The Stories We Are Told

Published: November 30, 2012

The plurality of voices and stories that make up the Canadian identity are quickly being drowned out by the singular story that the current government is telling Canadians to adopt as their own.

Sarah Polley’s documentary, Stories We Tell, shows us that in the end, a family is a collection of stories. This can be extended to say that, in the end, a country is a collection of its people’s stories. Stories connect Canadians in what Benedict Anderson described as an “imagined community,” a bringing together of people based on the idea that we have things in common.

We are being told to change those points of connection. While Canada was touted as the home of multiculturalism, home to a plurality of voices, the new Canada being pushed is a bolder, sharper-toothed Canada, founded in violence, with a singular history. When hosting the Grey Cup, Brian Williams referred to both the football trophy and the railroad as classic Canadian iconography. Those images are changing. This rebranding was most recently seen in the launch of our new $20 and $50 bills.

The $20 bill has had three major generations in the past 50 years. Between 1969 and 1979, the bill featured a view of the Canadian Rockies’ Moraine Lake. Defining ourselves as Canadians through landscape imagery is nothing new to Canadians. We need only to turn to the Group of Seven, which used places like Moraine Lake to shape a new image of a rough, rugged, independent Canada. From 1993 to 2004, the bill was part of a Birds of Canada series and the 20 depicted our most symbolic bird, a pair of loons. From 2004 to 2012, the bill represented two important Canadian voices. A quotation from novelist Gabrielle Roy, “could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” and an image of Bill Reid’s Haida Gwaii creation story, “Raven and the First Men.” The new bill depicts a monument from a different creation story, the Vimy Ridge Memorial. This is in fitting with the new image of Canada, one defined by our military history.

The $50 bill has been on a similar journey. The 1975 Bank of Canada $50 bill featured the Dome Formation from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Musical Ride. The RCMP’s ride west, establishing order and preventing American expansion, is often used as one of our central creation stories. The bird chosen for the 50, perhaps in acknowledgement of its relatively rare appearance, was the Snowy Owl. In 2004, the imagery was shifted to tell the story of Canada’s human-rights history. This included the Famous Five celebrating the Persons case, a celebration of Quebec’s women’s suffrage leader, Thérèse Casgrain, and, finally, a quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and human rights.

The new 50, like it did with the Snowy Owl, taps into our central myth, the North. The North is a place one can go to be reborn, where slates are cleaned by the long, dark winter. It is a place many of us think about but few have been, it’s a place of power in the collection of stories that make up this country. Because of this, the North is the perfect place for militarism – there’s no real enemy, no parade of heroes, so we can all believe in protecting our place of freedom. It is hard to be against defending the North, and our image of it was rebranded earlier this year: the valiant ice-breaker GCGS Amundsen is now featured on the $50 bill.

This is not the only shift from creating Canadian identity from a plurality of individual voices to one with a more centralized vision of this country. In the past 10 years, we have increasingly tied together our arts and heritage funding, putting them under the same department and minister. This might seem innocuous, but it coincides with the cancelling of independent funding bodies and voices. The Canadian Conference of the Arts is the most recent to fold. At a time when our current government has cut $115 million from Canada’s greatest supporter of storytellers, the CBC, $10.6 million from Telefilm Canada, and $6.7 million from the National Film Board, the Harper government’s budget for advertising itself has recently topped $55.2 million – $4.7 million of which was for its rebranding of the war of 1812 alone.

Hitting the small screen this past year was a trailer for a fictional movie, The War of 1812. There has been no shortage of events making good on the promise of this trailer. Even the Canadian International Air Show had a tribute to 1812, which must have left some audience members confused. It would seem all of our arts festivals became fervently interested in 1812. Did all of our artists start asking the same questions? Funding dictates content and it would seem our arts institutions are all too happy, in exchange for much-needed money, to ask the questions handed down from above.

Concerned? Well, there’s plenty of reshaping to come: the $5 and $10 bills will be rebranded next year, then comes the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the 200th anniversary of our “founding father,” John A Macdonald, and finally, the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

This new imagery creates a dangerous new division of what is and what isn’t Canadian. With a focus on our military history, those falling outside the central narrative become less Canadian, those whose families weren’t around during the War of 1812 are less a part of our fabric, and those who oppose entering into conflicts risk being labelled anti-Canadian.

There are a slew of arts festivals lined up to present work on these themes (and, admittedly, I’ve been thrilled to work for several of them). We must make a choice about what kind of society we’d like to live in. Do we want a country that asks its own questions and tells its own stories, or one that can only follow its marching orders? Do we want a country whose identity is defined by the sum of its people, a chorus of voices, if you will, or, instead, a choir all singing the same note?