It has been some time since I have last posted here, but I can assure you that I have been hard at work studying, reading, etc. So I hope that this will only benefit and enhance future posts, and I want to thank you for your patience these past several months :)
Recently, the city of Toronto has become a multiculturalism enthusiast's dream with the hosting of the Pan Am Games in July. We have had many tourists from abroad (some of whom I have had the pleasure of interacting with at the Royal Ontario Museum), and there are many ethnic and cultural events scattered around the city for the public to take part in.
Of course, celebrations of ethnic identity are not straightforward: along with the pleasure, there is often pain. We can say we appreciate others' cultures all we want, but with that, we also have to hear people out on the issues and challenges they face, oftentimes because of those identities.
Because of this, I find it interesting that after several months' worth of hiatus, I return to my volunteer post at the Royal Ontario Museum to a number of new exhibits and installations in the Canadian galleries where I work. One of these, Worn: Shaping Black Feminine Identity by Vancouver-based artist Karin Jones, is particularly noteworthy for the ROM initiative it is part of: Of Africa.
Of Africa is a ROM project several years in the making, aimed towards presenting a more diverse image of Africa and its diaspora, dispelling the myth that the African continent is culturally monolithic (i.e. that all Africans can be grouped into a single culture). Also, the use of contemporary modern art will also showcase the vitality of African cultures: they are not trapped in some distant past, but incredibly vibrant and open to creative expression and innovation.
Worn, appearing as it does in the Canadian gallery, is meant to speak about the historical and contemporary reality of African Canadians, working in juxtaposition to the artifacts from European settlement that surround the temporary exhibition space in the rest of the gallery. The art installation is a dress made of synthetic hair in a style evoking the late 19th century bustle dress associated with the Victorian era. In the following pictures, you can see the intricate detailing of the braided hair. In this, we see Jones' argument that African arts (as exemplified through the braiding) are just as beautiful and refined as the European decorative and fashion arts that our society so admires.
You may note that the dress is black. This is not only because of the colour of the synthetic hair, reminiscent of African and Caribbean braids, but because the Victorian dress Jones meant to emulate was a mourning dress. In her own words:
For me, the Victorian mourning dress is a symbol of sadness, "high" culture, the British Empire, and the imposition of feminine beauty norms.
I wear my African-Canadian identity much as a Victorian woman would have worn this type of dress: proudly, but uncomfortably, shaped and also constrained by it.
Note as well the way the dress is displayed. Cotton balls and hair bolls are scattered upon the floor, testament to the role that Africans have played in the construction of the European empires and the settler colonies that now form today's First World - including Canada.
Canadians may speak of the abolition of slavery and the Underground Railroad that allowed African slaves in the United States to find freedom, but we also cannot forget that we, too, have benefited from the "invisible labour of thousands of Africans": not just in the 19th century at the height of the British Empire, but also into the present day.
Of Africa. Royal Ontario Museum. n.d. Web. 31 July 2015.
Worn: Shaping Black Feminine Identity. Royal Ontario Museum. n.d. Web. 31 July 2015.
All photos (c) Kita Inoru
Friday, 31 July 2015
Monday, 12 January 2015
"Je Me Souviens" But Not Enough: Finding History in Vieux-Québec
"I remember." That's the motto for the province of Quebec, and something that resonates in the hearts and minds of Canadians everywhere. Rightly or wrongly so, Quebec and its people have a strong association with the country's history; they are the proverbial guardians of Canada's French heritage. And whether you see it as a good thing (as a rallying cry to maintain history and culture) or a bad thing (as a means to hold on to old grudges from centuries past), there is no denying that something is being remembered in Quebec City, at all times.
So when I had the chance to finally visit Quebec City in October 2014 for a family vacation, I was very excited. This was something I had been wanting to do for a very long time. Sure, I had been to Quebec numerous times in the past, growing up - but the last time was over ten years ago, back when I had little respect or appreciation for Canada and its history.
This time, especially with a secret desire to glean some firsthand knowledge for historical fiction-writing purposes, would be different. This time, I thought, I would be inspired.
|Just a small bonus: This is the hotel that I stayed at on one of my earlier childhood trips to Quebec. It's right on the edge of the Plains of Abraham.|
Quebec, for me, was going to be the mother lode. What else could it be? This was where I wanted my stories to be set. I was a history enthusiast with a mission: to show the world that Canada was - and still is - important. That even two hundred years ago, we were something, and all one had to do was go to Quebec, the pinnacle of Canadian historical preservation, to see it.
