Unmasking Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of A Lion

By Kwasi Hoffman

In Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of A Lion, he rewrites the traditional historical account of the construction of Toronto’s infrastructure. While the official account focuses on the city’s planners and corporations, Ondaatje shines light on the visions and stories of those who built the city (Lowry, 3). Furthermore, Ondaatje’s work highlights an unwritten history, especially the issues surrounding immigration, and the continued “struggle for an acceptable division of power within changing social constructs” (Gamlin, 68). The narrator aims to give voice and beauty to the work of the disenfranchised: the immigrant labourers who performed back-breaking work and sacrificed their lives in order to build Toronto. According to Ondaatje, during his research on the history of Toronto, he was shocked to discover the “number of buckets of sand used…during the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct, [while] the people who built the goddamn bridge were unspoken of” (Turner, 21). In discussing Toronto, Ondaatje portrays a city under construction, particularly in relation to the Bloor Street Viaduct and the Harris Water Filtration Plant. Yet, Ondaatje’s attempt at “redeeming or liberating the exploited workers” is also structured through the “sensate representation of labor”, and his writing moves beyond a literal interpretation of labor (Lundgren, 15-29). In addition, Ondaatje challenges the reader not only to reconsider the relevance of Canada as a multicultural nation, but also to recognize the marginalized in constructing a national myth and history. The various ways in which Ondaatje deals with some aspects of key characters’ identities in a diasporic setting, namely Nicholas Temelcoff, and Patrick Lewis, also sheds light on the experiences of early twentieth-century migrants.

The narrative style of the novel draws the reader into the mechanics of labour, so much so that one can almost feel, smell, and hear the workers. Rather than portraying the suffering of the workers, and the everyday risk involved in their work, the novel brings to life the artistry of these sufferings (Lundgren, 15-29). The novel was written during the period when Asian and Caribbean migration had reached its pinnacle, and was published the year before the federal government passed the Canadian Multicultural Act (Lundgren, 15-29). In an interview, Ondaatje stated that his motivation in writing the novel was partly due to the fact that “Canada has always been a racist society…and it’s getting more so” (Turner, 22). Similarly, Joseph Mensah maintains that the “Point System” in 1967, which officially announced Canada as a non-racist country, prompted many Canadians to believe that they lived in a peaceful and tolerant nation, and that “we are superior to countries, such as the United States, that are still struggling with racism” (1). Ondaatje and Mensah clearly contest the work of John Macionis and John Gerber, who claim that “the fact that Canada, in a short time, went from being a largely Anglo-Saxon society to one with a substantial immigrant and visible-minority component without major violence suggests a fair degree of tolerance” (qtd. in Mensah, 2). According to Ondaatje, his focus on earlier European immigrants was intended to prompt the reader to approach the novel with an “implicit critique of the ongoing racial stratification in contemporary Canadian society” (Turner, 21). In other words, in writing the novel, Ondaatje questioned the validity of the passage of Canada’s Multicultural Act, and whether or not it actually eradicated racism or abolished the structural racial inequalities embedded in Canadian society.

While the focus of Ondaatje’s literary work was to question the national myth of a homogenized nation, it also coincided with debates on national identity that prevailed during the 1980s and 1990s (Lowry, 8). It was against this background that the novel was published. In exploring the nature of immigration to Canada, Ondaatje’s In the Skin of A Lion briefly mentions the “war in the Balkans” (Ondaatje, 45); however, the novel does not examine the historical complexities of early twentieth-century Balkan history (Marinkov, 253). As Melina Marinkov comments, Ondaatje’s work is more interested in tracing a connection between the Balkans and the growth of Canada’s urban and industrial complex in the 1920s (253). Significantly, Ondaatje’s perception of Toronto in this era casts a negative view on relations between the native and immigrant populations. Dennis Duffy suggests that Toronto, especially, was to Macedonians what New York was to the Jews of Eastern Europe, for it was viewed not only as a “New World” where expression of their ethnicity would be tolerated, but also a place that would ratify their self-respect. Yet Ondaatje’s depiction of the megalopolis is that of “the Egypt of Exodus, the site of exploitation and slavery in the building of monument to alien power”, where the Balkan conflict is purposefully used to situate the arousal of inequalities, as well as the birth of Canada’s “Vertical Mosaic” as initiated by John Porter (Porter, 132; Duffy, 134).

