-->
Culture

A Very Public Private Affair

Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski
Town Hall
photo by Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

December 2005 will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the fundamental principals of French republican ideology: the separation of Church and State. By way of preamble, and in conjunction with celebrations for the 60th anniversary of its liberation, Paris declared 2004 its "Year of Secularism". But one of France's paradoxes amongst its bourgeoisie seems to be that it is publicly a secular republic, but privately a Catholic state; simply professing the secularism of the Nation-State in no way guarantees religious tolerance. These are ideologically worrying times in France.

Liberté. There are two reasons why I moved here. Firstly, because I was offered a job for life, a seemingly archaic concept in this globalised capitalist world but most definitely a comfortable position to be in. Secondly, because I had always wanted to live in Paris, the city of light. Who hasn't? The architectural reality of Paris is seemingly born from the imagination of postcards. It is bustling with culturally activity; admittedly, much of it is mediocre, but even if you are not much good at what you do you will be given the freedom of a stage somewhere. And you will have an audience. Chances are you will have an audience whatever it is you might be doing, from simply walking down the street to kissing your loved one. And the Parisians do like their public displays of affection.

The ladies of rue St Denis may no longer take a break from plying their nightly trade by eating onion soup at Au Pied de Cochon, but they will happily show you a glimpse of what you are missing out on before returning to their conversation with a local shopkeeper. At times the proximity of the "legitimate traders" and les filles publiques can lead to confusing and embarrassing moments. And though London may have been swinging in the '60s, Paris is still swinging. Quite literally. L'échangisme is still very fashionable among bourgeois couples. And thanks to the PACS (the civil solidarity pact), couples in the whole of France can have their union legally recognised no matter their gender. From libertines to liberté. Up to a point. France's first gay marriage has just been annulled.

The Eiffel Tower, the Sacre-Cœur, the Tour de Montparnasse, Notre-Dame, the Louvre, the quai d'Orsay, Père-Lachaise — hang on a minute this is not a tourist guide. Though Paris undoubtedly retains the timeless quality of a mythic past (most of which was put in place by François Mitterand who, whilst president during the '80s saw Paris as his private court), this only paints a restrictive picture of this place and these times.

Egalité. The 9th December 2005 will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the fundamental principals of French republican ideology: the separation of Church and State. Building up to this, the 20th Arrondissement of Paris, where I currently reside, declared 2004 the "Year of Secularism". On 3rd December 2003, exactly 98 years after the publication of Lenin's Socialism and Religion, in which he argues for the necessity of this separation, Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, joined Michel Charzat, the Socialist mayor of the 20th Arrondissement, for an inauguration ceremony built around the necessity to "re-republicanise" l'esprit français. Standing in front of the town hall of Paris' youngest district, a district traditionally seen as a place of refuge for minority communities, Delanoë said that the Republic was fragile, that it needed to affirm its secularism. Openly echoing Lenin's own words, Delanoë stated that secularism would remain under threat "if religion is allowed to impose its rules on society or if the Republic interferes with the practice of religion". Delanoë went on to add that "Paris is big, Paris is beautiful when Paris is open and does not withdraw into herself".

Ironically, following on from the results of an opinion poll showing that 58 percent of French households owned a copy of the Bible and that only eight percent of the population read the Bible at least once a month, 2003 was declared the year of the Bible in France. Even more palpably ironic for me was to step out of the métro station at place Gambetta during December to see the town hall of the 20th Arrondissement draped in a bleu, blanc, rouge light effect, displaying a sign reading "2004 Année de la Laïcité", whilst also covered in Christmas decorations including a large Santa. One of France's paradoxes amongst its bourgeoisie seems to be that it is publicly a secular republic but privately a Catholic state. Indeed, in this year's Top 50 Favourite French Personalities listing researched by the polling organisation IFOP (Institut Français d'Opinion Publique) for the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, the highest-ranking woman was the 95-year-old nun, Sœur Emmanuelle. (Zinédine Zidane was the highest ranking man, but the footballer only managed to beat the 92-year-old priest, Abbé Pierre, after he withdrew from the competition, having already won it 17 times.)

