We Go Farther Together

I have neglected to write about the projects I’ve been doing since I was appointed Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton (including my new history podcast, Let’s Find Out), mostly because I’ve been too busy actually working on them! There’s one I’d like to share with you here though.

For the past couple months, I’ve been writing articles for CBC’s Canada 2017 project. They’re connected to a Murdoch Mysteries web series called Beyond Time, where viewers have to guess the identity of famous Canadians that a Time Bandit has stolen from time. After the Murdoch Mysteries team reveal the correct answer, they link to articles about what history would have been like without that person. So I’m the one writing those articles.

One of the stories I wrote in February was about Viola Desmond.

Viola Desmond smiles at the camera

It was a fascinating article to write and research. By now most of us have heard about her courageous stand against racial segregation at New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre in 1946. Viola Desmond was a smart, brave, and dignified woman. The risks she took, the lengths she went, to make a successful life in 1940s Nova Scotia are impressive even today.

Before I read Graham Reynolds’ book Viola Desmond’s Canada, I had no idea she actually started out as a teacher before that. And that she was only allowed to teach in segregated black schools.

When she went into the beauty business, Viola personally drove up and down the province to sell her beauty products in a time when it was almost unheard of for a black woman to drive alone. She was inspired by Sarah Breedlove (aka Madam C.J. Walker), the first self-made millionaire in the United States, and Viola pursued an education in New York, as well as in Montreal and Atlantic City.

She was breaking barriers long before she accidentally crossed that colour line in a theatre in an unfamiliar town.

We all owe a debt to Viola Desmond for her bravery fighting her unjust treatment at the theatre (and in court the next day, where they fined her) all the way to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court. What also struck me researching this piece though, was how she herself had many other people’s hard work behind her.

There was Carrie Best, the publisher of the African-Canadian focused newspaper The Clarion, which covered Viola’s story, and spelled out the injustice for the public. There was Pearleen Oliver, co-founder of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose association paid the lawyer who appealed her fine at the province’s Supreme Court.

And thanks to Bashir Mohamed, I know about Charles Daniels, who fought a very similar case of discrimination at the Sherman Grand Theatre back in 1914, the year Viola Desmond was born. Donald B. Smith’s book Calgary’s Grand Story has a great retelling of the whole case. The short version? Charles was refused entry after buying a ticket to King Lear, on account of his being black. He sued them for discrimination, and the kicker is he actually won. He won $1000. In 1914.

I saw Hidden Figures recently, and it made me pump my fist in the air and cry and cry and cry, thinking of all the brave people who’ve fought against the barriers our society has put up against their full participation in our society. There were those woman at NASA who fought for a place in the room making groundbreaking calculations that got astronauts into space and back. There was Viola Desmond. There are kids in high schools right now fighting for the very basic right to go to the bathroom and change before gym class somewhere they feel safe and comfortable.

We go farther when we all have a chance to contribute.

We all stand on the shoulders of these giants.

One last thought I couldn’t squish into this short CBC article: It’s great that Viola Desmond is going to be on our money, but she should really be on the $20 bill. That’s how much she was fined for allegedly cheating the province out of a penny’s tax, because the theatre wouldn’t take the extra money she tried to pay to sit in the ground floor seats. The court also forced her to pay $6 in expenses to the theatre manager, but we don’t have a $26 bill yet.

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Nobody Does This Alone

I don’t consider myself a social media maven, but there’s something I really like about the hashtag #QTheFuture.

Picture of a microphone with text overlaid: #QTheFuture - Send us your insights and ideas. We're listening.

Not long after the revelations about Jian Gomeshi’s string of abuses came out, the team of CBCers behind Q started asking their audience to use it to make Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ posts with ideas for the show’s life post-Jian. Fans are tweeting about their favourite ideas for a new host (Piya Chattoopadhyay would be my pick – she’s such a great interviewer), whether the name should be changed to Zed, and how to change the culture of the workplace to protect staff from sexual harassment. I’m totally bewildered that Norm MacDonald seems to be the Twitterverse’s pick for the next host.

What I like about it is that is essentially hopeful, and it makes obvious that nobody does this work alone. I know I’m not the only one who feels conned realizing that so many of our favourite interviews with people like Caitlin Moran and Rich Aucoin were hosted by a man with a shadow life of brutal sexual aggression. But every great interview you ever heard Jian do — and any that sound retroactively sleazy now — was the product of a team. There were people racing through books to find brilliant authors, people calling up bands and doing fastidious pre-interviews, people writing up scripts for Jian to read on air, and people continuing the conversation on their website and social media. Hosting is an incredibly important role, but it’s just one among many that create great radio.

