Link: Canadian History is Going Hollywood

From DK Latta of Huffington Post Canada:

Canadian History is Going Hollywood
For a long time, the suggestion that Canadian history could be mined for entertaining TV drama was, at best, scoffed at. At worst, sent the detractors into fits of apoplectic rage (I’ve been labelled a Kool-Aid drinking suicide cultist merely for suggesting Canadian filmmakers could set stories in Canada). Continue reading.


21 thoughts on “Link: Canadian History is Going Hollywood”

  1. I applaud CBC for showing two period dramas, Book of Negroes and X Company. I also had been excited to see Strange Empire but wished that it had focussed more on history of the region, of the Metis and such–all that mumbojumbo with the sidiously annoying Slotters bogged the show down. If it does come back, and I hope it does, I’d like to see more focus on the Canadian events of the time rather than trying to fit in a slightly American story.

  2. Those who criticize subsidizing ‘Canadian Content’ are not aware that the United States is THE most subsidized nation on Earth, and that includes their TV and Movie industry. How many Canadians know that most of Canada’s subsidy funding for so-called ‘Canadian Content’ of TV and Movie productions goes to making American productions in Canada, leaving very little left for actual real ‘Canadian Content’.

    To learn about and understand why most Canadian TV and Cinema sucks one has to go back to circa 1795, even earlier, but at very least to 1895 when the global photography and cinema industry really began in earnest. About 100 years later, Canadian Peter Morris saved us all the impossible task of doing our own research on this by publishing a 1992 update of his book, “Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema 1895-1939”. I think Morris stopped chronicling events at 1939 because by then, even before the advent of commercial television in the late 1940s, the War for the hearts and minds of Canadians was over, and Canadians lost.

    Morris clearly documents how a bunch of unsung unknown Canadians fought valiantly and courageously to establish an independent Canadian industry telling Canadian stories to Canadians, and how a much larger number of Americans deliberately destroyed every one of Canada’s efforts to achieve that goal.

    Which is why when I was growing up in Canada of the 1950s and 60s, I learned all about American history and American stories, and never once saw anything on TV or at the movie theatres about the very rich and fascinating history of Canada. I never knew Canada had it’s very own Huckleberry Finn stories and lots more to tell ourselves.

    An all-Canadian history of nation-building from coast to coast to coast despite impossible odds, not the least of which becoming the 2nd largest geographic nation on the planet with one of the smallest national populations, made up of the most varied culturally diverse immigrants from all over the world; winning the War of 1812; political assassinations; our Mounted Police forces; revolutions and rebellions; staggering contributions to other wars, including two world wars; United Nations Peacekeepers; our very long list of humanity’s game-changing incredible inventions and discoveries; of our amazing exploration achievements after becoming the 3rd nation into space; our leading-edge telecommunications and agriculture; and the not-so-nice stories also, like Canada’s deplorable treatment of 1st Nations people, and others too.

    While “The Beaver” now “Canada’s History” magazine told and continues to tell most of these stories since it’s inception by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1920, most Canadians still have never heard of it. Over the past 15 years or so, many of those stories have been told on TV in documentaries and a few movies, but, most Canadians are still not aware of them today in 2015.

    And the Number 1 reason for this lack of awareness of Canada’s rich history heritage is – Americans – who want us to buy their products instead of our own.

    Today there are over 3 Million Americans with dual-citizenship, and many more without that, living and working full and part-time in Canada, who vote in our elections to benefit Americans, make our decisions to benefit Americans, and, continue as they have since at least 1895, making sure that we do not ever develop a united sense of identity and pride of being Canadians from learning of and about our own stories. And that most of what we do get to watch or read or look at ‘Canadian Content’, is of substandard quality.

    This is why most of our best people are sooner or later forced to leave Canada to get jobs somewhere else, usually in the U.S. –

    but, don’t whine and complain or criticize all of that, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business – “The American Way”.

  3. I failed to find any ‘Canadian’ in either Book of Negros nor Strange Empire. I did not like them at all. If they are representative of all future replacements for shows like Bomb Girls and Republic of Doyle, CBC will again be failing it’s mandate

    1. I agree with you regarding Strange Empire. It lacked an authentic Canadianness. As for Book of Negroes, I’m disappointed only one episode was set in Canada but I guess it was a truely international co-production.

    2. Dude, the first time I made a joke. You’re allowed to have any subjective reaction to art that you want. If those shows weren’t your ‘cup of tea’ then fine. But you don’t get to judge how CBC is fulfilling its mandate.

      And you know who else you don’t get to judge? Me. I’m one of those “3 Million” (it’s not nearly that high but whatever) Dual American citizens here.

      I bust my ass every day, every year for Canadian content. I volunteer weeks every year with the Writers Guild of Canada trying to strengthen things for Canadian writers. I am active in industry issues, and have paid a price more than once for my advocacy of Canadian voices and stories in film and television.


