[identity profile] nos4a2no9.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] ds_workshop
Hi everyone!

I promised ages ago to write a follow-up post to my first workshop piece on Life In Northern Canada. [livejournal.com profile] sageness and a few other folks had specific questions they wanted me to address, hence the sequel. If you're looking for more general topics about northern Canada, such as landscape and geography, weather, the role of the RCMP, shopping and dining, education and healthcare, I covered a lot of that material in the original post. However, I'm always happy to answer any questions you might have, or go into more specific explanations if you need them for a post-"Call of the Wild" story.

Again, I should make the caveat that I'm not an expert in Canadiana, and a lot of my knowledge is anecdotal. I grew up in a fairly large city in northern British Columbia, and so most of my observations come from spending summers in the communities further north, or taking trips around the region with my parents. Don't take anything I say as gospel, in other words, and if something doesn't sound right or you want me to clarify, please feel free to ask in the comments, or shoot me an email at nos4a2no9@gmail.com

Alright, on to the questions! Most of these are from [livejournal.com profile] sageness, because her brain is shiny like that.

1. Okay, if we say that Fraser was born sometime between 1958 and 1960, how different would his childhood experience in the far north?

I'm kicking things off with a question I can't really answer, except by way of explaining something of my father's life. He was born in 1955, and his life was defined by a lot of the same things Fraser experiences: an absent father, a heavy emphasis on physical activity, discipline and hard work, and a fairly nomadic life where he moved from one small community to the next. Like Fraser, he had a very strong female role model in my grandmother, who was widowed four times before my father turned 15. This, I think, is fairly common for children of that generation and generations previous: most of the occupations in the north are in dangerous, heavy-labour industries such as mining, forestry, fishing and working on the oil rigs and pipelines. As access to medical aid was spotty at best in the northern areas (and continues to be), there were a lot of accidents and illnesses that left widow(er)s and orphans behind to muddle through in a very unforgiving landscape.

Fraser was born at a time of tremendous change in northern Canada. The 1950s-1960s marks a time of renewed interest and exploration of the Arctic due to the mining of new resources (minerals and fossil fuels) and increasing tension with Russia due to the Cold War. The 1950s also marks the beginning of the big push to resettle the Inuit in planned communities like Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik. In a single generation, from just after WWII to the 1960s, the Inuit were cut off from their traditional nomadic cultural practices and were forced to live in permanent settlements and villages. You can probably imagine the devastation caused by this forced resettlement. This was partly done to protect Canada's arctic from Russian encroachment and partly due to the Canadian government's belief that the extinction of the Inuit way of life was inevitable, and that it was best to help "civilize" these nomadic hunters as quickly as possible. (Um, hi, I could probably write a thesis about this, but you get the idea, right?)

So Fraser's world wasn't quite the same as his father's, in terms of unfettered movement across vast fields of snowy arctic wasteland. There were more settled communities, more tensions with the Inuit (who were slowly adjusting to a rapidly different lifestyle and the loss of their traditional ways) and a greater RCMP presence in the north.

Sorry to make wee!Fraser's life sound bleak: that's the historical and political context of his childhood, but it's clear from the show that Fraser experienced a lot of the benefits of life in a close-knit community of strict-but-loving caregivers, and he did have friends like Mark and Innusiq. Writers should feel free to play with elements from canon while creating their own unique portrait of Fraser's life and childhood. I've seen a lot of fairly pastoral portraits of life in northern Canada in due South fanfiction, and while that's by no means incorrect, existence up there at that point in time was dangerous, exhausting and there was a lot of unrest and uncertainty among the population.

2. What do teenage boys and girls do for fun and/or to be rebellious brats if they have no access to computers/internet/Playstations/etc? How much of a freak was Fraser for going hiking and reading all the time when he was living with his grandparents? I get the feeling that Mark Smithbauer spent all his waking moments playing hockey, but what would other kids do?

Um, hockey :-) It's a cliché, but organized sports are a huge part of community life in small Canadian towns. The local hockey and curling teams serve as a point of common interest, and given the conditions (eight to ten months of winter, anyone?) and the lack of other entertainment options, a lot of kids get involved in hockey teams, skating clubs and programs like 4H or Scouts and Girl Guides, depending on the size of the community and the availability of the necessary facilities like ice rinks and meeting halls. Depending on how isolated you think Fraser was growing up, it's entirely reasonable that he spent most of his time alone in the woods or his grandparent's library. If the Fraser Mobile Library ever stopped in a more settled community he'd have a chance to play pick-up hockey, or get involved with a youth group run by the local church or a program run out of the local Veteran's or Lions club.

In terms of rebellion or acting out, lot of adolescents in small rual towns do get involved with substance abuse, unfortunately, as a way to stave off boredom or cope with the difficult living conditions. In Fraser's generation, drugs like hash or marajuana would have been popular (and alcohol is always available) but for a contemporary story crystal meth is the drug of choice among rural teens since it's easy to produce with a few household chemicals. And sex is always a fun past time for teenagers, of course.