This publicly secular/privately Catholic paradox may appear to be belied by the Catholic Church's news that there is a shortage of priests in France. The current average age of a Catholic priest in France is 68, and some predictions claim that in eight years' time, half of France's priests will be dead. France now sees African missionaries arriving on its shores to spread the word originally given to them by French missionaries. This reversal of Catholic fortune may be a reflection of the success of the secular State: people rejecting the institution that is the Catholic Church in favour of the Republic. But a somewhat open rejection of the Church by the people does not automatically obliterate the face cachée of institutionalised Catholicism. Most of France's national holidays are not secular, and the specifically Catholic Feast of the Assumption is still a major calendar event during the French summer. And even though all of the Catholic churches in France belong to the State, the Catholic Church rents them out for free: a status that some consider illegal as the law of 1905 prohibits the State from subsidising religion.

Celebrity Catholics aside, however, this is a serious matter. The 2004 solemn celebration of secularism is more of an inquest into how it is lived on a daily basis in this both densely cosmopolitan yet most village-like districts of Paris. Of course, it also takes place in the backdrop of the burning question of the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols. Since the beginning of the year these have been banned in both the workplace and in schools by a law that a few saw as aimed toward all symbols regardless of religion (kippots and crucifixes included), most saw as a ban directed solely at the hijab, or Islamic veil, and some saw as State-endorsed Islamophobia (independent of the French president Jacques Chirac's strong opposition to Gulf War II).

Though these arguments held centre stage in France during the first half of this year, an event that took place on the RER D line of the Parisian suburban train network saw arguments flare up around another very touchy subject of religious intolerance: anti-Semitism. However, this story begins in Chambon-sur-Lignon, a little Protestant village in the Massif Central celebrated for having welcomed and protected those persecuted by the Nazis during World War II. It was here that on the eighth of this month, Jacques Chirac called for a "republican spur" against racial violence, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia. The central part of Chirac's speech took us back to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, marking as it did the beginning of a long struggle "culminating in the integration of religious tolerance in [France's] Declaration of Human Rights". He went on to say that Chambon-sur-Lignon's active attempt to offer a place of refuge for both Jews and Maquisards from 1939-1944, reflected a France in which he believed, "open and welcoming, unified in its diversity, carrying with pride its ideal of justice and peace in Europe and the world". Though Chambon-sur-Lignon may be exemplary in its history of tolerance, the same cannot be said of contemporary France: "Still today, hideous and despicable acts of hatred dirty our country… They attack our Jewish compatriots who have been in our country as far back as we can remember. They attack our Muslim compatriots who have chosen to live and work in our country." Chirac's main message was that once again only secularism can protect the right of us all to practice our religion in safety. If indeed we do practice one.

The point here is not for me to show how this republican call to ideological arms from the right-wing President of France appears to be but a reformulation of Delanoë's idea of re-republicanisation, and thus reflecting a left-leaning homogenous stance from France's main political figures. However worthy of analysis this may be, what seems striking to me is that simply professing the secularism of the Nation-State in no way guarantees religious tolerance amongst the people. Almost 100 years ago Lenin himself realised that State propaganda could not dispel religious prejudice and therefore avoided declaring atheism as a central premise in his Party manifesto. In the first six months of this year, the number of racist and anti-Semitic acts in France had already outstripped those perpetrated during the whole of 2003 and most of these attacks had reportedly been carried out by disaffected Muslim youths.