For the most part, I wasn't disappointed. There is, in Vieux-Québec (i.e. the Old City of Quebec), a certain quaintness that I could easily envision working in the 18th century. There were old houses (some dating to the 18th century or even earlier - a rare sight, given the British bombardment of 1759), cobblestone streets, and the same narrow alleys and steep pathways that the city's past inhabitants navigated on a daily basis.
|One of the several routes connecting the Upper Town and Lower Town. And yes, it is as steep as it looks. That doesn't deter locals, though: I saw a whole group of schoolchildren running down the sidewalk after their classes let out for the day.|
|Part of the foundations from some of Québec's historic buildings.|
This, mes amis, is a cannonball stuck in the roots of a tree in an otherwise unspectacular alleyway. There are two different stories as to how it got there: one is that it was a cannonball left from the British bombardment of Québec during the Siege of 1759 around which the tree grew; the other is that the ball was deliberately placed there when the tree was younger and smaller to discourage vehicular traffic from running over the roots. Both versions of the story are equally plausible - although I am rather romantically inclined to go with the first. After all, that was what I was in Quebec for: to discover some hint of what life was like in the 18th century. And finding an authentic cannonball from the period would certainly help there.
I also discovered, not surprisingly, that Canada and its government could have a rather biting sense of humour and irony. For evidence of this, I present to you the Duke of Kent House.
This building now houses the French Consulate in the city of Québec. And while it has certainly been expanded from its original 18th century size, this was also the place where the French signed the capitulation documents in September 1759, formally surrendering Québec to the British. Perhaps no offhanded jab was intended in the Duke of Kent House being adopted by the French Consulate, but given that many Québécois still bear resentment towards France for giving them up all those years ago...I can't help but wonder if there was. Either way, this simply could not be coincidence, in my mind, and would be a worthwhile avenue to explore.
All this being said, given my interest in Quebec during the Seven Years' War - and the 1759 campaign in particular - it's only fair that I really go to the mother ship itself: the Plains of Abraham. Now called Battlefields Park, this area just outside of the city walls has been preserved and is open to the public, serving as a site for many events great and small throughout the year.
And this was when my dream veered sharply off course.
I've been on a historic battlefield before: Bunker Hill in Boston. There, I remember being able to stand on top of the hill, look down towards the harbour, and have the whole battle just mentally "click" into place. I could envision the British assault, the colonial defence...the actual hushed solemnity that one associates with a site of bloodshed.
Surely, given my passion for the subject and my strong sense of mission re: Canadian history, this would be almost like a sacred site for me. If I could bring myself to feel for a battle fought on foreign soil - and feel sympathy for the side I was raised to revile - then doubtless I would feel that again here. At home. And many times more.
Instead, I felt nothing.
I can't explain it. Even now, a few months later, I still can't put into words what came over me. When I stepped out from the city walls to look at the Plains, all I saw was a public park. No more, no less.
I tried to feel more than that. Really, I did. I started walking slowly and determinedly along the edge of the park, staring intently into it, earning strange looks and prodding questions from the others in my party. "Do you want to go down into the park?" they asked. I wanted to. But the slope going down into the field was steep, it was about to rain, and I knew that in everyone else's eyes, this really was just a park. So instead, I kept walking and staring, caught up in my own existential crisis on the Plains of Abraham.
What sort of a Canadian history buff would I be if I couldn't bring myself to feel? What sort of a Canadian would I be, altogether, if I could feel more for an American battlefield than my own?
|I will say, however, that I found myself inexplicably drawn to this copse of trees. Perhaps I subconsciously remembered it from that school re-enactment all those years ago.|
Whatever it was, all I know is this: in the moment when I ought to have felt it most, "Je me souviens" did not happen for me.
Fortunately for us, the story does not end here. I did find something to honour and remember in the end - just not what I expected. There was, near the Plains of Abraham, a war memorial dedicated to Canadians who had fought and died in the World Wars and the Korean War.
And there, I saw that it was not just past conflicts, but more recent ones, that Québec was remembering. At the base, I found a bouquet of flowers dedicated to Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian who, just days earlier, had been killed in a terrorist attack in Ottawa.
Je me souviens, indeed.
All photos (c) Kita Inoru
Monday, 5 January 2015
A Canadian's Review of the Canada Pavilion in Disney World's World Showcase
|Shouldn't take a genius to figure out where I was if I got photos like this!|
For those of you who aren't aware, the World Showcase is designed to feel like a one-stop-shop trip around the world. There are areas - called Pavilions - focusing on 11 different countries: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the USA, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK, and Canada. Naturally, being a very patriotic Canuck myself, I made a point of paying particularly close attention to the Canadian one.
It should be very obvious that, with the sheer amount of possibilities inherent in every nation's culture, the representations in the World Showcase are kitschy at best, and downright stereotypical at worst. That still didn't detract from my enjoyment, though - not this time, nor the first time I went back in 2010.
