Monday, July 30, 2018


During the 1960s and 70s, the national character of Canada was experiencing an identity crisis.  As broadcasting expanded in America, with technology advances and geographical reach with which Canadian radio and television stations could not compete, there was a political demand for the protection of Canadian culture and ideas ... this, in turn, would manifest itself in something that we of the Great White North know as Canadian content.

Basically, both private and public television stations have to play a certain percentage of content that has been created by natural-born Canadians.  At the time, this was meant to provide some opportunity for the 20 million residents in this country to remain afloat, and not be drowned by the 200 million residents in our next-door neighbor.  On some level, I admit, that seems rational.

Unfortunately, it did mean my childhood was filled with bad, second-rate television shows with low budgets, low production values and egregious acting. Despite the government's efforts, we must understand, Canada is something like a minor league ... anyone really talented, whether a director, an actor or a comedian, would sooner or later just leave for more money and more opportunity.  Thus you got Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey, Donald Sutherland, Kim Cattrall, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Christopher Plummer, Sandra Oh, Leslie Neilsen ... it's a long list.  Some of these did some Canadian television.  Most did not.

It's a similar story with music, with the physical arts, with writers and designers and what else; we can force the sheep to drink from this watering hole, but the horses will jump the fences and go elsewhere.

In the long run, this has caused the sheep left behind to become very, very defensive about the nature and quality of their work.  Hm.  To put it another way, it has caused the sheep to inflate and speak in a very gassy manner about the importance, value, cultural necessity and overall national significance of artworks created by Canadians, for Canadians, funded and sponsored by governmental agency and supported, deconstructed, defined and dictated by university faculties across the country who are dedicated to keeping Canadian culture safe.

How to Write Approved Canadian Literature
I'm sure you can read between the lines here.  It's all bullshit.

There is a Canadian culture, but it isn't found in the government's cheque-book.  Our culture is inherent, as all cultures are, in the land, in the climate, in the experience of living, in the manner whereby we deal with the harsh winters and enjoy the short summers, in the sports we like and the distances between ourselves and family, and in the relatively few people who live here and how we view America with a combination of envy, mawkish horror and rank superiority.  We love Americans.  They come here and spend money.  We go there and live where it's warm.  But we're not like them ... gawd no.  There was never any possibility of that.

When I walk down a street in Canada in the winter, and see a car stuck in the snow, something I can count on virtually once or twice a week, all winter long, I stop and push him out.  I do that because I am Canadian.  Because here, in this country, we're all in it together or come the next winter, we're all dead.  Year by year, children learn this lesson and it stays with them all their lives, winter and summer.  We'll see a  boat on a lake a mile away that looks oddly out of place, and drive all the way there just to ask, "Is everything okay?"  And then we'll tug that boat miles to the nearest dock, never asking for compensation for our fuel, because when the distances between places are as empty as they are here in Canada, that's what's required.  We look out for each other.  We have to.  We're in this big, frightening land together.

Americans have a sense that they've "conquered" their country.  That's understandable.  It is such an easy country.  It is full of open mountain ranges and it is covered by well-watered plains.  The trees are all deciduous and fruit-bearing.  The weather is so fine that in half the country you can sleep outside all year long and not die.

In Alberta, where I live, you can't do that even in April.  Or some nights in May.

It's easy to be independent in America.  The country is SO friendly.  So affable.  So comfortable and reliable.  So tame.

I live in a city of more than a million people and we still occasionally find wild moose and wolves inside the city.  I was once less than 200 feet from a wolf, in a graveyard, 4 miles from the city limits.

This is Canada.  We never needed the government to protect our culture.

But they did.  And in the process, they empowered committees of gatekeepers and politicos who took it upon themselves to dictate what "Canadian content" meant.  "Created by Canadians" wasn't good enough.  It had to be quintessentially Canadian ... it had to be about family and small towns, about rural farms and everyday, ordinary folk, and absolutely no sex whatsoever, period.  It had to be from people who dwelt in the obscure country, who experienced those winters and that vastness in the raw ~ or else it wasn't published.