  4. It’s the age-old question of what makes something Canadian. If the writers/directors being Canadian isn’t it, is it the plot? What makes a plot Canadian, if Strange Empire and Book of Negroes isn’t enough? Is it the setting? What do you do with scifi that’s not set on earth, never mind Canada? What do you do with cop shows that use US-style uniforms and never mention location?

    It’s actually defined this way:

    But when you start to get into “not Canadian enough” when something is a 10/10 production, you get into tricky territory of dictating that all CanCon should be maple syrup and moose-filled.

    1. It is an age old question, which is why it’s good to keep the discussion alive. I’ve been having this discussion (read: argument) for years and have heard it all (yes, including the ol’ “we’ll be making nothing but movies about maple syrup” warning – and cats and dogs will start living together, and the seas will run red with blood, etc.) as well as the “what about sci-fi on alien worlds” hypothetical. Personally I have no issue with the latter – but are you aware how rare those sorts of programs are? Even Star Trek managed to work in Abraham Lincoln, Wyatt Earp and Depression-era New York.
      This discussion doesn’t have to be about absolutes (or “dictating” anything). For my part I can separate the quality of the work from the cultural question. I thought The Book of Negroes was a high water mark on TV – but it only featured one episode in Canada. I don’t for a minute dispute Strange Empire was set in Canada, yet neither am I blind to the fact that the creators chose to set it in a town populated by a lot of ex-pat Americans, many with drawls (perhaps they were inspired by the flavour, and cadences, of Hollywood westerns).
      There are a of lot perspectives to bring on this, from patriotism, to creativity, to hypocrisy (filmmakers who are happy to wrap themselves in the flag when they are trying to secure funding, Can-Con timeslots, or a nomination at the CSA – but then scream they are being creatively stifled if it’s suggested they set it in Canada or hire Canadian actors).
      But I would flip the issue around and say it’s not about setting something in Canada – it’s about deliberately NOT setting something in Canada. As an example, Remedy isn’t obtrusively set in Canada – whole episodes go by without any indication where it’s set. Yet they don’t shy away from Canadian pronunciations or references if it arises naturally in the story. Contrast that to Saving Hope which often has the actors use American pronunciations and antiquated Imperial measurements or Schitt’s Creek where the characters talk about owning galleries in Brooklyn and being on Rodeo Dr. – yet then we’re supposed to coyly pretend these shows aren’t deliberately trying to intimate an American setting.
      I feel like I’m stopping in mid rant, but this is already way too long (I’ve actually cut it down!) so I think I’ll step back and give someone else the floor…

      1. I agree completely. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves when a Canadian show adopts a generic or American setting rather than a Canadian one. I think this almost cheapens a show because the setting is integral to a show’s story. Of course, there are a few exceptions such as shows set in the future or in an imaginary realm but for the most part Canadian shows should be telling Canadian stories. I was so disappointed in Strange Empire because it was supposed to be a Canadian western story but it felt like an Americanization of Canadian history. All the complaints about the show DK named above are the same complaints I have . I had such high hopes for it because Canadian history is very rich in interesting moments yet I felt like the writer was more familiar with the American Western genre than with the Canadian one.

      2. Sci fi rare in Canada? Not exactly. But the point is more … are we asking the CRTC to define Canadian content more narrowly than it is now? Because Book of Negroes may have had only one episode set in Canada and yet it’s based on a renowned book by a Canadian which was based on a historical document and events that helped shape Canada that most Canadians didn’t know existed, and the series was co-written and directed by another Canadian and co-starred Canadians. If that’s not enough, how do you want the industry to define Canadian content? It’s going to have to be very narrow if you want to exclude Book of Negroes and Strange Empire. The setting argument becomes very tenuous even if you don’t look at the likes of Sanctuary or the Stargates (I have no idea where Bitten and Lost Girl are set).

        Strange Empire is deliberately set in a bordertown — a particular place and time immediately after the end of the US civil war. There was no US industry involvement in that show and no attempt to cater to a US audience.

        I get the annoyance at shows that deliberately set themselves in the US or Anytown, North America, but there’s an argument that feels xenophobic to me that seems to suggest we can’t acknowledge how our history is tied to the US as well as our First Nations (which didn’t have a US/Canada distinction) and Europe.

