Art on Consignment

Imagine you were planning a party.  Imagine you rented a hall for your party, paying the landlord the going rate for renting a hall of that size.  Imagine you then sent letters to every caterer in town, inviting them to send “submissions” for the meal, which read like this:

Please provide a list of menu items, with pictures in jpeg format, a list of ingredients for each item, and a brief chef’s statement about your work and a bio with relevant training and previous catered events listed.

And then imagine that you selected the menu items you thought might appeal to your guests and sent an acceptance to the successful caterers along with a contract like this:

You will deliver the menu items selected on the date of the party, ready to be served by 5:30 pm.  You will be responsible for all costs of transport and preparation of your menu item(s) and insurance if you choose to insure your utensils, etc.  You will be responsible to provide all serving dishes, trays, utensils as well as dishes, cutlery and tableclothes. I will provide tables (rented from a supplier of my choice).

If my guests choose to eat your menu item(s), I will receive payment from my guest(s) for the item(s) consumed.  All unconsumed menu items and all dishes, trays, etc. must be removed by midnight at your expense. Any food or equipment not removed by the deadline will be charged a daily storage fee.  Thirty (30) days after the party, I will issue you a cheque for 50% of the sale price of your menu item(s), retaining 50% as my commission on the sale.

Thank you for being a part of my party and it is such a pleasure to support the wonderful catering industry in our city!

I think we would all agree that no caterer would submit to such an arrangement.  It simply seems absurd to offer the product of your labour and training, the investment of your capital, on consignment.

And yet, this is the standard business model in the visual arts industry in most of the world.  A private gallery, a not-for-profit arts group or festival, a public gallery will host a show.  They will pay their directors or shareholders a salary or dividends or both. The will pay the caterer and the string quartet or guitarist for the opening reception. They will pay hall rental. They will pay the printer who prints posters and invitations.  But in almost every case, the artists whose works are on the walls and plinths, the producers of the products which are said to be at the heart of the whole event, will never see a penny unless their piece sells, and then they see 50% of the purchase price, if they’re lucky.

“But you benefit from the exposure.” I hear someone call from the back. Why don’t your directors, or the caterer, accept payment with exposure?


“Support” for the arts often is just treating art like an old frock on a rack in a consignment store


This business model is nothing other than exploitation.  No other industry today would tolerate such harsh exploitations of the producers of that industry’s product.  Recording artists get a royalty every time their song is played on the radio.  There are Equity pay scales in live theatre.  The only other industry I can think of which functions on the same model is the consignment used clothing store.  I don’t think a piece of art, the newly manufactured product of years of training and hard work, is equivalent to an old frock, no matter how gently used!  Even second-hand book shops don’t do consignment!

Thankfully, there is a campaign in Canada, led by Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadians(CARFAC) (Visual Arts Alberta/CARFAC[VAA] in Alberta) to standardize and press for artists’ fees to be paid for all exhibitions.  It is a difficult hill to climb.  VAA sets an example by putting the Association’s money were its collective mouth is, paying artists’ fees even for its fund-raising members’ exhibitions.  I must also mention Edmonton sculptor and art show organizer Pat Jacob, who made a point of purchasing outright some paintings from me for his gallery in Eastend, Saskatchewan.  Imagine that!  Buying a product wholesale and then selling it retail at an appropriate mark-up.  What a revolutionary business model!

I expect many working artists, particularly the young ones, don’t want to rock the boat: as well as their passion, their art is, to varying extents, their livelihood.  Rebelling against the status quo could well end their chances of being exhibited in some places.

But I’m an old guy.  I’ll survive even if I offend gallery owners and festival organizers and curators by asking  again:

You pay the caterer for stuff you give away! Why don’t you pay the artist something for the stuff you’re trying to sell, for the products that actually bring the customers into your place?

CARFAC phrases the question more simply:

“Has the artist been paid?”