With the 90s, it became all about the new generations coming to Canada, stressing the New Canada, where people from all over the world and from every other culture came here and reconciled those cultures with the Canadian experience.  So we were drowned in novels by South Americans, Vietnamese, Sub-Saharan Africans, Punjabi and Maharashtra writers who were first generation, or the sons and daughters of first generation, who were here to tell their stories.  Many of these were good stories, but it must be understood ... it could not be a Tamil writer come to Canada and talking about Tamil themes, oh no.  It had to be about the Tamil experience in Canada ~ or else it wasn't published.

And now with the present, it is the same, only now it is social concepts.  It is the woman's Canadian experience, or the gay's Canadian experience, or the transgendered Canadian experience ... and it is still good writing.  But if it isn't that ~ it isn't published.

But I laugh.  I used to worry about this quite a bit, I can tell you.  As a writer, I saw the gatekeepers in charge of Canadian Lit and could not imagine how I, a white, liberal, home-grown, city-born kid with a hate on for rural life, who loves sex in his literature like any good New Yorker.  There was no place for me in this country's Canadian content.

But I'm free now.  I self-publish and I make money at it.  I don't need the gatekeepers.  No one in this country does.  The writers are in control again ... though I promise that the universities and government doesn't know it yet.  We've bypassed them with the Internet, and thank heaven.  I write Canadian Literature every time I punch a keyboard; and there's no one in this country that will stop me.

The Tamil writer that lives across the street from me can write about Ceylon and publish it here and never mention Canada, and damn, that's how it should be.  The multigender who serves me coffee at the Tim Hortons can write stories without trees, rocks or snow and there's no one to give a care.  We're all marketing our books worldwide, to whomever wishes to buy, and to hell with Canadian bookshelves, Canadian publishers or Canadian faculties.

We are Canadian because we are; and not because some entity gives a seal of approval.  After living nearly my whole life waiting for that seal, from the time I was 12 and had decided to be a writer, it is damn good to be free of it.

At last, I can compete with my American cousins and I don't have to go to America to do it.


Fuzzy Skinner said...

I live in a place where the insistence of "local" settings and themes for media is a similar fixation for those writing the checks. Which is great, if you want to write novels and make movies about festivals, food, or food-themed festivals; but it seems that the only person who seeks out local literature and poetry that isn't just about ostensibly-Roman Catholic hedonism is my dad.

Regarding movies: Keith Bailey (writer of The Unknown Movies website) frequently laments the low quality and lack of appeal of Canadian government-funded films, often half-jokingly demanding that they make movies people actually want to watch. But then you have people like David Cronenberg, who shoots most of his movies in his home country and (until recently) with a mostly Canadian cast. And he certainly puts sex in his movies, with the curious exception of Scanners; perhaps that's why that particular movie got some government funding where The Fly didn't?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Cronenberg is a strange case.

His films, the Dead Zone and the Fly, were Hollywood backed films (see Wikipedia); but apart from those, he did most of his work in Canada. But all of his earliest stuff was art house films in the 1970s, which yes, the government did provide funding for. However, I want to point out that this was very early in the Canadian Content period, when being Canadian and showing talent was enough. The matter of dictating content gathered steam and started to take over in the late 70s and early 80s, after Cronenberg was established and proving he could make money with films (the violent Scanners and the highly sexualized Videodrome).

But no one could say he was a shining star of the arts community in the days when he made his particular brand of film; you will notice that most of his accolades come after 2002. NOW he's a shining star; but back in the days, up to when he released the brilliant film Crash, he was black sheep in the Canadian family, not spoken of in upscale company. As I'm looking over his history, and even his own quotes about his past, it's all been washed down. I was 19 when I saw Videodrome, the content of which would have trouble passing the censors now; it was not seen as "great direction" and "brilliant horror" at the time. Except by me.