By redefining “the Balkans” as a concept that transcends time and place, Ondaatje’s work maps out the ethical and political possibilities encompassed by the term, as well as the implications for immigrant experiences and relations (Marinkova, 253). As suggested by Lillian Petroff, whom Ondaatje used as his source for the history of “the Balkans”, the economic crises, intertwined with the civil wars that plagued European empires, as well as the widely advertised opportunities in the “New World”, prompted an influx of Macedonian migrants into North America, first as labour diasporas, and then as permanent settlers (Petroff, 68-75). It is against this background that Ondaatje’s character, Nickolas Temelcoff, along with two friends from the village of Oschima, embarks on a dangerous journey that will eventually kill the two, turning them into “the Judas goats to the West” (Ondaatje, 44). The stories of Daniel Stayanoff, a man who returned from North America after being compensated for losing an arm in an accident in a meat factory inspires Temelcoff to immigrate to Canada. For Nickolas Temelcoff, the idea of losing a limb in exchange for such compensation is “the simplicity of the contract”, especially when faced with the economic realities in Macedonia (Ondaatje, 44). Daniel Stayanoff may have lost an arm “on the killing floor of Schnaufer’s”, but he was rewarded enough to afford a farm in his native country (Marinkova, 253; Ondattje, 44). In the context of Nickolas’ personal journey as a member of an immigrant diaspora, Stayanoff represents an ideal figure, the man who immigrates for labor, but is able to return home. The experience of Stayanoff also highlights the dispensability of immigrant labourers in an era in which the butchering of animals and foreign workers in Canadian factories were viewed as comparable (Petroff, 34-5).

The rise of freedom and equality ideally inherent in Canada’s nation-building program during this era did not necessarily stretch to all ethnic groups residing in the country. As Daniel Coleman argues, the “Constrained Civility”, which emerged in the Canadian idea of the nation state also came with a structural, racialized hierarchy, whereby white British, American, and Northern Europeans at the top of the social scale marginalized or excluded those ethnic groups deemed unable to assimilate to Canadian norms (26). Consequently, immigrants from Central Europe, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe, including Macedonians, were met not only with resentment, but were often abused and discriminated against, especially in city centers such as Toronto, where they competed for jobs with native Canadians (Petroff, 73-4). In In the Skin of a Lion, the reader’s first encounter with an immigrant community is illustrated when a nun, who later becomes known as Alice, falls off the unfinished Bloor Street Viaduct, and is saved by Nickolas Temelcoff. With Temelcoff injured and the nun in shock, the two walk to the nearby Ohrida restaurant, where the nun observes the noisy and foreign interior (33). She “realizes the darkness represents a Macedonian night where customers sit outside at their table….so when customers step in at any time, what they are entering is an old courtyard of the Balkans. A violin. Olive trees. Permanent evening” (37). The restaurant itself is named after the city of Ohid in eastern Macedonia, and it becomes a representation of the immigrants’ nostalgia and longing for their homeland (Quayson and Daswani, 17). Temelcoff’s inability to tell the nun his name demonstrates the lack of language that characterizes the immigrants’ entry into the host nation, and, in creating these scenes, Ondaatje portrays the unattractive and dismissive nature of Canada’s immigration policy, and the accompanying levels of exploitation and pressure for assimilation (Marinkova, 253). Thus, Ondaatje exposes the dark history behind the experiences many immigrants faced upon arriving in Canada in the early twentieth century

