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Issue 141

Greg Durrell: Design Canada
by Michèle Champagne

What do we mean when we talk about modern Canada? Hockey. Multiculturalism. Natural vistas. Global cities. Humanitarians. And above all, friendly people. Greg Durrell’s documentary film Design Canada is about all of those things and the role graphic design played in forging them. But the film is not only that; it is also a fascinating—if unintentional—look at a world where Canada’s colonial project hides in plain sight.

Burton Kramer plays himself as the designer of the original CBC logo. Patrick Reid recounts Jacques St. Cyr’s refinement of the maple leaf that defines the national flag. Hans Kleefeld revisits his minimalist logo for the Toronto–Dominion Bank as a gesture that parallels Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist TD towers. Stuart Ash. Brian Donnelly. Fritz Gottschalk. Rolf Harder. Julien Hébert. George Huel. George Stroumboulopoulos. Hunter Tura.

The cast of characters is lively, accessible and overwhelmingly white and male. Female designer Diti Katona makes note of this demographic over-representation. Designers Heather Cooper and Marian Bantjes also make appearances, as well as brand manager Ali Gardiner and journalist Hannah Sung. But this is a feel-good film and the characters are necessarily upstaged by a grand progressive narrative, modern images and happy songs.

Soft house beats and cheerful pianos guide every interview and every vintage reel of glories past. There is an overt nostalgic ambiance. The songs may satisfy a contemporary appetite for a chill “Spotify-core,” but the film inhabits the mid-20th century, a time so many modernists and neo-modernists look back upon with undiluted affection.

Another theatrical effect is the energetic performances Durrell elicits from the images of modernist design and architecture. There is the Canadian National Railway’s high-speed CN TurboTrain and Montreal’s Expo 67 with its animal pictograms, geodesic domes and modular homes. There are Summit Series hockey graphics, Shaw Festival posters, Clairtone stereos and illustrations of Olympic stadiums.

The progressive narrative, for its part, offers a wholesome exterior wrapped around a sinister edge, which we follow deep into the film’s central mystery: its inability to address the depth of Canada’s ongoing colonial project—its resource extraction and the identity formations that represent it. Design Canada’s slogan is, “Through the lens of graphic design, a nation transforms from a colonial outpost to a vibrant and multi-cultural society.” This begs the question: did such a transformation actually occur?

In the film, artist Douglas Coupland elaborates: “In World War II, Canada was still Britain’s bitch, to be honest. As we began to shake off all the trappings of yesterday, there was freedom that came with it.” In 1867, Canada becomes its own country. In 1965, Canada gets its own, modern flag. In 1967, Canada hits the world stage with the Montreal Expo. In 1976, the Immigration Act ushers in a “fifth wave” of immigrants from all countries and not just the white American, British and European candidates selected by the blatantly racist policies of yesteryear.

The answer is yes, in a way. Some sort of transformation does occur. Canada gains governing authorities, designs a new, modern identity for itself and legislates a new, multicultural immigration policy. This is a true story but one that is thoroughly unresolved and incomplete.

Communication professional Alan Perry describes the modern CN logo and its minimalist, train-track linearity: “It symbolizes the movement of men, materials and messages, from one point to another.” But he says nothing of whose land this movement takes place on; that’s just one of yesterday’s trappings. Here is one of the film’s many inadvertent glimpses into a well-known secret: Canada is, at its root, a colonial extraction project that moves men, materials and messages.

Extraction, the Canadian counter-exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, and the related book Extraction Empire, showed that the British Crown still owns 95 percent of Canadian land, 75 percent of the world’s mining firms are based in Canada and, in 2013, 48 percent of global mining equity transactions were accounted through Toronto’s stock exchange. It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment, a 2016 exhibition and book from the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, explored how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are confronted by and resisting the extraction of natural resources and the accompanying myth of Canada as “a good country,” as Kanien’kehá:ka author Taiaiake Alfred puts it. Legislating, banking, financing, mining, transporting and messaging all play a part in this colonial project.

Between 2008 and 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published myriad reports on Canadian injustices in the residential school system. In 2016, Okanese journalist Connie Walker launched the CBC podcast investigation Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? and a second series subtitled Finding Cleo in 2018. Through these stories, colonialism also appears as a fluid kind of violence that moves through bodies and generations. Residential schools may be closed but their effects persist in the lives of survivors and their kin.

All of this contradicts the progressive narrative.

Design Canada’s runtime offers little reassurance when it briefly cites Indigenous art and design from Expo 67’s “The Indians of Canada” pavilion and includes commentary from scholar John Moses, a member of Six Nations Delaware Band, who speaks of Tseshaht artist George Clutesi and his previous work as a graphic designer and book illustrator. The segment lacks breadth and gets trivialized by happy tunes. Like women, Indigenous people remain on the periphery. “[In Canada] there is a discomfort with acknowledging that the house has been built with many kinds of complexities and oppressions,” says Kwakwaka’wakw artist Marianne Nicolson, in an interview for It’s All Happening So Fast. “There is a desire to create an empty space for pure celebration. But that requires the denial of many realities, and of Peoples who live here—Indigenous and non-Indigenous ones.”

Design Canada is an important film, not as a documentary rife with untold stories, but as a specimen of the dominant colonial fiction—repackaged with progress, modernism and happiness marbled into its spine. The film is also disappointing, because while it is celebratory, it neglects the spiritual, social, political and economic tensions that make Canada what it is, and that still need to be told. Design Canada trumpets but makes not a sound.

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