Monday, April 14, 2014

Arctic Air was the conversation we needed to hear.

Even before the CBC announced the devastating cuts last Thursday resulting in the loss of over 600 permanent positions, fans of the TV show Arctic Air were disappointed to find out that CBC was cancelling the show.

For those of you who haven't watched the show, Arctic Air is a CBC television show set in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, following the adventures of a fictional northern airline company. The main character of the show is Bobby Martin (portrayed by Adam Beach), a young Dene man who is part owner of the company.

I think I understand why Arctic Air was cut.  It's an expensive show to produce.  Even without the fiery explosions and plane crashes and other stunts, just traveling around the North to shoot scenes is expensive.  And Arctic Air lacks the consumerist sex appeal that reality TV shows have.  Still, I am disappointed to learn that it has been cancelled, because not only does the show provide glimpses of Northern life to the rest of the country, it also provides a conversation about Aboriginal people that Canada so badly needs to begin having.

I am a person of colour, but I am not of Aboriginal descent.  I do not pretend to speak on behalf of Aboriginal peoples, nor do I claim to know everything about an indigenous person's experience.  What I do know is that there is so much more to Aboriginal cultures than is currently being represented on television. I know there is more to it than the cheesy stereotypes we grew up with. They are people, like any other group of people, with a rich diversity of stories, but their stories are not being told.

I'm not saying that Arctic Air flawlessly represents Aboriginal people all the time.  What I do enjoy is about the show, though, is that at least folks are there, on screen, playing a variety of roles.
Arctic Air tries to tell us stories about people's lives in a manner that does not fetishize them or exoticize them as the Other.

There is no claim that any one of the Dene characters speak for all of them, or even that there is a single unified Dene viewpoint; instead, each character is allowed to have their quirks and flaws and epiphanies, without heavily relying on tired tropes. We get to hear multiple perspectives on the issues they face, such as whether Loreen's great-great-grandfather should have a Christian burial or be laid to rest according to Dene tradition, or how to deal with the smuggling of alcohol into dry communities.  It's not the first time that television has portrayed an Aboriginal person's drinking problem; what I find novel about the show is the fact that we get to hear people talking about it amongst themselves, and what needs to be done about it.

In Season 3, episode 9, titled "Rites of Passage", Bobby tries to have a conversation with his son Connor - after having fallen through the ice and while fighting to stay alive while stranded in the wilderness (this happens a lot in the show). Connor is struggling with his identity, after having an unpleasant experience from a racist store-owner, and is resisting his father's urge to embrace the part of him that is Dene.

Connor: "I'm not an Indian!"
Bobby: "Not an Indian? What's that supposed to mean?"
Connor: "My mom's half white, half Filipino. And my real dad, he's white."
Bobby: "David was the one who was there.  It doesn't matter who raised you; it's in your blood."
Connor: "I'm not like them."
Bobby: "Like who?"
Connor: "Those kids who sniff gasoline? Those losers who stagger around town? Drunk?"
Bobby: "Do you see me doing that? Or Loreen or Caitlin? Maybe it's because we know who we are. You can't know who you are unless you know where you come from. That's what my dad used to tell me. And that's why he always took me out on the land every chance he got."
Connor: "Yeah, you're so proud of being an Indian."
Bobby: "Yeah, I am!"
Connor: "So why'd you leave all those years? Go down south, to be a white guy?"
Bobby: "I was still Dene when I was in Vancouver. I mean, sure, I was wearing the expensive suits, but I still got called chief. Look, I know what it feels like to be followed around in a store, because the colour of your skin. Or being called Tonto or Toboggan in school. I get it, okay? But I had two parents who were proud of who they were. I'm sorry I wasn't there to share that with you. I'm trying to do that now."

Where else have we heard this conversation on mainstream television?

Some criticize the show as being unrealistic.  There are airplane mechanical malfunctions in almost every episode, for example, but having lived in the North for over a year now and having flown many times, I'm starting to realize that it's not that unrealistic. But maybe the plot does often take a ridiculous turn (every episode is a life-threatening adventure), and maybe the show portrays Yellowknife as being much more eventful and dramatic than it might actually be, in the same way that the Republic Of Doyle makes St John's seem like Los Angeles.  And maybe the TV show's portrayal of Aboriginal persons is not entirely accurate either. But the reality is that Arctic Air was at least allowing these conversations to happen, and I'm not hearing these conversations anywhere else on air.

Arctic Air was the conversation we needed to hear.  And now it will no longer be heard.  Thank you, Arctic Air, for all of the entertainment you have provided us over the years with your hard work.  Hopefully there will be another show soon to resume these conversations.