The importance of language is one of the key elements presented in In the Skin of A Lion. This is portrayed through Temelcoff’s view that if he did not learn the English language “he would be lost” (46). Although he initially learns English from “radio songs”, like many of the other workers, he decides to work nights at a Macedonian bakery and attend school during the day, where he engages in “fast and obsessive studying of English” (46). Temelcoff’s determination to master the English language, which he finds “much more difficult than working in space”, leads him to do the toughest job that no other worker would do in order to fulfill his dream of opening his own bakery. As a bridge worker, his performance and skills embody Terry Eagleton’s explanation that “through capitalism, individuality is enriched and developed, fresh creative powers are bred, and new forms of social intercourse created (218). Yet, Temelcoff knows Harris, the commissioner, “by his expensive tweed coat that cost more than the combined week’s salaries of five bridge workers” (Ondaatje, 43). Ondaatje cleverly demonstrates prevailing injustices and exploitation, but also recognizes the beauty of labour in the capitalist system, noting that Temelcoff spends his nights,

swinging up into the rafters of a trestle holding a flare, free-falling like a dead star. He does not really need to see things, he has charted all that space, he knows the pier footings, the width of the crosswalks in terms of the second of movements 281 feet and 6 inches make up the central span of the river, how long the ropes are, how many seconds he can free-fall the pulley (35).

The bridge scenes embellished by Ondaatje offer some “aesthetic compensation” by “invoking a discourse of skill play that rebels against [the prevailing reality principle of domination]” (Marcuse, 62; Lundgren, 15-19). As an attempt to glorify the labourers, Ondaatje illustrates the craftsmanship involved in the work of the immigrants as to divert the widely held view of exploitation and oppression experienced by the labourers.

The constant theme of racial degradation tends, at times, to overshadow the “humanist rhetoric” embodied in the novel by Patrick Lewis (Lundgren, 15-29). Although Patrick’s origin is not mentioned in the novel, it is clear that he is Canadian-born, and that he arrives in Toronto in 1923 as part of a stream of “native off-farm migration” (Porter, 57). As a member of the “landless proletariat”, Patrick becomes part of the urban “immigrant proletariat”, who are placed in the lower level of unskilled workers in Toronto (Porter, 57). As a character, Patrick is an introvert. In contrast, his lover, Alice, is a performer at an illegal gathering for immigrants, and she accuses Patrick of believing in “solitude” and in “retreat”, calling his attention to his membership in a dominant group, unlike the other “three-quarters of the population of Upper Canada”, who cannot afford to live life with his level of detachment (Ondaatje, 123). It is not clear whether or not Patrick enjoys this class superiority; however, he does state that he only has “ten bucks” to his name. (Ondaatje, 132). As Glen Lowry remarks, Ondaatje’s usage of Patrick’s character provides a fresh perspective for the reader on questions of ethnicity, representation, and class (3). Furthermore, Ondaatje significantly uses Patrick’s character, who is assumed to be of British descent, as a meeting point between the two opposing sides of rich and poor. The social relations aspect of the novel is further brought to the fore when Alice says “I’ll tell you about the rich…they are always laughing. They keep saying the same things on their boats and lawn…We are having a good time. But they keep you in the tunnels and stockyards. You’ve got to know these things, Patrick, before you ever go near them” (132). Alice’s perspective not only suggests that the wealth of rich is gained through the suffering and deprivation of the poor labourers, but it also confirms literary critic Frank Davey’s argument that Canada, in the novel, is “constructed as a battlefield of class interest”(146), whereby the rich and powerful are presented as the oppressors.

The connection between color, nationality, language, and race is most vividly expressed by Ondaatje during the scene involving the tannery workers stepping out of vats of green, red, and ochre dye; “having leapt into different colors as if into different countries”(Ondaatje, 130). This metaphor clearly represents the various backgrounds of the labourers, although the text clarifies that the majority of the dyers were Macedonians, with a few Poles and Lithuanians, who “on average had three or four sentences of English” and to whom “the labor agent” gave “English names” (Ondaatje, 132). In witnessing this scene, Patrick states, “if he were an artist he would have painted them but that was a false celebration” (Ondaatje, 130). This illustration enables the reader to “reflect on the functions of aesthetics and on the politics of representation” (Lundgren, 15-29). Significantly, a curious Patrick asks, “what would it mean in the end to look aesthetically…what would the painting tell? That they had consumed the most evil smell in history, they were consuming it now, flesh death, which lies in the vacuum between flesh and skin…they would die of consumption but at the present they did not know it (Ondaatje, 130-131). As Jodi Lundgren points out, beneath the beauty of colors awaits the consequences of the dyers’ jobs (15-29). Nonetheless,

for the dyers a moment of superiority came in the shower at the end of the day. They stood under the hot pipes, not noticeably changing for two or three minutes as if…they would forever contained in that livid color, only their brains free of it. And then the blue suddenly dropped off, the color disrobed itself from the body, fell in one piece to their ankle, and they stepped out in the erotic of being made free (Ondaatje, 132).

