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76th Annual Summer Conference, August 9–12, 2007

Is There a Mainstream Canadian Culture?

MARIE CLEMENTS (bio), Artistic Director/Producer, urban ink productions and playwright in residence, National Arts Centre
GEORGE JONAS, Writer and Journalist
ZARQA NAWAZ (bio), Fundamentalist Films and creator of Little Mosque
on the Prairie

Moderator: NORA YOUNG, Broadcaster/Producer, CBC (bio)

Summary by Aziza Mohammed

The following is a paraphrased rendition of the evening session.

Nora Young: This evening we are going to try a different format, a conversation, which I hope the audience will get involved in. We have a greater sense of self confidence in Canadian culture and the arts today. Artists are more likely to be part of many conversations in Canada and internationally. We find ourselves in a world of cultural niches. Such being the case, can we talk about a mainstream Canadian culture at all?

Nora Young: Laurence, what does the idea of mainstream culture mean to you?

Lawrence Hill: Mainstream can be viewed as a commodity, a product that is consumed, recognized and taken widely in our society.

Zarqa Nawaz: It is interesting to me…what are the commonalities between those ideas. E.W. Avent had success in sitcoms. Unlike our American neighbours, we cannot afford to fail. Launch sitcoms every year. We have Trailer Park Boys, Little Mosque and Corner Gas. I would say that we have modesty and humbleness. In the U.S. it is a celebration of money. In Canada it is just really unassuming. These things unite us in our sitcom culture.

Marie Clements: I think in theatre most people think mainstream means English or American based and sells tickets. But for a lot of aboriginal and culturally diverse creators, mainstream can be a dirty word. People being able to receive different types of story telling. The exciting part of non-mainstream theatre is that it is engaging and vibrant in its present creation. It is evolving.

George Jonas: It is right here. We are sitting in the middle of the mainstream. I was reading that Couch started in 1932 and the first conference was called “Depression: Can Capitalism Work?” And I noticed that the title today was not “The Stranger Next Door: Can Diversity Work?” I think the answer is probably yes. We are all sitting here together and that is one of the questions we are about to discuss tonight.

Nora Young: Lets unpack this. What determines what people like and respond to and who makes these decisions.

Lawrence Hill: Mainstream is not a static concept. Things have been attempted to be booted from the mainstream. The Last Crossing won the 2003 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award. The argument that made me cringe was that there was contention around The Last Crossing and some wanted it eliminated from the nomination because some sections were situated outside of Canada and so it is not really Canadian. And it is like saying you are not Canadian because you have not always lived in Canada. Thing is, that the things that make things exciting are the things that some people say are not Canadian. Terribly provincial.

Lawrence Hill: 7 Greek states competed as Homer’s ground town. Is Bryan more sufficiently Canadian or American, and the Greeks had it right.

Nora Young: Is it surprising we are still having this conversation about what is Canadian?

Lawrence Hill: The idea of the Canadian experience being more valued is reflected throughout our Canadian economy.

Marie Clements: Well, people do not like to say it, but it’s money. If you have the money to get your work produced on the stage, that is what is seen. Who has the resources to get what where? The cosmology of theatre is who is being funded and who is being accepted. If you can get in the door long enough.

Nora Young: The subtitle of this conference is “making diversity work.” What do we need to make this work?

Zarqa Nawaz: Our industry is so competitive and expensive and to compete with American commercials for their shows is a very difficult process in Canada. We are lucky to have the CBC because it is supposed to represent our culture. When Corner Gas made it on CTV it helped people feel that this can be done in Canada. We need successful shows that people can go to and train on, and learn and grow. In the U.S. there is that opportunity, but in Canada there is not that opportunity because there are not that many shows.

Marie Clements: We have been here for three days and talking about Canadian identity. This is the first time in Can Theatre history that we have had an all-Canadian season of writers. For the first time in 50 years at the National Arts Centre we feel that Canadian writers will be supported. We are still very young and supporting ourselves and our identities as Canadians. As an aboriginal writer, it is the first time we have been allowed to be on the main stage. The last was in 1986. I think it should be shocking to Canadians and we should be supporting our writers and our diversity and there should be more than one voice.

George Jonas: Usually people who are gifted tend to be recognized and Canadians are no different. People look at Canadian writers with great admiration, and sometimes it seems to me to appreciate being Canadian you have to go abroad. And there is a reason that Canadians tend to display national emblems more so than trying to be distinguished from Americans, and there is an intrinsic pride to being Canadian that is recognized outside of Canada more so than in Canada. Newspapers disseminated information and you could wrap fish in it. The packing industry did away with the second and the internet did away with the first.

Lawrence Hill: There is the double-edged sword of being more Canadian abroad than here. Black Canadian fiction is hard to sell internationally because European editors will think it is not the real “McCoy.” You have to go to the States for that. When looking at movement to the mainstream, we have to look at how are our books entering the Canadian school system. I have five kids and they have each read To Kill A Mockingbird as a book on the black experience. Why are we stuck on this? We know more about American slavery and segregation than about the Black Canadian experience and are curious. Part of it is fascination with things American to the exclusion of things Canadian.

George Jonas: It is a big country. Many years ago I saw an American aircraft carrier docking in France and someone asked why is this ship docking in France and I said he is a literary agent. If you have a country of some significance, you will have a significant proportion of literary significance. I have had many scripts half ruined in Canada but until they were ruined in America nobody noticed. We can ruin them just the same.

