That Inferiority Complex
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 10 Mar 1949, p. 254-267
Denison, Merrill, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
That Inferiority Complex—the oft-repeated charge, or apologia, heard so often in connection with certain aspects of the Canadian mental climate. The speaker's view that he is an authority on the inferiority complex, possibly "one of the greatest living authorities." A personal anecdote regarding his diagnosis of the symptom. How he came to write "Harvest Triumphant," his latest book. Some remarks by Americans on Canadians. A detailed look at Canadian culture, or the lack thereof. An examination of the Canadian inferiority complex. The failure to develop an important body of Canadian literature due to an even more fundamental failure. A look at Canadian history. Problems with Canadian history textbooks. The myth of annexation to the United States. The speaker's interest in Canadian nationalism.
Date of Original
10 Mar 1949
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, Mr. Thos. H. Howse
Thursday, March 10th, 1949


Today our guest of honour is Mr. Merrill Denison, famous Canadian-American, or if you wish American-Canadian. I say this advisedly because his mother came from United Empire Loyalist stock, and his father was of American Revolutionary stock.

While he lives part of the time in New York, he spends as many months in Canada as he does in the United States. Incidentally, his summer home is at Bon Echo, Ontario.

On one side of the border Merrill Denison is known as "A great American author"-on the other, "A great Canadian author." Perhaps it might be more accurate to describe him as "A citizen of North America."

Having established Mr. Denison's nationality beyond any shadow of doubt, we find further support of our conclusions when we consider his sources of income.

As a writer of magazine articles he is a contributor to "Harper's" and "The Atlantic Monthly" in the United States, and he is well-known in the "Toronto Star Weekly" here in Canada.

In the radio field he has written many series of broadcasts for networks in the United States and he wrote an important series of broadcasts for The Canadian National Railway and The Imperial Oil Company here in Canada.

As an author, he has written eight or nine books "Klondike Mike" was a "Book-of-the-Month." His latest book "Harvest Triumphant" which deals with the history of The Massey-Harris Company, has been an outstanding success in Canada and the United States, and is now being prepared for publication around the world.

As a playwright he has been most successful both in Canada and the United States. He also studied architecture at the Universities of Toronto and Pennsylvania, and after serving in the First World War, continued his studies at the University of Paris, France.

Having presented the evidence, gentlemen, I leave it to you to decide whether our guest of honour is a Canadian or American citizen.

It now affords me very great pleasure to introduce Mr. Merrill Denison, F.R.S.A., who has chosen as the title for his address "That Inferiority Complex."

Mr. Chairman,

In addressing The Empire Club I do not feel that I am come among strangers. For some time during my career, in fact, I functioned in the somewhat unprofitable but nonetheless arduous position of the Club's second assistant secretary. This was due to the fact that my bride-to-be was first assistant secretary and to gain an audience with her I had to help out with the secretarial duties. She owed her position in turn to the fact that her father, Dr. D. J. Goggin, of honoured memory and one of the founders of this Club, was then secretary.

In spite of this fleeting, past association there seems to be some confusion among your executives as to whether I'm appearing before you as a homing Canadian, a visiting American, or one of those happily indecisive birds which are alternately praised for their independent spirit and damned for their schizophrenia--a mugwump. I sympathize with the executive in their confusion for I am often confused myself.

For example, at a meeting of the Canadian Authors Association not long ago I heard myself introduced in this fashion:

"Merrill Denison of New York is legally an American, having been born in Detroit instead of Windsor, but: it was a close thing. Except for this incident beyond his control he is as much a Canadian as any of us."

Let me hasten to assure you that my birthplace was no accident any more than the event itself was any incident. Long before I even became embryonically involved in the project, my mother, for various reasons of her own had resolved that I should breathe the free air of the Republic from the first, and went to considerable lengths to make good that resolution. There is hardly the time now to go into the involved influences that led her to such a curious decision but out of respect for them, an American citizen I've remained-to paraphrase Sir John A. Macdonald just a little.

However, my decision to remain an American seems to have had astonishingly little effect in making any the less Canadian ... except, of course, in the matter of voting. I've lived alternately in both countries; been educated alternately in both and worked alternately in both. In general, I find myself somewhat more belligerently Canadian when in the United States than when in Canada and more determinedly American when in Canada than when in the United States. The reason, I suppose, is because I was born a child of protest and have gone on protesting ever since--against ignorance and intolerance and provincialism. If the truth could be determined, it would probably be discovered that I am wholly North American.

