|Louis Riel? Never heard of him.|
Canadians have two national pastimes, hockey (at least if we are to believe Tim Horton ads) and Quebec bashing. By "bashing" I don’t mean criticism. Good criticism is fair-minded and self-consistent, whereas bashing is unfair, demagogic and sensationalistic and rests on double-standards and generalizes from a few anecdotes. In fact, the Quebec bashing article has become a kind of literary genre in itself. First we have the “incident”, supposedly illustrating the inherently intolerant nature of Quebecers. The incident can be true, partially true and exaggerated, or entirely fabricated. It doesn’t really matter. Next, we have the analysis of Quebec’s culture and everything that’s wrong with it. This is the most insidious part, as it’s just good old-fashioned bigotry masquerading as a sociological thesis. Also, by accusing something as intangible as our culture, there is no possible way we can defend ourselves which is the whole point of bashing.
Anyway, I’m proposing something similar. The “incident” is the repeated broadcast of episodes of The Murdoch mysteries. I will use this incident to analyse Canadian culture, but hopefully I will be more fair-minded. I should point out that I haven’t seen every episode, so I can’t be absolutely sure about my analysis. However, I hope that the synopsis of every episode found on Wikipedia and IMDb will be sufficient to fill in the blanks. I will start by what we see on the show, and then by what we don’t see.
Set in Toronto in the 1890s, The Murdoch Mysteries follow the investigations of detective William Murdoch of the Toronto constabulary. The main character is handsome, clean-cut and without any apparent flaws or vices. He is not an addict, like Sherlock Holmes (with whom we most readily compare Murdoch). He does not have obsessive-compulsive disorder like Adrian Monk, nor is he a slob like Columbo. He has no inner demons. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have much of an inner life at all, if you don’t count his infatuation with Dr. Julia Ogden. Murdoch is very forward-thinking, using the very latest scientific advances in his investigations. He is also a devout Roman Catholic, setting him apart from the largely Protestant (and Orange, the Order not the color) society in which he lives. In short, Murdoch is the poster boy for mental health, moral rectitude and men’s hair care products. A nineteenth century Ken doll with about as much depth and personality.
I believe it is precisely the main character’s bland goodness that provides much of the show’s appeal for Canadians. He validates the pathological need Canadians have of being the good guys of the universe, a need that stems from a deep seated insecurity. Canada is basically an empire, which means it has no inherent legitimacy. It must maintain itself through the constant suppression of its francophone minority. The good guy fantasy provides a means of dealing with that unpleasant reality. It also provides a means of feeling superior both to the French and the Americans, another source of insecurity. Indeed, after the Conquest, the American Revolution is the second event that had a profound effect in shaping the Canadian character. It was because of this that Canada became populated by Loyalists, people who believed it was better to suck up to wealth (in the form of the British monarchy) and power (the mighty British Empire) than to take a chance with those crazy revolutionaries who spoke of liberty and a republican form of government. Ever since history has shown that they backed the wrong horse, Canadians have felt a need to prove something to Americans. This need is even more acute since Canada became a cultural colony of the United States (and since Harper came to power, a political one as well).
The Murdoch Mysteries is even more interesting in what it doesn’t show, specifically its troubled relationship with history. Its Wikipedia page states that “real history is an important element in most episodes”. This is true, in a way. The show seems to take a People magazine approach to history, in that the great names of the period (Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells and so on) all make an appearance for one contrived reason or another. It’s as if they’re all strangely attracted to Toronto, which must have been a pretty unremarkable city at the time. Often, the historical celebs serve as an excuse to talk about the century that is to come, not to reflect on the one just past. It’s as if the Canada of the 1890s depicted on the show has no past, only a future.
But a past Canada most certainly has, even in the 1890s. At that time, the British Empire was at the height of its power and arrogance. The Orange Order was a powerful force in Canada, with its hatred of all things Catholic and a general hostility towards anyone who wasn’t White Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. We do see some of this on the show. Inspector Brackenreid and Constable Crabtree are Orangemen, we see instances of prejudice against the Chinese and Jewish communities, and Murdoch’s Catholicism (very) occasionally causes problems for him. But it all feels very watered down, very mild. This is the same Orange Order, after all, that was involved in the burning of the parliament building in Montreal in 1849, fought the right to French instruction wherever it could, and would later develop ties with the Ku Klux Klan1.