Sadly, far more often than not, the caterer has been paid, paid even for the uneaten food in the bin out back of the gallery, but the artists get nothing except a brusque order to get their stuff off the walls and out the door. It’s closing time!







An Afterthought:


“But artists get government grants.” Someone else shouts out.


Yes, some artists get grants sometimes. Many never get a grant. Many never apply for one. Those artists who receive grants are, while the grant lasts, effectively government employees — civil servants. When grant-funded art goes into a gallery without an artist’s fee being paid, it’s a government subsidy of the gallery.



Update, August 29, 2014:  Today, Paddy Lamb, Alberta Representative on the Board of CARFAC posted  a positive and encouraging clarification to my Facebook page and he has agreed to it being reposted here.


I’m really glad you’ve written this John and I agree that it’s often an exploitative business model. However, I’d like to clarify something. Thanks to the efforts of CARFAC, who helped establish and maintain an artists’ fee schedule, most public galleries and artist run centres do pay the exhibiting artist(s) an exhibition fee. I suspect the reason that some don’t is because they are inadequately funded. Your point about “benefiting from exposure” is well taken. I’ve noticed a lot of this lately – not least from charitable, non-profit and fundraising organizations who should know better. A lot of people remain unaware of the inequities and artists have to educate. One way to do this is to join CARFAC. Whatever the method, artists have to become more vocal and less acquiescent about the present state of affairs.


Yes, things are improving for artists, in large part due to the hard work of CARFAC. 


Remember, artists: Join CARFAC, for the Union makes us strong!



A few amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning

City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions.  Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce. 

                         — Hugh Ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, p.142

There’s a thing going on in Edmonton about Infill.  Personally, I think infill of various types is vital to our city. Personally I think that increasing density through infill can build more vibrant communities and continue to make Edmonton the exciting, inspiring place to live that it has been as long as I can remember.  But I think there’s been some misleading rhetoric in the debate.

First, a definition

To me and, I expect, to many in Edmonton, a “neighbourhood” is a geographical entity with a name and probably a Community Hall and a Community League. Parkallen is a “neighbourhood”. The 100 block of Whyte avenue is a “block” not a “neighbourhood”.  A number of blocks is “a number of blocks” or an “area”, not a “neighbourhood”.

There’s been a line trotted around in various forms that no neighbourhood in Edmonton has a right to be exclusively single-family houses.

I agree. When I first heard this line I thought of the outlying suburbs where single-single family houses are the overwhelming majority of the residential dwellings.

But no neighbourhood in Edmonton, not even the most exclusive, is exclusively single-family houses.  Not a single one.

Sure, there are blocks, numbers of blocks and areas within neighbourhoods which are now exclusively single family houses.  My side of the street is exclusively single family houses. The other side of the street is a mix of duplexes, basement suites, single family houses. Across the alley from them it’s all walk-up apartments. And across that street is commercial. This area is a vibrant community within the perhaps equally vibrant neighbourhood called Strathcona.  It is decidedly not exclusively single-family houses, but areas of the neighbourhood decidedly are. This patchwork, this mosaic of areas is, I think, part of what makes and maintain the vibrancy and liveability of our neighbourhood.

Edmonton does not need a residential infill development free-for-all. Edmonton needs incentive to increase density through infill guided by conscientious zoning of all  residential types, including single-family houses to create a mosaic of blocks, groups of blocks and areas within a neighbourhood – within a community.

Take a walk through Parkallen

Take a walk, a ride or a drive through Parkallen sometime and you’ll see what I think is a terrific neighbourhood made up of zoned residential types. If Parkallen’s areas of RF1 (single-family houses) were simply removed, the neighbourhood would be quite simply destroyed by chaotic redevelopment.

Density could be easily increased through a judicious use of rezoning, juggling the mix, decreasing the total area zoned RF1 so that the transition is orderly, organic, and retains the essential overarching character of the neighbourhood.  This course would be planning. Simply eliminating RF1 would be the abdication by the City of the responsibility for planning and, indeed, the ability to plan.  Neighbourhoods would, in the end, become more dense, but homogeneous and chaotic, grey and unpleasant.