Fraternité. The day following Chirac's speech something was to happen in Paris that was to send the country into ideological turmoil. That evening I switched on France Info, a national news radio station, to hear about how a young woman and her 13-month-old baby had been attacked on the RER D line by six youths carrying knives; three of them were apparently black, the other three North African. Coming across the young woman's identity card they saw her old address was in the 16th Arrondissement and accused her of being a Jew. The youths cut her clothes and hair to shreds, and with felt tip pens drew three swastikas on her stomach: acts of violence that are extremely symbolic. Before moving on the youths tipped the baby out of his pram onto the ground. The train the young woman was on was a double-decker and though alone downstairs, none of the passengers upstairs came to her help. So much for fraternity. The fact that this happened the day after Chirac's speech left me shocked and somewhat perplexed about the country and city of my adoption. Great Britain, my country of origin, has always appeared to me as overtly conservative but secretly liberal, France could well turn out to be the opposite: a progressive monument built on reactionary sands.

The Jewish community of Paris can be traced back to the first century of our times. In the 6th century it made up 20 percent of l'île de la Cité, the biggest of Paris' two islands. After numerous expulsions, the community starts to really take root in the 19th century and by the turn of the 20th century the Jewish population of the Marais in the 3rd and 4th Arrondissements reached 61 percent. But the ugly head of French anti-Semitism has continued to rear, from the Dreyfus Affair to the Vichy government, from the desecration of Jewish graves to the popularity of Jean-Marie LePen's Front National. As I write, the 20th Arrondissement has one of the biggest Jewish communities of Paris and this may relate back to why the "Year of Secularism" was launched here. And talking of the Vichy regime, let us not forget that there are other celebrations taking place in the city this year. The 25th August marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Paris, a moment that marks the restoration of the revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalite, fraternité, over those of the fascist government of Maréchal Pétain, travail, famille, patrie (work, family, fatherland). Needless to say, this made the attack on the RER D even more poignant.

Three days later and still no witnesses had come forward. The closed circuit cameras proved useless. The media hype was not enough if action was to be taken. Circumstantial evidence would have to turn into hard proof. And that was the problem. As it turns out she is not a Jew. Neither was she attacked. By the 14th July, France's national holiday commemorating the storming of the Bastille (yet another instance full of symbolism but lacking in any tangible political act of defiance, as only seven inmates were currently being held there), Marie, the young woman in question, suffering from the psychological affliction of mythomania, admitted that she had made it all up. Unfortunately, it was too late for the politicians in power, including the Head of State and his Prime Minister, both having jumped on the media bandwagon, too eager perhaps, to show themselves in a good light after their crushing defeat by the Socialists during this year's regional elections.

The truth of the matter is that this act most probably born out of a collective neurosis has in turn fed that collective neurosis. Or perhaps I should say that it has fed a societal neurosis that, in the name of secularism, has historically failed to address belonging to other religious orders than that of the Catholic Church. It's almost like being opaque in the name of transparency. Perhaps the most symptomatic evidence of this was Chirac's linguistic mishap more expected of his nemesis George W. Bush, when he stated earlier this month that "our compatriots the Jews, Muslims or others, even sometimes simply the French, are victims of aggression just because they do not belong to or are not originally from one particular community or another".

Some intellectuals were quick to underline here that Chirac was publicly voicing something that most French people privately believe: that on one side there are French citizens, on the other those who belong to minority groups or religions. Others have seen another perhaps just as obvious dichotomy in the RER D escapade: on one side a supposed Jew and on the other six Muslims. The media bandwagon that began rolling after the alleged aggression was not simply a manifestation of Islamophobia, but it may have allowed Islam to be turned into a scapegoat for all acts of anti-Semitism in France. No matter how many different events are taking place in the capital and around the country commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landing and the liberation of Paris, it now seems absurd to think that someone of Maghrebin origin, no matter how far removed, would borrow Nazi symbolism for such an attack. But this is hindsight. Many seemed quite happy to let themselves be trapped by the ultra-mediasation of the whole event: a reactionary reaction. The opinion-based French press was already drawing false conclusions from its moral inquiry, whilst the police inquiry was still making its way towards discovering the truth.

