Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Soap opera review: "North of 60"

And now for something completely different... I've been meaning for some time to write about North of 60, a soap opera ["mystery drama series", please. Ed.] about the joys and trials of life in the fictional village of Lynx River, in Canada's Northwest Territories. Agent 3 spent "an eternity" (actually six months) working amongst the native people in that general area and recommended the show, on which I'm now hooked.

Please note that in this post I'll use the abbreviation "FN" to refer to the people Americans and Canadians used to call "Indians", before that term became politically incorrect. "FN" stands for "First Nations" which is what the indigenous people north of the border want to be called, in preference to "Native Canadians" or "aborigines" or anything else. Except of course for the Métis and Inuit, the people formerly known as "Eskimos". [That's enough political correctness. Ed.]

North of 60 originally aired on Canada's state-owned broadcaster, the CBC, from 1992 through 1997. Apart from props like a fax machine, it's still a pretty accurate depiction of an FN settlement in the sub-Arctic northern boreal forest -- north of 60° north latitude, hence the title. The settlement of Lynx River, in an FN reserve (= what Americans call a "reservation") is supposedly in the Dehcho Region of Canada's Northwest Territories. In fact the series was filmed in Bragg Creek AB, west of Calgary.

Lynx River is populated and managed mostly by FNs, with the help of a white manager, one or two white healthcare workers, and a white Mountie who has a FN partner, Michelle Kenidi (played by Tina Keeper), who is the star of the show.

Created by Wayne Grigsby and Barbara Samuels, North of 60 was originally positioned as a light-hearted show, the CBC's answer to Northern Exposure on CBS. Everyone knows Canucks can't do sitcoms [They're great at sketch comedy though. Ed.], so the show quickly became a drama (although it has its funny moments), exploring themes of poverty, alcoholism, cultural preservation, conflict over land settlements, and the exploitation of natural resources. Mixed in with all that are the greed, jealousy, anger, passion and other traits share by human beings of every colour.

In the picture above are some of the main characters -- six FNs, two whities:
Top row: Peter Bockstael as Corporal Brian Fletcher, the white Mountie; Tina Keeper; Tracey Cook as Sarah Birkett, a nurse in the first season, who marries the chief, Albert Golo, with disastrous consequences; Tom Jackson, as Peter Kenidi, Michelle's brother and later band chief.
Bottom row: Gordon Tootoosis, as Albert Golo, the villain of the piece, who makes J.R. Ewing look like a mischievous boy; Jimmy Hermon as Joe Gomba, a wise elder; Dakota House as Trevor 'Tee Vee' Tenia, the obnoxious smart-aleck who matures well; Wilma Pelly as Elsie Tsa Che, Tee Vee's wise and kind grandma.

Other characters included Lubomir Mykytiuk, a Ukrainian-Canadian, as Gerry Kisilenko (restaurant/general store/ motel owner), Simon R. Baker as Charlie Muskrat (young boy experiencing growing pains), and Michael Horse, as Andrew One Sky, an American Indian psychologist and counsellor who eventually gets into a relationship with Michelle Kenidi. Adam Beach and Tantoo Cardinal also appeared, and a large number of FNs round out the cast. Check IMDb for full lists of cast and credits.

Throughout its six-year run, the acting in North of 60 was well above average, and sometimes (Gordon Tootoosis, Tina Keeper and Dakota House) excellent. Almost all of the FNs are credible without playing to stereotypes. And why not? They don't have to act; they're just being themselves! Wilma Pelly quickly became a fan favourite because everyone, not just FNs, has a grandma like that.

The exception, IMHO, is Michael Horse. Perhaps being of mixed ancestry -- he's of Yaqui-Apache-Swedish-Hispanic descent -- explains it. He comes across as the "noble savage", not just smarter and better-educated than the others but better-looking too... and knows it. Really he just warmed up his character from The Legend of the Lone Ranger.

Other actors who fell short of the mark -- IMHO again -- Tracey Cook and Lubomir Mykytiuk. Like Mr Horse, Ms Cook is too good to be true. Or maybe I should say the role is improbable at best. What would a blonde, blue-eyed ice queen be doing up there in the back of beyond, in a place where she had to build her own house out of canvas, brush and logs? Just not believable. As for Mr Mykytiuk, his English is just too perfect. Not one "Yak she mash!" But that's just MHO... again.

In spite of a few flaws in the characterization and acting, it's possible for even a non-Northerner to relate to all the characters. Agent 3 says North of 60 looks, sounds and feels "pretty authentic". Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's a thriller, and sometimes it's a whodunnit. But always it shows real people with real problems and real emotions, struggling to get on with life in hard circumstances. I give it ***** (five stars).

North of 60 is still on TV, airing every day on Canada's APTN (Aboriginal People's Television Network). You can also find bits and pieces by searching YouTube, although watching isolated episodes is not as good as binge-watching a whole bunch, in order, because, hey, it's a soap opera! You might also try Showcase or other streaming services.

Tina Keeper
served one term as Member of Parliament for the riding of Churchill -- the land where the polar bears roam. She was elected in 2006 as the Liberal Party candidate, and served as the Official Opposition's Critic for Public Health and Canadian Heritage and as Special Advisor for Aboriginal Outreach. She was defeated in the 2008 general election.
Gordon Tootoosis was made a Member of the Order of Canada on 29 October 29 2004. His citation recognizes him as an inspirational role model for Aboriginal youth. It notes that as a veteran actor, he portrayed memorable characters in movie and television productions in Canada and the United States. He died on 5 July 2011.

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