Canada Day Complexities and Questioning the 150

By Derek Newman-Stille

Art by “Chippewar”

Like many marginalized Canadians, Canada Day can evoke some complicated feelings. We are often very aware of the oppressions that have been carried out in the name of “Canada”: residential schools for aboriginal people, asylums that perpetuated the torture of people with disabilities, the Pink scare, bathhouse raids, and other attacks on queer Canadians, the razing of Africville and so many other acts of violence that seek to position white, straight, able-bodied, Anglophone Canadians as the only “true” Canadians. 

Canada 150 has been constructed as a celebration of Canadian history, and yet, in the nation’s attempt to construct itself as a country of justice and benevolence, it has erased large parts of its past, trying to make itself seem as though it is a country of constant justice, rather than a country that needs to acknowledge that it has carried our horrible abuses of people in the past and continues to do so. Even the title “Canada 150” carries a problematic assumption, erasing the thousands of years of aboriginal presence on this landscape in trying to make it seem as though Canada was born from nothing 150 years ago. Canada’s acts 150 years ago were a theft of land, an oppression of people who have lived on this landscape and who have continued to be robbed of land and have been oppressed for the length of those 150 years. 

Canada has supported arts for its 150, but only if those arts celebrate the message that it is trying to evoke, and the arts council positions artists within its “cultural mosaic”, but only if one fits into the mosaic in the right way, only if one performs identity the way that the arts council wants to see. 

As writers, researchers, and fans of speculative fiction, we have an opportunity to ask big questions (the speculative part means being inquisitive). We can ask these questions of our past through historical fiction, inviting questions about what could have happened in Canadian history if things had gone differently and invite readers to learn about Canadian history beyond the canonical history we are often taught in our schools (the sanitized version that constructs this nation as heroic). We can invite questions about where we are going from here, ask questions of our future, and interrogate possibilities and alternatives that we are told are impossible or improbable. With our creative energy we can invite those impossibilities to the table and see how they play out. We can write dystopian fiction that invites critical questions about how things can go wrong if we continue on our current path. We can write utopian fiction that imagines a radically new nation of justice and inclusion. We can write horror that showcases the horrors that constantly take place behind closed doors in our nation, imagine fantasies where Canada can be transformed through a different relationship to our environment, superhero fiction that doesn’t end up just being nationalistic tripe, and science fiction that imagines different ways of understanding the sciences that we use to justify our actions. 

Speculative Fiction, like all fiction, is an act of imagination, and, as such, it is about the potentials that we can dream up. It is a genre of our imagination, our thoughts, our perspectives, our aspirations, our anxieties, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. It is a genre of ideas, and we need to remember that ideas are powerful, transformative, and, yes, dangerous. A nation is a boundary – one that is placed on geographies and people and that uses techniques to try to bind those disparate people and geographies together. But we aren’t defined by our boundaries. Canada’s boundaries have separated people, sought to erase aboriginal territories and nations, and the process of drawing that boundary was as much about exclusions as it was about inclusions. It is up to us to redraw boundaries, or, better yet, to imagine beyond boundaries and conceive of new types of definitions and new ways of understanding ourselves and the places we access. We need to remember our history, and that means all parts of it, including (or possibly especially) the ugly parts of it. We need to question the way that borders have been drawn around what is appropriate Canadian history and what is not. We need to invite questions of our government when it tells us that it has given people enough and as it why, ask it to give access to fresh water to aboriginal people, ask it to make spaces actually accessible for disabled people, ask it to stop pathologising queer people and trying to portray only one type of queer person (normally the most normative behaving) and actually open things up for areas of radical expression and radical inclusion. 

We can imagine new possibilities in our arts and our critiques and we have a responsibility to imagine better.
To find out more about the art by Chippewar above, visit http://www.chippewar.com/product/free-150-years-of-colonization 

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Putting the Punk Back in Steampunk

Putting the Punk Back in Steampunk
A review of Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction Edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille

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Steampunk has often struck me as a genre that has tended toward overly rosey views of the Edwardian and Victorian Eras. The steampunk tales I have read have often uncritically represented colonialism as adventure, portrayed technology divorced from the horrible conditions of the factories, ignored massive wealth disparity and troubling social conditions. It is a genre that is ripe with neo-futurist possibilities to invite critical engagements with ideas of historicity and presentness, but often forgets the “punk” aspect of itself, the part that invites critical questions and instead pulls down the goggles of nostalgia.

Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction does that critical questioning, inviting a history filled with possibility. The stories in this collection invite critical questions about the way that we view history and the relationship we have to the past. While inspiring an interest in local histories and tales, it also reminds the reader of all of those stories that get stuck in the cogs of the machines of nation-building and invites us to oil the machines and seek out new stories and new ways of viewing the past.

The regionalism of Clockwork Canada, its setting within a national boundary, invites readers to question canonical tales of history and our founding origin myths by asking who benefits from the history that we tell ourselves and what erasures have been part of the construction of this thing we call “Canada”. These tales question the stories we tell ourselves by providing alternative stories, stories that highlight people and groups that are under-represented in our national myths.

Rather than representing the historical tales that we see in Heritage Minutes or CBC specials, the stories in Clockwork Canada highlight the oppression of indigenous peoples in Canada, border conflicts, representations of disabled people, labour conflicts, the exploitation of Chinese labourers on the railroad, Canada’s head-taxes and borders closed to immigration … all of the narratives we erase in constructing ourselves as a Just Nation. These are tales that speak back to erasures and the editing of Canadian history to include only canonical narratives that focus on Canada as a place of tolerance, acceptance, and openness.

Clockwork Canada reminds readers that the idea of “nation” is itself a story that we tell ourselves to hold us together and that that story, that history, can be divisive, damaging, and harmful. The multiplicity of stories in Clockwork Canada invite readers to think of our nation as a storied space, filled with a multiplicity of voices. These steampunk stories punk canonical narratives and invite readers to question the history they encounter. This isn’t nostalgia fiction, these stories are all about gearing up for a critical take on history.

To read reviews of individual stories in Clockwork Canada, explore the links below:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/05/06/putting-monsters-on-the-map/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/28/signing-the-electric/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/26/disability-and-immigration/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/24/working-in-the-industrial-revolution/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/21/steampunk-multiculturalism/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/04/20/of-maps-andmonsters/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/05/04/a-seance-evoking-future-horrors/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2016/05/02/frozen-wooden-with-steampunk-horror/

To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology/
OR http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

To discover more about Dominik Parisien, visit his website at: https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com

Golden Age Superheroes in Modernity

Golden Age Superheroes in ModernityA Review of Epic Canadiana Volume 1 by Cloudscape Comics, edited by Bevan Thomas.

