It was during a trip to North Bay, her first in Northern Ontario, that Camille Turner developed the idea for Miss Canadiana, a performance piece which challenges people’s concepts of what it means to be a Canadian.
"I was walking through a mall in North Bay and everybody was staring at me,” says the Toronto-based performance artist. “Everything just seemed like it was in slow motion.”
Moving to Canada from Jamaica when she was nine-years-old, Turner says this was not the first time she has felt like an outsider in her own country. “I felt like saying ‘go back about your business, there is no reason to be alarmed here. I am human, just like you,’” she says, laughing about the dozen or so eyes which she remembers following her around the mall.
“It was at that moment I was struck by the irony of the ‘multicultural’ society that Canadians are so proud of struck me. I realized that no matter how long I live in this country, I will always be a foreigner.”
It was a little while after her experience in North Bay that Turner first put on the sash proclaiming herself as Miss Canadiana in an attempt to get people thinking of what it means to be a Canadian, race, identity and the concept of home.
“It happened in a flash at the mall, it was not something which evolved on a gradual basis,” says Turner, snapping her fingers. “It wasn’t like a just got the basic idea, I saw the whole thing in my head, it was all planned out; the tiara, the dress, the sash.”
Since first sashaying across the stage over two years ago at Canada Day festivities in Ottawa, Miss Canadiana has gone on royal tours of Toronto’s Chinatown, Little India and the gay village.
She has also performed the piece in Trafalgar Square in London, in Germany and Senegal.
During a visit to Regina, the RCMP asked her to join them on stage during a graduation ceremony. She was also invited onstage during Canada Day celebrations in other cities.
While the last Miss Canada was crowned in 1992 (there is still the Miss Canada International Pageant, which began in 1993 and sends title holders to international events), Turner says many people assume she is the current and legitimate crown holder.
"If people ask me 'is this for real?' I tell them, but they generally don't ask," she explains. "I find it interesting how some people don't question it.”
During a recent talk about her work, Turner, dressed in one of her usually red and white patriotic outfits, showed videos capturing her visits and the reaction of the crowds to Miss Canadiana. Handing out maple-flavoured candy shaped like maple leafs and Canadian pins, people ask to have there picture taken with her.
“I was kicked out of Trafalgar Square for filming there,” she says. “It’s strange, because everybody films there. I think it was just because we had attracted a whole bunch of people who wanted to have their picture taken with me, it was quite a crowd.”
Performance carries a message
Moving to Sarnia with her family when she was nine, Turner explains she was one of three black kids at her school and her teachers tried to prepare her for school by teaching her the old rhyme “stick and stones.”
“My first day on the playground, a big blonde boy laughed at me and said ‘what happened to you, been out in the sun too long?’ I heard comments like that every day of my life,” she says during her artists talk.
While not feeling like she belongs or is at home in Canada, Turner says she had the same feeling when she returned to Jamaica for a visit when she was in her 20s. “What a shock,” she tells the crowd listening to her speak.
“Everything I remembered through the eyes of a nine-year-old child had changed or disappeared. I had changed too. I didn't fit in anymore and people there related to me as a Canadian not a Jamaican. I have become a foreigner. I have been searching for home ever since.”
While her Miss Canadiana persona has the bubbly personality and gracious movements of a beauty queen, Turner said in reality she is more reserved and cynical than her counterpart.
“She does things I would never do, she doesn’t think twice about walking into a crowd and meeting people. As soon as the crown goes on it’s like she takes over.”
Touring the world as an “all Canadian girl,” Turner says her work explores the racial stereotypes experienced by African-Canadians, while ironically commentating on what it means to be a Canadian and the idea of home.
In Dakar, Senegal, she was told by a white French woman that “when you are Miss Canadiana, I don't even notice you're black,” while an artist from South America she met in Germany said “oh, you're playing a white girl.”
“People ask me how I can reconcile what happened to me to my experiences as Miss Canadiana, and I don’t think I can. That is why I say it opens up more questions than I get answers.”
Turner is taking Miss Canadiana to Mexico in June and will be doing a cross-Canada tour of small towns this summer before she returns home to Toronto. Turner says she would like to do the performance piece in North Bay and is curious to see what it would be like.
“I want to go through small towns, I haven’t taking it to small towns yet,” she says. “North Bay would be an interesting place to go back because that is where it all started. If I was invited back I definitely would go.”
Originally from the North Bay area, Dean Lisk is a freelance journalist based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Camille Turner.