Considering that Ondaatje ties colour to the various non-British backgrounds of the laborers, the notion of losing that color symbolizes, as Lundgren adds, the “loss of heritage and rebirth as generic English speaking Canadians”, and therefore a representation of assimilation (15-29). Moreover, this affirms Smaro Kambourili’s suggestion that, by discharging “all Canadians from the specificity of their histories, the [1988 Multicultural Act] seeks to overcome difference rather than to confront incommensurability” (101).

Similar to the Multicultural Act (1988), Ondaatje’s work releases the dyers from the “specificity of their histories”, producing an act that nevertheless presumes a common European heritage (Lungren, 15-29). This image correctly anticipates that these European immigrants or their offspring will become evenly distributed among the economic strata of Canadian society. In 1962, Canada would open its doors to migrants from the global south, and, as remarked by sociologist Raymond Breton, “whether or not the overall pattern of socio-economic mobility for minorities of European origin will repeat itself for visible minorities is not clear”(88). Breton maintains that, it is race that “has become critical in accounting for pattern of inequality” and that “color difference may be of greater significance since it makes ethnic boundaries more visible” (88). Accordingly, it may lead to more persistent patterns of social exclusion and discrimination than the case when culture is the prime factor of differentiation. Lundgren reinforces this notion by saying that, if the socio-economic mobility of [visible minorities] depends on the metaphor of freedom that Ondaatje employs, that of shedding colored skin, then the prospect is not encouraging (15-29). Meanwhile, Temelcoff, who emigrated to Canada without a passport or a word of English not only overcame the language barrier, but also succeeded in opening a bakery where “his bread and rolls and cakes and pastries reach the multitudes in the city” (Ond, 149). Significantly, although Patrick spends some time incarcerated, he ends up owning a car and adopting Alice’s child Hana, thereby indicating financial stability. Jodi Lundgren contests that the “recurring metaphor of losing skin colour or attaining whiteness as liberation from class oppression makes clear that the novel encodes the mobility only of European immigrant”. Yet, one can also view Ondaatje’s notion of each character’s liberation as going beyond “skin colour”, and rather, the characters’ ability to persevere in the face of unfavorable circumstances. For Temelcoff, the escape from the Balkan wars that destroyed his village, along with learning the English language in order to achieve his dream, despite being exploited by a capitalist system suggests his victory had more to do with than just skin colour.

Ondaatje’s In The Skin of A Lion demonstrates his awareness of the social stigma that exists towards newcomers. However, he also paints a picture that shows that, through hard work and diligence not only were early European migrants able to elevate their social status, but a vertical mosaic was created through the influx of visible minorities. By drawing on the ethnic and racial realities of Toronto in the 1930’s, Ondaatje not only exposes the disenfranchisement of minorities, but reminds readers of the complexities and the multi-stranded discourses that underpins Canada’s multiculturalism today. Moreover, Ondaatje’s novel point towards a period when the notion of racial identity was born, highlighting the fact that racism was not solely concerned with people of colour and First Nations, but was, rather, a social construct that was executed within labour and social values. This is why Ondaatje’s novel focuses on European migrants, so as to demonstrate to the reader the exploitation and degradation they encountered despite their white skin and European ancestry. Thus, In The Skin of A Lion enables Canadians not only to reflect on the past, but also to examine the origins of the social stigmas that prevail in contemporary Canadian society.


Breton, Raymond. Ethnicity and Race in Social Organization: Recent Development in Canadian Society, and Social Responsibility. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.  Quoted in Jodi Lundgren’s “Colour Disrobed from the Body: The Racialized Aesthetic of Liberation in the Skin of a Lion”. Canadian Literature 190(2012): 15-19.

Coleman, Daniel. White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. Print.  Quoted in Melina Marinkova’s ” Canadian Literature of ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’: Canlit Balkans.” British Journal of Canadian Studies 26.2(2013).