By Derek Newman-Stille
Epic Canadiana volume 1 delightfully connects the golden age of Canadian comics (the origin of the Canadian superhero comic) with modernity, creating a link through Canadian comic book history. Epic Canadiana re-introduces readers to an aged Johnny Canuck, modelled after Leo Bachle’s WWII era Canadian golden age comic hero, creating a parallel between these two ages of comics by imagining that the character was part of Canadian history and art of an early age of superheroes who withdrew from the superhero business. Possibly drawing inspiration from Darwyn Cooke’s DC New Frontier comic which envisioned a McCarthyist witch hunt on superheroes, Epic Canadiana imagines a period if time when the population became suspicious of superheroes and turned away from them. Superheroes in Canada are now called upon to return to the business and begin fighting against villainy in the nation. 
Epic Canadiana is told as though it is a persuasive argument to Johnny Canuck to encourage him to return to superheroism and is structured as a series of mini comics (each with different authors and writers) that each showcase a certain hero’s tale. These tales are historically diverse, with comics set at various periods in Canadian history, and serve to create his link between Canadian comic book history and the present by featuring characters scattered across that time frame. Several of the characters also pay homage to golden age comic characters. The character Ikniqpalagaq, for example, is a modern-day re-envisioning of the Golden Age comic character Nelvana of the Northern Lights, maintaining her connection to the Northern Landscape, her Inuit heritage and her role as a demi-goddess. Yet this homage also allows for adaptation and Ikniqpalagaq more closely connects with Inuit cultural imagery than Nelvana (who was often assumed by onlookers to be white). Ikniqpalagaq provides the character with an Inuit name, a costume inspired by inuit regalia, and Inuit facial tattoos, more closely identifying her with her cultural location. Similarly, the golden age comic character The Penguin (not to be confused with the DC comics villain of the same name) is re-envisioned as The Loon, a character who still has the bird-like mask of The Penguin, but instead identifies with the loon, a bird that has a Canadian connection (where penguins do not). The Loon also becomes a mantle that people at various points in history assume, taking on the character’s identity to battle crime and this use of the figure of The Loon at different points in history similarly expresses the idea that Epic Canadiana is creating a thread of the superhero myth through Canadian history, reminding readers that the concept of the Canadian superhero is not a new one and underscoring the importance of being aware that the Canadian superhero has been part of the Canadian imagination since WWII. 
At the same time that there is a connection to these historical figures, there is also an acknowledgement that these early imaginings were products of their time and were texts that erased a diversity of Canadian experiences (particularly those of Canadians from groups who were not in positions of privilege). Some of the stories in the collection try to provide some further cultural diversity to their character by, for example, re-imagining Canadian historical figures like Canada Jack as a closeted gay man and the inspiration for a new LGBTQ superhero Jacque de Canada, who takes on an activist role as well as superheroism by battling against the forces of homophobia. 
The use of different authors and artists for each of the superhero tales in the collection lends it an eclectic feel, letting the reader feel as though they are experiencing each superhero’s narrative with a distinct voice and expression. 
Epic Canadiana represents an elaborate historical and expressive tapestry of Canadian comic imagination, winding a thread of history through diverse imaginings of what a Canadian superhero could be. The heroes in these pages are born of magic, mutation, a call to action… but more importantly, they are born of a Canadian imagining of what it means to be heroic and speculation about what a Canadian superhero would consider worthy of battle.
To discover more about Cloudscape Comics and Epic Canadiana Volume 1, visit their website at http://www.cloudscapecomics.com/comics/ .

A Mosaic of Stories

A review of Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson’s Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast (Edge 2013)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

Cover photo for Tesseracts Seventeen courtesy of Edge

It is very exciting to see one of the prestigious Tesseracts books sharing a name with this website. I was quite honoured to see that they had chosen a name that matched the name I created for my website. Tesseracts has been a Canadian SF institution since Judith Merril edited the first collection in 1985, recognising that there was a need for a Canadian collection of SF and that there was something distinct about Canadian spec fic that could only come out by bringing works of Canadian SF together in a collection instead of the random inclusions of Canadian SF in American and British anthologies.

Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast is an exciting addition to this historic institution and rather than focusing on a single theme or idea, this collection sought to bring together Canadians from around Canada in order to capture some of the distinct flavours of Canadian SF from our diverse regions. Canada is a huge country and this collection was a huge endeavor. While reading this collection, I found myself flipping back to the author descriptions to constantly find out where authors were from to get a sense of that regional flavour, an idea of whether Canadian SF ‘tastes’ differently in different parts of our country. Tesseracts Seventeen provided a chance to travel across this country, but also into the minds of Canadians: their visions of the future, their travels across the universe, and their ventures into the unknown. Steve Vernon and Colleen Anderson were able to capture a tiny bit of Canadian diversity, a few wondrous tiles of the mosaic of thoughts and perspectives that creates the overall picture of Canada.

The tales in this collection bring together ideas about family, memory, privacy, religious fanaticism, dreams, isolation, the history of residential schools, aging, stigma and identity, issues of conformity, poverty and the exploitation of workers, … namely, issues relevant to Canada today and our constant pondering of Northrop Frye’s question “where is here?”, speculating about what Canada is and how to define our identity. Despite most stories being set in the future, on other worlds, in other realities, Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast speaks very much to Canadian realities, questions of today, and issues relevant to this world.

From a church devoted to Star Trek’s Spock to imaginary friends to ageing ghosts to sacred kitchen recipes to a galactic civilization that forces conformity to living graffeti … this is a book of Canadian magic, a passport to the Canadian beyond.

