Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Problem of Perception… And What It Means For One Crime Fiction Writer

“Maclean's annual How the World Sees Canada poll shows deep admiration for a country we don't seem to like so much ourselves. What gives?”

In my brief time on Rara-Avis, I recall someone posting about how there could never be such a thing as Canadian noir. I’ve heard the sentiments before:

We’re too nice.

Not much crime.

And when it comes to crime fiction, we seem content to embrace the way the rest of the world sees us.

Which is how, exactly?

“Maclean's, for the second year in a row, has asked Angus Reid Strategies to ask the world what it thinks of Canada. The pollster also asked 1,000 Canadians for a self-assessment. The results contain more than a few surprises. The world likes Canada, a lot: not the reality of Canada, perhaps, but the ideal of Canada, the idea of Canada.”

They surveyed people in China, Turkey, Israel, England, Russia, India, Italy and the United States.

The most appealing thing about Canada? 40% of Chinese, 55% of English and 68% of Italians cited “natural environment”.

Meanwhile, “quality of life” was the top selling point for 47% of Israelis, 48% of Americans and 51% of Turks – but quality of life was a term left in the eye of the beholder, with no clear definition.

“The highest approval for Canada's multi-ethnic nature came from the Turks and the Chinese, and only about one in 10 of them cited it.”

What’s least appealing? Israel, Turkey and Italy refer to our cold climate. 45% of Americans point the finger at high taxes. “Another perceived failing, for 13 per cent of Americans, is that Canada is too "U.S.-oriented." This perceived American domination was considered Canada's largest failing by Russians, and was the second or third-ranked Canadian flaw named by the British, Indians, Turks and Chinese.”

And 1 in 7 Turks think we’re boring.

But when it came to Canadian affairs, how did these countries rank? Who do you suppose knows the most about Canada? Barely more than 60 years ago we were considered British subjects here. We have a high number of Chinese and Indian immigrants. And we make fun of Americans for knowing nothing about Canada all the time…

And boy, are we wrong. For the questions about Canadian affairs, “Only the Americans passed, with a score of 57. An impressive 91 of Americans knew the Canadian dollar was worth more than the U.S. greenback at the time of the survey, and 86 per cent knew that same-sex marriage was legal in Canada - by far the highest international scores. Last in Canadian knowledge among the countries, with a score of just 17 per cent, is the United Kingdom.”

Sort of explains my memories of wandering around Hyde Park and having someone, upon discovering I was Canadian, say “Oh the colonies.” Anyone who starts in with that nonsense proves their age, I guess.

“Curiously, there is a huge upside to this blissful ignorance: to not know Canada, apparently, is to love it. "There is a lot of ignorance about Canada but there are also these positive perceptions, kind of like this halo of positive expectation," says Grenville. "We get the benefit of the doubt. They don't really know us but they're pretty sure we're nice," he says. "So we get away with a few things."

On the issue of the environment, for example, a majority of respondents in every country but the U.S. pegged Canada as a leader in fighting climate change, and in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, we are one of the worst per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Fewer than 10 per cent of those from other countries, with the exception of the U.S., realized this. Canada coasts on a green image that is mostly illusion and delusion, says environmentalist David Suzuki. He points to a recent assessment by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development. It found that for 25 key environmental indicators, Canada ranked 28th out of 29 OECD countries. "Most Canadians are shocked to hear that," he says.

“Canadians also get credit (or the blame, depending on your point of view) for their military operations overseas - and for a few in which the country is not actually involved. A remarkable 93 per cent of Americans know Canada has troops on the ground in Afghanistan. (Only the British, 80 per cent, and Russians, 95 per cent, say either they don't know or don't think Canadian troops are deployed there.) Fewer than a third of respondents around the world know that Canada doesn't have a presence in Darfur. And only in one country - Turkey, with a substantial Muslim population - did a majority of respondents know Canada isn't in Iraq. In what may be the cheapest war Canada never fought, half of Americans think Canadian soldiers are shooting it out in Iraq. Reid finds that astonishing considering the abuse Canada took four years ago for not enlisting in U.S. President George W. Bush's so-called coalition of the willing.”

“A majority of American respondents (55 per cent) consider the Northwest Passage to be Canadian waters - making the U.S. the only country besides Canada(at 66 per cent)to believe this. By contrast, seven out of every 10 Russians consider the passage an international waterway, while the rest of the nations surveyed, not to put too fine a point on it, couldn't care less.”