These are ideologically worrying times in France. Will these events see investigations into apparent acts of anti-Semitism automatically put on the backburner "just in case"? And if so, will this allow what some see as an inherent anti-Semitic undercurrent to develop? We will remember the reported comments of former socialist French ambassador to London, Daniel Bernard, at a party in December 2001, that the troubles in the world were down to "that shitty little country Israel", adding "Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?" Neither himself nor the Parti Socialist in power at the time, gave any formal excuses. When Chirac's right-wing party won the general election in 2003, Bernard became French ambassador to Algiers, a difficult post that could be seen as punitive. Ironic, but punitive. Bernard died in April of this year having received France's highest decoration, the Légion d'Honneur.

The fact that he was a socialist and apparently somewhat anti-Semitic should come as no real surprise, as there appears to be a left-wing reaction in France that is anti-Israel and pro-Palestine. Intellectuals may argue that their position is anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic, but at times we must wonder if one is not used as an excuse for the other. As I walk around the grounds of Paris' universities it is sometimes difficult to avoid the pro-Palestine stands, and the discourses coming from these student groups is often both confused and confusing. But then French students do not need much to go out in the streets and protest. As the French philosopher André Glucksmann pointed out this July, Palestinians and Islamists in general are seen in France today as the new disinherited proletariat and their "cause" has even been embraced by the altermondialists.

Things were not helped by Ariel Sharon's statement on 18th July that French Jews should immediately flee France and its wild anti-Semitism by moving to Israel. He continued by saying that "In France today, about ten percent of the population are Muslims ... that gets a different kind of anti-Semitism, based on anti-Israeli feelings and propaganda." Even the Jews of France see his comments as unhelpful and akin to scare mongering. Is Sharon really saying that all of France's five million Muslims are anti-Semitic? or that French Jews are physically safer from attack if they live in Israel, instead of France? It took Sharon 12 days to apologise for his comments and he did so only when threatened with a refusal of his future state visit to France. However, the number of French Jews moving to Israel is rising and this year the figure is expected to be 25 percent higher than ever before. But when those leaving are asked why, none link it to the increasing number of anti-Semitic attacks. Their reasons for making aliyah (the immigraion, or rather "elevation" to Israel), vary from finding one's roots to studying at an Israeli university to the promise of a job.

So where does all this leave the current ideological make-up of France? The end of July was in fact dominated by the current government's snowballing decentralisation project. France has always been proud of its centralized, nationalised institutions, but things are changing. Decentralisation is something that the Socialists and the working classes are dead against in France but talk of bills, amendments, and laws does not sell newspapers as well as stories of babies being tipped out of their prams. Perhaps we can again hear Lenin's words echoing: "Everywhere the reactionary bourgeoisie has concerned itself . . . with the fomenting of religious strife-in order thereby to divert the attention of the masses from the really important and fundamental economic and political problems" ("Socialism and Religion"). Add to this that between the 15th of July and the 15th of August, Paris and the rest of France were on holiday it was perhaps the ideal time for Parliament to discuss these reforms. Come la rentrée this September and I would not be surprised if we are in for another winter of strikes. But this is something that makes France so vibrant.

Yes it is a controversial place: progressive and reactionary, authoritarian and liberal, archaic and innovative. But this is because from the café philosophique to the market place, one is still given time to debate. In fact one is almost expected to debate. And at times the debating is expressed through demonstrating in the street. This is how the French have managed to preserve many of their social privileges. The trains run on time and they have the best health service in the world. These privileges may not be economically viable in today's world but they do guarantee a high standard of living. And the political tensions that underlie French life are also linked to the fact that France appears so welcoming. It is, after all, at the crossroads of Europe and has the biggest Jewish and Muslim communities of Western Europe. There is no doubt that the ideological tectonics that dominate the French art de la polémique will take a long time before settling into a new landscape. And only time will tell what that new landscape will be.

