The Lost Art of…Being Canadian (Part 1)

Welcome to my first official blog essay. Granted, as I’ve posted essays in a non-blog format for years, it’s really just a continuation of what I’ve already been doing — hence why I’m just leaping into today’s topic with little pre-amble…
Because I’m a bit like a broken record (ie: repeating myself, click, myself, click, myself) I’ve frequently returned to the topic of Canadian culture/identity in Canadian movies and TV shows — specifically, its absence. How so many so-called “Canadian” movies and TV series actually pretend they aren’t Canadian, usually being set in the United States, featuring American characters. Or they go the anonymous route, of not actually saying where they are set — some vaguely defined “North America” which they’re hoping will be assumed to be the United States by viewers, but they can pretend (if called out on it) that they’ve set their story in Canada.
Just how pervasive — even ubiquitous — this can be was reflected in a recent TV commercial I saw advertising Canadian singer Michael Bublé’s up-coming Christmas CD in which Bublé is shown dancing down a city street with a red, round, mail box in the background. See, in Canada, mailboxes are red and rectangular, while in the U.S. they are blue and rounded at the top (looking not unlike R2-D2). So sometimes Canadian productions will trot out hybrid mailboxes to put on a street corner as a way of portraying an Anytown, North America — Canadians subliminally perceive it as a Canadian mailbox, Americans subliminally perceive it as a U.S. mailbox. But this wasn’t even for a movie or a TV show…but a freakin’ commercial!
I keep revisiting this topic because there are always new and novel twists on the situation that arise (like Bublé’s commercial) — and it’s becoming particularly noteworthy recently, ironically, in movies and TV series that ARE willing to admit they are Canadian…and don’t quite pull it off.
Regarding culture/identity, some artists (and their defenders) will harp on themes — they will set their movie in the US, but claim it is nonetheless inherently “Canadian” because of the underlining theme or philosophy it expresses. The problem is, in a country of 30 million people, to claim a theme or philosophy as ubiquitously Canadian is unreasonable. Currently Canada has a Conservative government, and the Conservatives — and their supporters in the press — are claiming that therefore they reflect the values of Canadians…but more Canadians voted against the Conservatives than voted for them; they won the election, but they can’t reasonably claim to represent most Canadians’ values. So if an elected government can’t claim to represent “Canadian” values…how can a single film or TV show?
Which is why, when talking about Canadian identity, I prefer to focus on the tangible — the facts and reality and simply acknowledging, on screen, a story is set in Canada, or the characters are Canadian. And that’s something that, even today, a lot of film and TV makers are reluctant to do.
The reasons for this is myriad — producers claiming they “hafta” set their stuff in the U.S. in order to secure distribution deals or win audiences (despite often getting neither); or because it just seems “right”, and to set the story in Canada would somehow compromise their artistic vision. Of course, the latter argument relates to the inherent derivativeness of many a filmmaker — it only seems “right” because they are simply slavishly imitating all the Hollywood movies they’ve imbibed over the years, which are set in the US.
I think there’s also an element of national self-loathing at work. Or, perhaps more accurately: national loathing excepting the self. That is, the filmmakers have an inherent contempt for Canada and Canadians, and see themselves as somehow superior for being able to pass themselves off as quasi-Americans with their pseudo-American productions. To put it in terms that will offend many people for many reasons, it’s a bit like a house slave looking down upon the field slave, and thinking that because they live in the house and wear a tux, they are superior to their brethren sweating in the fields. (Yah, told you it would be an offensive analogy, for many reasons — but, honestly, I’m trying to be offensive, I’m trying to be a bit of a kit schicker today).
But what becomes troubling is whether this mentality then erodes the ability of filmmakers to be “Canadian”…even when they want to be. Whether after years of making movies and TV shows set in the U.S., and years spent hanging out with co-workers whose life goal is simply to get a green card and move to Hollywood, and being people who get most of their news reading U.S. publications like Variety — they’ve lost touch with the Canadian reality.
A few things got me thinking about this.
One was a recent episode of the sci-fi/fantasy series Sanctuary. Now, Sanctuary is an interesting little success story. After years of Canadians being involved in making successful sci-fi series as, essentially, branch plant mangers for American studios, with the ever prolific StarGate franchise and others, Sanctuary (now in its fourth season) came along as a wholly original Canadian production — created by and starring Canadians, and not based on some previous American movie. Yet…you might not realize that to watch it, because Sanctuary is about a British immortal, surrounded by American associates, living in the United States. Sanctuary works very hard to pretend it isn’t Canadian. Now, of course, it still has possibly opened doors. A subsequent all-Canadian fantasy series, The Lost Girl, probably got a few production green lights thanks to Sanctuary’s success…and though Lost Girl doesn’t exactly proclaim its Canadianness on screen, unlike Sanctuary, it doesn’t entirely pretend it’s American either — it’s more of that Anytown, North America thing I alluded to. Which is a kind of progress.