I must thank my good neighbour and good friend Charlie for the conversation this afternoon which really focused my thoughts on this subject.


Update, August 22, 2014:

First I want to thank Councillor Walters for engaging in conversation both here in the comments below and also on Twitter. And thanks to Paul, as well.  It’s a fine thing to live in a community in which elected officials are so accessible. As a matter of fact, yesterday, as well as the online conversation with Councillor Walters, I was fortunate to have pleasant face-to-face conversations with Councillor Michael Oshry and Alberta Cabinet Minister Heather Klimchuk. It’s so encouraging to be able to simply chat with our elected officials.

Second, in the interest of transparency, I must mention that I don’t have a personal neighbourhood dog in this fight. Strathcona, the happy neighbourhood in which I live, is considered “Central Core” and so is not the subject of the “Infill Roadmap”.  The Roadmap is directed at Edmonton’s “Mature” and “Established” neighbourhoods, one of which is Parkallen, which I use above as an example of a very liveable neighbourhood which could be destroyed by injudicious, sweeping zoning changes.

Third, Edmonton seems to like to have pilot projects. There’s one happening right now about backyard beekeeping. There’s one coming up about backyard chickens. I wish our City’s Administration, instead of conducting studies and then implementing the infill plans, would consider a pilot rezoning project.  Why not rezone a single street or the end of a block within a neighbourhood and see what happens?  We do pilot projects about relatively small issues. Why not do one or two to investigate this major change in our urban landscape?


On Viewing the International Space Station

When I was about ten years old I climbed with my family to the roof of our house in Windsor Ontario one summer evening to watch the little light called Skylab sail silently across the dusky sky. Memory is a funny thing. I remember Skylab flying from East to West, but I know that its actual path was necessarily from West to East. However distorted, that childhood memory of Skylab’s passage has stayed with me these forty years. I had seen a space station!

Fifteen or twenty years ago, one early Edmonton morning I looked up and saw a dim light I knew to be one of the Space Shuttles pass overhead, just after re-entry. A few minutes later, I saw the same shuttle on live television landing in Florida. The memory of that strange moment, seeing on television as one of an audience of millions the science fiction machine to which I had just been solitary witness — that memory has also remained clear for me.

The other night at 10:17 my neighbour in his bathrobe came out to our back alley. I felt a bit of a Ford Prefect/Arthur Dent moment but resisted the urge to mention the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My neighbour brought two of his teenage children along and we watched with happy hoots as the International Space Station came into view in the West. It was brilliantly bright! After a moment, Céline yelled out “there’s the other one!” I had briefed the kids earlier in the day that the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vessel Georges Lemaître would be flying in formation with the Space Station, station keeping before docking the next day. I hadn’t expected Georges Lemaître to be so far behind and so clearly visible. It was as though the ATV trailed on an invisible thread, like a space launch towed behind a sky-yacht or a crystalline caboose on a marvellous celestial train.

I saw Skylab as a boy because my father had noticed the time of its passage in a newspaper. I saw the shuttle because I knew it was returning to earth that morning and looked up hopefully and got lucky. Now, in the Future, once or twice a day my phone clangs with a notification from NASA telling me when the ISS will be visible from Edmonton, where on the horizon it will appear and disappear, how long it will be visible and how high in the sky it will be. On my phone!

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: whatever stupid, cruel, barbaric, inhuman evils or simply foibles we humans get up to, we live in a world where Science Fiction truly has become Science Fact. When I ride Edmonton’s LRT from the south toward Southgate Station, see Hugh Ferriss’ heroic Architecture of Power in the Metropolis of Tomorrow, a Garden City in forest and parkland. When I look up at night I see the World’s shared Space Station chased by a friendly European robot. I look around on the street or the train and see people talking through colourful strings in their ears to friends half a world away. And each of us has all of human knowledge on little computers in our pockets.

