Red, White, and True

An American-born Walrus editor takes the Canadian citizenship test

Published on March 26, 2015
Photograph courtesy of Tobias Higbie / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Tobias Higbie / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 “Making Canadian Citizens,” from the Handbook for New Canadians (1919).

A pale yellow “Notice to Appear – To Write a Citizenship Test” arrived on Friday the 13th, five months after I mailed my application to the national processing centre in Sydney, Nova Scotia. It came without warning or ceremony, and much sooner than Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s website suggested it would. I had twelve days to prepare for the exam, which an increasing number of would-be citizens have failed since it was redesigned in 2012.

On paper, I didn’t need to spend much time studying. Since moving to Canada a decade ago, I have visited every province and one of the three territories; I have travelled the country by road, by air, by rail, by sea. I work for a magazine about Canada and its place in the world. Besides, CIC assures applicants that a single document—the glossy sixty-four page “Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship”—contains all of the information a newcomer needs to pass the twenty-question test.

As a native Nebraskan, and a product of the US education system, I know the ABCs of standardized testing: the ITBS, the ACT, the SAT, the GRE, the GRE II. I’ve always done well on bubble tests (the GRE II being the glaring exception), and I’ve never been nervous about taking one. Until yesterday.

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In Good Spirits

An interview with Jeff Turner, maker of a new documentary about kermode bears in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest

Published on March 26, 2015

Jeff and Sue Turner are Canada’s preeminent wildlife filmmakers, with experience on BBC’s Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, and last year’s Wild Canada series for the CBC. A quarter century ago, they spent two years on a remote island in the Great Bear Rainforest capturing the elusive white spirit bear for the first time on film. The Turners’ new documentary, Spirit Bear Family, sees them return to the island to follow a mother spirit bear and her two black cubs.

Alex Tesar: Can you describe the island environment for someone who has never visited?

Jeff Turner: It’s an old-growth rainforest—a lush, highly productive landscape, which is partly due to the confluence of the northern Pacific Ocean, itself a very rich ocean, next to a coastal mountain range. This creates an environment that produces a lot of fresh water and the conditions that allow life to flourish. It’s a wild, beautiful place.

Alex Tesar: What makes the spirit bear so special?

Jeff Turner: It’s such a unique and surprising creature. We associate white animals with the Arctic, so something white in the middle of this dark green forest stands out. It’s also a kind of oxymoron in itself: a white, black bear.

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A Survivor’s Guide for Canadian Journalists

A survey of the challenges—and opportunities—facing a new generation of writers, editors, and broadcasters

Published on March 24, 2015

Adapted from remarks delivered on March 16, 2015 at a gala event hosted by the journalistic alumni of Massey College in Toronto.

Earlier this month, I attended The Walrus Talks Creativity at Western University in London, Ontario. The speeches were fascinating. But an even greater highlight came during the reception, when I got a chance to speak to graduating members of the UWO journalism program. One by one, I asked them what they thought they would be doing this time next year. The answers painted a dispiriting portrait of my profession.

A few said they had a shot at legitimate journalism jobs—internships and contract positions at the London Free Press or local television affiliates. But the prevailing wages are low—about $18 to $20 an hour, they told me—and job security is non-existent. The possibility of landing a union-protected, middle-class staff position at a major media outlet is out of reach, at least for now. Some of the students I spoke to are thinking about skipping this game entirely, and heading straight to jobs in corporate communications and public relations.

The conversation became less depressing, however, when we began talking about the actual material these students are learning in their coursework. Yes, they’re taught old-school reporting skills, broadcast media, interview techniques, and research methods. But like other journalism school students I’ve met in recent years, they also know the full slew of electronic journalism, from social media to graphics to state-of-the-art content management systems. They know how to cover a story in many different ways—write, photograph, film, tweet—before calling it a day’s work. We bemoan the state of journalism. But in terms of providing media-industry employers with value for money, there’s never been a better-trained cohort of journalists.

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Christ, You Know It Ain’t Easy

From the creator of Kim’s Convenience, a new work goes into similarly estranged territory—religion

Published on March 18, 2015
Still image from Subway Stations of the Cross trailer on YoutubeYouTubeIns Choi.

