Anne with an E’s cancellation is damaging to Indigenous viewers

The CBC/Netflix period drama Anne with an E has been cancelled after the introduction of an Indigenous storyline, featuring a Mi’kmaw family living outside the fictional P.E.I. community of Avonlea.

[Warning: minor/vague spoilers for Anne with an E]

Kiawenti:io Tarbell, Brandon Oakes, Dana Jeffry and Lucas Jade Zumann as Ka’kwet, Aluk, Oqwatnuk and Gilbert in Anne with an E.

I started watching Anne with an E — colloquially known simply as Anne — after being informed the show was adding Mi’kmaw characters to cast in the third season. The knowledge I had going in was limited to “that’s the show based on Anne of Green Gables.” The one and only reason I started watching was because as a Mi’kmaw person, I had never in my life seen my people on a mainstream television show before. I had plenty of guards up and prepared for the worst… only to be pleasantly surprised with utmost joy.

For a start, Anne placed value in hiring actual Indigenous actors for the roles, and specifically warded against Hollywood Race Fakers in the casting call.

Anne with an E Casting Call for Ka’kwet

This is unfortunately all too a rarity to see, but proof it is a choice to make the effort to build a cast respectably and responsibly. Hearing this made me lower my guard to begin with, and I am glad I did. (Brandon Oakes of Rhymes for Young Ghouls fame certainly helped, too.)

Where Anne excels most more than countless settler shows before it is the care and respect put into representing the peoples they are using in their stories. All the details like the language flowing well and informally instead of a stiff dictionary translation, (excusing some pronunciation mix-ups,) like the clothing they wear such as Oqwatnuk’s peaked cap, like people returning to their camp with freshly caught eels in the background, like the incorporation of the Honour Song in the soundtrack… It all speaks so well of the genuine effort put into accuracy, and Moira Walley-Beckett involving the Mi’kmaq in the creative process. This makes Anne a modern staple in the growing progress for Indigenous inclusion in television.

However, those familiar with the show know it is no stranger to darker story-lines and brutally honest depictions of things like misogyny, cissexism and racism. Season two received critical acclaim for opening up Anne’s world to the diversity present in real world history, with both the positive and negative experiences in the time period. It should come to no surprise that the same is done for the Mi’kmaq of Epekwitk. What begins with Anne befriending her newest kindred spirit, Ka’kwet, quickly dives into one of, if not the darkest parts of Canadian history; the Indian residential school system.

Historically speaking, the Shubenacadie Residential School (also known as “Shubie”) in Nova Scotia did not open until 1930; 31 years after the setting of Anne with an E Season Three. Nationwide however, federal run residential schools existed between Confederation in 1867 and 1996.
In the world of Anne, Ka’kwet’s family is roped into sending their daughter to an unnamed Indian boarding school in Nova Scotia, with promises that it will brighten her future. Like thousands of Indigenous children across the Maritimes, she is sent to the equivalent of Shubenacadie, where the real question is having a future at all.

Residential schools can be a hard topic for Indigenous peoples to discuss, and settlers sharing the burden of portraying this history is appreciated when done accurately. Ka’kwet’s arc in Anne is a grave and important story to tell, one that gives Non-Native viewers from Canada and abroad a glimpse into our country’s villainous past, possibly for the first time… within the restrictions placed on a show airing on CBC, of course. We see Ka’kwet stripped of her name, her cultural style, her hair. We see her and the other children emotionally, verbally and physically abused. We are even hinted at the murders, given the guns shown are obviously not carried just for looks. We do not see any actual murder, or the sexual assault, or the sickness, or the neglect, or the medical experimentation… but is enough to very clearly paint the picture, without getting too graphic.
The reactions from Non-Native fans on social media largely ran along the lines of horror and heartbreak. Many people expressed their lack of prior knowledge about the very existence of Canada’s residential schools, and interest in knowing more. This story does not only introduce such history, it inspires further learning in people.

Tumblr user finnickssortinghat says they had no idea about Canada’s residential schools, and intends on looking into them.
Tumblr user finnickssortinghat says they knew nothing about Canada’s residential schools before Anne with an E‘s third season, but intends on looking up more information.

Fans were frustrated with other characters not doing anything or knowing about this atrocity, illustrating the very point; those that cared did not know or were powerless, and those that did not care were either enablers or contributors of the abusive system.