” O brave new world,. That has such people in ‘t!”

A Few Thoughts on Edmonton’s “Galleria” Project

The people behind the proposed glitzy new Downtown Edmonton theatre complex/University campus/outdoor roofed-over thingy have started asking for input from the arts community and the public, apparently wanting to tweak the plans to increase the less than 50% of Edmontonians on board with the thing.

I love Edmonton and I love the Arts in Edmonton. I love Downtown. I confess, however, that I thought it was a little laughably artificial when the “Arts District” signs went up around Churchill Square a number of years ago when the area’s Arts items amounted to the Citadel Theatre, the Edmonton Art Gallery, and a few pieces of public art. Meanwhile, Old Strathcona had art galleries and theatres and music venues around every corner. Art Galleries also lined the west end of Jasper Avenue and north along 124 Street to live theatre at the Roxy. And the University of Alberta Campus had galleries, concert halls, and theatres. And . . .

Then the Winspear Concert Hall opened between the Citadel and the new Art Gallery of Alberta. And 118 Avenue picked up and a cultural hub and festival centre, in large part due to the efforts the good people of the Carrot. And the Freewill Players continued doing Shakespeare down in the River Valley rain or shine. And Expressionz Cafe opened on 99th Street and now is in danger of closing due to zoning issues. And St. Albert’s Arden Theatre and that city’s Art Gallery, and the Spruce Grove Art Gallery, and the Stony Plain Gallery up on the hill, and Sherwood Park’s Festival Place and Gallery@501. And . . . .

So, the “Arts District” has a theatre, a concert hall and an art gallery. There are a number of neighbourhoods in the city with more claim to the title “Arts District” than Downtown, even after the Galleria gets built. Old Strathcona, home of the Fringe Festival, is the most obvious choice, but personally I don’t think such a choice should be made. Greater Edmonton is Edmonton’s Arts District and that should be the guiding principal of support for the Arts.

And so, how would I tweak the Galleria project to make it work better for Edmonton and Edmonton’s Arts Community?

I wouldn’t build it. I’d build a black box theatre space in Beverly. I’d build a Terwilligar Community Art Space. I’d build a concert hall with a sprung stage for ballet in Mill Woods. I’d build a Jazz club in Belgravia, a Blues joint in Allendale, another art gallery up in Belvedere. . . And more theatre spaces and galleries in more neighbourhoods.

Imagine if there were no Community Rec Centres in Edmonton, only a huge Rec Complex Downtown. Imagine if there were no branch libraries, only a bloated Milner Library on Churchill Square. Does that make sense? Of course not.

I’m not really interested about the funding formulas and Trusts and whatevers about the Galleria. I simply think putting all or even a large number of a city’s artistic eggs in one basket is a mistake.

And, to be honest, the whole Galleria project strikes me as an effort by a few civically insecure individuals to make Edmonton “World Class” and that’s just offensive. A shivering desire to make Edmonton “World Class” is just an annoying way of saying “I don’t like Edmonton, I like Paris or London or Toronto or Portland or Timmins better!”

I like Paris and London and Toronto. I’ve never been to Portland but it sounds nice. I don’t remember Timmins, but I bet it’s got a whole lot of cool to it. I really like Mexico City, too.

But I feel quite happy to say that I like Edmonton a whole lot and I’ve never seen any place I’d rather live. The opportunities for artists are phenomenal, the Arts Community is electric and hugely supportive of each other.  I don’t think there’s a better place to be.  We don’t need to build something to impress the World. We just need to keep doing the great things we do in the great ways we do them.

If the Galleria ever gets built, I expect it’ll be pretty nice and it’ll be pretty great. But it won’t be great because it’s World Class. It’ll be great because the creative hearts of Edmonton will be on those stages and in those seats.

But the stages would better serve the City and it’s creative hearts out in the neighbourhoods rather than stuffed into the absurdly artificial  “Arts District.”

