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Exploring Canadian Identity In Canadian TV

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I haven't been writing regularly about Canadian film and TV recently for a few different reasons: including burn-out (I've been doing it on-line since 1998) and I've been focusing on a personal project, putting my money-where-my-mouth-is with my own cheeky attempt at blending pop fiction with Canadiana (yes, that was a shameless plug).

But every now and then I re-buckle my cuirass and mount up for another Quixotic charge.

What kicked me in the pants this time was a series of tweets by Karen Burrows about Canadian television, frustrated by how Canadian TV (and we can extrapolate that to Canadian film) so often hides its Canadianness -- even outright setting it somewhere else (usually the United States). Apparently her tweets created a bit of a buzz, even leading to an interview on Canada's self-styled media watchdog site, Canadaland.

So in the spirit of that, I'm going to riff a bit myself. In the States someone can post an essay about a single Aaron Sorkin TV episode and it'll foster a seeming hundred other pieces (agreeing with it, or rebutting it, or rebutting the rebuttals). In Canada, too often entertainment posts are greeted with a cacophonous...silence.

So this is me trying to fan the conversation a bit by drawing your attention to the original tweets and the Canadaland follow up. I'm going to bounce a few ideas -- and maybe others will, too.

One thing to acknowledge is things have improved in the last couple of decades. It used to be a Canadian series aiming for international distribution would be (with some notable exceptions) set in the States, feature American actors, and often based on American franchises. Now there are Canadian-created series featuring mostly Canadian actors and often not explicitly set in the States (though not explicitly set in Canada either -- wherein lies the rub). So change does happen!

The thing about discussing an on-screen Canadian presence (or lack thereof) is people come at it from different angles.

I've known people to insist a movie was set in Canada because they recognized a street corner -- even though the story is explicitly set in New York and with American flags waving in the backgrounds. It becomes even trickier with the so-called "Generica" series that deliberately blur the line by including contradictory clues.

Equally I've know people who will dismiss a movie as un-Canadian simply because it's a genre they feel is too "Hollywood."

And some people don't care. Period. Fair enough (though they'll still post comments insisting they don't care).

Some don't care because they regard popular entertainment as frivolous (they'll say you might as well lament a lack of Canadian flavours of ice cream). Others don't see Canada as anything more than a 51st State and fear any fostering of Canadian identity as an obstacle to that future assimilation.

And how do we define "Canada" -- and who gets to define it?

I've written before that Canada suffers from an overdeveloped regionalism -- people defining their region as the true Canada, and no one else's. Others will insist there is no "Canadian" identity. I'd argue this isn't a sign that Canada lacks a unifying national identity -- rather it's just Canadians are more honest with themselves. Americans talk about the "American Dream" even as the country is starkly divided between red and blue States. Great Britain calls itself the "United Kingdom" but the Brexit vote was almost evenly split. All countries have divides between urban and rural interests, rich and poor, and various ethnic groups.

But that creates another dilemma when people expect storytellers to reflect our culture and identity -- and when artists, in their hubris, insist they are doing just that.

There are different ways we define our society: One: the way we genuinely perceive it. Two: the way we want to perceive it (and how we want others to perceive it). Three: the society we want it to become. The Canada I perceive, the values I think it represents -- might not be yours.

It can be problematic when people try to define Canadian culture and identity too much by themes, values or styles. That's basically gaming the system from the get go.

That's why I say set the story in Canada, have characters use Canadian colloquialisms, refer to Canadian institutions and events. Root the story in Canada -- and then let's sit back and see what grows.

So why is it important?

An interesting point made in the Canadaland interview (I've touched on it here and others have made similar arguments) is that popular entertainment is part of how we learn about and process the world. A Canada that doesn't exist in movies and TV shows is a Canada that is being erased from our perceptions.

There's also a pragmatic aspect.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a Conservative voter who dismissed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as just a pretty face and media darling. Even were that true (which I don't happen to think it is) I argued there's still a tangible value to having a PM who's recognized around the world (and not just as the late-night punchline that was Rob Ford).

Having Trudeau's face plastered in newspapers and magazines throughout the world -- often in stark contrast to drabber politicians in those regions -- arguably helps make Canada as a whole seem more confident, more interesting, and, yes, more sexy. And that can have a trickle down benefit in terms of tourism dollars and business opportunities. (Especially in contrast to the stereotyped way Canadians are often depicted in, say, Hollywood productions -- frequently as goofy yokels and dweebs).

So in that vein, Canadian TV shows and movies that proudly proclaim their Canadianness, that don't hide it behind American flags or Generica settings, say that there's a country to be proud of. It would be interesting to know if anyone has done any studies on how the international popularity of Scandinavian thrillers has impacted on Scandinavian tourism.

Next time we'll dive into the equally murky waters of "why" is there this cultural obscuration? (And maybe point a finger or two).

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