Monthly Archives: August 2018

Sir John A.

Because of a statue in Victoria, the controversy over John A. Macdonald, first Prime Minister of Canada, is back in the news again. Living in Ottawa, of course, Macdonald is unavoidable; I drive to work most days on a parkway bearing his name, and it has been somewhat of a tradition for me to eat my post-race breakfast in a pub named after him each fall. When I was in high school, my history teacher made a character out of Macdonald, told us funny stories about him, and I left for university thinking of him as an appropriate figure for the first Canadian Prime Minister: an ambitious politician, sure, but also a cantankerous Scot with rather too much fondness for the booze.

I hadn’t learned about the residential schools, then, and Louis Riel was simply framed as ‘traitor’; our strange little Canadian moment of rebellion, come and gone, shorn of wider meanings. I retold those funny stories, many times, to people who asked me about Canada. I got laughs in the pub, reinforced my own impression of Canadian history as a more or less whimsical tale about a basically harmless country. I would not tell those stories now, and I’m glad I went on learning.

Since then, Macdonald has been reassessed, in divergent ways. In relatively recent years (it seems to me, although I am not an expert on Canadian historiography) he’s been given a boost, from certain quarters, to promote his role as father of the nation and make him our equivalent to Washington (who, of course, also has a lot that lies beneath the national myth). The name everyone knows, the ubiquitous figure who we credit with bringing the place we call home into being. It was such efforts that got his name on that parkway I drive on, which was simply the Ottawa River Parkway until 2012. A certain kind of national pride, or nationalism, demands heroes, and so Macdonald was built up.

Gradually, I have learned more about the varied parts of his legacy (both in and out of classrooms), and I (like, I imagine, many Canadians) have come to see him as hitting quite wide of the mark of heroism. It’s fair to say that our first Prime Minister’s greatest flaw was not hitting the bottle a bit much, it was that he was a racist. I would never deny his influence and importance in the Canadian story (you’d have to be wilfully dishonest to do so), but he’s no hero of mine. As more and more voices have insisted on telling this part of the story, so has come the pressure to take those statues down.

It’s interesting (as I read on the CBC) that Scotland is also reconsidering Macdonald, removing references to him from government websites. Like the removal of the statues, no doubt this has raised at least a few cries of ‘erasure’, although quieter than here; Macdonald is far from as big a deal to the Scots as he is to Canada. As Nahlah Ayed reminded me in the article, there isn’t even a problematic statue of Macdonald in Edinburgh to worry about taking down. (And honestly, such is my national inferiority complex that when I was there this summer, it didn’t even occur to me that there would be.)

Erasure is something that I think any historian, or lover of history, must surely oppose. Pretending that things that happened, never did, or that people who existed, never did, is always harmful. That is how we come to believe in lies, and that is how we fail to learn anything useful from our history. We need to remember and study every part of it, even (and maybe especially) the parts we find distasteful. Failures, missteps, bad ideas, need to be examined so that we can understand how they came to pass, and we must reach those conclusions honestly. If you ask me, I will never be in favour of tearing out one single page from the book of our history. I might, however, be very much in favour of writing that page over again.

The Scottish government, as it happens, says the articles have been taken down to be rewritten, as Macdonald’s legacy is reassessed. It’s not a failure to reassess and reconsider what we think about our past and the people who came before us. That is probably the one thing that will never change about history: that we keep changing how we see it, how we tell that story. Heck, that’s part of why historians continue to work, because the stories have worn out, need patching, darning, and retelling.

I’m not a Canadian history expert – far from it – but it’s clear that Macdonald did and does need to be reassessed, his story rewritten. He was not just the (fairly nakedly ambitious) ‘Father of Confederation’, he was also among the architects of the brutal system of residential schools through which cultural genocide was practiced upon the First Nations people who came under Canadian authority. To tell his story otherwise, dishonest. A carefully upholstered national myth that presumably offers comfort to some even as it ignores the suffering of others, and the historian’s first duty: the truth. So, reassess Macdonald, tell the truth about him unapologetically and clearly.

But, what about those statues. Is removing a statue an act of erasure? Would renaming that parkway I drive on be one? This is a debate that widens out beyond Macdonald: the Canadian government recently took the name ‘Langevin’ off of one of our Parliamentary buildings, due to Hector Louis-Langevin’s own involvement with residential schools. And, of course, there is the ongoing controversy to the south about Confederate monuments, about which I wrote about on the blog a while back. To take these plaques and statues and titles away, is that erasure?