Mack D. Male has a tremendous article on the Galleria called “Want to solve the space problem for the arts in Edmonton? Stop shaving that yak!” Definitely worth a read!

It’s Now or Never: The Freewill Players Hold a Mirror to Modern Society With “The Taming of the Shrew”

Some hastily scrawled thoughts after a Sunday Matinee performance of Shakespeare’s  The Taming of the Shrew by Edmonton’s  Freewill Players.


I must start here:

The Taming of the Shrew is a fundamentally misogynistic piece of art.  Even more than the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice, the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew is woven throughout.  In fact, brutal misogyny is the point of the play – without it, the three female characters and dozen or so male would stand silently on the stage for a few hours.  The Taming of the Shrew is the explicitly approving story of the breaking of a strong woman through violence, starvation and sleep deprivation until she, like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, in the finale of the play, at the command of her abuser, turns on the two other women and lectures them about how their natural role is to abase themselves to their husbands.  Kate is so destroyed that she happily denies the evidence of her own eyes at the maliciously arbitrary command of her abuser.
Needless to say, The Taming of the Shrew is an uncomfortable and painful comedy for any modern audience member who has ever had a mother.
Now with that – not out of the way – it should never by out of the way – but having been said I am going to argue that the Freewill Players have turned the seriously daunting challenges of a contemporary production of The Taming of the Shrew into powerfully explored opportunities.  And they’ve  done a remarkable job of bringing  Shrew to the emergency indoor stage at the University of Alberta’s Myer Horowitz Theatre.  After a freak windstorm destroyed the canopy of the Heritage Amphitheatre, Freewill had to find a new venue on extremely short notice, at unforeseen cost, and with the forced the reduction of the Festival to a single play.

The Players have cut from Shrew the frame story involving Christopher Sly and replaced it with an hilariously scripted and choreographed  opening of the actors – as themselves  but somehow still in character – preparing the stage and explaining why the’re inside instead of out amongst the squirrels and mosquitos.    This opening was made even more real and surreal for me by the fact that thirty minutes before curtain I stood beside Julien Arnold, the ostensibly always-snacking actor, at the bagel place outside the theatre.  He still had his bike helmet on.  I think he was snacking.

The simple set design by Narda McCarroll of a few movable crates stencilled with the Freewill logo, four aluminium step ladders, a big red door, and a few wall sections,  is marvellously versatile.  The ladders added a reminder that the production had something of the emergency makeshift about it.  But when Arnold as the Merchant of Mantua, is atop one of the ladders in his crazy Garibaldi wig and fake beard, we believe he’s shouting from an upper story window.  And we also believe he’s craving a snack.

The entire cast joins in with the set changes, also providing a bright and cheery “Bumby bum bum” musical accompaniment (Sound Designer Dave Clarke’s work is brilliant) as chairs, ladders, tables and trays of liquor swirl about the stage in a way both magical and do-it-yourself.  The production is full of quiet reminders that this company, cast and crew, has pulled together and risen to the emergency, that they’re all in it together.

James Macdonald gives a relaxed, strong, nuanced performance as Petruchio, the Shrew Tamer.  His Petruchio clearly truly comes to love Kate (Mary Hulbert) even while he continues to “tame” her with what we would call “torture”.  Hulbert is gloriously physical and cerebral as Kate, pummelling all who cross her with fists and wit. Bobbi Goddard as Kate’s sister, Bianca, makes clear that the younger is cut from the same cloth as the older sister, but Bianca is all dishonest sunshine and politeness if a man’s eye is upon her, whereas Kate is always brutally honest.  The various servants and suitors and travellers and fathers, two of whom have almost identical names, two of whom exchange identities (sort of) and two of whom take on false identities are all carefully distinguished and what can be a mess of confusion for the audience is kept crystal clear by the Players.