        1. I never said sci-fi was rare in Canada. Canada is the king/queen of scifi with at least 90% of North American scifi made in Canada, if not more. And I don’t have a problem with that genre being set in a generic or futuristic world, so long as it not purposely not-Canadian. I have no problem with American scifi shows made in Canada (I love shows like The 100, Arrow, Smallville, etc.), but the problem is with shows saying they are Canadian yet not representative of that.For instance, I have a problem with Ascension airing on CBC, because I think CBC has a duty of telling Canadian stories, and Ascension is clearly not a Canadian story. It is a show about American characters. It’s like the writers/network/producers are saying they are ashamed of showing a Canadian setting. I love that Continuum sets itself in Vancouver and I never hear complaints from American viewers to that effect. Years ago I happened to live near Gimli, MB, where the Canadian series, Falcon Beach, was set, at least on Global, which was the Canadian network which aired it. I was so POed when I saw that the setting was changed to New England for ABC Family, which aired the show in the U.S. It’s like being set in Canada is a negative. It’s the same as when U.S. networks try to remake British and Australian series because they think Americans will be turned off by the accents. Last I checked, shows like Broadchurch, Sherlock and Downton Abbey were doing incredible well in the U.S. and Gracepoint, Rake and Kath & Kim bombed big time.

          I really enjoyed Book of Negroes. My one and only complaint about it was that it was a mini-series and that meant the events of the book had to be sped through too quickly. I would have loved for the story to be told in 12 episodes, rather than just six, but I guess we should just be happy the series was made in the first place. Book of Negroes is an international story so the multiple settings were realistic and relevant and the show was the perfect fit for the CBC.It did tell an important Canadian story even if it’s not apparent to the people watching it because what the miniseries doesn’t tell you is that only a portion of those Black loyalists who went to Nova Scotia actually went back to Africa–most remained there and the Book of Negroes is essentially the story of the ancestors of many of the people of African descent in Nova Scotia today.

          Now back to Strange Empire. I know I’m aggravating Diane who really likes the show and is probably tired of me griping about it, but at times I really had a hard time with the writing and direction. The pilot episode was really good and there were times that I thought the show was really good, but there were so many times that I was annoyed with the historical inaccuracies, overtly feminist narratives, and the time wasted on certain plots and characters. Maybe I’m too invested in the subject matter (Western Canadian history) which makes me more critical. I understand that a certain artistic license needs to be taken. However, I just didn’t like the artistic direction that was taken with the show. That being said, I would love for the show to return, just with an overhaul. I would love for the show to get more into depth with Metis history of that era and focus more on Kat’s story in the scope of Canada at the time. I don’t really care too much about Janestown and I would love for the Slotters to all keel over with smallpox.

          1. And gripe away at whether you like the shows or not! I am painfully aware that not everyone likes Strange Empire as much as I did :) And I had some issues with it, but Canadianness wasn’t one of them.

            My point isn’t that people should like these shows (of course), I’m trying to figure out what it means when people say they’re not Canadian enough and shouldn’t be on the CBC. As in … the CRTC or CBC should define Canadian content more narrowly to exclude them? And what are the implications of that, if that’s what people mean?

            Ascension is a bit of a different ball of wax – I’d argue setting isn’t relevant for a scifi show, but that one is a coproduction and as far as I can tell the writers are American. CBC has always bought US shows for its schedule, though, and currently has a mandate to buy international shows. Ascension has the benefit (“benefit”?) of counting as CanCon too.

          2. I was going to post a rebuttal – but AliciaO actually covered a lot of the points I would’ve made.
            What I will add (responding to Diane) is that I don’t see it in quite the same terms of absolutes, of “dictating” or “excluding” or whatever, so much as it’s just raising certain issues. There has to be a middle ground between some jack-booted Culture Nazis forcing everyone to make movies about maple syrup and, on the other hand, everyone keeping their mouths shut and not questioning the entrenched status quo. I can love the Canadian-version of Being Human and still grumble about it being set in Boston. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
            But just to address a couple of points. When I said “rare sci-fi” I was specifically referring to the sub-genre of “alien” worlds unconnected to our modern cultures. It’s a bit of straw argument because those are surprisingly rare. Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. A few others. Most SF/fantasy is either set in a contemporary civilization, or works in references to same – and that’s where the issue of Canadian/not-Canadian allusions comes in. And even with those rare “alien world” stories, creative decisions still arise over pronunciation and even concepts (does the alien whosis have a Republic or a parliamentary democracy).
            And as for the “xenophobic” charge, I’m actually arguing for MORE diversity, and a TV landscape with American, Canadian, U.K., etc. cultures being depicted. It’s the other side insisting the entertainment field should be a homogeneous, monolithic Americana.

          3. Sometimes not *everything* is about you :) It doesn’t take a lot of digging to see the xenophobia on this thread or where the CBC was accused of “failing its mandate.”