Which brings us to possibly the best question ever...

3. What about the sex industry? I don't guess there are red light districts when it's -50C out. Are there shops for sex toys or would RayK have to order presents for Fraser off the internet?

Heh, yes, there are many, many sex shops in northern Canada. There's also a much more permissive attitude towards sex in general in Canada: Canadian censors are more concerned with violence than sexual content in Canadian film and TV, and in larger cities (say, above 20,000 people) there are plenty of Adults Only or XXX stores. These stores sell videos, sex toys and usually feature message boards (the old fashion kind, with paper) where people can arrange to hook up or find a new partner. A lot of these stores are part of larger chains out of cities like Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary, and they offer material that would appeal to a variety of tastes, from gay/straight to kinky or unusual predilections. Given the imbalance between male/female populations, even small communities have a steady source of pornography, if not the same ready access to toys and leather gear available in stores further south. There are also a lot of local strip clubs, and most bars (even in very small towns) have stripper or burlesque nights.

One major source of pornographic magazines is from gas stations or roadside coffee shops: these stores usually carry a selection of porn (but it’s almost uniformly targeted at heterosexual men) and it’s sold on the back shelf if magazine racks, either sealed in plastic or with paper wrappers covering the naughty bits. (I like my euphemisms!) To answer the specific question, Ray would probably be able to find a porn store or two, but if he wanted a sexy present for Fraser (and not just a gay porno mag) he’d have to order it online.

And, despite the weather, there are tiny red light districts in most northern communities. Again, due to the imbalance between male/female populations (many more men than women) prostitution has always been a thriving industry in the north. A lot of it is transitory work: a woman might take in clients to make ends meet during a difficult time but find a more legitimate source of income later on. There is also a gay prostitution network, which has been made easier due to the arrival of the internet in most northern communities. Drug or alcohol addiction is also a part of this industry in the north, and the weather isn’t as much as a deterrent to “street” prostitution as you’d think: I’ve seen a prostitute soliciting on a northern highway during a snowstorm, where cars were only coming by every fifteen or twenty minutes.

4. Is there a stigma of any kind attributed to being from the far north?

Oh yes. I imagine it's a bit like the stigma attached to people from the southern United States or those from really remote, rural areas who move to the big city. The stereotype of dumb northern rednecks who are illiterate, uneducated and unfamiliar with "city ways" is fairly pervasive among southern Canadians. Since 51% of Canadians live in major urban centres (Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, etc) there is a major divide between urban and rural dwellers, and that divide becomes even more pronounced when you enter into the northern/southern paradigms. Other Canadians I've met here in Toronto are sometimes surprised to learn that I did indeed have running water and central heating in my childhood home, even though I was raised in a large northern city. There's an odd stratification among Canadians: those who live in Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal are at the zenith of political and social representation. People from the west (Vancouver or Calgary) are marginalized, and those who live north of those major cities near the border are almost non-existent.

5. What about the oil industry? In my head, I see drilling platforms across the prairie -- but in my head it's always summertime and there's a sea of grass around the rig.

I don't have any firsthand experience with the Arctic oil industry. Like Sage, I tend to visualize drilling platforms in the midst of rolling wheat fields, but most of the oil excavation in the north is conducted via offshore drilling platforms or through the mining of the tar sands in places like Fort McMurray. Due to the difficulties presented by drilling into the permafrost, mining and oil operations in northern Canada are fairly limited, and it's hard, brutal, dangerous work. Oilmen are more likely to find employment on one of the oil pipelines. Elizabeth Hay's fiction novel Late Nights on Air goes into the debate that arose in the 1970s when plans were announced to build a major oil pipeline in northern Canada. Hay captures a lot of the debate about the issue and the way the question was taken up in the rest of the country. Oil extraction and refining is a major business in the north; forestry was the big industry where I grew up, but no matter where you set your story, a number of the characters will, in one way or another, be in the business of resource exploitation.

As of 2007, plans are in the works to build a major oil pipeline in the Mackenzie Delta (near Inuvik) which would have a vast impact on the economy and ecology of the region. Issues like the building of the hydro-electric dam that got Fraser's father killed in the Pilot are common in the north: there is a lot of environmental fallout due to technological advances that make it cheaper and easier for companies to look north for electricity, oil and gas. And, as most of the residents rely on the paychecks provided by these companies, it's often difficult to voice opposition or openly discuss concerns about environment repercussions.

6. How much racism, segregation, and integration is there between First Nations and whites in the community off the reservations?

There is a lot of anti-aboriginal racism and segregation in northern Canada, and in a lot of ways it's harder to address than the institutional racism in the United States. Canadians have a particularly dangerous blind spot when it comes to racism. Part of the “us/them” binary that exists between Canada and the United States allows Canadians to believe that we are somehow free of the kind of racial conflicts and discrimination that exist and have existed in America. We don't have a huge and diverse cultural industry that calls attention to issues of discrimination and hatred in past and present-day Canadian society. Our television and film industry’s key mandate is to protect “Canadian identity” from American cultural domination, and so media products (particularly in non-documentary forms) that trouble or question the realities of life for aboriginal Canadians are often marginalized or ignored. We don’t often learn about Canada’s history of slavery and genocide in the classroom (although it’s certainly present) and most white Canadians who live in southern cities are fairly content with the portrait of Canada as a peaceful, multicultural nation that respects difference and values diversity.

