National Post (National Edition)
Right genes for the job
Former darling of Indigenous film cancelled
Three years ago, I signed up for Ancestry. com's AncestryDNA service, having been drawn in by the company's TV ads. You might remember the most famous one, in which a white-appearing woman named Kim burbled about how she'd learned she was 16 per cent Native-American.
Alas, when my own test results came back, they showed I was about as multicultural as the appetizer list at Snowdon Deli. The included Ancestry.com map showed a bunch of orange dots clustered densely in Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Hungary — basically a map of pre-Holocaust Jewish Europe — each corresponding to an “ancestral community” statistically associated with my DNA. To the south, my most exotic ancestors were Romanians. In the north, the furthest my forebears made it was Denmark. Turns out I was exactly who I thought I was: a boring white guy descended from Ashkenazi Jews.
I'd signed up for AncestryDNA as an impulse buy, with no particular agenda. But in retrospect, it turns out Kim and I were ahead of our time. As Canadian filmmaker Michelle Latimer recently found out, this kind of information can now make or break your career.
Last week, Latimer announced her resignation as director of Trickster, a CBC drama based on an Eden Robinson novel about an Indigenous teenager who channels supernatural figures from Haisla mythology. When Latimer originally secured National Film Board (NFB) funding, she'd indicated she was of “Algonquin, Métis and French heritage” — information she'd sourced to her own family lore. But a CBC investigation found that Latimer's Indigenous heritage is limited to two 17th-century ancestors. Nowhere in the annals of the Canadian arts establishment is it definitively specified what DNA fraction one must possess to claim Indigenous status — a quarter, an eighth, a sixteenth. But whatever that standard may be, Latimer apparently doesn't meet it, which is why this former darling of Indigenous film and television has been well and truly cancelled.
And not just her, of course, but everything she's touched: two other producers jumped ship from Trickster shortly after Latimer's resignation, properly concluding that the whole show has become a superspreader of cancel-culture cooties. CBC now seems to be waffling on whether Trickster — one of the network's few acclaimed offerings — will continue to exist at all. Latimer has been forced to give back at least one award. And the NFB has announced it will be withdrawing Latimer's acclaimed 2020 documentary adaptation of Thomas King's “Inconvenient Indian” from an upcoming screening at Sundance — not because of any deficiencies marring the film itself, but because of the filmmaker's DNA.
These are some of the few scraps of Canadian screen content that viewers in the rest of the world have shown any interest in watching.
And now they'll be tossed in a memory hole by the same government bureaucrats who bankrolled them in the first place. The whole edifice of Canadian arts subsidies originally was based on the Cold War-era conceit that we needed to “tell Canadian stories” as a means to fight American cultural imperialism. Yet many Canadian artists — and even the bureaucrats who fund them — now seem far more enthusiastic about blacklisting stories than telling them.
Latimer isn't alone. If you look down cancel culture's Canadian victim roster, you'll find a surprising number of card-carrying progressives who've dedicated much of their careers to Indigenous storytelling. Joseph Boyden supplies the most well-known example. But there's also cancelled Governor General's Award-winning writer Gwen Benaway (who may or may not be Indigenous, depending on who you ask); vocalist Connie LeGrande (who is Cree, but got targeted for intra-Indigenous cancellation in 2019 anyway, on the innovative theory that First Nations shouldn't be allowed to apply Inuit throat-singing techniques); and partly Mi'kmaq poet Shannon Webb Campbell (whose book was pulped in 2018 when relatives of the Indigenous women she'd written about complained to her publisher). And then there's Steven Galloway, who was originally cancelled on the basis of false accusations of sexual assault at the University of British Columbia, but then was further targeted with the (equally false) claim that he'd cynically weaponized his Indigenous roots to claim victim status. At Canadian Art magazine, meanwhile, an Indigenous writer tried to cancel Cree artist Kent Monkman, on the basis that his blockbuster success with a white international audience constitutes proof that he's betrayed his ancestry. Even longtime CBC contributor Jesse Wente, who just became the Canada Council for the Arts' first Indigenous chairperson, is under fire for failing to snuff out Latimer's race deception when he was warned of it back in August — or as one angry Twitter user put it last week, “ass-kissing and gate-keeping on behalf of the white man's Indian princess, aka Michelle Latimer.”
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, an Indigenous actor and filmmaker, recently wrote in Now magazine that Latimer's case shows how “Canadian institutions uphold white supremacy in who is given access to resources and who is not.” But it's a very strange kind of “white supremacy” that induces white artists such as Latimer to bend their bios — instead of vice versa. The more banal (and grubby) explanation is that the NFB, like innumerable government arts-funding agencies, has earmarked a whopping pile of cash for Indigenous creators.
This is hardly the first time that our cultural institutions have been captured by an unrepresentative clique of ideologically incestuous cultural grandees. For most of my life, in fact,
Canadian cultural life was dominated by small cliques of Ontario WASPs whose antiquated conception of Canada centred on men in red serge, rugged Arctic landscapes, long canoe trips, big furry animals, sentimental hockey reveries, the cod fishery, the Plains of Abraham, socialized medicine and the monarchy. Even by the late 20th century, this had become a dull and dated vision of our country — a sentimental pastiche with little relevance to an increasingly urban and multicultural country. And so it shouldn't have surprised us that when progressives made a dedicated push to redefine our national soul, they encountered little resistance.
The alternative vision of our country that has now become ascendant within progressive circles (the arts, in particular) has little to do with Group of Seven paintings or the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Instead, it casts Canada as a genocidal colonial state existing in an ongoing condition of original sin.
This national vision is nihilistic and bleak, and has little support among ordinary Canadians.
But it does at least offer its adherents a heroic subplot, by which Indigenous peoples (artists and writers, in particular) are celebrated as a priestly caste of moral savants who shall confer grace upon the rest of us. And even a boring old settler like me has to admit that's a lot more exciting than a CBC documentary about Lawren Harris freezing his ass off on Mount Robson.
According to this quasi-religious understanding of Indigenous moral leadership and folk wisdom, the practice of evaluating artists according to their bloodline makes perfect sense. So, too, does the idea of memory-holing a film or TV show — even a good one — that's discovered to have been directed by a white muggle: no matter if Latimer got all the words right in her scripts, such incantations lack power unless spoken by a true wizard. And it truly wouldn't surprise me if, in coming years, filmmakers were required to undergo formal DNA testing as a condition of employment.
The CBC spent months chasing the Latimer story, and announced it as a major scoop — which, in the arts world, I suppose it was. Yet if you step back and examine it at a distance, the scandal really has little to do with the real Canadian world that our state-subsidized artists are supposed to illuminate in their work.
The Canada I know is a tolerant and diverse society full of immigrants who've arrived here from every corner of the planet. Many of them came here precisely to escape racist governments that still insist on judging a person according to his bloodline.
That includes my own orange-dot ancestors, incidentally. And if they were around today, I'd be hard-pressed to explain to them why such a discredited measure of human worth is tolerated — let alone subsidized — in this otherwise liberal and enlightened country.