Interview / Anne Cameron
April 07th, 2008
The following interview was conducted at Cameron’s home, nine miles north of Powell River, located up a gravel road and only recently wired for electricity. After neighborhood petitions failed to convince B.C. Hydro to service her area, Cameron took her type-writer down to the local Hydro office, plugged it in, and began working until B.C. Hydro relented. Cameron is an accomplished screenwriter (Ticket to Heaven, Dreamspeaker) and one of the most clearly indigenous writers British Columbia has ever produced. This year she is publishing five new books. Stubby Amberchuck and the Holy Grail ($19.95) is a novel about a woman’s coming of age in rural B.C., a story ‘about mothers and daughters, base-ball, high-stakes poker and women’s wrestling.’ Other publications are Dzelarhons ($8.95), a sec-ond feminist retelling of coastal Indian legends, and The Annie Poems ($7.95), a follow-up to Earthwitch, now into its fifth printing. Orca’s Song ($4.95) and Raven Re-turns the Water ($4.95) are two new children’s books.
BCBW: People have no difficulty agreeing there is a Newfie culture. Or that Quebec has a separate culture. But there are no generally observed definitions of what we have become in B.C.
CAMERON: That’s because the same thing has happened to B.C. and our provincial identity and psyche as happened to women. ‘They’ have been defining us. Back in Toronto they make jokes like, “The continent slopes to the west and all the nuts roll to the West Coast.” That’s a crock. We know the nuts roll as far as the Rocky Mountains. That’s why we put them there. Only the crafty ones make it through to this side.
BCBW: You really have an ‘us’ and ‘them’ sense of the East and West.
CAMERON: Because I lived back there for over a year. It further convinced me that people out here are not really part of their country. My mother grew up here. My father grew up here. I was born here. Anything that I am is because of that. I think many people in B. C. feel this way. We identify with British Columbia much more than we identify as Canadians.
BCBW: In a way ‘They’ gave us the name of our province. Do you think it’s inappropriate?
CAMERON: Oh, for sure. We should just call ourselves The Coast. And across the water is The Island. And once we get the names straightened out we can go back to square one and decide if The Coast is joining The Island. ‘Cuz I’m originally an Islander. And we’re not joining you again. You guys join us next time. It didn’t work out this time.
A lot of people don’t realize we had a language and a culture on Vancouver Island that was as unique as the one Newfoundland still has. But where Newfoundland held out until 1949, we got sucked in a hundred years before that. We lost a very unique way of talking. For instance, I can remember we used to say ‘I amn’t’ as a normal word. Now my publisher has given me this computer to finish this new novel and this computer has a built-in dictionary on a disc to check spelling. Well, I mean, Jesus! We didn’t get to page two of Stubby Amberchuck and the Holy Grail before the West Coast terms started coming up. The computer kept getting stuck. The computer nearly burned itself out when it came to arseltart. (Laughter)
BCBW: What’s an arseltart?
CAMERON: An arseltart is along the lines of a nerd. We hadn’t even got to buggerlugs yet. (Laughter) A buggerlugs is often a kid, as in “Hey, Bug-gerlugs, bring in an armload a’ wood for the stove.”
BCBW: In some societies it’s been standard practice to consult the major writers about major social issues. But in B.C. I’d say most of the people working for B.C.’s newspapers and tv stations don’t even know who the leading B.C. writers are.
CAMERON: That’s true. But look at who has taken control of the newspapers here. Southam News. I mean, Jesus. Southam News wouldn’t know truth if it kicked them up the arse. They’re not in it for news. It’s just part of the thing that makes them some money. And yet most people don’t even realize that Southam News almost has a stranglehold on what is news around here. They don’t just own The Sun and The Province. Here in Powell River we have this Powell River News and the Town Crier. It’s virtually the same goddam newspaper out of the same goddam of-fice but it comes under two different titles. They’re both owned by the Southam News chain. And with all due respect to everybody who works there, there’s none of them can write. Even with their computers a proofreader is needed. And who do they hire? Kids out of grade twelve. (Because) Those kids don’t know any better. It’s much the same at our local radio station. They talk on the news about Marcel Mace (Masse) and Jean Sove (Sauve). I can’t even listen to it anymore. I heard one guy on there talking about something called a ‘jillnetter’ (gillnetter).
BCBW: I’ve talked to Brian Fawcett about this. We agreed that for any writer to interpret B.C. in any depth, he or she ends up feeling like a subversive against the global village culture.
