Rhetorical study in Canada resists neat categorization, in part because it is a relatively recent phenomenon characterized by a rich diversity of perspectives and approaches, and by a comparatively fluid conception of what it means to engage in scholarly activity in rhetoric. As an academic specialization, rhetoric emerged in Canada only in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Prior to the 1980s, the subject was not offered in Canadian universities; there were no communication departments where rhetoric might have been taught, and university literature departments, firmly in the belletristic tradition, disdained the teaching both of nonliterary works and of composition. However, despite the lack of institutional visibility and sanction, small numbers of individual rhetoricians found homes in professional colleges and in departments such as curriculum studies and political science, and – more rarely – in literature departments.
While most Canadian rhetoricians maintained memberships in American and international organizations, by the early 1980s they had gained sufficient confidence, if not prominence, to form three distinct scholarly organizations of their own. Though many rhetoricians belong to more than one, the three organizations are sufficiently diverse that they do not overlap completely in membership or activities. Because their differences provide a clear picture of the nature of rhetorical study in Canada, they are briefly profiled here.
The first to form was the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric (CSSR; www.cssrscer.ca), founded in 1980 as the Canadian Society for the History of Rhetoric. The name change, made formal in 1991, was intended to recognize the diversity of approaches (not just historical) that characterize Canadian scholarship in the field. Through its annual conference and its biennial peer-reviewed journal, this small society provides “a forum for the voices of scholars with a range of research interests and from a variety of disciplines, yet who share a passion for ‘rhetoric’ – in whatever terms that be defined” (Spoel 2007, 1). The CSSR is bilingual, with members presenting and publishing in both English and French. The society holds its annual conference in conjunction with the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, a multidisciplinary gathering of scholars that is the largest academic conference in the country. The majority of papers presented at the annual conference and published in the society’s electronic journal are concerned with rhetorical theory and with critical analyses of a range of objects.
The Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning (CASLL) is the formal name of “Inkshed,” a group founded in 1983 to “provide a forum and common context for discussion, collaboration, and reflective inquiry in discourse and pedagogy in the areas of writing, reading (including the reading of literature), rhetoric, and language” (CASLL, n.d.). The group maintains an active online discussion list and holds its own annual gathering separately from the Congress, where its focus is largely on the practice of “inkshedding,” a collaborative process described by one of its originators as a “dialogically transactional” form of freewriting (Hunt, n.d.). Like CSSR, CASLL serves to provide common ground for a constellation of scholars, but it differs from CSSR by being far more centered on the practice and scholarship of writing and its instruction, and its members tend to be those who teach composition or are employed by university writing centers. Since 1994, CASLL has maintained a modest book publishing program featuring titles in the areas of composition and literacy. The few existing studies of the nature and scope of rhetorical study in Canada have been produced by this organization, though their coverage extends mainly to writing instruction and writing centers (Graves 1994; Smith 1999, 2005; Graves & Graves 2006).
Like the other organizations, the Canadian Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (CATTW; http://cattw-acprts.mcgill.ca) was established in the early 1980s. A bilingual organization, CATTW is somewhat larger than the other two groups, and proudly draws its members from professional schools like engineering, education, science, social work, and management, as well as from the public and private sectors. Its mandate focuses on examining the generation, interpretation, structure, and impact of nonliterary writing in the professions and in professional settings such as business, nonprofit organizations, and government. Like CSSR, CATTW meets annually in conjunction with the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and there is enough overlap in the two societies’ interests and membership that they occasionally hold joint sessions. CATTW emphasizes collaboration and interdisciplinarity in research, reflecting the general state of rhetorical study in Canada. The association publishes two issues per year of its peer-reviewed journal, Technostyle, and maintains an active online discussion group.
The recent emergence of rhetoric as a field of academic specialization in Canada has several implications. First, rhetoric in the Canadian context remains a constellation of scholarly specialties and pedagogical interests rather than a unified disciplinary construct. Second, though the situation is gradually changing, rhetoric still suffers from a lack of institutionalized support, both within universities and in the national funding agencies. Third, since most Canadian rhetoricians were trained in the United States, a distinctly Canadian tradition in scholarship and theory has yet to fully emerge.
Nevertheless, the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen significant development in course offerings and programs, most of them in the contexts where Canadian rhetoricians have found homes: academic writing centers, professional schools, and departments of literature. The emergence and strengthening of graduate programs is one sign that the field is undergoing robust growth. Although Canada has thus far produced comparatively few theoretical advances (exceptions include Charland  and Hunt), the eclectic and interdisciplinary nature of rhetorical study in Canada remains one of its strengths, providing opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas and approaches. Theoretical innovation is likely to occur first in one of two areas: in writing practice and instruction, where Canadian rhetoricians have been most active, or – in keeping with Canada’s central cultural preoccupation – in the rhetoric of identity formation.
- Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning (n.d.). Constitution and by-laws. At www.stu.ca/inkshed/const.htm, accessed September 29, 2007.
- Charland, M. (1987). Constitutive rhetoric: The case of Peuple Québécois. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 133–150.
- Graves, R. (1994). Writing instruction in Canadian universities. Winnipeg, MB: Inkshed.
- Graves, R., & Graves, H. (2006). Writing centres, writing seminars, writing culture: Writing instruction in Anglo-Canadian universities. Winnipeg, MB: Inkshed.
- Hunt, R. (n.d.). What is inkshedding? At www.stu.ca/~hunt/whatshed.htm, accessed September 29, 2007.
- Smith, T. (1999). Recent trends in writing instruction and composition studies in Canadian Universities. At www.stthomasu.ca/inkshed/cdncomp.htm, accessed September 29, 2007.
- Smith, T. (2005). How Canadian universities teach academic writing in credit courses. At www.ucalgary.ca/~smit/AcademicWritingCanadaU.htm, accessed September 29, 2007.
- Spoel, P. (2007). Editor’s introduction. Rhetor, 2(1). At http://uregina.ca/~rheaults/rhetor/2007/ spoel-i.pdf, accessed September 29, 2007.