Having done little or nothing to clear up your confusion, I can now proceed to the subject of my discourse--"That Inferiority Complex." The reference, of course, is to the oft-repeated charge--or apologia--heard so often in connection with certain aspects of the Canadian mental climate. Fortunately, I am not only an authority on the inferiority complex but possibly one of the greatest living authorities. I don't claim to be the inventor of the famous cliché--some of the credit must be shared with Sigmund Freud--but I was probably the first to diagnose the symptoms and immortalize them on the printed page. That was when, for a brief period in its precarious existence, I served as the contributing editor of the Canadian Bookman.

I'd like to tell you something about the circumstances. After attending the Toronto public schools, Jarvis Collegiate and the University, I left Canada to continue my architectural training at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia and finally Paris. I served with the French and American Armies during the First World War, and after the war started to practise architecture, first in Boston and then New York. That was fairly satisfactory for a couple of years, and then it began to dawn on me that I'd picked the wrong profession-for me, at least. Working in an office gave me claustrophobia, and I began to feel a terrible nostalgia for the Ontario backwoods, and the Big Rock at Bon Echo where I had spent all my boyhood summers. But there seemed to be no way to reconcile architecture and the backwoods until it suddenly dawned on me that I could give up architecture. I did so and immediately the question arose--what to do with my architectural skills--which were about the only ones I had. Fortunately, I knew something about the work being done at Hart House Theatre at Toronto University, and returned to become its art director.

I had been away from Canada virtually for seven years. I had seen other countries, come to know new people, and acquired a greater respect for Canada. In the French and American Armies, the valor of the C.E.F. had won a reputation unequalled by any other fighting force; in New York people had invariably regarded Canada and Canadians with admiration and neighbourly affection, and in my travels I had seen nowhere anything that could compare in natural beauty with the granite shores and blue waters of Bon Echo.

In New York I had heard that Hart House was one of the most interesting experimental theatres on the continent. That, indeed, it proved to be. Under the exciting, if sometimes erratic, directorship of Roy Mitchell, it drew to it many fine creative talents--painters, musicians, and people who responded to the magic of the theatre--from it should have radiated creative influences that could have enriched Canada's cultural life enormously. Some of these influences did radiate outward and their effects can be seen in many parts of Canada today--but never to the extent of their promise or potentialities.

As an outlander--in part at least--I sensed both the promise and its failure--the promise in satisfaction that comes from worthwhile creative and co-operative efforts, the failure in the monumental apathy with which these efforts were generally received. In New York the vitality of the Hart House would have had the town agog: in Toronto it was meaningless except to a relatively small band of loyal adherents.

I wanted to know why and inevitably became interested in other aspects of Canadian cultural activity. Had such activities been wholly lacking, it would have been easy to dismiss Toronto as a provincial city, as indeed, many a Sunday visitor has done so bitterly. But most of the Toronto homes I knew were hung with pictures and had libraries filled with books. There was the University-an indubitable oasis of culture; the city boasted the greatest musical school-in point of student members-on any hemisphere; and had one of the finest public library systems to be discovered anywhere.

Here were evidences of healthy cultural appetites and of efforts to satisfy them. The curious thing was that so little of the fare offered seemed to be Canadian--neither the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the lectures at the University, nor the music that floated out across University Avenue through the windows of the Conservatory.

This astonished me, for I had come to think of Canada as something eminently worth expressing. And it seemed to me that Canadians, at the close of World War I, with the achievements of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and their leading role in establishing the British Commonwealth behind them, should be as eager and able to express themselves--in books, pictures, music--as any people in the world. But it was quite evident that while the long struggle for political independence had been finally won, the struggle for spiritual and cultural independence was not yet even well begun.

Again I wanted to know the reasons. An experience at Hart House led me directly to an answer. One of the conditions under which the theatre was operated was that one bill of Canadian plays should be produced each season. It was not quite clear what a Canadian play might be and a year's search failed to disclose more than two one-act plays which seemed to come under possible classification and those mainly because they happened to be written by Canadians. It thereupon became incumbent upon either the director or myself to turn playwright to supply the missing third of an evening's entertainment. We tossed for it and I lost.

Since time had become peculiarly of the essence--the production was less than three weeks off--I had to decide quickly what a Canadian play might be-and write it. I settled the first question by concluding that a Canadian play should have something to do with Canadians in Canada. That gave rise immediately to another puzzling problem. What is a Canadian? Where does one find one? What does he look like; how does he act and react; what is distinctive about him? How does he differ from an American or an Englishman, a Scotsman or Irishman?

