Academic Folklore Research in Canada: Trends and Prospects Pt 2

Article excerpt

This essay is the second part of a report I prepared for the Department of Canadian Heritage; the first section appeared in Ethnologies (2000, 22, 2: 255-280). As a prologue to that initial section, I discussed the background to this report, the issues that it needed to address, and the time frame of its creation. I discussed, as well, the point that recommendations were mine, and are not current policy in the Department of Canadian Heritage, nor will they necessarily be converted to policy. The reader should consult part one of this essay for fuller details.

Preservation of Folklore

The UNESCO declaration urges that both formal teaching and out-of-school programmes emphasize folklore in its widest sense. According to the declaration, this means that folklore is not just a product of rural cultures, but flourishes in urban contexts and is created and maintained among diverse social groups, professions and institutions. This point, the declaration maintains, will promote cultural diversity and cultural understanding.

Canadian academics researching folklore could not more wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Clearly, the term folklore as an academic construct is misunderstood by scholars not familiar with its academic study and the general public alike. Academic folklorists around the world agree that folklore is not a product simply of the rural isolated community. This may have been the late nineteenth century romantic nationalistic reasons why the study began, but modern folklorists have long recognized the limitations of this approach. Folklore can exist in all contexts, and is a part of all our lives.

Amateur enthusiasts in many countries -- including Canada -- also misunderstand the term. To these enthusiasts (often involved in folk arts organizations) who are frequently performers of songs, stories or dance, folklore is colourful, quaint, and the product of isolated peoples or peoples out of the mainstream. Folklore, then, becomes associated simply with a certain language group (the French, say), or a certain region considered isolated (Newfoundland), or groups different from the majority (ethnics). All of these assumptions the academic folklorist recognizes as simply wrong.

Academic folklorists have recognized that folklore exists among all groups, the groups mentioned in Section B of UNESCO's declaration: family, occupation, nation, region, religion, ethnic group -- and so many more. What has often led to subtle divisiveness in public policies and public perceptions is the notion that somehow we do not have folklore, but other groups do -- therefore marginalizing them, making them different from us. While academic folklorists continue to struggle with making the true universality of folklore among all groups better understood, they must often labour under the burdens of regional politics that makes this problematic. With no national institution putting forward a national viewpoint, dialogue is often difficult.

Many important studies have been produced by Canadian folklorists that indicate how folklore exists among a wide range of groups. One could, for example, take the special theme issues from the national journal of professional folklorists, Canadian Folklore Canadien (now Ethnologies), as an indication of how research today is focused on the folk traditions of ordinary people. Topics covered include traditions surrounding women, masculine national pursuits including hockey, houses of mainstream ordinary Canadians, food, material culture, costume, urban traditions.(1)

Folklore in Schools

Academic folklorists in many instances have been concerned with raising awareness among the general public of their folklore, and through this awareness ensuring a pride in local traditions. This has sometimes been done through introducing folklore materials into school curriculums. A good example of this was the experiment in the Newfoundland school system to have a special section on folk literature. …