For the time being, though, it is summer and currently 35°C outside. Come the time for an aperitif, I will go over the road and sit on the terrace of my local French café and have a beer. The café is owned by an Algerian man who once upon a time lived in the Sahara and so he will tell me how he thinks he may be catching a cold. The first time I sat down at his bar, he came over, shook my hand and we discussed my recent move to Paris. When I asked him where he goes on holidays he replied that living in Paris was holiday enough. I know what he means. He enjoys meeting étrangers and he is in luck. France is still the most visited country in the world, welcoming 75 million tourists, and Paris is the most visited city with 16 million. To put that into perspective, the population of Paris is just under 2.2 million. During this year's UEFA European Championship, I went to watch the England-France game in his café. I was with some Irish friends who were, naturally, up for France, as was the café owner. When the final whistle blew confirming yet another French footballing triumph, the owner came over, gave me a pat on the back and offered me free drinks for the rest of the night. Perhaps this was our way of secretly celebrating l'Année de Laïcité; an English protestant with Catholic Irish friends enjoying drinks with a Muslim café owner. And even though England had once again let me down, I was glad to be in this place, during these times.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke


69. Arcade Fire - "Creature Comfort"

This is a big, bold statement of intent from Arcade Fire. There is a clear and admirable desire for the band not to spend too long in the same space and to mine their DNA to reinvigorate themselves. The big synths and angular new wave of early '80s the Cure sound fresh and like nothing the band has done before. Despite the retro stylings, the subject matter is refreshingly current as the group deal with the quest for personal validation from family, friends, and strangers, the anxieties of negative body image and the relentless pursuit of fame at the expense of everything else. The band cleverly offer a metaphorical panacea for all of these ills in the form of "Creature Comfort". Something to numb the pain. This is a song that leaves you anything but anesthetized. - Paul Carr


68. Alt-J - "In Cold Blood"

As far as songs about murders at pool parties go, "In Cold Blood" is actually pretty heady. In true alt-J fashion, it's hard to tell what's a red herring and what's actually relevant to the song, but as with the best songs, it doesn't particularly matter when it's this catchy. The random snippets of binary code, the allusion to C.S. Lewis' Caspian, the extended coda of "La la la"s, these are diversions from the subject at hand, perhaps because the gravity of the matter would make for too heavy a song, perhaps because alt-J delights in being obtuse. Still, with imagery as vivid as "Hair the way the sun really wants it to be" and "Lifeless back slaps the surface of the pool", it is still appropriately shocking, and yet morbidly catchy, particularly once the horns kick in. It makes you feel guilty for enjoying it, which is probably just perfect as far as alt-J is concerned. - Mike Schiller


67. The Mynabirds - "Golden Age"

The transition from 2016 to 2017 needed an elegy, an understated anthem of disillusionment and sorrow, and this is it. With its staid piano melody and Laura Burhenn's velvet vocals, the song taps into the sucker-punch trauma of feeling like social progress's trajectory was a bait-and-switch that made the eventual collapse that more crushing. The lyrics read as a litany of topical grief — the deaths of Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, worsening climate change, rampant police brutality, the severing of family ties amid political lines, and, presciently considering when it was written, the emboldening of American Nazism by Donald Trump's presidential election. Dour stuff, to be sure, yet Burhenn isn't ready to seal the mausoleum. Rather, "Golden Age" is the sound of an ideal beaten but unbroken, its swollen eye still focused on the future. It's a rail against complacency and surrender and offers needed comfort and warmth, while still being goosebumps-inducing in its call to arms. It might be a lofty comparison, but "Golden Age" is a spiritual successor to Lennon's "Imagine" in the current climate. - Cole Waterman