Okay, okay, forgive me for quoting huge chunks of this article, but this is fascinating stuff. I’m often foaming at the mouth over how the media dispenses with reality and manipulates perception, and this type of survey proves the point. The words of a few politicians (about the Arctic, for example) get splashed across the newspapers and we assume it represents how Americans feel.

In fact, I think we often blame Americans for a lot of things that begin and end with the stupidity of a few key politicians.

How do the results stack up to Canadian responses?

“Canadians, however, have a host of misgivings about their country: its lack of independence from America's influence, the compromised integrity of its government systems, its limited impact on world affairs. Simply put, the world is in love with a country that doubts its own worth.”

“An astonishing three-quarters of Canadians disagreed with this statement: "Everyone, no matter who they are, is treated in the same way by the justice system in my country." There could be many reasons for this: numerous examples of wrongful convictions, dating back to Steven Truscott; Canada's role in facilitating the torture in Syria of Maher Arar; the inability of police and the courts to stem the rising tide of gang violence; the failure of the Air India bombing investigation to yield a single murder conviction. Only Russians (90 per cent) and Turks (80 per cent) have a harsher view of their justice systems.

“The opinion Canadians hold of the honesty of their institutions isn't much better. Half (48 per cent) call "corruption a big problem in my country." This bleak view may be coloured by recent memories of the sponsorship scandal that helped topple the federal Liberals.”

“Almost 70 per cent of Americans see Canada "as a global leader in working for human rights and peace in the world." Just 35 per cent of Canadians define themselves that way. Britain, Italy, India, Israel, Turkey and China all rate Canada's human rights performance higher than Canadians do themselves.”

Statistics have never been so fascinating to me at 7 am…. Or, I think, ever.

Just this morning, the top story was ”A Winnipeg man who sexually abused his daughter for more than seven years and called her his "sex kitten" has been sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison.”

Not even one year for every year he abused her. They call this justice? A parent is entrusted with the care of their child, and to sexually abuse your own daughter…

Then we’ve got a former cop refusing to testify and the kidnapping of two men in Calgary. A man is in critical condition after his home was broken into and he was severely beaten the real winners who abandoned their baby in the snow are in court and rural Manitoba grow-ups have the RCMP’s attention.

Let’s just hope the RCMP can actually follow through with pursuing convictions for any arrests.

That’s not nice, Sandra. Why would you say that?

”It was billed as a major drug bust, significant enough to put a crimp into southern Ontario's cocaine trade. A seven-month undercover sting that culminated in the July 2005 seizure of two kilos of coke, $144,000 in cash, a silencer-equipped .22-calibre pistol, and the arrest of four men alleged to have ties to the Hells Angels, Persian mob, and, as the press release put it, "traditional" organized crime.

“But this past Sept. 27, the accused - Trifu Margan, David Lawrence, Randy Singh, and supposed kingpin Sharame (Sean) Sherzady - walked out of a Burlington courthouse scot-free, without ever having to answer the charges. After months of delays, the Crown withdrew the case on the day their preliminary hearings were scheduled to begin because the chief witnesses - five RCMP officers who were at the centre of the investigation - were unavailable to testify. "Officers Claim Illness, Drug Charges Dropped," said the headline in a local paper. The prosecutor and various police agencies - the bust was the work of the elite Golden Horseshoe Combined Special Forces Enforcement Unit (CSFEU) - expressed disappointment. But no one seemed willing to address the reasons a bunch of battle-tested cops have been off the job on stress leave for close to 20 months, or ask why the Mounties appeared willing to let four accused mobsters walk rather than fix the problem.”

Back when I was first trying to get published, I’d long heard that I wouldn’t stand a chance of selling a Canadian-based series in the US. I couldn’t even sell it in Canada. The rejection letters I got didn’t go to writing – they went to the content. Publishers did not want to show that side of Canada. The same issues cropped up in the agent search. I wanted to try UK publishers but stopped short of submitting to my dream publisher because I couldn’t get an agent at the time (although they take non-agented submissions).

What I learned through the process was that the reality of Canada isn’t something the rest of the world sees clearly. We’re nice. We do what’s right. We don’t have a lot of crime. Surveys like the one reported on by Angus Reid here highlight the problem.

Meanwhile, I contrast that to the fact that a major RCMP investigation was compromised because of the ongoing problems within the RCMP.

I’ve always believed in crime fiction’s ability to make social commentary. I’ve always been very interested in social issues, and I see crime fiction as a natural forum for addressing them. Often safely. My threshold with true crime is limited by the knowledge of the reality – I can’t stomach reading too much about what someone really did to another person.

In crime fiction, the knowledge that it isn’t real (although it could be) gives me enough emotional distance to look at the repercussions of crime, to begin to address the issues.