And the music!  Stand out musical performances come from Mary Hulbert in her opening solo of “O mio babbino caro” and Sheldon Elter’s (Tranio) performance on voice and ukulele leading the entire cast on “It’s Now or Never”.  The music which struck me initially as least successful was Nathan Cuckow (Hortensio) and Bobbi Goddard’s  Hip-Hop rendition of  “Hortensio’s Gamut” (Shakespearean rap?),  but then . . .

(Maybe it’s getting a bad rap, but) Hip-Hop is often seen as a misogynistic sector of pop culture.  Perhaps this moment of Shakespeare’s words set to a rap beat is a bit of a mirror held up to the audience, a little reminder that we aren’t the utopia of sexual equality we might like to think we are.  “Oh, my dear father,” Kate sings before that father sells her sister to the highest bidder and her to the only man who’ll have her.  At one point during the final wedding feast, there are twelve men on stage and no women.  And then, Elter is joined by everyone in what must be seen as a powerful statement to our still unequal society, reflected in the casual misogyny of Shakespeare’s time, that indeed, It’s Now or Never.  The entire play is a mirror!

The Freewill Players, with Artistic Director Marianne Copithorne directing, have achieved something remarkable.  They have taken what seems to be an irredeemably misogynistic early play of Shakespeare and presented it to a modern audience as a gentle or not so gentle challenge, as an urge to conversation, and as a powerful demonstration of the joyful power of cooperative effort.  And, we laugh. And, we are moved by Kate’s closing speech in defence of a social order that today seems odious.  Kate and Bianca and the disturbingly nameless Widow who marries Hortensio are strong women in a society which reviles strong women.  In the performances of Hulbert and Goddard and Annette Loiselle they are admirable in their strength.  And Hulbert makes us believe, not that Kate has made the morally correct decision, but that her submission is the only course open to her and that by submitting she may retain some small amount of control.    An uncomfortable conclusion for a contemporary audience, but a reminder that most women in the world today, heroic, strong women, including in Western countries, remain in Petruchio’s Taming School.

If there is to be change, truly,  It’s Now or Never.

Freewill Players production of The Taming of the Shrew continues at the Myer Horowitz Theatre until July 27, 2014.


And a reminder:

The sudden loss of the Heritage Amphitheatre canopy, while repairable, has had a catastrophic impact on the Freewill Players’ financial situation.  The fact that Shakespeare is performed outdoors in the middle of our city with trees and grass and water and squirrels and the occasional thunder storm makes  Edmonton a better place to live.  Shakespeare’s plays, even the most problematic of them, are always worth experiencing.  When performed by a company as willing to engage deeply with the text, to take risks, and with the skill, talent and courage to rise to face whatever slings and arrows outrageous fortune sends their way, the Stage – whatever stage – truly becomes All the World.  The Freewill Players have done exactly this for twenty-six summers now.  But the twenty-sixth has been a huge financial challenge.  If a twenty-seventh Freewill Festival somehow didn’t happen, Edmonton would be a horribly poorer place.

Please consider seeing The Taming of the Shrew.  Please consider donating, even just once or with monthly donations through the Goodwill for Freewill Campaign.

An Open Letter to Mr. Thomas Mulcair concerning the “withering on the vine” of the Canadian Senate

I sent this by email this evening.


Mr. Mulcair.

I have volunteered on the campaigns of both MP Linda Duncan and MLA Rachel Notely. For some time I donated monthly to the NDP, even though my income precludes any benefit from tax credits (which only benefit the wealthy, by the way, so the NDP really shouldn’t be pushing them). I am proud than my riding, Edmonton-Strathcona, is the only non-CPC riding in Alberta.

Some time ago I stopped my monthly donation because I truly cannot in good conscience support a party which has as its goal the abolition of the Senate, one of only two (appointed, by the way) institutions which can constitutionally stand in the path of an out of control executive with a majority in the House.

Today I learned that you, Mr. Mulcair, supported the absurd and constitutionally impossible idea of simply ceasing to appoint new Senators, the idea that the Senate might simply “wither on the vine” without the need for nasty Constitutional meddling.