You can read reviews of individual short stories on this site at:

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/19/life-drained-by-residential-schools/

https://speculatingcanada.ca/2014/05/15/haunting-disability/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/chilly-renewal/

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/cityscapes/

You can explore Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast at Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess0/about-tesseracts.html

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 22 Part 2: An Interview with Rachel Richey

At Fan Expo Canada, I ran into Rachel Richey, part of the dynamic duo of women who brought back Nelvana of the Northern Lights. We had a chance to talk about her latest project, bringing the WWII era Johnny Canuck comics back into the public eye, recovering this lost figure in Canadian comic book superhero history.

We had a chance to share in unabashed fandom and talk about Canadian comics and the role of self-discovery, the wonder of archival discoveries, the issues of superheroes who wear the flag, the Canadian desire to see our comics of the past and the power of Kickstarter as a platform for accessing public enthusiasm to bring exciting things to the public. I invite you listeners to share in our excited fandom and Rachel’s fantastic insights.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 11: Nelvana of the Northern Lights

For this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio I examine Canada’s first superheroine Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Dressed in Blue and Green with a fur-trimmed skirt and green cape with northern lights dancing around her headband she flew around wielding the powers of the Northern Lights to keep Canada safe from invasion, pollution, and destruction while venturing into worlds beneath the arctic and in the static within radio waves.

Written by Adrian Dingle during WWII, Nelvana of the Northern Lights portrayed a particular brand of Canadian identity – embodying the North and exploring notions of Canadian identity and the indigenously superheroic.

Take a moment now to find out about this superpowered woman (who predated Wonder Woman) who represented a particular brand of Canadian identity at a time of insecurity and uncertainty.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Resurrecting a Goddess

A review of Adrian Dingle’s Nelvana of the Northern Lights (reprinted by Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson, CGA Comics, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Resurrecting a goddess is hard work, particularly when she is the demi-goddess first Canadian national superheroine, pre-dating the invention of Wonder Woman… but this is precisely what Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey did this year. Through a kickstarter that I helped to fund, Hope and Rachel were able to bring Nevlana of the Northern Lights back from Canadian comic book history.

Created by Adrian Dingle, Nelvana of the Northern Lights flourished during the WWII years, providing Canada with an indigenous superheroine who could represent ideas from a Canadian perspective. She made her debut appearance in August 1941 in Triumph-Adventure Comics.

Dressed in Blue and Green with a fur-trimmed skirt and green cape (that later became a red cape) with northern lights dancing around her headband, Nelvana was uniquely situated as a figure who represented a particularly Canadian mythology of the time, being a personification of the North (literally the daughter of the Northern Lights and later taking the name Alana North for her secret identity). She claims connections to Group of Seven painter Franz Johnston, who Dingle claimed heard about her as an Inuit goddess (though it was later revealed that Johnston met an Inuit woman named Cecile Nelvana Kamingoak, who he asked to model for him). She spent most of her time battling invaders into the North, often those with aspirations involving destroying the natural environment, whether through invasive species introduction, bombing animals in our lakes, or spilling oil into rivers. Her connections to figures and ideas that have become symbolic of Canadian identity makes her a figure who can embody a Canadianness that a superhero with a flag on their chest could not attain… besides, we aren’t really the sort of country to view flag iconography as the epitome of national identity.

Dingle’s creation, much like the work of the Group of Seven, ascribed a spiritual quality to the Canadian northern landscape, an otherworldliness that makes certain that The North comes with a capitalised “N” to indicate that it is more than a compass direction, but something more like a personification of a power. Producing Nevlana of the Northern Lights in black and white with colour covers, Dingle showed his mastery over the art of ascribing life and liveliness to vast, open, white spaces by drawing landscapes that, although they didn’t use the sort of backgrounds that artists drawing city-based landscapes required, he was able to fill a seemingly blank space with life and use the white space of the snowy northern landscape to imbue it with wonder.

Nelvana was a figure who drew on the vast Canadian ideology of the North as making something different of us, a people forged by a landscape and a colder climate into something distinct from other nations. Dingle drew in the almost spiritual quality of the cold, using it as a testing ground for people’s strengths and abilities and as a Canadian defense against invasion in WWII by expelling people from a landscape that they viewed as hostile. Nelvana herself has a freezing breath that is able to douse flame-people in her later adventures, but she also travels into locations marked by their frozen quality, like that of the Glacians (a race from under the ice that has been frozen since the time of dinosaurs), and the Canadian government who Nelvana protects devised an ice ray to be used against Axis powers. Riding in occasionally on a polar bear, Nelvana stood as a marker for the protection of the Canadian North.

