Frontier: As Intersectional as Feminism Can Be in the 1770s

Netflix and Discovery series Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. How does Frontier treat women’s history in a time where their social roles were especially limited?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about character development and thematic events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

Last week we discussed how Netflix and Discovery series Frontier interprets the history of the fur trade in Canada during the late 18th century. Since it’s International Women’s Day, I’m back with Part II of the Frontier series, this time to talk about women’s roles in the show.

As you probably know if you’re into history or women’s studies (or if you’re aware of women’s rights movements such as intersectional feminism), women’s social roles were extremely restricted. Women couldn’t usually hold property and were usually made to marry to secure their future. With Indigenous women in North America, things were a bit different – certain Indigenous communities are matrilineal, meaning that women hold leadership positions rather than men. Indigenous groups still had/have gender-specific roles, but colonization marked a grim turn for women. Indigenous women were in many cases sold or “offered” to settlers as “country wives”, many being forced into non-consensual marriages.

Sokanon (Jessica Matten) dedicates her time to helping other women fight the effects of colonialism, such as forced marriages. The show tacitly parallels today’s ongoing issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Photo: Hypable

So with these often traumatic complexities in mind, how does Frontier interpret women’s history? With a great degree of respect and nuance, I’m happy to say.

Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder) poses as a man to survive on her own. Photo: TVMaze

Frontier explores new world realities for women in the 1770s without disempowering them. Characters with no income such as Clenna Dolan (Lyla Porter-Follows) and Chaulk (Kathryn Wilder) must adapt to survive, latching onto benefactors who prove to be manipulative; but they both demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness. I won’t drop a big spoiler, but there is one particular character whom I was indignant to see killed off before all her potential had been exercised. Yet for the most part in Frontier, we’re shown so many unique women with examples of strength and vulnerability (which are not mutually exclusive traits, I might add).

Prolific Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal plays Kamenna, chief of the Cree Lake Walkers who are integral trade partners to some of the fur traders. Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) runs her own company after the death of her husband, and she is a shrewd and calculating businesswoman. Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) steers the Brown Bros.’ company better than they do.

Clockwise from left: Kamenna (Tantoo Cardinal), Josephette (Karen LeBlanc), Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath), Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle).

Likewise, Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle) owns a Fort James tavern and uses intelligence as a form of power; she also literally wears the pants. I admit I underestimated her barmaid, Mary (Breanne Hill), thinking she’d be vapid as is often the case, but she proves to be fierce as heck, going so far as to attack and kill rapists who try to sexually assault women and girls in the tavern. Sokanon (Jessica Matten) also goes on a personal quest to save Indigenous women from being forcibly married off, and she and Mary join ranks (sisterhood!) to achieve their honourable cause.

Mary (Breanne Hill) and Sokanon (Matten) fight to escape a Christian convent preparing North American women, many of them Indigenous, to marry European settlers. Photo: FatherSonHolyGore

Some viewers might say “how are these roles accurate?” but if you honestly believe that women have taken centuries of oppression lying down and didn’t fight back, you’re mistaken. Frontier could go even further to establish their female characters’ nuanced experiences, but to the show’s credit it portrays women’s entrepreneurial talent, compassion, integrity, and ambition.

I said this last week and I’ll say it again – Frontier is by no means perfect. Nor is any interpretation of history, when you think about it, but the bigger question to consider is: does it treat the subject matter responsibly? As a woman who loves history, I feel that Frontier does.

Frontier: Harping on about Canadian History

Starring Jason Momoa, Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. From a historical and ethical perspective, how does Frontier’s cultural authenticity stack up?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s often said that there are two sides to a story.

But that’s not true: there are many sides to a story, and Frontier proves it’s possible (though difficult) to tell them.

I’ve been waiting to write about Frontier since before The Mindful Rambler was founded. Anyone who knows me knows I have an enduring love for early Canadian history … and in 2016, Discovery Channel and Netflix miraculously created a television show about it! This is Part I of your Frontier article series.

Set in the late 18th century in what is now Canada, Frontier centres on locations such as Hudson Bay, James Bay, Montréal, Fort James, and the wilderness. Indigenous peoples have lived on the land since time immemorial, long before European settlers arrived – a fact which is starkly portrayed in the series. The show stars Jason Momoa (also Executive Producer) as Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish trader who, for deeply personal reasons, seeks to destroy the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)’s oppressive monopoly on the fur trade.

Jason Momoa plays Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish fur trader on a mission to topple the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly. Photo: ScreenerTV

There’s a plethora of “New World” films/shows out there, many of which are inevitably framed from the perspective of newly arrived colonial settlers. But it’s not inevitable to tell the story that way. Frontier is an example of what happens when you incorporate multiple perspectives and, crucially, spend time on authenticity. Though its storytelling and pacing is less than perfect, Frontier‘s diversity and inclusion is noteworthy and fairly well-done.