66. Sir Sly - "High"

The premise isn't too groundbreaking: a group of young indie poppers with hip haircuts singing about getting high. What sets Sir Sly's take on getting high apart from many others is how current it is. Sir Sly's "High" nails the mindset of many a millennial as the group sings about "wondering what peace would be like" - drugs as a means of escape from this very specific wave of global turmoil. On top of that, the chorus is mind-blowingly catchy, the beats enticing. This is a social statement you can dance to, an escapist earworm and a party anthem for our times. - Adriane Pontecorvo


65. Taylor Swift - "...Ready For It?"

The essence of pop music is saying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. This is how life works too. We settle into routines and measure our lives by the degree to which those routines shift or are disrupted over time. Most of Taylor Swift's songs are about what happens when you think about romance the way songs and movies tell us to, but she never seems to run out of new ways to frame that experience.

Usually, it's a matter of melodies or words, but sometimes, it's also a matter of sound, of putting her compositions in an environment that's a little unstable. She does this on "...Ready for It?," which is the most sonically mischievous and audacious song she's released. Over a harsh, sneering rhythm track, Swift covers familiar ground--the rush of new love, the relationship between reality and fantasy--but it doesn't feel that way because the song has a few clever ideas it gets just right: a trio of distorted bass notes that begin and repeat throughout the song; and low-pitched, synthetic brass notes that hit during the pre-chorus. Both signal that something is different, that no matter how many times we fall in love, it will always feel new. - Mark Matousek


64. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Cut to the Feeling"

Nobody has cornered the effervescent side of North American pop music quite like Carly Rae Jepsen has in the past couple years. Arriving on the heels of 2015's triumphant Emotion, "Cut to the Feeling" continues that soaring momentum. Not a whit of the song is particularly groundbreaking; instead it is a classic formula executed to perfection, building from tense verses to a chorus that explodes like fireworks. Nolan Lambroza's production is shimmering and radiant, the perfect backdrop for Ms. Jepsen, who conveys the song's feeling of euphoria with her trademark charisma. It's the type of pop music that puts a smile on your face. - Adrien Begrand


63. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile - "Continental Breakfast"

At one point in "Continental Breakfast", Courtney holds up a video of "Kurt and Courtney", the chronicling of the relationship of lead singers Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two of rock's greatest misfits. The synergy between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is less fraught; it's downright amicable. It's not difficult to fall in love with both songwriters as they bounce around their domestic lives, interacting with babies, children, and elders alike, with smiles the whole way through. If you don't find this video endearing, you probably don't have a soul. - Tristan Kneschke


62. Animal Collective - "Kinda Bonkers"

Animal Collective follow up last year's Painting With album with more of the same on new EP The Painters. Like much of their best work, "Kinda Bonkers" is bursting with ideas. Built on tabla percussion, see-saw keyboards and parallel vocals that bounce, ping and collide, the band throw everything they can in to see what cooks. All of these different ingredients are whipped up into a customary, trippy, psychedelic sponge. The whole thing is as irrepressible and energetic as you would expect, but it somehow feels more rounded. More straightforward and undemanding, never feeling like it might collapse under the weight of the hooks and melodies the band has crammed on every tier. - Paul Carr


61. ANOHNI - "Paradise"

ANOHNI's inimitable vocals are like a fixed quantity in her music, ensuring that most anything she sings retains an element of pained, graceful beauty no matter how harrowing or grisly the topic. "Paradise", another collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never following last year's HOPELESSNESS, pushes this principle to its limit. The track is a tortured dirge barely disguised as bass-heavy synthpop, a veil disintegrating at the seams. ANOHNI sings as one caught between global concerns and her own personal, particular pain, lamenting the solipsistic confines of being but a single "point of consciousness". Perhaps the paradise she evokes, a "world without end", is one where the boundaries of the self are dissolved altogether, opening the way for empathy. And yet any clear vision of that utopia is clouded amid the wailing electronics, making it clear that we'll have to contend with our own kaleidoscopes of pain for some time to come. - Andrew Dorsett

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image