Davey, Frank. Post-national arguments: the politics of the Anglophone-Canadian novel since 1967. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Print.  Quoted in Jodi Lundgren’s “Colour Disrobed Itself from the Body: The Racialized Aesthetic of Liberation in the Skin of a Lion” Canadian Literature 190 (2012):15-29.

Duffy, Dennis. “”A Wrench in Time: A Sub-Sub-Librarian looks beneath the Skin of a Lion”.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 125-140. Print.  Quoted in Glen Lowry’s “The Representation of ‘Race’ in Ondaatje’s In the skin of a Lion. Comparative literature and Culture 6.3 (2004).

Eagleton, Terry. The ideology of the aesthetic. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1990. Print.  Quoted in Jodi Lundgren’s “Colour Disrobed Itself from the Body: The Racialized Aesthetic of Liberation in the Skin of a Lion”. Canadian Literature 190 (2012):15-29.

Gordon, Gamlin. “Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and the Oral Narrative.” Canadian Literature 135 (1992): 68-77. http://go.galegroup.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/ps/i.do?=Gale%. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.  Quoted in Jodi Lundgren’s “Colour Disrobed Itself from the Body: The Racialized Aesthetic of Liberation in the Skin of a Lion” Canadian Literature 190 (2012):15-29.

Lowry, Glen. “The Representation of ‘Race’ in Ondaatjee’s In the Skin of a Lion.” Comparative Literature and Culture 6.3 (2004): n. page. http://dx.doi.org/10.771/1481-4374-1239. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.

Lundgren, Jodi . “Colour Disrobed Itself from the Body: The Racialized Aesthetic of Liberation in the Skin of a Lion”.” Canadian Literature 190 (2012): 15-29. http://canlit.ca/site/getPDF/article/13312. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetic. Boston: Beacon, 1978. Print.  Quoted in Jodi Lundgren’s “Colour Disrobed Itself from the Body: The Racialized Aesthetic of Liberation in the Skin of a Lion”. Canadian Literature 190 (2012):15-29.

Marinkova, Melina. “Canadian Literature of ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’: Canlit Balkans.” British Journal of Canadian Studies 26.2 (2013): 253. http://dx.doi.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.3828/bjcs.2013.14. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

Mensah, Joseph. Black Canadians: history, experiences, social conditions. Halifax, N.S.: Fernwood Pub., 2002. Print.

Ondaatje, Michael. In the skin of a lion: a novel. New York: Knoff :, 1987. Print.

Petroff, Lilian . Sojourner and Settlers: The Macedonian Community in Toronto to 1940. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995. Print.  Quoted in Melina Marinkova’s “Canadian Literature of ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’: Canlit Balkans” British Journal of Canadian Studies 26.2(2013).

Porter, John. The vertical mosaic; an analysis of social class and power in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965. Print.  Quoted in Melina Marinkova’s “Canadian Literature of ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’: Canlit Balkans” British Journal of Canadian Studies 26.2(2013.

Quayson, Ato. “Introduction: Diaspora and Transnationalism.” Scales, Scapes, Scopes. Pg. 17(course Readings).

Turner, Barbara. “In the Skin of Michael Ondaatje: Giving voice to Social Conscience.” Quill & Quire (1987): 20-22. Print.  Quoted in Jodi Lundgren “Colour Disrobed itself from the Body”: The Racialized Aesthetics of Liberation in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. Canadian Literature 190(2006)15-29.

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Kwasi_HoffmanKwasi Hoffman is 3rd year student at the University of Toronto, majoring in Diaspora and Transnational studies and History. As a Toronto resident, Kwasi’s awareness of the rich cultural vibrancy has instilled in him a great appreciation of everyday encounters with individuals from diverse backgrounds. His experiences as the child of immigrants are reflected in his writing in his post-colonial approach. This approach has also earned his academic paper on Jesuit and indigenous relations a spotlight in the Fifth Volume of Vox, a Woodsworth College journal. Kwasi is among the young scholars on the Dean’s list since 2014 and winner of the 2013/2014 BMO Access to Education award. He takes great pride in volunteering as mentor in the First in the Family Mentorship Program at the University of Toronto, and also works with disadvantaged youth at the John Howard Society of Toronto.

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