Friday, August 13, 2010

Multiple Canadas

Thanks to a Vanity Fair article on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, I've realized something: A lot of the image of Canada that gets set up as The Canada is primarily Ontarian or Maritimes, and secondarily urban. That's the Canada kids learn about in school. It's the Canada they check out of libraries. And it's not always their experience of Canada. Not all kids live in the eastern provinces, or in cities.*

In school, I learned at length about the explorers who'd mapped Quebec and Ontario, and colonists who'd founded the eastern half the country. I learned about the people who "found" BC and the people who came to settle it too, but not in as much detail. For instance, Sir Alexander Mackenzie was mostly known as the guy who found the Mackenzie River, and oh yeah, he walked to the Pacific Coast too. I learned about the fur trade, but more how it all played into what was going on in Ontario than what it did for the province.

To be fair, I did learn about BC history too—Vancouver and Victoria, mostly, and the Chinese workers on the railroads over the Rockies, and all the nasty things we did to the Natives. I suspect every province tailors at least one year of its history/social studies curriculum to its own history. I do wonder, though, how much gold rush history kids in Vancouver get. I got a lot in my schools, but that was because I lived in gold rush country and could take field trips to Barkerville.

Another thing: the middle-grade and young adult novels I read depicted, for the most part, other parts of the country. Anne of Green Gables is set in Prince Edward Island. Farley Mowat writes about Ontario, the Prairies, and the Northwest Territories. There were a whole host of time-travel coming-of-age stories set in Toronto and northern Ontario. Not to say that all the Canadian authors I read as a kid were east-centric**. Kit Pearson, who I adored, wrote a book set in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, and because of my parents' connections in the BC publishing scene, I got a lot of reading copies and recommendations for (once-again) time-travel coming-of-age stories, set in the gold rush era.*** I connected with those a lot better, but don't think many of them made it out of the province or even onto classroom reading lists the way Mowat and Pearson did.

It strikes me that a lot of the Canadian Image, especially the one given to kids and tourists, is relatively candy-coated. The reality is there, but the nasty and embarrassing and imperfect bits are glossed over or flat-out ignored. And yes, I'm aware that's to some degree because many of the rural and otherwise "imperfect" voices are silent, given little press outside the local area which already knows what they're saying, or discounted as being kind of whiny.****

I hear a lot of talk online (mostly by Americans, on American publications) about the need for greater diversity in YA, the need for better realism, the need to really speak to readers. I agree, though it's maybe a little weird for me to say so publicly since I'm not a YA author, but this is something I feel strongly about and, well, writing this post lead me here and I'm not about to change now. I do know that I felt a kind of disconnect with the books I was reading and the history I was studying, because I didn't see my area depicted very often and nobody shared experiences with me.

For the record, this is my Canada:*****
  • the "I just saw cougar prints while walking Fido" phone tree
  • Canada geese eating the soccer field
  • trick-or-treating in fleece-lined boots and a thick jacket because it's -10°C and snowing
  • waiting for the school bus at -30°C in three layers of clothes and still being cold
  • lake ice actually being pretty bumpy because it freezes in waves
  • red-winged blackbirds that start screeching at top volume at 5 a.m.
  • 20-minute drives to town, 3 hours to the nearest decent mall, and 6+ hours to the big city
  • suburbs where a 10-minute walk could put you in the middle of a forest or on a ranch
  • schools that have high Native populations, rather than high immigrant ones
  • for that matter, schools with 20 kids tops, K-10, and schools with grad classes of less than 100 
  • summer vacation picking fruit on an orchard in 40°C heat
  • forest fires, evacuation warnings, and smoke drifting down the valley for a month
  • towns where the only event with better turn-out than the rodeo is the high school musical

I don't know what's being published in Canadian MG and YA these days, so maybe there are books that include my Canada now. If so, tell me! I'd have read them then. I'd probably read them now. 

What's your region really like?

* I should probably point out that it is a British Columbian Thing to be bugged by how the eastern part of the country ignores us, and to carry on at length about why. So grain of salt, eh?
** Or that I read more Canadians than Americans and Brits. I didn't.
*** Time-travel coming-of-age stories seem to have been big in the 90s.
**** Feel free to discount me for that too, though I'd rather you didn't.
***** I didn't experience everything on this list, but I know people do.

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