Maple Syrup Art: A Journey in Canadian Identity (Or lack thereof)

Jason Arkell-Boles // Columnist 

Trying to create art that helps support ‘Canadian Identity’ can feel at once impractical and impossible. We act as if we’re independent as a nation, but as much as we hate to admit it, we’re just America’s cold, occasionally kind and culturally-void neighbor. For a contemporary Canadian artist to get big, they essentially have to make it in the US. Why is Canadian identity in art such a contentious issue? And if you want to make a ‘Canadian’ artistic statement, where should you start? 

In my final year of film school, I’m at the stage where I need to begin writing films that I feel are a reflection of my personal identity, if I only knew what that was. Without an exciting childhood or essence of cultural identity unique to me, I need to figure out what I want to talk about. In search of a story to tell, I’ve been trying to contextualize what ‘Canadian Identity’ truly means. Essentially I’m trying to figure out who I am and why I’m here. 

I could write about my childhood stories, but I feel that they’ll have no specific Canadian edge to them, and creating a unique voice to oppose the stories of Hollywood could be challenging. So I turned to  the Canadian media I consumed growing up, which only amounts to YTV and the Trailer Park Boys, and I’m on the fence about basing my national identity on Ricky or Bubbles. There’s still  Canada’s natural landscape, and the connection I share with it. As a settler, I feel an obligation to leave this land and its stories to the peoples who truly have a long and fulfilling connection with it—the talented Indigenous filmmakers, for which there are many entering the scene, such as queer filmmaker of Cree/Métis​/Danish descent Adam Garnett Jones, or Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who’s creating an incredible body of work centered around Inuit life and culture. 

In discussing Indigenous artists, nothing has felt more Canadian to me than Kent Monkman’s work, whose exhibition Shame and Prejudice is now showing at the Museum of Anthropology until Jan. 3. What makes Monkman’s work so good is that it is innately anti-Canadian. To critique colonialism, Monkman created probably my favourite Canadian-made art piece ever, The Daddies. It’s a recreation of Robert Harris’s painting Meeting of the Delegates of British North America to Settle the Terms of Confederation (1884), with all of them now staring at Monkman’s alter ego, the nude Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle. Along with this, Monkman’s depictions of Indigenous families being separated by the RCMP provides a less comedic and more tragic depiction of Canada’s historic evils. Monkman shows the harsh truths of Canada, and this type of work makes the lack of unified Canadian identity all the more understandable.  

From this, I decided to turn away from national identity as inspiration, and rather focus on my geographic location in an attempt to see who else creates work inspired by the lands of the Pacific Northwest, and where their identity stems from. 

In discussing the feeling of the Pacific Northwest, certain Washington-based musicians do it best. My personal favourite being Phil Elverum, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist of The Microphones and Mount Eerie. His music takes the lush forests, bleak mountains, and foggy atmosphere of the Northwest and uses it as a tool to contextualize his individual experience. His lyrics tell stories by directly referencing nature, like the track Seaweed, where Elverum writes: 

“I can’t remember, were you into Canada geese? 

Is it significant, these hundreds on the beach? 

Or were they just hungry for mid-migration seaweed?” 

Tragic, beautiful, and without a doubt environmentally influenced, this type of songwriting consumes the familiar climate and exports it as a common language understandable by residents of the Pacific Northwest. Which is why, ultimately, Elverum and his work both musically and aesthetically are a huge inspiration for what I try to do in filmmaking. 

My challenge now is figuring out how to steal from Elverum. His lyrical ability to express emotions through natural metaphors is something I’d love to grow at, but I don’t know how to transfer this style into a film. Which brings me to my next point, which I think is the true gateway to finding your artistic and cultural voice—experimentation.  

Canadian film history has a strong and significant history with the experimental. Take Norman McLaren, who spent his entire career working in experimental animation, whether creating a visual representation of music, such as in Boogie Doodle (1941) or experimenting with the origins of stop motion in the Oscar-nominated A Chairy Tale (1947). Also in the scene were Michael Snow and Joice Weiland, an experimental filmmaking power couple who produced work like Snow’s Wavelength (1967), an emotionally-packed analysis of office space, and Weiland’s Reason over Passion (1968), a textile and film work which was entirely inspired by Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s quote “Reason over Passion.” 

I don’t think the high amount of experimental work coming out of Canada is any coincidence. We are a diverse nation built on violence, colonialism, and immigration—all of this culminating in the cultural void we experience today. Learning what we can from the Indigenous artists and experimental filmmakers working in the North, it becomes clear that Canada cannot be defined by nationhood or a certain artistic style. Rather, identity must be found in the voices of every individual who wishes to contextualize their experience. Our work needs to be cognisant in how it recognizes and reconciles the past, while also accepting and showing compassion for the stories of those who are new to the country. We must develop and support the cultural mosaic of Canada, by experimenting, educating ourselves, giving a platform to new and under-represented voices, and ultimately, telling the truths of our sense of home. 

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