Our stories, untold
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 May 2016)

It seems likely the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. will soon set out on yet another transformation of its television service. Ottawa will probably raise its subsidy while introducing a more open version of the television business. It will be free trade for broadcasters.

This means that the CBC, while richer, will face tougher competition for attention. It will need to redefine its role and establish its legitimacy in a changed broadcasting landscape.

The CBC president will of course know just what to do. Like all previous presidents, Hubert Lacroix will promise to "tell the stories of Canada." Like all previous presidents, he will retire a few years later with the stories yet untold.

This persistent disappointment can't always be the fault of CBC management, as CBC artists will claim, or the failure of the government to provide enough money, as CBC executives will claim.

It may instead be the fault of Canadians and their inherent lack of interest in their own stories. Some of us watch in envy while other countries produce TV dramas that tell stories touching the core of their national life -- like the magnificent Borgen from Denmark and the exciting Occupied from Norway. We wonder why Canada, which has had a TV network since the 1950s, has never once managed to produce such stimulating narratives about ourselves. Our massculture TV drama, when it involves the life of Canada, usually turns out to be thin gruel, hardly worth the time to watch. The artists involved seem to lack the confidence to commit themselves to the material. And drama that lacks confidence can never win the confidence of an audience.

Making programs about an epic battle to build a coalition to govern Denmark, or about a fictional Russian invasion of Norway, requires that writers, actors and, above all, audiences feel strongly about their countries. Canadians tend to be grateful that we live here, but we rarely commit ourselves to considering how we came to be so lucky.

The talented Norwegians who made the Occupied series (now on Netflix) exhibit a profound engagement with their past and therefore a credible way to depict "the near future." In Occupied, the thriller writer Jo Nesbo has invented an imagined Norway that stumbles into a conflict with Russia.

The new Green Party has decided to beat climate change by shutting down the country's gas and oil production. This starts a global fuel crisis and Russia acts. Russians invade Norway, get the oil platforms and gas plants running again -- and refuse to leave. They claim they are acting in the best interests of the whole world. The Norwegians, as Nesbo comments, discover that their happy life in a democracy can be quickly overturned. The European Union, when asked for help, sympathizes more with Russia than with Norway. The U.S., by now self-sufficient in energy, remains neutral.

Occupied's plot seems partly borrowed from France during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s. The small moral compromises made by the fictional Norwegians, out of fear or greed, become a portrait of national character. A series like Occupied can be imagined only by artists who have a confident sense of their own country as it views itself.

In 1970 the Front de libération du Québec shook Canada with its lethal demand for Quebec independence. That was the basis, one might think, for a whole series of films and novels, English and French. But I can remember only one notable film that dealt with it -- Michel Brault's expertly made Les Ordres, which devoted itself to the imprisonment during the FLQ crisis of some innocent people by rude Quebec police. English Canada ignored it. And anyway, it barely touched on why many in Quebec wanted separation.

Canada notably lacks a collective imagination. Individual novelists find ways to develop Canadian stories that win both national and international readers. But for the CBC "our stories" remains an empty slogan, a claim that commanding and important legends live offstage, waiting for broadcasters to bring them to life. Federally mandated Canadian content regulations express a yearning for a more robust national spirit, but it's not something you can regulate into existence.

Even our history, as we teach it to ourselves and our children, does nothing to make us feel a united people. Our distinguished military exploits, sad to say, are mostly forgotten. Few graduates of our schools are able to explain why, for instance, our soldiers fought in the First World. We don't think about our past except when we apologize for the way we treated our minorities. We forget our best leaders from the 19th and 20th centuries. No one speaks of Lester Pearson or Wilfrid Laurier; leaders like those vanish from our minds as soon as they disappear from the earth.

Canada is a place of linked regions whose provinces not only ignore each other but raise internal trade barriers against other's products. Bruce Hutchison had it right in 1942 when he called a book about us The Unknown Country. That title wouldn't be wrong even now.

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