Indigenous and pluralistic representation

Today, Canada is populated by diverse cultural and linguistic groups, which was also the case during the 1770s. Frontier showrunners Brad Peyton, Rob Blackie, and Peter Blackie take care not to fall into the trap of depicting Indigenous peoples as one and the same – throughout its three seasons, we’ve seen Cree, Haudenosaunee, Métis, Inuit, and more nations – acknowledging that they do not comprise just one singular culture or identity.

Whenever I talk about Frontier and Jason Momoa playing an Indigenous man, people often ask “but isn’t he Hawaiian?”

“Yes, Momoa is part Native Hawaiian, but he’s also part Native American on his mother’s side,” I say. You’d be surprised how skeptically people react to that answer. There’s a definite issue with saying someone is not “_________ enough” to identify with their heritage (I know from experience, as a mixed individual). To say that anyone who is part First Nations, part Inuit, etc. isn’t “Indigenous enough” is akin to telling a mixed English/Scottish Canadian that they aren’t allowed to identify as Scottish. People who are part Indigenous are Indigenous and have a right to their culture.

Momoa is heavily invested in sharing the experiences of Indigenous peoples in North America. Though working in London at the time, he was vocal during the #NoDAPL protest in North Dakota in 2016; he also starred in Road to Paloma (2014), which exposes the systematic dangers to Indigenous women in the United States. And now, on Frontier, he’s helping portray Canadian history from an Indigenous vantage point. Momoa’s Instagram posts demonstrate how he advocates for Canadian history as I’ve never seen in another American. Momoa’s work in Frontier contributes to the preservation of Canadian history from multiple perspectives.

Frontier also emphasizes linguistic diversity. Métis/Saulteaux-Cree actress Jessica Matten, who plays Harp’s sister-in-law Sokanon, learned two specific Indigenous languages for the show:

I’m mainly speaking Swampy Cree and also Ojibway to reflect Sokanon’s eclectic upbringing, born an Ojibway woman but raised amongst Métis, Cree, Scottish, French people on Turtle Island [North America]

Jessica Matten, Instagram post

Matten also provided creative direction in depicting the sale of Indigenous women to white settlers (as “country wives”).  The portrayal of these realities mirrors today’s issues with missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Brother- and sister-in-law Harp (Momoa) and Sokanon (Jessica Matten). Photo: Edmonton Journal

In early North America, intermarriage also occurred and is portrayed in Frontier, another nod to authentic representation. Irish settler O’Reilly’s wife is Haudenosaunee (married under frankly sinister circumstances), and Sokanon and Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron)’s budding yet troubled romance reflects the effects of the influx of fur traders on traditional lands. Nevertheless, Indigenous women – and almost all the women on the show – are depicted not as helpless victims but as clever and resourceful fighters. Frontier doesn’t shy away from the HBC’s violent behaviour that caused lasting trauma and grief for Indigenous peoples either, as depicted in the opening of season three, when the HBC is shown raiding and assaulting a Métis village.

Even amidst the fur trading companies, pluralism is the name of the game. There’s Declan Harp’s Métis-fronted Black Wolf Company, working directly against the HBC. The Scottish Brown brothers (Allan Hawco, also Executive Producer, and Michael Patric) rival Carruthers & Co., managed formidably by Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) after her husband’s death. Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle) and Cobbs Pond (Greg Bryk) are Americans established in Montreal, and Michael Smyth, an impoverished Irish stowaway, joins Harp’s company. Englishman Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong), a fictitious governor of the HBC, is merciless and is given no leeway – on Frontier, the HBC is held accountable for its historical misdeeds.

Irish trader Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), Harp’s protegée, with Sokanon (Matten). Photo: Rotten Tomatoes

The show flounders in its portrayal of Black loyalists in Canada, however. Charleston (Demetrius Grosse) flees from enslavement in the United States and falls in with Harp, but he is (SPOILER ALERT) the first to die in an overseas voyage – a typical trope in Hollywood movies (Black Dude Dies First trope). The two Black characters only play supporting roles; Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) is a close associate of Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) but eventually takes on the bulk of the company management when Elizabeth’s new husband Douglas Brown (Allan Hawco) drives it into the ground. If Josephette were given a larger role, her character could thrive in the limelight. 

A new Frontier for Canadian history

While Frontier is undeniably flawed, both in a storytelling/pacing sense and an accuracy sense, I think its merits outweigh its detractors. It illustrates (and popularizes) a long-distant era of Canadian history and emphasizes the facets of the fur trade economy. Most importantly, without glorifying colonialism, it depicts the conflicting interests of the different individuals and groups trying to live off the land – and in some cases, exploit it. It features Indigenous languages, celebrates women’s autonomy*, and inspires awe – there was a lot going on in the Hudson’s Bay region.

Warts and all, Frontier proves that Canadian history is by no means boring.

This article is part of a larger series discussing storytelling in the television show Frontier. As a mainstream adaptation of early Canadian history available worldwide, Frontier examines the pluralistic past and colonial legacies that still shape Canada today. Read the rest of the series here.

*Stay tuned for next week’s post!