Of course it is not. We do not learn history, or should not learn history, based on what monuments are up in the world around us. Monuments are erected, most of the time, to figures who were in a particular moment considered ‘great’, but history must not be only the story of the great. It must be the story of the ordinary and the unregarded just as much if it is really to inform us about the people who lived before we did, and what that means for us. History will ever be the story of protagonists, surely, because it seems we cannot resist a good tale and most tales work best with a hero, or a heroine, but it must have its fools and villains just as much, and we need to hear about them just as clearly as we do the people who we decide to put up a statue for.

A statue, a monument, in the symbolism we operate under, says ‘this is a thing we take pride in. Yes, even war memorials, because we take pride in the courage and the sacrifice of those people in defense of country and ideology. So, to have a statue of Macdonald is not simply to say ‘there was a man named John A. Macdonald’, it is to say ‘this man, we admire’. (In a museum, where we might feasibly present a nuanced picture of a person, along with an image in bronze, the situation is rather different, and perhaps that is the compromise) It is surely not so great a leap of imagination to consider how that feels to people whose family suffered in a residential school, who do not know the language of their people because of policies that sought its eradication, who grew up in poverty and peril because that was all the government left them.

Macdonald cannot be erased from Canadian history, but we do not need to declare, publicly and loudly, that he is among our heroes. He should not be, if we mean any part of the ‘Canadian identity’ we are so bold to declare. Students of Canadian history, and Canadians in general, should of course still learn about John A. Macdonald. It would be lunacy not to. However, they should learn about who he really was and especially what he really did, not some imagined and carefully tailored figure we create because we want our own Washington (although, again) a benevolent or heroic ‘father’ to the nation.

It’s not a question of ‘feeling guilty’, either; no-one wants more empty gestures and I don’t think it’s fair to say that Canadians today are culpable for what Macdonald and people like him did. But. Recognizing the truth about the birth of the country in which we live, how those policies and decisions played out down the years for generations of people, and how they continue to affect the very real conditions that people live in and grapple with today, is very important. Canada, whatever else is true about it, was forged from great injustices done to the people who already lived here before Europeans rolled in. There is no chance of really reconciling with their descendants and creating a right and just solution to that central problem if we cannot even recognize that the problem exists.

Part of that recognition is, yes, admitting that John A. Macdonald was not a great guy. We need very much to have a conversation about that, about what it means and what we should probably do about it. Pretending Macdonald didn’t exist is not (or should not) be the aim. Coming to grips with what he really meant must be.

The statues should come down. We could find a better name for that parkway.

And we must remember, all of it.

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Just a bit of a progress report-y entry this week. As I’ve mentioned a couple times recently, I (relatively) recently finished a complete draft of Heretic Blood, which I hope will become my next book, and have been working away on revisions and edits. It’s going ok, as I continue to get invaluable feedback from the Eager Volunteers, but it’s also true to say that I find editing to be less fun than creating something new (I think most people do) so my brain keeps straying away to what the next project should be.

I have several ideas, which is another kind of challenge. First, I need to keep as on-task as I can editing Heretic Blood so that it’s good enough to try to find a home for. Second, if I’m going to do anything useful on new work, I need to pick one new project and focus on that. Having multiple ideas is certainly not the worst problem to have, but I’ve already learned that trying to write more than one thing at once doesn’t really work for me. So, I’m somewhat waiting to see which idea I end up having some real sustained interest in; that can then become the next new piece of work while I continue making Heretic Blood presentable to the world at large.

I am also in the midst of rereading (after many, many years) the Prydain stories by Lloyd Alexander, and enjoying them a great deal. I had forgotten just how charming they were and I may write about that some other week. However, I’ve also just gotten to the part (in Taran Wanderer) where Taran discovers that a) he really likes making pottery but b) he’s not skilled enough to make a living at it.

From time to time I wonder, as I imagine a lot of creatives might, if I’m in the same sort of position with my writing. I really enjoy but, but maybe I’m not quite good enough for it to ever be more than a hobby. I suppose that a) the jury may still be out but also b) at some point you have to decide how much that matters – is it worth creating the art because you love it, even if it never really becomes much beyond that?

I have my moments of doubt about it all, but I know that when I’m able to get some stillness and put the world away for a while that I decided this long ago. I’m gonna keep making pots.

Thanks for reading.

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Back to It

Just a very quick note this week as I don’t really have a great topic idea while also getting a bit busy with the impending start of the fall term and doing some programming work for Can*Con. I also just got home from a vacation up north a bit where I was able to spend some time tending a fire again. As I’ve written about before, I find that deeply satisfying and it was a very nice break. Now back to it.

Primarily right now, “it” is doing revisions of Heretic Blood to get ready to try to find a home. I always find it a strange experience going over my own work. I wrote all of it (honest!) but I will find mistakes that I absolutely cannot believe I made that make me cringe (discovered today: three consecutive ‘Chapter Seven’s) along with word choices and phrases that strike me as awful. I can’t believe I wrote that, yet I indisputably did.

