which is not the easiest to understand. I keep doubting that I read something the right way, and eventually I had to accept reading more causally, not fixating on every weird phrase and hope it comes together (which it did). I stopped noticing it eventually.

The structure is also weird. She essentially starts by focusing on our characters state of minds from the start. Except, she does it without any real context. We’re basically diving into a story midway, and we have to figure out what it is that’s going on. We eventually get the context. Although, it is a fascinating, if confusing, way of telling the story. Cole’s basically starts this by saying, this book is about the mental state and health of our characters. That is the most important aspect.

I really enjoyed the book. I gave it 4/5 stars, but that was a close call. It was actually the only book I considered giving less than 4 stars (spoilers for those reviews). However, I will say that it probably was the most thought provoking book because of how challenging it was.

Akil Augustine defending Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

This was a very fun read. It was a thought provoking set of science fiction novellas. The first is about a capitalist “dystopia” where the poorest pay even to use their own appliances. It was weird story that grew on me. It introduced me to Doctorow’s writing style (which is weird and I like it). The second (I think) was about a superhero (basically Superman) who basically tries to solve the problem of racism and police brutality. I thought this was a fantastic discussion of the idea of a “white savior” and the role of alleys today and in history. The third one was dark. It was a story about people who commit acts of terror against the healthcare system. This walked a fine line between critical critique of our healthcare system and encouraging acts of violence and fear to make change, which really bothered me. The last story was a dystopia about a plague of some sort. It is obviously very poignant given the news. I thought it was a great. It explored the power dynamic of that type of situation.

Overall, I gave this 4/5 stars. I really enjoyed the book, but it felt more American than it did Canadian. It seemed like a giant VOTE BERNIE SANDERS book. I don’t see that being relevant to Canadians. What’s more, even if this was for American’s, if we are looking to inspire a movement, we need a book that raise awareness and change minds. This book is great, but it is speaking to the choir. I don’t see this changing anyone’s beliefs. Does it really fit here? I think not.

Kaniehtiio Horn defending Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Son of a Trickster is a fiction book about a young indigenous teen in an unstable home who begins to learn about his connections to his heritage. This is a fantasy contemporary book, and I loved it. Eden Robinson is herself indigenous, and I assume uses that to build the dynamic we see in the book. I thought was a good domestic story, and I was really intrigued by the mythological side as well.

Personally, I think this deserves attention. It isn’t just a fun read, it is educational. It brings attention to indigenous issues, but more importantly, it explores of one of the mythological story of the indigenous people. I don’t mean to assert this novel is a complete representation of indigenous people. However, I think it would be good for Canadians to be better familiarized with the culture of the people who were here before. One of the most fundamental traits of a culture is it’s mythologies or religions.

Overall, I think it is a great candidate and a great book. 4/4 stars.

Amanda Brugel defending We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

I loved this memoir because I felt that I connected with it in a lot of ways. This is about a queer Muslim woman’s experience growing up in Pakistan before moving to Canada. This was a fantastic exploration of life as a woman in very conservative Muslim countries, but it also did a great job exploring what it must be like to be queer. I grew up in a much more privileged position than Habib. However, I too grew up queer in a very religious family. It creates feelings of doubt and confusion.

This is her story of finding peace in her religion. While I hold a much more negative view of religion, I did enjoy hearing her perspective as a queer woman trying to shape Islam to be what she needs it to be. This was also a story of acceptance, and again I found myself relating to her attempts to find acceptance from her family. Our situations are not perfectly aligned (obviously). Although, it was to the point that I was really able to connect with Habib’s story in a way that I could not for any other story. 5/5 stars

George Canyon defending From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

The last book is another memoir about the life of Jesse Thistle (the author). He is an indigenous Canadian who grew up in a broken home, and this story tracks his life as he tries to grow up with these struggles. It details how these have life long effects on the choices he makes and the places he ends up. This is a dark tale of drug abuse and homelessness, and I felt it was perhaps the most poignant story for that reason. Another thing that stood out to me was the presence of religion in his life. Never do we see him turn to religion, but it was the kind of redemption arc that is easy to believe happens. Although, I feel those types of stories miss out on the true struggle that the person has to go through to recover their life.

This is a full reveal of his life, and I can only imagine how taxing it must have been to reveal some of the things he discusses in this memoir. I really enjoyed it overall. My only complaint was that the writing wasn’t my taste. 4/5 stars.

Who should win?

When we think about which book all Canadians should read it becomes a very complicated question. I’ve already said that Radicalized is not focused on Canadian issues let alone told in a way that would be effective to get people in focus.

Small Game Hunting touches on a world wide issue that has only grown in recent year. That is, issues of gender, patriarchy, and rape culture. I thought it was fantastic. It was probably the most thought provoking, and it is the kind of thing that, even now, not enough people are thinking about. Sadly, I am again forced to ask the question on effectiveness. I thought this novel was difficult to read, and I am not convinced the majority of people would actually stick with it long enough to hear what it has to say. I think we need to focus on a book that every Canadian will consume (or are more likely to).

We Have Always Been Here is much more direct with its message. My issue here is a subjective one. I should be clear, I am no Canadian, merely a graduate student in Canada. What’s more, I am white cis gender male atheist. I am not one to decide which issue outweighs another. However, in my assessment, I don’t think Habib’s memoir brings attention to the area most in need. That is to say, religious and queer freedoms have made great strides.

Personally, I would narrow it down to Son of a Trickster and From the Ashes. I think Robinson’s book is a better book from a writing perspective. It also still focuses on indigenous issues as well as drug abuse (which, to be clear, I am saying is a shared theme between the books not necessarily in the entire community). It also touches on the concept of gender and sexuality in a way that From the Ashes does not. If I had to pick one Canadian to read, it would probably be Son of a Trickster. It is an immersive book that familiarizes Canadians with Indigenous mythology and some of the struggles they have to endure. It is the type of thing I feel would make great foundation for Canadians, perhaps in the classroom.

However, I have to address the fact that this year’s theme is “bring Canada into focus.” What I have done is make an assessment on what I think is most important for Canadians (again, I recognize this isn’t my place), but the theme does restrict exactly what it is they want to accomplish. While it is vague, I can’t help but gravitate to From the Ashes when I think about bringing Canadians into focus. Robinson’s work is the type of background material I think every Canadian should have about the culture that preceded theme. Still, for today’s issues, From the Ashes brings attention to poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and more. For that reason, it seems like the clear winner.