Mostly because I haven’t owned a television in years, it’s taken me this long to get around to watching Corner Gas. I grew up in southern Saskatchewan. That alone should have made me an instant fan of the idyllic, nothing-happens-but-life comedy set in small-town Dog River (Rouleau) SK. It’s only now, holed up for the pandemic in a rental place in England with a flat-screen TV and a subscription to Amazon Prime, that we’re watching the six seasons of the CTV hit that first aired in 2004, produced by and starring Brent Butt.
There are no spoiler alerts in what I’m about to say. I haven’t seen the whole series yet, so I might be surprised by what’s to come. But so far, I love the show. It’s fun – and funny. It’s also tweaking my academic side. As a non-Indigenous person and a Canadian, I’m watching Corner Gas while at the same time working on several academic articles and peer reviews about decolonizing settler attitudes. I can’t help paying special attention to two characters in the show, Sergeant Davis Quinton, played by Lorne Cardinal, an award-winning Nêhiyaw (Cree) actor, and Paul Kinistino, owner of the Dog River Hotel and Bar. The latter was played first by playwright and actor Mark Dieter of Peepeekisis First Nation, and later replaced by the character of Phil Kinistino (played by Erroll Kinistino of Ochapowace First Nation). The last few episodes I’ve seen have been especially fun for the nuance and playfulness Cardinal is bringing to the character of Davis, who is becoming one of my series favourites.
In an article in the Anishinabek News, Keith Corbiere describes how as an Indigenous viewer the character of Sergeant Davis Quinton offered him a role-model different from the Hollywood trope of the stoic, silent “screen Indian.” From my non-Indigenous perspective I can add that Davis equally subverts the “strong silent cop” trope I grew up with as the son of a one-time small-town police officer in Swift Current, just down the highway from Rouleau. As an academic, I’m intrigued by the choice made by Butt to cast the roles of Dog River’s police officer and hotel/tavern owner with Indigenous actors. Perhaps this was accidental, but I doubt it. It strikes me as subversive, and positive. As Butt would also have experienced, in the small prairie towns in which I grew up both those roles were more often in conflict with Indigenous persons than embodied by them.
So far at least, Corner Gas never mentions the Indigeneity of two of its major characters, and occasionally of extras in the crowd scenes. It seems intent on a “normalization” of Indigenous presence in the fictional Dog River. As Cardinal said in an interview in 2004 in Windspeaker: “you don’t hear the flute or the eagle scream when I come onto the screen.” In a novel I’m putting the finishing touches on, I try in a similar way to incorporate the Wəlastəkwewiyik (or Maliseet) peoples of the St-Lawrence without focusing on them, normalizing the positive interactions between non-Indigenous characters and the Maliseet, and so tacitly recognizing Indigenous resurgence and presence.
In a quick library search and again on Google I found almost no reference to Corner Gas in relation to Indigenous issues. It would be interesting to know whether Indigenous actors, directors, and producers feel the historic sitcom’s portrayal of active Indigenous presence in southern Saskatchewan/Treaty Four territory is a positive step in decolonizing our Canadian attitudes, or a utopian portrayal of harmony that is ultimately troublesome to real-life 21st-century concerns…especially when Indigenous groups were “cleared” from those plains by Canadian government action in the 1870s. I imagine Lorne Cardinal has some thoughts on that. In the meantime, during this Covid-19 outbreak and in a time of social-distancing, I’m enjoying being a late-comer to Corner Gas’s fan-base.