Unbound 2016: Oh, Canada
Canada's history is intrinsically linked with Scotland's, and as the whole world keeps on shrinking, all our futures are tied together. So let’s cram into the Spiegeltent, perhaps pour a whisky/whiskey and let four amazing writers educate and entertain us
The great Robin Williams once said that “Canada is like a really nice apartment over a meth lab.” A generally groovy people sitting atop a more powerful and often vocal neighbour. Relatable.
“Canada is a patchwork of the world’s peoples, and like all countries, we have stories which have been embraced and refined, and others which have been undermined or silenced,” says Charlene Diehl, Director of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. There’s at least a little tartan in that patchwork as Winnipeg itself grew out of a Scottish settlement and even now a glance at the city’s map reveals “a litany of Scottish towns and surnames: McPhillips, Nairn, Selkirk, Minto, McMillan, Sinclair, Kildonan, Woodhaven.” The link might be a couple of centuries old now but just last year the 'Great White North’s' own Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye was named World Whisky of the Year, so it’s clear we’re all on the same page when it comes to the important things.
That kind of cultural connection is definitely worth celebrating and a contingent of Winnipeg’s finest are Edinburgh-bound for Unbound, to help us do just that with a night of readings and all-round revelry on Monday 15 August, embracing the love of liquor and literature that still thrives in both nations. But beyond the specific link our two countries share – living on in Winnipeg in the form of what Charlene describes as “a certain combination of practicality, self-reliance, and self-deprecating wit” – is the fundamental experience which birthed it and which has recurred across the world and throughout history: a group of people uprooted and tossed across the globe, seeking something new while trying to keep the old intact.
History and migration
When migration hits the headlines it’s mostly relayed through a more pessimistic narrative. Floods of people seeking sanctuary from natural and unnatural disasters, risking everything and arriving with nothing into a system often incapable or unwilling to help them. The story is mostly one of failure, what we’re not doing and who we’re not helping. Or worse, who we’re not even trying to help, as ex-reality TV stars with bad hair and worse ideas rave about building walls and banning everyone while right wingers the world over manage to maintain a straight face while attesting that all of their country’s problems are being caused by a small minority who own nothing rather than the even smaller one that own everything.
Winnipeg’s own history has been no less turbulent, from the original wave of settlers who claimed the land out from under its owners, to the modern day, where like most multicultural cities, it works to reconcile the multiple ethnicities in its make-up into a single community.
A night under the Spiegeltent's roof won’t fix everything, but what it can do is provide a stage for writers to get up and shout the story of their heritage and history. Those stories, which have been trampled under the dominant narrative of national identity, can get some room to breathe and then to speak. Or shout or sing or do whatever they feel necessary to assert their rightful place in their country’s story.
Cosmopolitan, modern cities like Edinburgh and Winnipeg have no singular history – there’s no one story of who they are now or how they came to be. Instead there are hundreds of little tales, the lived experience of different groups who wound up there travelling different roads, arriving at different times under vastly different circumstances. The writers who’ll be hitting Edinburgh in August represent a snapshot of the eclectic mixture that makes up modern Winnipeg.
For three of the appearing writers, Canada’s history is also their own. Tracing their own heritage back through the generations, they tell a story of how modern Winnipeg came to be.
Writing both in English and Cree, Métis poet Gregory Scofield counters the often sanitised official history of Winnipeg, honouring those who fought and died for their equality in the past and painting a vivid picture of Métis life in the present. Writing as someone of Irish, Scottish and Jewish heritage as well as that of Métis, Scofield is the perfect writer to complicate the idea of Canadianness, tearing up the traditional picture and demanding something fuller in alluring verse.
Winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, Candace Savage traces her own family tree back to the pioneer days, telling a personal story of a nation’s past and how migration has shaped then reshaped it in ways good and bad, while Ukrainian-Canadian historian (and anyone who can still say that by the end of the night has failed at whisky) Myrna Kostash has also delved deep into the tale of how the Canadian West was settled.
While these three reach back into the past to unearth the stories which have been long submerged, spoken word poet Chimwemwe Undi points to the ways in which it is still evolving, a new strand of culture to be woven into its DNA. Raised in southern Africa and of Chewa heritage, Undi is able to speak for the experience of the modern migrant and, as a student of linguistics, her works explore the language and meaning of home at a time when it is becoming an ever less rigid concept for an ever expanding section of the world.
The West in 2016: What to expect on Canada Night
Looking to the past and future, this Canadian quartet are ideally placed to dig into the 2016 festival's migration theme and give us a glimpse of Winnipeg’s present. “The underlying idea is to share what 'The West' looks like now – we're a long way from the romanticised 'cowboys and Indians' narrative, and equally far from the empty prairie waiting to be tamed by sturdy settlers,” Charlene explains. “Those stories are part of our heritage and they're not exactly untrue, but our current writing is challenging the underlying value systems and structures of power contained in those views.”
There’s a lot of serious ground to be covered dealing with ideas like migration, race and the colonial legacy that still colours places like Canada. This Unbound night will be about celebrating the creative energy sparked out of the conflict, the vibrant diversity which now flows through Winnipeg’s artistic scene.
“On our Canada Night, you'll hear a Métis poet of Scottish/Cree/Jewish background, a historian of Ukrainian heritage, an environmentalist offering a cultural history of the prairie, a young South African immigrant spoken word poet, and (hopefully) a mixed race poet from the west coast. All of them are knock-out writers, and together they provide a pretty good picture of what the Canadian West looks like – diverse, spirited, self-critical, big-hearted and very aware of the work that needs to be done.”