Have you read our Constitution, Mr. Mulcair? The Constitution Act, 1867, sec. 91 clearly requires that ALL new legislation receive the consent of the House AND the Senate before Royal Consent may be considered, never mind granted:

91. It shall be lawful for the Queen, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate and House of Commons, to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada, in relation to all Matters not coming within the Classes of Subjects by this Act assigned exclusively to the Legislatures of the Provinces; and for greater Certainty, but not so as to restrict the Generality of the foregoing Terms of this Section, it is hereby declared that (notwithstanding anything in this Act) the exclusive Legislative Authority of the Parliament of Canada extends to all Matters coming within the Classes of Subjects next hereinafter enumerated; that is to say, etc.

Never mind the rest. The important part is “With the Advice and Consent of the Senate”. That’s it, right there in Section 91 of the Constitution Act 1867. No Senate to give consent, no legislation by Parliament.

How do you propose to pass ANY legislation after the fading of the Senate? Any legislation granted Royal Assent without the consent of the Senate – an impossibility if there are no Senators – would be the subject of a completely legitimate and necessarily successful court challenge. Any simplistic attempt to allow the Senate to “wither on the vine” would not lead to enhanced democracy. Rather, it would lead to Legislative paralysis, Judicial gridlock, and a lawless, anarchic Canada.

I am disappointed that you, Mr. Mulcair, have made public statements about the Senate which show either a tragic ignorance of Canada’s Constitution, or, an paternalistic attitude to what you must think an ignorant and gullible populace. Your misguided targeting of the Senate strikes me as cheap opportunism and a sad lack of integrity. You seem to be trying to make an end run around both Canada’s Constitution and the hard working citizens of Canada.

I’m disappointed.


John Richardson

“Lightfinder” by Aaron Paquette: Comparisons Will Inevitably Be Made


(no spoilers ahead!)

Lightfinder by artist Aaron Paquette is a stunning debut novel, an enthralling first instalment of what promises to be an exciting series of novels for young adults (and all sorts of other readers). Comparisons will inevitably be made (I’ll do it myself in a moment), but unlike authors of some of the popular novel series for young adults of the recent and not-so-recent past, Paquette has firmly rooted the adventure in our real world: no Ministry of Magic, no post-Apocalyptic Panem, and although there are magical journeys, they are not to some aborted Medievalist fantasy called Narnia or anything else. Lightfinder is an adventure in the landscape and geography – and political economy – of Canada – specifically Alberta – today. And it is an aventure through the difficult life of Paquette’s young Cree heroine, Aisling, from the challenge of rising above the generational abuse suffered by her ancestors to simply finish school, through the tragedy of parental alcoholism and death, to the realization that she, and her runaway brother Eric are the keys to the future of Planet Earth.

Aisling, with the help of her Auntie Martha and Kokum Georgia begins on a quest to rescue Eric from the evil influence of the mysterious boy Cor. Quickly it becomes clear that the real quest is nothing less than to save the Earth from destruction by the evil “Raven” (long ago “Raven” wiped life off the faces of both Mars and the Moon). Along the way, Aisling is helped (and hindered) in her quest by a number of humans and individuals from the dream world – “real” world and dream world mingle. There’s the half-Australian Aborigine, Matari; the shy school-friend Jake; the Dreaming figures of Laughing Toad, Standing Coyote, and Walking Man.

And, the comparisons will innevitably come: “The Lightfinder Saga is an Indigenous Harry Potter!” “Lightfinder is a Native Narnia!” “Dune in the Boreal Forest!” “A First Nations Hunger Games!”

I admit, while reading Lightfinder I briefly made all three comparisons as well as the analogy Paquette explicitly makes to Star Wars:

“Do or do not,” her Kokum chimed in with a mischievous smile. “There is no try.” p. 64

I argue, however, that, while such analogies may easily be drawn, and the comparisons may bring fruitful understandings, Lightfinder is not in any significant way derivative of the blockbuster icons which have preceded it.