I will also find those parts that make me smile, I’ll read a turn of phrase and think it clever, and every once in a while I will read something that gives me a little chill or flare of excitement. I can’t always believe I wrote those bits either, yet I indisputably did.

Part of this is just to say how important it is to revise thoroughly and find a process for it that works for you. When I sent out the first ‘complete’ draft to my Eager Volunteers, I thought it had most of the rough edges knocked off it, but both they and I have found really glaring errors. They’re in there. Edit your stuff.

Part of it is also what is for me a helpful reminder that even though all the missteps, large and small, are in there, the good stuff really is in there too. Finding a flaw in the work isn’t a sign that it needs to be abandoned, or burned to the ground and started over. It just needs more work.

Revising is not nearly as fun for me as creating something fresh, but it’s at least as important if I’m going to end up with something that people actually want to read. If ‘being there’ is a significant factor in success, so is being willing to do the grind. Most any field that I have any experience with whatsoever has some kind of grind associated with it, and if you want to work in that field, you gotta do the grind eventually. Put it the work, get it done, and that’s how you get back to the fun parts. And it is satisfying, in its own way, to look back at what you were just able to grind on through, know that you took care of that, and did it the best you could.

I have comments in from another Eager Volunteer. Back to it.

Thanks for reading.

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ALF vs. Sense8

You may have seen on Twitter or Facebook that I finally started watching Sense8 on Netflix a few days ago. (Once again, yes, I continue my proud tradition of being among the last sapients to see a given movie or show, or read a given book.) I’m still not quite through the first season, and I expect I’ll have a little more to say about it once I’ve seen more of the work, but there’s still one thing I wanted to touch on right now.

Because, also in the past few days, there was an announcement that a reboot or remake of the TV series ALF is underway. I, uh, have some commentary.

One of the things that the showrunners for Sense8 said about it when it came out was that people who watched would see things they had never seen before. Even after a partial viewing, I see where they were coming from. The show is unquestionably ambitious in the kind of story it is trying to tell, depicts characters that don’t often make it onto the screen, and because of the visuals they wanted to include, must have been a huge pain in the ass to shoot. I don’t know that everything they were trying to do always works perfectly, but man they’re trying something, and made something challenging and, yes, really unlike basically any other show you’ve probably seen.

And then, there’s the ALF remake, of a show that was about the most paint-by-numbers sitcom you could imagine, just with a puppet in it. Or, perhaps, a continuation of Frasier. Or we’ll bring back Roseanne. We are awash in remakes and reboots and reimaginings, and wringing every drop of whatever out of things we’ve already seen. As a re-reader of favorite stories, to some extent I sympathize, but I’d way rather see a new show as different and ambitious as Sense8 than a legion of ALFs.

Before I get accused of picking on ALF in particular, or maybe just not liking sitcoms (although..), I was equally unexcited about the idea of a Lord of the Rings TV series from earlier in the year. Why we need another big-money treatment of that story when the books were translated into film about as successfully as it is possible to do not that long ago, I cannot imagine. I’m not even all that excited about more adventures of Capt. Picard (which we’re apparently also getting), because I think I’d rather see new adventures of a new character. I love Patrick Stewart, and I’d rather see him bring a new character to life than go back to one that, yeah, was really good, but got throughly explored and fleshed out and has already been in a lot of stories (some great, many good, some, uhh).

There have been good examples of the reimagination concept, of course. I loved the retelling of Battlestar Galactica, as a prominent example. These things, though, strike me as the outliers in what is an increasingly choked field of remakes and reboots. As much affection as I have for the character, if I never see another version of the Spider-Man origin story, I will be more than content. It is more than a little baffling to see the people who make TV and movies continually go back to old wells.

Because it isn’t as though there aren’t tremendous, exciting new ideas out there. Sense8 was one. I can’t help but wonder how many equally bold concepts are out there, without the Wachowskis behind them, that never get a chance. Heck, just to pick the example that is (literally) close at hand: I’m currently reading City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, and if you wanted to throw a lot of money at a fantasy series, do that. It would be a setting and characters that we haven’t really seen on the screen.

Ideally, of course, the answer would be ‘do all the stories’, and make the nostalgia-trip reboots as well as the wonderful new stories, but that’s not how things really work, is it? I think with the rise of Netflix and Hulu and all the other places that are now making TV, we’re in a better place than we used to be in terms of space for new ideas to get made (viz. Stranger Things, among others) but it’s still not as good as it should be, in my opinion.

There are fabulous creators out there with ideas that will blow your mind. I would be just so delighted if we could give more of them a chance rather than rehashing more things from the past, no matter how much everyone loves a puppet.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading.

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