Of course, this isn't the case. There is a shocking level of violence and discrimination directed toward First Nation peoples in the north. It is both an institutional problem in the federal and provincial/territorial governments, and it’s also pervasive in the RCMP and within the criminal justice system that overwhelmingly discriminates against young First Nations men. Canadians certainly aren’t exempt from the lingering social malady of racism and misunderstanding that passes from one generation to the next.

First Nations (including the Inuit, Métis and North American Indian people) comprise about 4% of Canada’s total population (or about 976,305 people of roughly 33 million) who self-identify in census polls as First Nations. The population estimates are as follows:

o 608,850 North American Indian
o 292,305 Métis
o 45,070 Inuit

The “North American Indian” category encompasses a huge swathe of ethno-linguistic groups, including the Ojibway, Algonquin, Iroquoian and Mohawk tribes (the tribal lines of which cross the US/Canada border) as well as prairie and west-coast tribes like the Hai’da, Dene and Salish-speaking peoples. The Métis are the descendents of Scottish and French Canadian trappers and First Nations peoples who established early trade relations and community groups dating from the 17th century. The Métis largely settled in Manitoba and northern Quebec and Ontario after hundreds of years of nomadic existence as fur traders, hunters and trappers.

It’s worth noting that in Canada, First Nations people claim “status” as descendants of one of the recognized tribes of Canada as per the qualifications outlined by the Indian Register. To have “status” entitles an individual to income tax exemption for any revenue earned on a reserve, as well as some housing and education benefits. (University or post-secondary education, for example, is subsided by the government in an effort to counteract the abysmal rate of aboriginal degree-holders in this country, which itself is a sign of lack of educational opportunities for First Nations peoples). The extent and nature of these status-related benefits is often unclear or misunderstood by white Canadians, at least in my experience, and is often cited as a part of a racist narrative that argues, “Natives have all these benefits and they still can’t pull themselves up.”

There’s a lot of bitterness and anger directed toward First Nations people, particularly in the North among working-class whites. The belief that status-holders benefit from enormous tax breaks and a very generous welfare policy not available to whites is widespread. Of course, it’s an attitude borne of entrenched racism and a lack of firsthand contact with First Nations people, as well as a misunderstanding of the realities of social assistance and the shameful history of Canada’s treatment of aboriginal peoples. I teach a Canadian citizenship course at the college level, and my students are constantly shocked to learn the true amount of social assistance payments (barely enough to afford rent without the aid of housing subsides, which leaves little money for other essentials like food or clothing) or the bleak conditions of life on a reserve.

As I've said, approx. 51% of Canadians live in major urban centres. Those southern cities are a major locus of political and economic power. As the majority of aboriginal Canadians live a) on small, isolated reserves located further north or west and b) are a disadvantaged minority group that has faced systemic discrimination since first contact, First Nations populations are confronted with the hat trick of discrimination in Canada. To be poor, rural and aboriginal is to be invisible in this society.

Living conditions on a reserve are bleak: there is little access to healthcare, education or employment opportunities, and often basic services like sewage treatment or clean drinking water is unavailable. There are about 600 reserves in Canada (link to a list of reserves by population size); most are small, isolated and offer few sources of income for the inhabitants. Occasional land claim protests and treaty negotiations have drawn attention to these conditions, but the attitude of the Canadian government often seems to be “out of sight, out of mind.” I’m editorializing, of course, but having briefly lived on a reserve and traveled through reservation towns in northern British Columbia I can attest to the poor living conditions and lack of attention these communities receive.

Aside from the physical segregation represented by a reserve, there are also aboriginal-stream educational programs that separate First Nations students from their white counterparts in small regional elementary and high schools. These aboriginal-stream programs aim to meet the special education needs of aboriginal students, but it also prevents a lot of cross-cultural contact in the classroom where more understanding of First Nations cultures could be encouraged. De facto segregation is often the result. Canadian aboriginals are treated as second-class citizens, and are often characterized by whites as alcoholic or drug-addicted welfare parasites. The lack of positive, non-cliched portrayals of aboriginal people in popular culture (or any kind of portrayal at all, aside from a few token mentions), coupled with the misunderstanding about status benefits and poor education about the history of the conflict between First Nations and white European culture, has left a large racial divide in this country. And what's worse, it’s a divide few Canadians seem willing to recognize, let alone breach.

I wish I had something a little cheerier to end on. If you have a question that I haven't yet addressed, or you'd like to discuss some of these issues in more detail, please feel free to comment here. I hope some of this is useful for those of you trying to compose a post-CotW story. Or we could, y'know, talk in person at [livejournal.com profile] bitchinparty!
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An archive of the Due South Workshop comm from LJ

October 2011

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