The Harry Potter series with which J. K. Rowling addicted a generation or more of young people to reading is perhaps the most obvious parallel, obvious not least because the boy wizard and Hogwarts have so penetrated the popular consciousness. But, Rowling’s world is removed from ours, an imaginative but fundamentally unreal pastiche of pretend European magical themes, practices and ideas grafted onto an alternative universe in which all the magic is hidden by the rather unbelievable conspiracy called the Ministry of Magic. Its all good fun, but no matter how well we suspend our disbelief, Privet Drive -never mind Hogwarts – is not a part of our world.

Paquette’s world, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in North American realities, the reality of Indigenous kids forced by history into adulthood before their teen years have begun, the reality of environmental devastation by faceless, unnamed forces, and the reality of vibrant and freshly alive Native spirituality and tradition. Whether or not we believe in the magic of Lightfinder, it is an organic magic of our real world, developed over generations, not the artificial playthings constructed by Rowling for Hogwarts to teach its young charges. Aisling is a girl just like any number you will see each day on Edmonton’s LRT, at school in Maskwacîs, or visiting with her Kokum in Standoff, or Sucker Creek, or Cold Lake or an apartment in Saskatoon. She has no lightening bolt scar. She’s not an only-child orphan of mysterious parents. What is remarkable about her is what is remarkable about any teenage girl: she intends to change her world.

Like C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Lightfinder has parallel worlds and talking animals. But, unlike those of Lewis, Paquette’s animals talk because they are part of a real, vast, coherent mythological tradition, not because they are just pulled out of various religious and historic periods or even thin air, as Lewis’ are pulled.

And the world of Lightfinder is harsh and gritty. Wounding and death can and do come to the characters in graphic descriptions never seen by Harry and his friends or the Pevensie kids. Lightfinder owes more to The Orenda than to Narnia. It is this gritty realism that is pretty much Lightfinder‘s only similarity to The Hunger Games.

An analogy could be made between the Messianic trappings of Paul Atriedes in Dune and the two protagonists of Lightfinder. In both books the expected child(ren) arrive too early, upsetting the grand plan somewhat. But Messiahs in world literature are legion, and the environmental concerns of Lightfinder I’m sure owe everything to Paquette’s experience, and nothing to the dry-land ecology of Dune.

Overshadowing all, of course, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, another quest by an unlikely hero to save the world from life-sucking evil. The Lord of the Rings, for anyone who has read the nearly-two-dozen posthumous volumes of Tolkien’s writings (I have) will know, is rooted as deep as the lowest depths of the Mines of Moria in the pre-Christian mythology and languages – philology we might say – of Northern Europe (principally Germanic and Finnish). In the author’s bio at the back of the book, and also at the book’s launch in Edmonton, Paquette remembers his mother’s imitation of Gollum as she read The Lord of the Rings to him as a child. I think, here, in The Lord of the Rings, there may be the only really significant influence from Fantasy literature by European Colonial authors. But, again, Paquette’s tale takes place today in readily identifiable places, not in the distant shadowed past of Middle Earth. “Raven” resembles more the god of Pullman’s His Dark Materials than he does Sauron. There is no “Fellowship” of disparate races in Lightfinder. Rather, there is family and (sometimes false) friends.

No. Lightfinder is not a Metis Lord of the Rings.

In the end, although we inevitably note reminders of books we’ve read before, Lightfinder is a brilliantly fresh, enthralling first novel, a novel that I expect will inspire a new generation of young readers both within and far beyond Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities. In fact, I’d venture to say Lightfinder will likely be not only a best seller, but a blockbuster that brings to an international generation an indigenous reality and, just maybe, a change to the world.

It would probably make a good movie, too!


Lightfinder by Aaron Paquette is published by Kegedonce Press.

Two weeks after its release, a second printing was needed.