These reactions from Non-Native fans are proof of the effectiveness of the writing and acting, in teaching through storytelling. But here is the thing: Indigenous fans are watching, too. And in the age of politicians throwing around the words Truth and Reconciliation while continuing to walk the same paths their colonial forefathers did, we do not need another story about Indigenous pain and suffering. We need a story about Indigenous resilience and convalescence.

Ka’kwet makes a perilous escape from the school, and even has the chance to briefly reunite with her family. The ninth episode opens with a show of how her PTSD hurts her younger siblings, too; she no longer knows how to interact with them, repeating what was told to her. (The preface of intergenerational trauma.) Kiawenti:io Tarbell’s performance is staggeringly raw when she asks her mother why she was born. Is this pain realistic? Yes. It would be extremely unrealistic if Ka’kwet was unfazed by the ordeal she went through. Is her being taken right back to the school despite protest from her and her parents realistic? Sadly, also yes. The argument here is not that the writing is inaccurate or unrealistic. The argument is that while it is all well and good to teach about the trauma, equally if not more important is to teach of healing that comes after. That there can be a light at the end of the tunnel. That there can be resolution.

Sebastian “Bash” Lacroix (Dalmar Abuzeid), a Trinidadian immigrant introduced in Season Two struggles to find a place in P.E.I. when so few accept him in the very white community of Avonlea. He eventually finds “the Bog” where there are other Black Islanders, and ends up wedding the love of his life and taking part ownership of a farm with his brotherly friend. Bash’s problems are not all remedied, but he gets a resolution to his arc.

Cole Mackenzie (Cory Grüter-Andrew), a closeted gay classmate of Anne’s also introduced in Season Two is bullied by peers and adults alike, feeling alone in the world. He eventually learns of a much larger unspoken LGBT+ community than he thought, and ends up taken in by Josephine Barry (Deborah Grover), the local elderly lesbian and all-around rich dispensary of love and wisdom. Cole’s problems are not all remedied, but he gets a resolution to his arc.

Where is Ka’kwet’s resolution? Where is her mother and father’s? Their journey of healing? There is none. The season ends with Ka’kwet still held prisoner, to not mince words, alluding to part of the story yet to be told. In their joint statement, the broadcast/streaming services said “we hope fans of the show love this final season as much as we do, and that it brings a satisfying conclusion to Anne’s journey.” They say nothing of Ka’kwet’s journey, the one messily cut short. In the absence of saying anything, the message left to absorb is a lack of awareness of the sheer irresponsibility of this decision.

Telling a story like one of the residential school experience comes with responsibility. This is still an open wound for so many, and like any open wound, it must be handled with a delicate approach. Anne with an E worked hard to build a trust between the show and an Indigenous audience, from the conception of the storyline to implementation. Ka’kwet’s trauma and her mother and father’s heartbreak is painful to watch, but sometimes a little bit of pain is necessary to clean a wound before stitching it up. There is, however, nothing delicate or responsible about irritating a wound, then calling it a day and waiting for the revenue to come in. This is no longer just a matter of cancelling a beloved show, but a matter of white corporations making a profit off of Indigenous suffering, without giving Indigenous healing. It is a betrayal of responsibility, of trust, and of that sweet word one has to wonder if settlers even know its meaning: reconciliation.

Though reconciliation should be on the minds of all Canadians, it should especially be a priority for people in positions of power. Controlling the media, no matter how big or small a portion, is power, and there is far more to reconciliation than just reminding us all of our peoples trauma. There is no point in addressing trauma if not for the reason of inspiring strength and recovery. If there is no recovery, there is no hope.

Oqwatnuk and Aluk comfort each other while watching the school that Ka’kwet is trapped in.
Ka’kwet gazes out the window of the school, beyond the field where her parents are.

When Ka’kwet and Anne are first properly introduced, Ka’kwet tells Anne the meaning of her name (Starfish). Anne’s response? “Starfish? You must be very resilient.” It is the kind of executed foreshadowing one can expect from the work of Walley-Beckett. What a shame now, that CBC and Netflix have decided that Ka’kwet does not deserve a chance to live up to her name, and that Indigenous viewers do not deserve to see it happen.

An Oversensitive™ biracial lesbian from Mi'kma'ki.

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