The Canadian Identity Conundrum (Part 1)…from Arctic Air to How She Move


This post (the first of a “two parter”) will wrap up my recent series of posts looking at the use and depiction of culture and cultural identity in pop culture — and specifically Canadian movies and television. I’d say this will be my final word on the subject — but we all know I’d be lying if I did! Still, I’ve got some other essays waiting in the queue so I’ll try and make this (and the next post) it for now so I can move on to other topics.

Let’s talk about culture in the context of movies and TV.

No, I don’t mean Culture with a capital “C” — operas and ballets and Lit novels you study in university. I just mean the culture…the society in which we live. You see, often when one talks about movies or TV shows (or any art form) part of the discussion revolves around the notion of it depicting the culture, the society in which it has arisen. And I don’t just mean in a high brow way…I mean even if you’re talking about a police thriller, a sitcom, or a horror movie about monsters in the wheat fields.

I was thinking about this watching an episode of the CBC drama, Arctic Air. Arctic Air is a big budget prime time drama set at a struggling charter air service in Yellowknife, NWT — a region where such a business, and modern day “bush pilots”, really are a life blood of the culture because communities are separated by huge tracks of land that often aren’t readily accessible by road or river, and where centuries old Inuit villages are just a few klicks away from state of the art mining and drilling enterprises. Arctic Air has done well enough for itself in the ratings — it’s not a monster hit or anything, but it’s proven a solid performer (and with hopes it can build on its initial ratings, in much the same way Heartland and Republic of Doyle grew their audience numbers over time). It’s also become a good example of the different forces at work warring over Canadian culture and identity. Detractors have criticized the series as irrelevant to most Canadians, who, after all, live in southern big cities (the same critics often dismissive of Republic of Doyle because, well, it’s set in Newfoundland and since they don’t live in Newfoundland, they can’t understand why anyone would watch a story set there). Now firstly — so what? They don’t live in Hawaii but they don’t seem to object to Hawaii 5-0. Almost no one today can remember early 20th Century England…but Downton Abbey is a popular series.

Something doesn’t have to reflect every aspect of your existence to resonate with the world you know. If it did — no one would watch super hero movies (unless a lot of people have secret identities of which I’m unaware). Because the funny thing about Arctic Air is how much it does speak to, and reflect, the reality I know…even though I’m not sure I’ve ever been farther north than, say, Algonquin Park! But the world depicted, the issues and dilemmas that characters face, are ones I’m familiar with from stories I’ve heard from kith and kin, and from news stories I’ve read in the papers or seen on TV. And — and this is the important part — the place I don’t usually get these stories…is from American media.

The scenarios depicted in Arctic Air are hardly unique to Canada, let alone the Canadian north — you could show Arctic Air to anyone, anywhere in the world, and aspects would resonate with things they know. Whether it be simply the struggles of a small business, or the soap opera threads of romantic entanglements, or even the bigger socio-political issues of Old World/New World clashes, and the struggle to balance progress and tradition, commerce and the environment. No, there’s nothing parochially Canadian about Arctic Air’s themes…but what gives it its soul, its narrative bite, what takes those familiar themes and makes them seem fresh and unique and exciting…is it’s so deeply rooted in this uniquely Canadian region.

You don’t have to be British to root for James Bond…but if James Bond wasn’t British, he’d lose that very core of his being that resonates with fans throughout the world.

So what makes Arctic Air effective as drama is the fact that it is so unapologetically Canadian…perhaps the most archetypical Canadian series currently on TV. There was a scene where a would be mining mogul is discussing his plans for development in the region, and talks about trying to get the “First Nations” on side. Watching that scene, no Canadian would’ve even blinked…it’s so much a reflection of stories constantly streaming across headlines. But, as I say, it’s not the sort of discussion you usually see on American TV. More to the point, my impression is that an American watching that might pause and say, “What the heck’s a “first nation”?” Because as far as I know, First Nations is a largely Canadian term — even though what it refers to isn’t unique to Canada. The First Nations being the Native People, Aborigines, Indians, whatever term is the more common in your area (and the notion of an indigenous people being overrun by a dominant culture isn’t even unique to colonized nations like Canada, the U.S., Australia, etc…some people suggesting one could even see the Welsh as being analogous to North American Indians). So there was nothing inaccessible about that scene (in the context, anyone unfamiliar with the term First Nations would quickly pick up on to whom he was referring) even as it was presented in an unapologetically Canadian way — and that’s what makes it, and the series, effective. The creators are drawing upon the world around them, using it to fuel — and to anchor — their storytelling.

Yet in Canada there is often a mind set — even an editorial pressure — to be as inspecficially Canadian as possible. A lot of Canadian movies and TV shows are even set in the United States, the lead characters meant to be American or otherwise non-Canadian (on TV we have series like Sanctuary, The Firm, Haven, and others). Then there is the middle ground — the “soft” Canadian show. Ranging from Anytown, North America (where they simply don’t say where the story is set, and since Canadian and American accents, and regional architecture, overlap, they can leave it ambiguous as to which side of the border the story occurs on) to series which do, technically, admit they are Canadian in so far as you can glimpse a Canadian flag waving in the back ground…but few topical references are made, and those that are, are usually American. In the sitcom Mr. D, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a Canadian flag in the background once or twice…yet almost all the topical references the characters make (in the episodes I’ve seen) are American…American history, American celebrities. In some cases, this maybe reflects a deliberate editorial edict — they are hoping to sell it to an American market place. In a lot of cases, though, I suspect it’s because the filmmakers themselves don’t know any different — they themselves spend all their time reading Variety and Newsweek and watching CNN and are barely aware of the world right outside their door.