          4. One thing I’ve learned is we all perceive the orthodoxy we are resisting differently (conservatives feel they are the underdog facing the “liberal media” while liberals complain about being drowned out in a right wing echo chamber). So, yes, there can be xenophobes in the pro-Canada camp – but from my POV that’s a minority within a minority.
            As someone who has been engaging in (and listening to) this debate for decades, I’m just aware of people who insist simply recognizing Canada exists is inherently “anti-American” bigotry; I’m thinking of an on-line poster who said it was “embarrassing” that an episode of The Border referred to CFB Petawawa because the name is “silly”; I’m aware of a Canadian TV producer who insisted he couldn’t set programs in Canada because he didn’t want to spend his life making movies about maple syrup harvesters. (I’m not making these up). I’m thinking of all the people who happily watch American cop dramas that refer to District Attorneys, but complain Canadian culture is being shoved down their throats if a Canadian drama refers to Crown Attorneys. People who insist it’s just patriotic fanaticism when others complain about Americanized aspects in Canadian programs but would be the first to hit the on-line forums if CSI referred to the F.B.I as “Mounties” or in Homeland they had to prevent the assassination of the “American Prime Minister” or characters in The Big Bang Theory said “zed” – those would rightly be considered glaring errors, but if similar things happen in Canadian programs it’s dismissed as a non-issue.
            I’m just conscious of all the disingenuous arguments. The people who say they don’t object to a Canadian setting, but only if it’s important to the story (the same argument used by white filmmakers who say they’ll hire non-white actors, but only if the script calls for it). And then if a Canadian setting is important, they insist the story is too parochial. The people who insist setting doesn’t matter – but clearly it does to them or they wouldn’t be insisting it can’t be set in Canada. The filmmakers who claim they have set their program in Canada, but when you watch the program it might use an establishing shot of the CN Tower but is otherwise full of non-stop American pronunciations, phrases and references (some clearly incongruous with a Canadian setting). Indeed, what’s especially troubling is that we’re reaching a point where the actors and filmmakers themselves no longer know anything about Canadian life (either because they live in Hollywood, or simply use American programs as their creative templates). I’m thinking of Continuum where the actors, writers, directors actually had to re-learn Canadian pronunciations and phrasing.
            You may be troubled by xenophobic comments but it’s a drop of rain compared to tsunami of derision, pillorying and, yes, bigotry you’ll experience actually defending the innocuous idea that there’s nothing wrong with a Canadian setting.
            Now, I’m done – uh, I don’t mean I’m “done” as in storming off. I just mean I don’t want to be the guy who always has to get the last word. So I’ll sit on my hands, disengage my mouse, and resist the urge to rebut any rebuttals. :)

          5. Ha, well, I’ve been talking about this stuff for 10 years and have never felt negativity about being annoyed at how many shows hide a Canadian setting. I was pretty vocal in the early days of Flashpoint that it was marketing BS that it was showing Toronto for Toronto, when in those early days it avoided all mention of setting. You had to already know Toronto to know that it looks like that and as someone who had only been there twice, I didn’t recognize it. Rookie Blue got even more of that criticism from me because it wanted to be GenericTown, USA, with uniforms modelled after US cops. A lot of comedies lately have had no sense of place because they are trying to be generic.

            My only objection is when setting becomes the one line that’s drawn about what’s Canadian and what’s not. We were talking very specifically about Book of Negroes and Strange Empire. they have very definite times and places, and are talking about very specific times and places in Canadian history — a part of the history that was, yes, tied to the US, but one we don’t know about versus the Last Spike or underground railroad type we learn in school. I will fight to the death (well, to strongly written comments) to defend CBC for giving us those shows, because I think they’re exactly the kind of shows that fulfill the CBC’s mandate. I would never suggest you have to *like* them, but I would suggest saying they shouldn’t be made is just plain wrong :)

          6. How do you all separate paragraphs on here? I put mine into paragraphs and then wordpress jumbles them altogether.

          7. Magic! No, I don’t know why it’s different for you but I hate the way these comments do paragraphs – even ours aren’t really proper paragraph breaks. It’s on my list of fixes next time I do a round.

  5. How about these for middle ground 80’s- Street Legal, ENG
    90’s – Traders
    2000’s – DaVinci/ Cold Squad
    2010’s Murdoch
    All Canadian with no pandering to International Markets. A little to no beavers and maple syrup (well except the time Traders took a porn company public)

  6. To expand slightly. Street Legal was in the middle ground. I don’t think Canadian icons etc were shoved down anyone’s throat. The stories we about Canadian law, not American, the court system reflected the Canadian court system and the show was firmly set in Toronto as Toronto. The same with ENG.

    Traders was set in Canada. The banking rules and regulations as well as the regulations affecting trading, IPO’s etc were all Canadian. Again the setting was Toronto for Toronto and Canada’s position in the economic community, it’s resource based economy and the like were all reflected in the show.

    Cold Squad and DaVinci were both Vancouver for Vancouver and the issues and policing techniques were “Canadian” Chris Haddock’s two other shows did the same thing as well.

    Murdoch is obviously about as Canadian as they come. Guest characters have included Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canadian politicians and inventors of the time and the show is firmly set in Toronto.

    I’ say these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of shows that have been able to reflect Canada without becoming mawkish

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