While others believe there’s no place for politics in crime fiction, I see it as often the root of a lot of problems. The WIRE (season 5 discussion here) proves the point. Political maneuvering allows criminals to stay on the streets…

Just look at that article on the RCMP.

Okay, so I’ve proved my point here. There’s crime in Canada. The RCMP – while still a respected police force – has issues that need to be addressed.

What’s the problem? How do you market a series that touches on the less-than-perfect side of our national police force and tackles realistic crimes that haven’t been glossed over to a world that has unrealistic, idealistic, impressions of our country?

Way back when, some weren’t too happy about how Ian Rankin showed the less-than-savory-side of Edinburgh. Now? HIS novels have immortalised Edinburgh's dingy drinking dives and council estates and celebrated its historic landmarks – but now it is the city's turn to record a little bit of Ian Rankin for posterity. The author of the Inspector Rebus series has had his handprints sculpted into a piece of Caithness stone which sits in the courtyard of the City Chambers on the Royal Mile. The imprint acknowledges Rankin's status as the inaugural winner of the Edinburgh Award, an accolade set up to acknowledge who citizens see as the city's leading ambassador.

I won’t be the first to show the less-than-glowing side of Canada, or even the RCMP. The one hope is that the growing public awareness of the problems will help readers bridge the gap between our image and our reality.

I’m a firm believer that you don’t fix problems by denying their existence. Pretending everything’s fine is the equivalent of sticking your head in the sand on the beach as a hurricane is about to make landfall. You might not be able to see it, or really hear it, but it doesn’t mean it won’t kill you. Pointing out some of our problems isn’t about just tearing us down – it’s about saying we can be better than we are, and this is what we need to fix to make that happen.


Ali Karim said...

Canadian Noir - Read more Micheal Slade -

Slade and co are Excellent


Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks Ali - and you should read John McFetridge if you haven't yet. Not the idealized version of Canada!

Kathleen said...

McFetridge's DIRTY SWEET was terrific. A copy of his latest, EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, is near the top of my TBR heap.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree Kathleen. I've already read EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE.

John McFetridge said...

Thanks for the kind words. And I was just about to say, Sandra, stop giving away my material!

Great post. It's all so true. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact we're a young country, we're insecure like a teenager and not nearly as ready as even Edinburgh was to see its 'seedy' side on display. But the world is working in fast motion these days, so it may not take another two hundred years. We'll see what we can do to push that along, won't we Sandra?

(you know, thirty years ago Vancouver and Toronto were the colonies -- maybe not officially, but they were both very WASP cities far more concerned with news from London than from each other)

I also think you're right Sandra that there's room for politics in crime fiction. It's kind of a circular argument here -- we Canadians think our country is so nice because we have no literature (or other cultural) showing the 'real' Canada and at the same time we're too insecure to show the 'real' Canada. And politics are at the root of somuch of it.

The problems with the RCMP you mention are only a little 'within' the force - and really you almost can't call the political-appointed leadership 'within' the force. There may or may not be a huge rift coming between the RCMP and the crown prosecutors (whose job it is to get those convictions), but something's sure simmering. All those stress leaves may have something to do with it being the only protest available to the rank and file. And on and on.

The point is, Vancouver, Toronto, Edinburgh, Detroit, Miami, Bangkok, Dublin, Chicago, etc., etc., are all on the same playing field these days. That attitude about setting is so yesterday. Unfortunately, so is much of the Canadian publishing industry.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"The point is, Vancouver, Toronto, Edinburgh, Detroit, Miami, Bangkok, Dublin, Chicago, etc., etc., are all on the same playing field these days. That attitude about setting is so yesterday. Unfortunately, so is much of the Canadian publishing industry."

Oh, hell yeah.

And this got me thinking about part of the storyline in EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE...

David Thayer said...

I was struck by the reference that one in seven Turks find Canada boring. Maybe Canada should declare war on Turkey, liven things up.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's an interesting idea David! Perhaps we should.

Austin Carr said...

Canadians are NOT boring. Right on top, in fact, for having fun on their Mexican vacations. As quick to party as Australians, which is saying a lot. I know this from extensive, on-site research.

John McFetridge said...

Well, we had troops in Turkey (okay, Cypress, but that's who they were mad at) for years and years, so we've kind of already done the war with Turkey thing. It didn't really go that well.

But hey, if the Turks want to lace on some skates....

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, good point John. I know someone who was over there, way back when...

Ali Karim said...

Thanks Sandra -

Will check out John McFetridge, heading to Amazon -