An American or British dramatist would not have been faced with the same problem or had to make the same pioneering effort-generations of novelists, playwrights, essayists had devoted themselves to exploring and delineating national traits and characteristics-to interpreting those peoples to themselves.

Why hadn't the same things taken place in Canada? Why had the development of a Canadian literature lagged so far behind other phases of Canadian development? A number of obvious answers presented themselves-geographic, political, economic, and so forth. But none of them seemed entirely satisfactory. If Canada could produce statesmen, lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers, explorers, inventors, evangelists and moving picture stars--as she had in rich abundance--why couldn't she produce writers? The answer to that one was, of course, she had. But why hadn't they written about Canada--why hadn't they absorbed and communicated something of the immensity of her struggles and the wonder of her accomplishments?'

The answer seemed to he that there didn't yet exist an audience in Canada ready to welcome things Canadian. Again why? With some assistance from Mr. Freud I came up with one possible diagnosis-an inferiority complex, an intellectual timidity born of a false feeling of inadequacy or inability. I expected that the impeachment would be promptly challenged and denied:--I never expected that it would become part of the national folklore and live to become a tedious and shop-worn cliche. For my sins, I have been doing my best to combat it ever since.

It was the desire to combat a sense of inferiority that mainly inspired my latest book Harvest Triumphant the 100-year story of the Massey-Harris Company. It was written not to glorify a particular company but to present to Canadians the fascinating story of a little known but remarkable Canadian achievement.

I actually stumbled on the story almost by accident. 1 knew of Massey-Harris, of course, as who wouldn't who had ever pedalled a bicycle along the devil's strip on King Street out to Sunnyside or Diamond Park. I knew that the company claimed to be the largest makers of the farm implements in the British Empire but farm implements had never been numbered among my irrepressible enthusiasms. I had no idea, although I considered myself pretty familiar with every aspect of Canadian history, that here was a firm that was one of the world's great commercial undertakings or one that, in the course of the past fifty years, has contributed as much to the mechanization of agriculture as any other in the entire world.

At three times in its career this Canadian company had pioneered the technological advancement of farming--in the 1890's with the most efficient self binder ever manufactured; in the 1900's with the Reaper-Thresher, the first of the modern combines that reap, thresh, and clean grain automatically, and lastly with the fabulous self-propelled combine, which currently has placed Massey-Harris in the foremost rank of the world's farm implement industry.

In the United States, such contributions to material progress would have been proudly recognized as national achievements and made part of the lore of every school child--in Canada they remained unknown or ignored. I discovered them when I was commissioned to write the company's hundredth anniversary booklet. Poring through old records I was first amazed and then excited to learn of the part the firm had played not only in the mechanization of farming but in the development of the Canadian Northwest, in pioneering Canada's now gigantic export trade in manufactured articles and scores of other ways as well.

It was to communicate some of my excitement that I wrote Harvest Triumphant. In addition to recording and celebrating a great achievement, I intended the book to carry a simple message. Implicit in it is this statement "See, my Canadian friends, here is what some of you have succeeded in accomplishing. Should you any longer harbor illusions of inferiority you can dispense with them forthwith."

Speaking as an American, nothing seems more ludicrous than the notion that Canadians-en-masse should harbor a sense of inferiority. Most Americans, I suspect, would be inclined to believe the opposite. So long as the Mounties never fail to get their man, number one Manitoba holds its world supremacy, and you periodically produce a Barbara Ann Scott-suggestions of inferiority will fall on ears across the border as a deliberate affectation.

Americans, of course, are eternally charged with taking Canada for granted, For that they are not entirely to blame. The last reference to Canada in more than half the history textbooks used in American public schools is the year 1763. But any well informed American can retort, with equal truth, that Canadians are also prone to take Canada for granted-that most of them seem to take little or no interest in anything beyond the immediate and narrow limits of their daily lives. Where the American in general is responsive to every new development afoot in the United States-the Canadian in general remains aloof, reserved, disinterested in significant happenings within his country. To Americans, and I include myself again, this presents something of an enigma. Why, when you have so much, do you make so little of it and seem to get so little fun out of it?

I don't pretend to know all the answers--although I've been seeking them ever since I can remember,--but I think one of the most acceptable is to be found in the most rewarding book that has yet come from the pen of a Canadian: Bruce Hutchison's "Unknown Country". As Hutchison points out--Canada is still very largely an unknown country both to her own people and the strangers outside her gates.