Recognizing that fact, I’d like to recommend a few ways you can help great artists make some great work. First of course, you should definitely shout out to Q with the hashtag #QTheFuture.

Next, you should donate to help Radiotopia and Canadaland thrive. Radiotopia is the luminous new podcast network that brings together shows like 99% Invisible, Strangers, Theory of Everything, Love + Radio, and more. They’re really close to their goal of 20,000 backers on Kickstarter, and it’s going towards really worthwhile things like subsidizing health care for 99% Invisible producers (single payer rules, but kudos for working with what they’ve got) and bringing new shows online to make sure half of them are now hosted by women.

Meanwhile Jesse Brown’s Canadaland was a show I’ve been listening to mostly because there is nobody else making podcasts about comedy writers from Northern Alberta, the wonder of Kate Beaton, and the CBC’s attempts to cover its cutbacks in futuresauce. But seeing his work uncovering the Jian Gomeshi scandal and interviewing Glenn Greenwald about Canada’s spy agencies monitoring our own citizens, I feel very prescient for becoming a monthly Canadaland supporter on Patreon.

Lastly, you should pick up a copy of Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild by Jennifer Kingsley. I have the honour of being a friend of hers, and I’m really adoring this guide to her journey paddling down the Back and Baillie Rivers in the tundra. Ordinarily I wouldn’t find a book about someone else’s journey gripping, but she really sells it by peeling back layer after layer of skin to reveal little truths about herself, and about how we relate to wilderness.

When she’s talking about her pre-trip anxiety, it shows as much about her as it does about what it means to survive. There’s a scene where a trip companions named Jen wants to fire a test shot from a plastic pistol meant to scare away bears, and Jennifer’s picturing herself trapped out in the wild with a bear circling for days to slowly hunt them down.

It would be my turn to hold the bear off, and I would reach into the plastic bag, powdery and acific, only to find we had used every little packet of sound and light.

My irrational fear and mumblings of complaint continued as Jen jammed the cartridge in place and fired.

“There,” she said. “Easy.”

And she was on to the next thing, dinner, while I stood on the bank, trapped by my imagination.

Or how about this gem: “Going into the wild is like going to sleep; you get there in stages.”

Paddlenorth is her first book, and I think it’s a fantastic read.

Nobody makes a book, or a podcast, or a great interview, alone. So let’s give some love to the people making great stuff out there.

Edit: I feel embarrassed seeing that my last post before this lauded Jian Gomeshi as a great host. This is the pain many Canadians are feeling right now – those of us who he didn’t directly hurt: that radio makes a host seem intimate and knowable, but dark water of fame and distance can hide what they’re really like.

Give Me Homework

Before I worked at CBC, I used to think hosts like Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Gomeshi were superhuman. Not only had they read all the books they were interviewing authors about, they had beautifully well-developed questions ready in a tidy narrative arc. Then I started working as a producer behind the scenes and realized I’d be pre-interviewing the guests and coming up with a lot of those beautiful questions.

But the achievement still stands that these great hosts are doing a massive amount of reading to be prepared to talk to their guests. I’ve been doing a lot of preparatory reading for stories myself lately. It’s eerie how much of a thrill it is to know you’ve done your homework when you pick up the phone or start prattling on in front of a microphone.

One of Raymond Biesinger's outlandish illustrations in She of the Mountains
One of Raymond Biesinger’s outlandish illustrations in She of the Mountains

This week, you’ll be able to read a story I wrote for Vue Weekly about Vivek Shraya’s fantastic new novel She of the Mountains. I interviewed Vivek a few years ago about his documentary What I LOVE About Being QUEER, and She shares many of its themes in exploring race, sexuality, and searching for a sense of belonging. I guarantee you’ve never read a novel like it, though. It’s an almost minimalist love story about a man searching for a way to reconcile his love of both men and women, learning to love himself, interwoven with the domestic blisses and bloody battles of Hindu gods and goddesses.

More recently, I got to race through Edmonton political affairs commentator Satya Das’ book The Best Country: Why Canada Will Lead the Future in anticipation of moderating a panel talk for ACGC. I love hosting events like this, because there’s so much research and craft that goes into guiding a conversation among speakers with vastly different perspectives live with an audience.

And my last blast of preparatory reading this summer was for Terra Informa. We had a summer reading club, where we reviewed wilderness journey Being Caribou, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Year of the Flood, and the dense eco-poetry book Kill-Site. It’s exciting to have a springboard in front of me with sticky notes and scribbles in the margin, from which I can leap off into questions about That Moment You First Heard Pierre Trudeau Speak, or What Stories From Your Childhood Inspired This Battle Scene.

In summary, feel free to give me homework that I can turn into a story or an engaging conversation in front of an audience. I crave it.