Nelvana, the daughter of the invented Inuit god of the Northern Lights Koliak and a human woman, wielded powers associated with her luminous heritage including power over light and magnetic fields which could, among other things, allow her to melt metal with the power of light and heat, render herself invisible, permit her to fly and travel at light speed, and disrupt radio transmissions. Being a demi-goddess, she also had the ability to transform her brother into various animals with a wave of her cloak, attaching her heritage to other trickster figures who have populated world mythology. In addition to her superhero crime fighting, she also took on the role of Alana North, a secret agent who foiled plots to damage the war effort and occasionally worked alongside RCMP officers to solve crimes and disrupt conspiracies.

As a feminist, I was particularly drawn to the power that Nelvana brought to a comic book industry that was often unabashedly a boys-only-club. She appeared at a time when women were disempowered and often viewed as supporters for the male heroes in their lives rather than heroes themselves, but she was a heroine with incredible power and independence.

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Despite the incredible things that Nelvana represented, there were some issues with her representation that were endemic to the time period and social circumstance in which she was created. The Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics embodied the poor cultural representation of Canadian indigenous peoples, referring to the Inuit as “Eskimos” and portraying them as culturally backward and intellectually inferior. Many of the comics depict Inuit people constantly being tricked by others and constantly in need of rescue by Nelvana, or by members of the Canadian RCMP. Inuit people are often portrayed as obstacles to progress during the war, standing in the way of development (defined in these comics as an industrial act to support war and economic efforts). At times, Inuit people are also portrayed as being involved in race conspiracies against “the white race”. Unfortunately, these characteristics are ones that most Canadian popular media of the time was portraying and ubiquitously appeared in representations of the Inuit people by non-indigenous Canadian media contributors.

The WWII context of the comic also influenced the portrayal of Japanese characters, who were depicted as being sneaky, dangerous, and dishonest. They were referred throughout the comic as “Japs”, the “yellow menace”, or the “yellow peril”. This, like the racist portrayal of Inuit people, was absolutely horrifying for myself as a modern reader to witness, but is also an not surprising given the cultural context in which it was created. After all, at the time when Dingle was writing his comics, the Canadian and American government were creating posters and other media that referred to the Japanese as “the yellow peril” and encouraged people to “slap a Jap” as part of the war effort and both governments were also placing Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans into Japanese Internment Camps that robbed them of all rights as citizens and subjected them to regular systemic abuses. Here, the racism of the Nelvana comics was part of the general war propaganda culture.

Despite the issues with the Nelvana comics, which are part of their historical situation, the re-printing of the Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics represents an act of recovery of lost Canadian voices. Many cultural contributors tend to think of the superhero genre as distinctly American, so it is important to remind ourselves that we have created distinct superheroes. After all, the origin of the superhero figure in the form of Superman was a collaboration between Canadian Joe Shuster and American Jerry Siegel, so the superhero is a collaborated North-South creation.

Nelvana, as a representation of the North may be more emblematic of something distinctly Canadian than a hero draped in a Canadian flag. As a culture, we tend to take more pride in our clean water, beautiful environments, interaction with the landscape, and ability to survive the cold and an environment that isn’t easily suited to human habitation. Despite the temporally-situated problems of the Nelvana comics representing racist stereotypes of the time, she also represents something distinctly multicultural as a figure who was born from Inuit roots and seems to occupy a space of question, referred to variously as white and Inuit and therefore likely representing a form of hyphenated identity.

Nelvana could wear green and blue because she represented something more Canadian than red and white. She was a personification of Northern beauty, and, whether modeled after a figure from Inuit mythology or after an Inuit woman who Franz Johnston encountered, she, as a Canadian national superhero, is mythic, mighty, and magical.

Cover of the Nelvana reprint courtesy of http://nelvanacomics.com

Cover of the Nelvana reprint courtesy of http://nelvanacomics.com

To find out more about Nelvana of the Northern Lights and to purchase your own copy of the reprint of this comic, visit http://nelvanacomics.com/