CAMERON: Well, I’m not socially acceptable anyway. But look at Jack Hodgins. I mean, he taught high school in Nanaimo and won the Christly Governor GeneraI’s Award. And those pizmyers at Malaspina College couldn’t even get it together to get the guy to go up there and read his stories. Instead they bring in Northrop Frye or that guy from Montreal who’s always whining about how awful it is to be a Jew in Canada. They bring Mordecai all the way to Nanaimo and ignore Jack. So finally Jack leaves Nanaimo and goes to Carelton University and everybody in Ottawa is kissing his feet but he’s dying of homesickness. I used to send him care packages. We sent ‘im a souvenir of Bath-tub Day. A picture of Frank Ney in his pirate’s cos-tume.
BCBW: So the universities are not much further ahead than the major media outlets.
CAMERON: Well, when I had three kids under school age and I was living in Queensborough (New Westminster), Simon Fraser University was ad-vertising for mature students. I was just about ready to come out of my gourd. I was bored. I was having an identity crisis allover everybody’s life. I thought, well, I can get a babysitter for the kids. I’ll go to university. So I applied. Somewhere in all my junk I keep lugging around 1 still have this letter from Simon Fraser saying I didn’t have the academic qualifications even to go as a mature student.
So twenty years later, with no more academic qualifications than I ever had, they had me teaching out there. My kids were rolling in the aisles! Mum’s too stupid to go as a student but they’ll take her as a teacher. For me, that just says it all. It’s like you have to prove that you’re mentally competent before you vote but you don’t have to prove the same thing before you run for office.
BCBW: So if you were suddenly Education Minister, how would you change things?
CAMERON: I’d have some classes only for girls. So that the girls don’t get overshadowed by the boys vying for the teacher’s attention. Because those are things still as a society we don’t allow girls to do. I find it really interesting the number of really incred-ibly bright women who have come out of convent schools. Also I’d want much more sex education. And I would want much more physical stuff for the girls in the first three grades. Balancing. Dance exercises. Softball. Competition can be good, really good, when you realize that you are the one you’re in competition with.
BCBW: What about simply having sexually segregated schools?
CAMERON: No, I think we’re strangers enough now.
BCBW: As a British Columbian, what do you think we aspire to in this place? What’s your definition of who we are?
CAMERON: I think basically our main aspiration is to be left alone. I think that is what most of us out here want. ‘Get those bastards to leave us alone.’ We’ve got this belief, a belief that is probably totally illogical, that we are not the ones who raped the for-est. And now they’re doing it to the ocean with their fish farms. ‘They’ are doing it. And they are compa-nies from somewhere else. And we want ‘Them’ to go away, to take their goddam money with them, and to leave ‘Us’ alone with our beaches the way they used to be.
BCBW: So anarchism, beyond a mere theoretical base, is a real force in this society. Psychologically but not politically.
CAMERON: Well, I think that people out here have never really trusted the government. And I think that oddly enough that’s why we get the Social Credit so much. We don’t expect anybody to do any better and at least we know those guys. Whereas the one time we put in the NDP they did a whole bunch of stuff and didn’t do the stuff they were put in to do. Bar-rett stood up in the Okanagan and said, yes, he had promised certain things to the women’s movement but once he got to Victoria he had seen that he, as a social worker, was much more concerned about the future of the children. Well, who the hell did he think has them and looks after them? If he had improved social-anything-at-all for women, kids would have automatically benefited. But he just put on fifteen pounds and got himself voted out again. All that was missing from his showboat schtick was a little straw hat and a cane.
BCBW: But Barrett was perceived by many other people as someone who was doing too much. Ironically, Bill Vander Zalm might be vulnerable for the same reason Barrett was vulnerable.
CAMERON: No. I think where Vander Zalm is vulnerable is that this has always been a racist and clas-sist society. “It was good enough for our grand-fathers…” And this guy’s got an accent. Every time he says, “Britiss Columbia,” the necks get a little bit redder. People will say, “Oh, Jesus,.that guy’s a D.P.” That’s what he’s got to 100k out for.
BCBW: And yet one of the most important and strange things about B.C. is that probably more peo-ple are born elsewhere than here.
CAMERON: And what I find really weird about that is that people come here, usually first on holiday, and they wander around saying how beautiful it is. How marvelous. Then they go home. Then they retire here. They no more than retire here than they set about agitating for the things they had back home where they admitted it was ugly! During the Lyell Island controversy I wound up stamping my foot and saying that as far as I was concerned if you haven’t been born on this goddam coast for at least two generations you keep your mouth shut. And of course that would include Bill Vander Zalm who only came snuffling in here at age twelve. And I was halfway around the bend and totally illogical and I even hurt some of my friends’ feelings but I didn’t want to hear opinions from any folks from Saskatchewan who hadn’t see a tree before they retired out here anyway. We’ve learned bugger-nothing. The Indians had a lousy immigration policy.
Essay Date: 1987