In a fine opening passage he points up the great central theme of the Canadian story-the dramatic essence which gives its unique quality and heroic scale. Writing in 1944 he said: "Never have eleven and a half million people ventured so greatly, undertaken more, or accomplished more." With a simple variation in numbers the same truth holds good from the very dawn of Canada's beginnings.

No one who knows the Canadian story can fail to have his imagination kindled by the stature of the men who made it. Not the governors or the politicians-most of them seem to have been a dull and dreary lot-but the ordinary people-the men and women who succeeded against incredible odds in making Canada a nation-the anonymous integers who swelled the census rolls with painful slowness decade after decade.

Consider the restless courage that led a handful of irrepressible French romantics to embark on the discovery and conversion of an unknown content-the grim determination that built the Welland Canal with sweat and pick and shovel in six years time--(the population of Upper Canada was then less than 150,000)-the fantastic daring of the men who conceived and financed and built the Canadian Pacific Railway-the loyalties that compelled the Selkirk and later the first prairie settlers to sit out the dreary decades until technology and Clifford Sifton came finally to their rescue--of the mystical faith and fortitude needed to seek out the riches locked in the Laurentian Shield.

These and other engrossing dramas are part of the Canadian saga. Even more remarkably, in the process of mastering their physical environment, Canadians have been notable innovators, initiators, true pioneers in other important areas of human activity. The Northwest Mounted Police was their invention and from that body stems every non-urban police organization on the continent. The Ontario. Hydro Power Commission was their creation and the inspiration for the Tennessee Valley Authority and other social developments of a like nature. The swift evolution of air transport was largely of their doing and today the air lift to Berlin can be traced back step by step directly to the northern bush pilots of a quarter century ago.

These are but some of the highlights of a continually fascinating story. Yet few Canadians seem to be aware of them or else they remain untouched by their significance. Why? The answer lies in part at least in the failure to develop a Canadian literature which will first communicate, then celebrate national achievement in exciting and engrossing terms.

National consciousness, you know, is not transmitted through the genes or chromosomes. It is an intellectual concept acquired from literary preachment. How explain Canada's outpouring of blood and treasure in two world wars if it was not in response to the love of Britain engendered by her poets, dramatists, ballad writers and novelists. How, without Punch, could the British ever have come to imagine themselves a modest, reticent, unassuming people -or we Americans, without the Saturday Evening Post and Hollywood, to imagine ourselves inventors of virtually everything on earth?

But the failure to develop an important body of Canadian literature is due to an even more fundamental failure.

And please don't think that I undervalue the steps that have already been taken in that direction by Canada's writers or the discouragements they have had to overcome--the duality of language, the smallness of the population, the magnetic attraction of the larger American market... The more fundamental failure, it seems to me, lies in the mistake of not teaching Canadian history as it has actually happened.

No school children anywhere, surely, were ever made to stiffer such pains of compounded boredom as are young Canadians in wrestling with the false confusions of what has been made to seem their dull and unexciting past. As it was taught in my day--and I've reason to suspect it's pretty much the same today--Canadian history was without a single affirmation that would make one proud to be Canadian.

The French period, of course, is so colorful and romantic that only a great talent could destroy it and the textbook writers were not distinguished by great talent. But with the Conquest, life suddenly departs from the story and from that point it plunges into the labyrinth of constitutional history and developments. Along its dull and tortuous paths most school children pass out somewhere between the Constitutional Act of 1791 and the Act of Union of 1841. Should their waning interest survive these bewildering events, then the confusions of Confederation or those of the Manitoba School question will surely down them anyway.

Again one wonders why. Alongside those of Britain and the United States, the story of Canada's constitutional development is relatively uninteresting to anyone but students of government and constitutional lawyers. The story of the Canadians' success--with their infinitesimal population--in retaining and developing half a continent on the other hand, is one of the great human dramas of history. How account, then, for the fact that the one is stressed beyond all reasonable need and the other virtually ignored? The answer, it seems to me, must lie in the fact that Canadian history textbooks are written entirely from a colonial point of view, in which the desire to emphasize the British attachment has made necessary the adoption of an amazing fiction--that Canada came into being in a geographic vacuum, as completely divorced from American influence as if the countries were on different planets.