Anyway, back to Sanctuary. As a series, Sanctuary hasn’t quite won me over — it’s okay, but in its balance of strengths and weaknesses, has more often just hit a comfortable neutral. It’s not a great series, it’s not a terrible series, with maybe a few too many episodes (presumably for budget reasons) that involve the characters in a limited location playing cat-and-mouse (or hostages) to monsters, mutants, mobsters, or bank robbers. Still, it’s a series I sometimes turn on periodically to see if the first few minutes of an episode catch my attention or, at least, if the billed guest stars do (I’ve mentioned before that I like actors, and certain actors can pique my interest even if a production doesn’t). So I tuned on an episode (this time the limited locale was an airport and the villains were mutant pirates) and the guest stars arrived, including Sandrine Holt, Carlo Rota, John Novak, and Martin Cummins — and, honestly, any two of those guys probably would have got me to stick around (actually, they probably had me at Sandrine Holt). Anyway, so I watch the episode, about heroine Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) going all “Die Hard” at an airport — and it was okay, not great, not terrible. And as we are introduced to our assortment of fellow kidnappees one guy introduces himself as Canadian.
And this is kind of what you’ll often notice about these pretend-we’re-American Canadian series — they’ll throw in an occasional episode where the characters go to Canada, or a one-time character is identified as Canadian. And I suspect they pat themselves on the back, congratulate themselves on their amazingly generous act of patriotism…oh, and snicker derisively a bit.
Because often there is a certain self-consciousness about the Canadian aspect — as if the filmmakers are a bit nervous about putting it in. And it’s also dismissive, too. So in the few lines of dialogue identifying the character as Canadian, he quips to the pirates that he has little ransom value as he’s Canadian…and, gosh, we all know what the Canadian dollar is like! And you kind of have to step back a bit and say, um, really? Canada is a G7 nation — literally, one of the seven richest nations in the entire world. The Canadian economy has weathered the recent financial crises better than, well, any other. These days the Canadian dollar is basically on a par with the American one…and frequently bounces a few cents above it! (Not that you would know that by the way American products — like books and magazines — still often get marked up when sold in Canada). Yet the makers of Sanctuary, in their bountiful benevolence toward their home and native land, decide to toss in a Canadian character — as basically the likeable but inconsequential goof, just long enough to mock the Canadian dollar (and so, by inference, assure their viewers the American dollar is better)…and then kill him off within the first few minutes — the only one of the kidnappee characters to be killed off in that episode. Whew, they seem to be saying, okay we stuck in a Canadian character…but we sure wouldn’t want to have to write for him for a whole episode…that’d just be wrong.
The further irony about Sanctuary is that, looking at the bios, many of those before and behind the scenes of Sanctuary (from creator Damian Kindler to star Amanda Tapping) were not actually born in Canada. In other words, their parents made a decision in their youth that Canada was a good place to move to and raise their family…and now that they are successful adults, carving out international careers, their message seems to be: Mom & Dad — what were you thinking? Canada? Ugh!
Now as I say, no doubt the makers of Sanctuary were quite proud of their sacrificial Canadian lamb — no doubt they expect to get a Governor General’s Award just for inserting a Canadian reference into their otherwise American-ized production. In much the way the makers of StarGate: Atlantis were quite proud of their inclusion of a Canadian character in the cast of that series…but I’m not sure followed through with more Canadians in the next spin-off, StarGate: Universe. Once they had “proven” their Canadianness with one character…they could get back to the real, to them more fulfilling task, of pretending they were American.
Arguably, though, the makers of Sanctuary are kind of last year’s man, because such a token Canadianism seems kind of quaintly passé when network series like Flashpoint and Combat Hospital are more comfortably and blatantly Canadian (and even their lowest rated episodes are seen by more people than Sanctuary’s highest rated episodes).
But this is all just a pre-amble to pondering perhaps the more interesting — and nebulous — question: after all these years, are Canadian filmmakers having trouble being Canadian…even now when they want to be? Even when a movie or series is set in Canada? Or, for that matter, is there still pressure to be a “soft” Canada — to be Canadian…but not, y’know, too Canadian.

And because I’m trying to keep my posts within a reasonable size, we’ll come back to this…next time.  

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