Canadian Drama Combines Entertainment With Education

[embed][/embed] Taking a stab at the Canadian fur trade, Discovery Canada’s first scripted television series attempts to mix education with entertainment while exploring the bloody and violent past that made the Hudson’s Bay Company what it is today.

Frontier is based in the 1700s and follows Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a Cree-Irish man who turned to violent measures against the Hudson’s Bay Company when they started trading on “disputed land”.

“It is your traditional action-adventure drama. There are turns and twists. There are characters in jeopardy who are rescued. It has the elements of traditional gripping drama that if it doesn’t take you to the edge of your seat, then it certainly engaged and gripped a part of what is going on,” said John Doyle, television critic for the Globe and Mail.

The show has finished airing its six-episode season, but even after episode one Doyle believed the show had potential. “I think it already is a success. I think it’s done well with viewers in Canada. It got pretty good, positive attention”.  With more than half a million viewers on premiere night, Doyle’s statements hold true.

The show appears to be educational through its airing on Discovery, a channel known for its educational content, and its integration of historical dates and setting.  However, Frontier may not be as historically accurate as it appears and falls short in terms of its educational value.

Dr. Patricia McCormack, who has a doctorate in anthropology, is a retired professor from the University of Alberta. Her research while part of the faculty of native studies was focused in northern Canadian fur trade. She has also worked as a curator of ethnology at the Royal Museum of Alberta.  McCormack says that Frontier does not adhere to the facts of the time in which the story is set.

“You can look at this as a frontier-related drama, but it has little to do with the realities of Canadian history of the fur trade. Yet again we have a T.V. program that purports to be based in facts of Canadian history and yet distorts them, plays on stereotypes, and genuinely misrepresents things,” McCormack said.

From costumes and setting to relations among the First Nations and the English, there are many historical misrepresentations as noted by McCormack. The violence in the show is gratuitous, and the violent killing of Declan Harp’s family that spurred his savagery against the British and the Hudson's Bay Company is unlikely to have ever happened in history.

“It’s hard to understand what the backstory is there because the HBC did not go out normally and kill families of native people. They relied on Native people to provide furs for them, and they did their best to maintain some harmony, ” said McCormack.

However, Declan Harps role does provide the story to what would otherwise be a non-fiction documentary. An imaginative backstory is necessary to bring in the element of drama.

Another major flaw, as mentioned by McCormack, is the presence of English soldiers and lords on the frontier. There was never a reason for them to be there, and the only people that travelled to Canada at the time were fur traders from the HBC. Lord Benton would definitely never be bothered to travel to the land that made his fortune over in England.

One point of favour for Frontier, as Doyle mentioned, is the presence of strong female characters.  Although the show succeeded in “beefing-up its female roles”, it is again a historical inaccuracy to assume that there were women around in the first-place.

“On the frontier, or what they are calling the frontier, there would have only been native women. There were not any English women in Hudson’s Bay, only English men.  Native women in the fur trade usually had far different roles such as taking care of children and elders, “ said McCormack.

“Yet again we have a T.V. program that purports to be based in facts of Canadian history and yet distorts them, plays on stereotypes, and genuinely misrepresents things,” McCormack said.

Nevertheless, Frontier may spark interest to the historical period in general, and shift audience focus back on Canadian history. What it lacks in historical accuracy it makes up for by providing an international recognition of Canada’s media landscape.The show will be on Netflix, which means the show will attract a much larger, international audience.

Frontier will begin streaming on Netflix starting January 20.


This piece was edited by Luke Elisio, Film Editor of CanCulture.