It is here, I think, that we hit the nail on the head. While there is nothing specifically Canadian about prejudice against Catholics, Jews and other visible minorities, francophobia is quintessentially Canadian. It is also conspicuously absent from the show. The only episode I am aware of with anything French in it is Monsieur Murdoch, season 4, where Murdoch investigates the disappearance of a young woman from France and collaborates with a French police officer. Apart from the fact that the French policeman plays into all the stereotypes Anglos have about Frenchmen, I should point out that French people from France is not the same as francophones from Canada. At the very least, the show’s creators could insert some casual francophobia here and there, so as to create some realism. They could put in a throwaway scene where, during an Orangemen parade, two francophones unwisely speak French to each other in the street. They are then accosted by a group of hostile Orangemen and told to “speak white”. Murdoch witnesses the scene and is vaguely embarrassed by it, but walks on. This sort of thing, after all, is a natural part of life in British North America.
Alternatively, the show’s creators can use some major historical events as part of the story. Events like the Red River Rebellion (1869), the North-West Rebellion (1885) and the ongoing discrimination against francophones are all within living memory in the 1890s and are filled with conflict, injustice and resentment. Going back a little further we have the brutal repression of the Patriotes in Quebec (1837-38), also filled with violence and Anglo militias looting and burning the homes of Quebecers2,3. This is all great material for a murder mystery writer with an affinity for history. Let’s see if we can’t help the show’s writers by proposing a story idea. When Manitoba joined the Canadian
Empire... I mean,
Confederation in 1870, it was officially bilingual. But by 1890 it
became officially unilingual English, thanks in no small part to the
efforts of a rabid francophobe called D’Alton McCarthy4
who died in 1898 in a carriage accident … or was it? Murdoch is on
the case. And he suspects foul play. Evidence points to the
possibility that the murderer may be a former guerrilla for Louis
Riel. Murdoch questions Riel’s former lieutenant Gabriel Dumont,
who happens to be in Toronto for some implausible reason. During the
course of the interrogation we learn all the sad and sordid details
about the dispossession of the Métis. History comes alive!
The lesson here is that Canadian history is not boring. Canadians make it boring by systematically ignoring those parts where they don’t look good, which also happen to be the most interesting parts. It could be argued that the creators of The Murdoch Mysteries are free to make any kind of show they want, including one where a Victorian-era detective goes around solving crimes in a Bourgeois and genteel society. After all, most detective shows aren’t at all interested in history. All this is true, but then why bother doing a period piece in the first place? Why couldn’t Murdoch solve crimes in contemporary Toronto? It just seems like a wasted opportunity to bring history to life in all its conflict, pain and tragedy. That is what the show lacks the most, a sense of the tragic. Even the murders don’t seem particularly tragic. Instead, we have an hour long heritage minute with commercial breaks, approved by the Harper government and designed to appeal to Canadian vanity. We get Canadian history as clean as the tables at Tim Horton’s after the busboy swabbed it down and as sweet as the jelly donuts with maple frosting on special that day.
Of course, there is an alternate explanation. Maybe Canadians don’t feel a need to talk about history involving Quebec and francophones outside of Quebec because they don’t consider it to be part of Canadian history. That is, in spite of all their talk of a “Canadian family”, they don’t consider us to be real Canadians. Just as the Indians were never really British and the Algerians were never really French, deep down Canadians will always consider us internal foreigners.
1 – Normand Lester, Le livre noir du Canada Anglais 2, Les Intouchables, 2002.
2 – Normand Lester, Le livre noir du Canada Anglais, Les Intouchable, 2001.
3 – John F. Conway, Des comptes à rendre, VLB éditeur, 1995.
4 – Jean-Paul Marchand, Conspiration? Les anglophones veulent-ils éliminer le français du Canada?, Stanké, 1997.