So...what was it like for this Canadian to see how Disney chose to show my country to the world? Let's find out!
I ended up approaching the Canada Pavilion from the side of Epcot known as "Future World"; in other words, this was the first "country" I visited in the World Showcase. However, before I even got into the Pavilion proper, there were already clues that I was in "kitschy Canada":
See those? They were in a kiosk promoting the Disney Vacation Club, and the first thing I saw entering the World Showcase. If you think those look an awful lot of Northwest Coast First Nations art, you'd be correct. In fact, that was a running theme throughout the Canada Pavilion: just like any proper souvenir shop back home, you can't say "Canada" without some nod to our First Nations, particularly those from British Columbia. Take a look at some of these other examples - this time from the actual Pavilion:
|First Nations totem pole and a Haida house as a storefront.|
|Carving on the front door to the gift shop.|
|Maple-flavoured goodies - Yum!|
Speaking of snow, nature in general is a huge running theme in the Canada Pavilion, at all times of year. And it makes me really proud to see my country being associated with such gorgeous (albeit man-made) vistas as this:
There is also a nod to one of Canada's most well-known man-made landscapes. Victoria Gardens, as this area is called in Epcot, is directly inspired by the very real (and very famous) Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia.
|Reminds me of the houses I saw in Quebec City|
|This building is inspired by the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa|
So...are there any rides in the Canada Pavilion? No. However, there is, if you ask me, one heck of a good show: "O Canada". It's a Circle-vision movie, meaning that you stand in the centre of a room and images are projected on a screen that wraps all the way around you, and shows a lot of what Canada has to offer, narrated by one of our many comedians: Martin Short.
And, perhaps as a nod to how Canada's economy relies predominantly on its natural resources, the theatre is inside an old mine:
Just how good is this movie? Well, it can be a bit disappointing, after spending a long day walking, to discover that it's just standing-room only in the theatre. However, everyone in my family thought it was great, and that our country was certainly worth "standing on guard" for. (And, yes, that's a very lame attempt to work the actual "O Canada" into this!)
So what's my overall verdict? As a Canadian, I could see this pavilion for being the mishmash of stereotypes it is - more so than I could have for any other Pavilion in the World Showcase. However, I do commend Disney for choosing the particular set of stereotypes it did: these are all things that many Canadians, myself included, do feel proud about, and I, at least, am more than happy to use them as markers of our distinctiveness as a nation.
Just for the record: the question of "Where are you visiting from?" is a huge icebreaker while you're in Disney World. Everyone asks it of everyone else: characters during autograph sessions, other visitors whilst you're in line, the cashiers in the stores. Naturally, I joined in the fun, and had some great conversations this way. Here are my top picks for "I'm a Canadian!" moments at Disney.
1. Waiting in line for Winnie the Pooh's autograph in the United Kingdom Pavilion, I started chatting with the family in front of me in line. It turns out they're from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and were happy to have a fellow Canuck in their midst. As we waited, we remarked on the irony that Winnie the Pooh was considered a British character by Disney when Winnie, the actual bear that inspired the story, was Canadian and named for Winnipeg. Seriously - look it up. Granted, A. A. Milne was British, and he saw Winnie at the London Zoo, but, well, the Canada Pavilion has no character greetings, and the UK already has Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins - let us join in the fun, why don't you, Disney?
2. The first thing I did when I arrived at Disney World was buy an autograph book at the gift shop in my hotel (the All Star Sports Resort). Every single time I buy something in the States, I have to wrap my head around all the bills looking almost exactly the same. I told the cashier as such, and he asked me where I was from. I answered, "Toronto, Canada. I'm used to the technicolor money we have there." He thought that was funny, and it did break the ice a bit.
|Speaking of "ice", here's a very famous Canadian whose photo was featured on a "Wall of Fame" in the hotel: Wayne Gretzky, NHL hockey player from the Edmonton Oilers (aka "The Great One").|
3. Meeting Elsa from "Frozen" at the Magic Kingdom Park. Yes, I was one of those who got the coveted Fastpass+ to see her (book early, guys, or you'll be in line for HOURS). She asked me, while signing my book, where I was from, to which I answered that I was from Canada. She then said, "I've never been to the Kingdom of Canada before," and then said that she'd like to go because of all the ice and snow. Actually, both she and Anna remarked on how cold it must be there. I deigned from telling Elsa, however, about how Toronto quite literally froze over last winter; don't know how she would have reacted if I did.
Edit: I've been notified via e-mail by a reader that I accidentally left out the Ottawa Senators from my list of Canadian NHL hockey teams. That's been fixed, and I apologize - no offense was intended to the Sens or their fans.
All photos (c) Kita Inoru
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