Via Dolorosa—the Way of Grief—is a street in the Old City of Jerusalem that marks Christ’s path of suffering, dragging himself and his cross from one station to the next. Toronto’s eastbound King streetcar is no ancient or sacred space. It’s hardly even a space, packed so full of swaddled and winter-bulked commuters that playwright and actor Ins Choi must lean against the ledge across from the back doors, hands gripping a pole as the streetcar comes to another abrupt stop. Toronto’s beleaguered transit system—“The Better Way”—seems like a painful way, especially at rush hour.

Choi’s newest work, Subway Stations of the Cross, begins a limited run tonight at Toronto’s Soulpepper theatre, and the poems and songs are also being published this month by House of Anansi—a bundle of accordioned pages filled with lush illustrations by Choi’s childhood friend, artist Guno Park.

The title was a bit of an accident—not a commentary on mass transit. “In the process of creating it, I used the Stations of the Cross for structure, fourteen of them,” he tells me. “At another point, in another year, it was set on a train going from station-to-station with me singing like a busker.” Eventually, the subway backdrop was cut in favour of a more abstract setting. But Choi remained attached to the title, a blend of contemporary urbanity and ancient passage. He recalls his own experience at church, pausing before each station of the cross to meditate on it before moving on to the next. “Whether it’s a stained-glass window in a cathedral, or the real one in Jerusalem.”

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No Heroes

Five books by transgender authors that everyone should read

Published on March 18, 2015
Book jacket collage

For the current issue of The Walrus, I wrote an essay, “Rise of the Gender Novel,” critical of recent books about transgender people. The novels I focused on were written by cisgender—non-transgender—people, and they include material I found clichéd and inaccurate. My editor at The Walrus, Drew Nelles, suggested I write an online supplement to the essay, recommending some trans authors I think everyone should read. So here are five trans-themed books, written by trans women, which range from punk novel to horror chapbook. All are worth your time.

At Land by Morgan M Page (2014)

“But—” Reed stops mid-sentence. He stares at his roommate and the realization moves through him slowly, ice in his veins and settling cold in his chest. He can’t remember their name, like it’s slipped just barely out of reach. In fact, he can’t remember anything about his roommate at all, beyond the fact that they live together. And that might just be context clues at this point. Quietly, “I—I’ll fix it. I’ll fix everything.”

Book jacket courtesy of

Page’s At Land, the newest title on this list, is a chapbook novelette released last fall. Trans couple Reed and Gwen have come home to Montreal from a trip to the ocean—but Reed has a disturbingly large chunk of time missing from his memory. As the day continues, his recall doesn’t get any better. At Land is a horror story at heart, but Page’s writing is emotional—the trip was intended to memorialize a friend who killed herself—as well as suspenseful and visceral. A sense of doom pervades the book.

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Her Name Was Jyoti

The BBC documentary India’s Daughter causes a stir, but highlights an awful truth about life in South Asia

Published on March 17, 2015
Still image from India’s Daughter
The Passionate Eye Screen capture from India’s Daughter.

The morning of December 19, 2012, I sat down at a chai stall in Mumbai with a few newspapers tucked under my arm. I had read the Times of India and the Hindu every morning for four months, but as the details about a brutal gang rape on a bus in Delhi were unfolding, I noticed something different in the papers. Occasionally, there would be a column inch or two about a sexual assault, but that day, I lost count at more than twenty-five separate articles in one newspaper. Assault. Domestic violence. Rape. The editors didn’t even have to work hard; they just opened their eyes and the stories were there.

BBC Four recently released the documentary India’s Daughter, directed and produced by the British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, about the vicious rape and murder of a twenty-three-year-old physiotherapy student named Jyoti Singh. (CBC aired the film this past weekend, and has made it available for online streaming until April 14.)

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Penned from Prison

Letters by David McCallum, an innocent man who spent three decades incarcerated for kidnapping and murder

Published on March 17, 2015
Photograph courtesy of David & Me David McCallum, photographed in prison in 2010.