Then there are the other series and movies — the ones that freely admit they are Canadian, that are happy in their own skins. The unapologetically Canadian shows — and I use that term deliberately. Unapologetic. They don’t feel being Canadian means you have to say you’re sorry.

Now, sometimes, this can lean too far the other way — not often, but sometimes. Shows that are trying so hard to seem Canadian, trying so hard to shoe horn in Canadian references, it can be self-conscious. Ironically, they can almost seem uncomfortable in their desire to show how comfortable they are making Canadian references. One could make the argument that the old sitcom, An American in Canada, though trying to draw upon Canadian/American culture clashes, presented a Canada that was not really that authentically true, in a day-to-day sense, to the Canadian experience. Likewise, the internationally popular Due South, ironically, presented a “realist” America…contrasted with more of a fairy tale Canada (but, to be fair — both shows were comedies, or a comedy-drama).

To some viewers — any Canadian reference is too much. I think that’s both a mix of the self-loathing a lot of Canadians indulge in, a belief that nothing good can ever come out of Canada, and also the simple fact that because they spend all their time watching American movies, which make American references, or conversely Canadian series that still make American references, it strikes them as odd when occasionally an actor in a show refers to a Canadian city, or to the office of the prime minister. The actor might as well be speaking in tongues as far as they’re concerned.

Partly it depends on what you like. Me — I kind of like stories that are rooted in a time and place. I think I developed this inclination, ironically, growing up reading American super hero comics, where in order to counter balance the fantasy of the super powers, there was often an acute effort made to ground everything else in a familiar, realistic world. Super heroes had battles in some mythical place called “Coney Island”, they would make quips about having seen “Star Wars” or quote Norman Mailer, or make appearances on a (thinly disguised) Tonight Show. And the same was true of the British series I grew up watching. I didn’t know much about British culture or regions, but I enjoyed the British-centric references because it rooted the stories in their environment — it made them more real, more, well, substantial. These characters didn’t just live in a square box of cathode ray tubes…but in the real world.

The trick is, of course, to make specific, idiosyncratic references…that nonetheless are obvious from their context. (If a character in Britcom makes references to being transferred to a different city, looks downcast, and the audience laughs…you can infer it’s a city with a poor reputation).

Obviously, some topical references are easier to make than others — in movies and TV (and books, too) where it can take months, even years, to get something before the public, it’s harder to make references to headline stories…but as I say, a lot of Canadian programs are even nervous about referring to cities by name, or referring to currency as a “loonie”.

Which brings us to an interesting anecdote I heard (and forgot about until I was prepping this piece) — an anecdote relating to the Canadian movie How She Move. How She Move belongs to the genre of teen-aimed inner city dance flicks. It’s set in Toronto’s Jane-Finch neighbourhood, but climaxes at a dance competition in the United States. And the anecdote I heard was that there was a scene in the film showing the characters crossing the border to get to the dance competition, but it was cut from the final film after a preview screening (supposedly) because it confused the audience, because many of them hadn’t realized the characters weren’t in the United States all along!

Which relates to that whole notion of “soft” Canadiana.

As I say, the movie was supposed to be set in Canada — in one scene, you can even see a Canadian flag. The characters occasionally refer to Toronto neighbourhoods. Indeed, the very West Indian flavour of the culture (with many of the parents of the protagonists speaking with Jamaican accents) probably should’ve indicated a different milieu than most black American movies (not that America doesn’t have West Indian immigrants, nor that some of Canada’s black population can’t trace their roots in Canada back centuries). And some reviewers were aware of the setting (I think a New York Times review specifically complimented the black Canadian milieu as helping to give the film an identity separate from all the conceptually similar Hollywood films). But clearly to a lot of viewers, the Canadian setting was so softly spoken…it went unnoticed. The Canadian flag was, after all, in the far edge of the frame, drooped around its pole (so you couldn’t really make out its design) and could easily have been assumed to be a school flag or something; references to Toronto neighbourhoods only identify it as Canadian if you already know the names of these neighbourhoods. Canadian currency wasn’t shown clearly — though American currency was. A lot of the more obvious regional and place name references were American and even the dialogue’s tendency to refer to school grades as the “something” grade (ie: seventh grade, fifth grade) is often seen as more American while Canadians, supposedly, tend to say grade “something” (ie: grade seven, grade five). So I suspect the filmmakers, though setting their film in Canada, were nonetheless deliberately going for a soft, unobtrusive Canada…and succeeded so well, the audience was bewildered when the characters tried to cross the American border into the States!

But it does raise an interesting question about cultural identity, and how much is too much and how much not enough?

And ’cause I’m trying to make my posts tighter, we’ll stop there and pick it up next time as we consider various series that aren’t ashamed to be Canadian, from Seeing Things…to King (Aagh! Yes, I’m referring to it again!)

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