Arts·Point of View

Not all artists fit the conventional idea of being Canadian, and that's why I tell their stories

Artists helped Amanda Parris fall in love with this country, but their work is rarely recognized. That's what inspired her speech for The Walrus Talks speaker series.

Amanda Parris reflects on her speech for The Walrus Talks speaker series. Watch it here

Amanda Parris was in Montreal April 11 for The Walrus Talks. Watch her speech about Canada's "collective amnesia." (Screen capture)

I was invited to participate in the Montreal edition of The Walrus Talks: Conversations About Canada, which took place last week. Organized by The Walrus Foundation, the event is part of a tour that's travelling to locations across Canada through the end of May. The speakers include past recipients of the Order of Canada and emerging youth leaders, and everyone is asked to prepare a short talk on the same theme, "We Desire a Better Country" — to explore ideas about this country and its future.

The talks thus far have covered a gamut of topics: the threat of climate change, the importance of art as a tool against tyranny, the question of whether we should be celebrating Canada's sesquicentennial at all.

My speech was not easy to write, but it was about something I often touch on in this weekly column: Canada's "collective amnesia" towards the artists and storytellers who delve deeply into what I call "the hard stuff." These are content creators who draw the threads between art and politics in ways that generally don't fit the conventional narrative our country likes to tell about itself — pioneering culture-makers such as the Black Arts Movement or radio DJ Ron Nelson or these seven African-Canadian female filmmakers you need to know.

Canada is home — I've built a business here, I went to school here, I bought a house here — but there are many ways that it still feels like a stranger to me. I wasn't born here, but in London. My parents arrived there from Grenada and Venezuela, and at the age of 10, it was my turn to cross the Atlantic Ocean when I moved to Canada. Identifying as Canadian has been a long process, and Canadian identity as it is popularly defined and described still can feel incredibly distant. I didn't know what SCTV was until I began working at CBC. I've never been able to sit through an entire hockey game. I read my first Margaret Atwood novel earlier this year. I am not now nor ever will I ever be part of the poutine fan club.

But being asked to think about what I desired from Canada led me to realize and reflect on the markers of Canadian identity that I do connect with. I have an enduring love for Anne of Green Gables (and Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the get the idea). I can't count how many times I've read Lee Maracle's I Am Woman. I used to have Vince Carter posters in my room. I defend Drake from all beyond-the-border haters and I love funnel cake. I also realized that the artists — the painters, photographers, filmmakers and writers — whose work has helped me fall in love with this country rarely come up in conversations around what defines Canada. Perhaps that's why I too feel easily omitted from its narrative. It was that realization that helped shape my speech.

Watch it below.

The Walrus Talks National Tour. Dates include: April 22, Charlottetown; April 24, Fredericton; May 13, Halifax; May 15, Surrey, BC; May 27, Banff, Alta.; May 31, Toronto.


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