October 18, 2004 at 11 AM
Now 33% More Canadian
There is a disease which afflicts the Canadian mass media.
The main symptom of this disease, which I will call Canadianesquity, is marked by the afflicted’s persistence in assuming that all moderately famous people who have ties to Canada must ipso facto be Canadian.
Read newspapers and watch television and evidence of this abounds. Celebrities like Michael J. Fox and William Shatner, whose careers were built upon decades of work in Hollywood, California, are always referred to with “Canadian” as a prefix, as if we, the audience, might forget without the adjective. Peter Jennings, who joined the American Broadcasting Company in 1964, is Canadian as maple syrup since he was born and raised in Toronto.
This sort of thing is to be expected, perhaps, from a nation which constantly worries about how and why one might be Canadian, as opposed to American. And many of these celebrities might well cling to their Canadian roots anyhow, especially if it means they get monuments named in their honour.
Where the disease begins to show its ugly effects is when people who have only the most tenuous connection with the country are still considered Canadian. My current favourite is architectural giant Frank Gehry. As near as I can tell, Gehry, who was born in Toronto, has barely stepped foot in Canada since the 1940s. Read any “neutral” biography of Gehry and you will find him referred to as an “American architect” — a fair assessment since he both studied and made his career in the USA. Read a Canadian assessment of his career and it sounds like Gehry might have played hockey for the Maple Leafs before embarking on a career as the most accomplished Canadian architect.
I thought that this disease, which has irked me for some time, was largely limited to the media, but it is now clear that it is contagious and has spread to “the masses” who digest media.
The evidence is CBC’s The Greatest Canadian, a TV show devoted to making us feel better about just how gosh darned great we Canadians are. The top ten, as voted by the public, include the usual Canadian suspects — Gretzky, Trudeau, Terry Fox, David Suzuki (and sadly, also Don Cherry) — but there is one name that should raise any Scot’s eyebrow: Alexander Graham Bell.
It is true that Bell spent much of his life in Canada, and CBC timidly explains that his greatest invention was “inspired” by his time at his family’s estate in Brantford, Ontario. But let’s be frank. Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He wasn’t raised in Canada. He didn’t study in Canada. And while he did dream up some nifty things while living in Nova Scotia, his most notable invention, the telephone, occurred in Boston. The Bell Telephone Company that he founded was an American company.
It’s a pretty sad comment that one of the supposedly top ten Canadians of all time basically just vacationed here.
Some might call me an unpatriotic curmudgeon for being so upset by a behaviour so seemingly innocent. I would argue, however, that we reduce the very meaning of the word “Canadian” to near nil by making it so ridiculously easy for someone to qualify as one. We’ll take whoever we can get is the prevailing message, a sort of desperate plea to seem important. Potential celebrities, take note! If you merely sneeze in Moose Jaw before becoming famous, you can coast on the benefits of being “Canadian” for the rest of eternity.
Canada has plenty of people who have achieved great things, but too often Canadians are guilty of ignoring people until the rest of the world notices. We love our Canadian actors, but only after they’ve become famous in Hollywood. We love our talented storytellers, but only after they win the British Booker prize. It’s time we looked more closely at the talented people who actually live and work here and figured out what some actual Canadians are doing to improve Canada.