On October 27, 1985, two sixteen-year-old boys, David McCallum and Willie Stuckey, were arrested in Brooklyn for kidnapping and murder. They were both sentenced to twenty-five years to life; the principal evidence used for conviction was a pair of confessions where each implicated the other.

In 2005, McCallum wrote to a nineteen-year-old university student in Toronto named Ray Klonsky. This sparked a friendship in which the two sent around a hundred letters back and forth.

Last April, Klonsky—who is now a filmmaker—and a Canadian collaborator, Marc Lamy, premiered their documentary, David & Me. The film is about the unlikely relationship between Klonsky and McCallum, and an innocent man’s fight to be exonerated.

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The Richler Revival

He was the Anglo who helped teach Quebec to laugh at itself—a quarter century before it was ready to do so. Now Montreal finally is giving him his due

Published on March 16, 2015
Photograph by George Cree/The Gazette (Montreal)
George Cree/The Gazette (Montreal) Mordecai Richler on the steps of his childhood home at 5257 St. Urbain Street in 1979.

On Valentine’s Day 2013, an officer of Quebec’s French-language watchdog, the Office québécois de la langue française, sent a warning letter to a Montreal restaurant, Buonanotte, complaining about the use of authentic Italian words such as calamari, bottiglia, and spaghetti alla chitarra to describe his menu offerings. The OQLF dispatches countless edicts of this type to small-fry retailers in Quebec, and most business owners comply meekly. But Buonanotte’s owner, Massimo Lecas, chose a different approach: he took to Twitter, describing this absurd episode. CJAD 800 journalist Dan Delmar picked up the story, later dubbed “pastagate,” in the National Post. Within days, it went viral worldwide, and the OQLF became a laughingstock. Eventually, the agency relented on the calamari file. To this day, stuzzichini, crudo, carne, and contorni still are listed prominently on Buonanotte’s menu.

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Taking Action against Bill C-51

A report from Toronto, one of fifty-six Canadian cities to protest the government’s proposed anti-terror law

Published on March 16, 2015
Photograph by Shadab Shahrokh Hai
Shadab Shahrokh Hai Nasim Asgari, a seventeen-year-old spoken word artist, moves the crowd in Toronto.

As more than a thousand people converged on Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square on Saturday to condemn the federal government’s proposed anti-terror laws, a dense mist hung in the air and obscured the downtown skyline. The threat of a storm seemed all too appropriate for a gathering to warn Canadians about Bill C-51—a measure that would give the country’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies unprecedented powers and, in the opinion of many legal experts, challenge our most basic protections under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Bill C-51 was introduced in late January amidst a national fog of fear regarding domestic and international terrorism. The killings of two Canadian soldiers only two days apart, both of which involved men whose actions the government described as “terrorist jihadist activities,” had the country on edge. Prime Minister Stephen Harper linked those attacks with Canada’s recent military engagement in Iraq to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and promised to fight terrorists whom he claimed were influencing threats on Canadian soil. C-51 was presented, along with several other recent pieces of government anti-terror legislation, as a necessary tool to keep an increasingly besieged country safe.

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In Defence of Low Culture

Adapted from remarks delivered on stage at The Walrus Talks Creativity

Published on March 13, 2015
Photograph downloaded from The Biebs.

I struggled with how to contribute to this evening’s conversation on creativity. The other speakers here are obvious creators. As a gossip blogger, talk show host, and entertainment reporter, I think I talk shit about creative people in a really creative way—but no one really thinks of me as someone who actually creates anything.

Part of my, let’s call it, insecurity about being included among a list of creators is that I am firmly planted on the low culture side of the discussion, while they, clearly and obviously, represent high culture. They are the pride of the panel. If we were all on a sinking boat, they’d be at the front, to be rescued first, for preservation, and I’d be over there in the back. If we have room, we’ll save her—but if she drowns, well, no big loss.

I feel like that’s the place that low culture represents. Low culture, by its very name, is down here—the scab of society. High culture is the art. You have no problem citing lines from Shakespeare: high culture. But you sheepishly admit to knowing all the names of Taylor Swift’s boyfriends: low culture.

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