Marie Clements: I wanted to bring a unique form of artistic expression and bravery to the stage. I started out as a performer, and you dream the big dream and you realize if you are anything past beige, that dream will be halted very fast. I stopped acting to write because I felt I was post Pocahontas and not old enough to be the Hollywood medicine woman. The thing is, the stranger next door is in our genes, in our beds, and that is not reflected in Canadian theatre, and it is hard to want to be part of the mainstream when you are not included.

George Jonas: One of the reasons you turned to writing is because you could.

Lawrence Hill: Like so many children of immigrants, I was bat over the head with achieving. Obsessed with being hyper educated and a hyper professional because it was the only way to escape the scourge of racism. Didn’t work. My big brother wanted to be a singer, and my sister wanted to be a poet and artist. As for me, I wanted to have kitten. My father told me that if I could write him a well-written letter about why I should have a kitten, then I could have it. So every time I wanted something I had to write a letter, and so I eventually became a writer.

Nora Young: What are the real challenges there? How can one book or television show speak to this incredibly diverse society? Is it too much to ask?

Zarqa Nawaz: I know there is a lot of angst about Muslims and how they are going to destroy the world, but we did saved the CBC! Why did Little Mosque become the success it did? We actually got more attention in the U.S. than in Canada. We had CNN and The New York Times and Paula Zahn do stories on it. They were fueling the success. In our case there is a lot of confusion and angst and fear and stereotypes and no one had captured that and represented this community ever before and the most successful Muslim community in the world exists in north America. In Europe it is ghettoized, in the Middle East there is corrupt governance, dictatorships. But because Canada opened itself up to the best and brightest of the Muslim world, they came here and settled. And Muslims are actually the most educated in North America. There is no Muslim ghetto. So what did you guys do right that we did not do right? People were waiting for something to happen but this was a very Canadian modest comedy about a community and people were surprised that nothing happened. It was about the Canadian Muslim experience. I have a normal Muslim upbringing and Little Mosque came from my experience as a Canadian Muslim. This is a faith that empowered me as a woman who can have a faith and follow it. It takes someone who had this kind of comfort to do this. And it could only be made in Canada because we had enough separation from 9/11 to look at our Muslim community in a different way. That is what made Little Mosque happen in Canada. It is because of how successful we are and how well accepted we are.

Lawrence Hill: It’s new, it’s unique and it has not been done before. The very mainstream that some of us commercially love, the new off the wall, on the margins thing, that has not been done before. If you think of awesome popular Canadian writers, what they had in common was that they wrote novels or books that took place in other countries, but these experiences make these books quintessentially Canadian. The uniqueness, the international nature of them is what helped catapult them into the mainstream.

Marie Clements: I kind of wish aboriginal people were as integrated as the Muslims in Canada are. I was touched by what Bob Watts had to say today. A lot of us are fighting to be integrated which is odd, as the First Nations are the first peoples of this land.

George Jonas: Are we saying if 9/11 happened in Canada the show would have had more difficulty being accepted?

Zarqa Nawaz: There might have been a lot of anger and rawness. Then again, haven’t you heard of Alien in America, set in the Mid-West. If it were not for Little Mosque I do not think that Americans would be ready to see Muslims in the mainstream in a sympathetic way. Fox Network actually wants to buy the formatting rights and make an American version. I am amazed that it has only been six years and now America is looking into these shows and being more introspective about 9/11.

Nora Young: Are there challenges as creators? Are there questions of pressures to represent your culture? Do these questions come up?

George Jonas: You want to tell a story and chances are you will tell a story that you know. And you tend to talk about your own milieu, your own background and so on. If you simply want to put your community on the map, if your idea is not storytelling and your idea is propagandist or something like that then it is probably not going to work.

Lawrence Hill: I think that there can be a lot of pressure within those communities. Their eyes are like a watching god. For instance, there was a novel a few decades ago that introduced a sexually liberated black woman. Pressure came from the community about representing a black woman this way. So there can be pressures from your community to be a role model and to make your characters role models of the community.

Marie Clements: Aboriginal people generally practice acceptance as a way of life, and our role models do not need to be perfect. They can be brilliant and who they are.

Zarqa Nawaz: The Muslim community has never seen itself depicted as a normal community on screen before. What was interesting to me was the criticism that I heard from right wing Muslims and right wing pundits, because it would be “how dare she depict Muslim Canadians as normal,” “she is softening us up for the next attack.” No one would have said that about Jerry Seinfeld and the Jewish community being depicted as normal. Some were saying that I was duping the non-Muslim community. The right wing Muslims were angry because the show did not depict perfect Muslims. As if I was trying to depict the prophet in 7th century Arabia. Neither side wanted the community seen as normal people.

George Jonas: I never felt the need to speak for the Hungarian community or European community in Canada, I guess because the European community has done well everywhere except in Europe. Once you get outside of Europe everything is fine.

Nora Young: As Canadians we are obsessed with identity and maybe things have changed from saying “who are we vis à vis Americans or Brits” and now I think we find ourselves part of many communities. How does this complex sense of identity shape things?

Lawrence Hill: Well I am happy to move between identities and I think our artistic ideas are part of our Canadian identity. I think as artists need to find a way to dramatize and to bring new things into the mainstream by way of new things we have never imagined, that no one has ever done before.

Nora Young: What are some pieces that have affected you form your expression?

George Jonas: George Orwell

Marie Clements: James Baldwin

Lawrence Hill: Zola and Calmus. Black American writers of the day.

Zarwa Nawaz: CBC radio show. Sketch comedy. Canadian satire.