This represents an extraordinary indifference to fact. The inter-relationships and economic inter-dependencies of the two countries, together with their political independencies of each other, make one of the world's most interesting phenomena and the undefended border one of the most important factors in Canada's pact. As a safety valve it has saved you from the explosive effects of pent-up, economic and political pressures and it has played the same dominant role in the moulding of the Canadian character as the frontier has in the American. To pretend that events beyond that border have had little or no influence on Canada's development is as preposterous as insist that the people who live beyond it have always harbored a sinister desire to annex Canada. Nothing, probably, could do more to foster an inferiority complex than the myth of annexation.

It's only necessary to step across the border into American history to establish the wholly mythological character of the annexation bogey. In the war of 1812, on the eve of the Battle of Queenston Heights, thousands of American troops refused to enter the boats that were to take them across the Niagara River because they had no desire to fight on Canadian soil. When the Montreal signers of the Annexation Manifesto of 1849 reached Washington they were told that the South would never countenance the addition of a large group of Northern states--And the same proposition holds true to this day. There has never been a remote desire for annexation among Americans-and so long as there remains two or three Southern senators with the strength to filibuster, I doubt if Canada could fight her way into the Union with fixed bayonets.

You may ask why I should be so concerned about the subject of Canadian Nationalism--for that is what I am talking about. I am obviously an internationalist. In general, I regard nationalism as a malevolent and disruptive force. I believe in the aims and purposes of the United Nations and I am a supporter of Federal Union. As a preliminary step I would indorse the adoption of dual citizenship between Canada and the United States with the right to vote based solely on residence qualifications. Why, then, am I such a devout advocate of Canadian Nationalism?

I suppose the reason is that as a devoted step-child I wish to see my foster parent realize to the fullest extent her magnificent potentialities. Despite prodigious accomplishments in so many fields, she still lacks many of the cultural appreciations and expressions that enrich life in less fortunate countries. As examples, I cite the lack of a national library; the timid applause for the works of her artists, musicians, writers until they have won recognition outside the country; the general imperviousness to the architectural ugliness of the great majority of Canadian towns and cities.

In many respects Canadians are more to be envied than any people in the world. Your ratio of population to resources is probably in better balance than that of any other country. You have not been too intelligent in the exploitation of those resources-particularly the forests--(They are not as "unlimited" as some advertising would lead one to believe)--but there is still time to place them on a sustained yield basis. Furthermore, Canada now stands on the threshold of a period of fabulous development--an inevitable consequence of the discovery of new reserves of oil and iron as those of the United States approach forseeable exhaustion.

Along with this increased economic strength should come cultural attainments that will make the creative expressions of the Canadian mind and spirit as easily recognized as those of her pulp mills and her factories. Such a fruition depends very largely on the awareness and leadership of organizations such as The Empire Club. I hope you will embrace your opportunities. I count on spending quite a lot of the future here and I'd like to enjoy every moment of it. 1 would be glad to see the end of that inferiority complex.



The frequency with which I bob up at this table must clearly indicate to you that the title of Mr. Denison's address in no wise applies to me.

As I listened to the President's introduction and to the opening passages of Mr. Denison's remarks I realized how much easier it is for presidents and speakers on the other side of the line to establish a guest's racial origin. In the United States the immigration law makes it all delightfully simple. If you are born in a stable you are a horse. And that's all there is to it.

To what we have heard may I add that, to my knowledge, Mr. Denison has performed a valuable service to Canada by journeying through the United States and presenting to our cousins there the story of this country and its people.

Today we have listened to an address delivered with such delicate lightness of touch, and yet with such depth of penetration, as to make it one of the most memorable experiences we have enjoyed over a considerable period of time.

May I trade upon the name of Mr. Denison's summer home in Canada and be the Good Echo of the feeling I know is shared by every member of this Club present here today, and say on their behalf--thank you.

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That Inferiority Complex

That Inferiority Complex—the oft-repeated charge, or apologia, heard so often in connection with certain aspects of the Canadian mental climate. The speaker's view that he is an authority on the inferiority complex, possibly "one of the greatest living authorities." A personal anecdote regarding his diagnosis of the symptom. How he came to write "Harvest Triumphant," his latest book. Some remarks by Americans on Canadians. A detailed look at Canadian culture, or the lack thereof. An examination of the Canadian inferiority complex. The failure to develop an important body of Canadian literature due to an even more fundamental failure. A look at Canadian history. Problems with Canadian history textbooks. The myth of annexation to the United States. The speaker's interest in Canadian nationalism.