Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Stories About Canada with Jane Urquhart

Rarely is a book so well suited to its launch venue as Jane Urquhart’s A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects was to the event space at Library and Archives Canada. After a decade of closed doors, being permitted into the second floor room felt like being allowed back into history, a perfect segue to Urquhart’s first book of non-fiction.

On its face, the project behind A Number of Things was both immense and contained: In honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial, Urquhart would tell a story of this country through 50 objects of her choosing. “Our story is here, in at least some of its forms,” Urquhart said, by way of explaining that her book is not the history of the country, but rather one look at our collective story.

Flanked by large TV screens showing slides, Urquhart’s presentation was the kind of generous, open look at a writer’s life and process that attendees at book launches dream of. Opening with a black and white photo of her young, pre-child parents sitting on the steps of a farmhouse, Urquhart told the story of how they travelled to northern Ontario — where she and her siblings would be born and raised — and of the dreams and objects they took with them.

A small, intricately painted and delicate sugar pot — already passed down through multiple generations before being carefully packed up and brought north; a pair of moccasins Urquhart was given as an infant from the chief of the Anishnawbe across the lake; a small Inuit carving of geese her father brought her from a trip farther north — Urquhart’s personal objects both inform and are completely separate from the ones she chose to include the book.

The refrain “This isn’t in the book” became a kind of running joke as Urquhart presentation veered increasingly into the personal, feeling at times like a glimpse at a family slideshow. “I think this is the last one,” Urquhart said about numerous slides, each time finding that, no, there was another — Urquhart as a young girl, afraid of horses (“A horse is one of the objects in the book,” she said), a Japanese sword guard, given to her at the launch for her 2001 novel The Stone Carvers , and many photos of her cottage in Ireland.

Of course, some of the photos lined up with the book. Many of the objects she wrote about have no connection to her, but Urquhart said she did find herself and her “pioneer” upbringing creeping into the essays.

One of the objects, Tent, was very particular for Urquhart. Although she left many of the objects mysterious or merely hinted at them — “You’ll have to buy the book,” she winked — she read the short essay she wrote for Tent in full. It is a story that starts with Irish immigrants working to build Maple Leaf Gardens. Among that crew is a man named Danny Henry who, after making his way to the mining towns in northern Ontario, would become her father’s best friend and her godfather. The titular Tent, Urquhart says, is really Henry’s prospector’s tent, the only real home he owned for nearly 40 years. But, tents have a much longer history in Canada, and Urquhart’s essay folds in a beautiful passage about the “skin tent” used by First Nations, detailing its construction, utility and portability.

That push-pull between the objects of immigrants and those of Canada’s First Nations is a ribbon throughout the book, and a theme to which Urquhart returned throughout her talk, as well as during the discussion with CBC’s Sandra Abma. It didn’t matter what object she was focusing on, Urquhart said, all the research came back to Canada’s Indigenous people and what has happened to them.

In part, Urquhart told Abma, that is why the book opens with the Beothuk legging. For Urquhart it is the most resonant object in the book, but more than that, she wanted it front and centre, where it could not be ignored.

Throughout the evening, Urquhart was warm, open and generous in both her presentation and, later, the way she answered audience questions. Surely one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, Urquhart is a respected poet, novelist and, with A Number of Things, has now taken the plunge into non-fiction. That breadth of experience makes Urquhart a perfect author to headline a night that was also a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards — an award Urquhart won in 1997 for her novel The Underpainter . Books, of course, are objects too, and if “material culture” tells us what we value (as Urquhart asserted), then what better book to usher us toward both a celebration of our country’s 150th birthday and our longest running appreciation of the literature created here.