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Canadian Negatives Cliches:
..and creating our own fictional stereotypes.


I’ve written about how Canadian film and TV makers -- despite holding themselves up as the stalwart vanguard of Canadian culture and identity -- are often loathe to be too Canadian, often setting their stories in the U.S., or an anonymous Anytown, North America (one former Canadian TV producer explained on his blog that he couldn‘t be expected to set his stuff in Canada because be couldn‘t spend his life making shows about maple syrup harvesters). And even when they do acknowledge their Canadianess, it can be a soft or, equally, a somewhat self-loathing Canadianess.

Yes -- even those who present themselves as cultural champions often take great pride in NOT taking pride in being Canadian. Self-hatred being a bit of a Canadian past time…at least among artists.

Which is something I wanted to look at: the notion of national pride. Now, I’ll admit, one can approach the topic with some trepidation. After all, as much as I might argue pride in one’s country and culture can be a good thing…too much pride can be a bad thing. Once unleashed it can be a bit like the tiger restrained by its tail, leading one to turn a blind eye to domestic problems, or send you down the ugly road of xenophobia and imperialism. Ironically, a lack of overt Canadian pride is precisely something Canadians can be proud of. It’s called modesty.

But it can go too far. As I say, even those who argue they like being Canadian, seem to revel in negativity: Canada is boring, staid, colourless. Sometimes such national nay saying, I suspect, is about personal aggrandizement -- a filmmaker will dismiss his countrymen as staid and boring precisely so he can present himself as something fresh and exciting. He sees it as almost heretical to suggest something of value came before him.

Part of what got me thinking about this topic was a piece a back in January or February (on the CBC radio series, Q) about an American columnist who felt Canada was dull and invited readers to explain to him why Canada shouldn’t be regarded that way. When Q interviewer Jhian Gomeshi offered up the then-recent political turmoil in Ottawa as an example of exciting things happening in the Land God Gave to Cain, the columnist sighed and suggested it still wasn’t as exciting as America’s Congressional debates.

To which one might respond: um…okay…really?

Because, let’s face it, at that time there was nothing particularly exciting happening in the American Congress. But, understandably, to an American, the Congressional shenanigans -- whatever they might have been -- were more relevant to him, and so inherently more interesting, than the unprecedented events in Ottawa in December which had Canadians glued to the manoeuvres and countermanuevers of our elected officials.

In fact, America, by virtue both of being a powerful nation and the dominant purveyor of pop entertainment (at least in the West) doesn’t just define our vision of it…but can also influence other nations view of themselves. One wonders how many cultural stereotypes in other lands were taken to heart only after being popularized in American films and novels. I was thinking about this and the way Canadians are often depicted in American productions. Y’know. Dull, nerdy, often decked out in bowties…irrelevant. This is so common and familiar, even Canadians rarely question it.

In the U.S. political drama, “The West Wing“, this caricature of Canadians (on the few occasions Canadian characters appeared!) was very much in play. This despite the fact that Canadian thinkers on both the right and left, from David Frum to John Kenneth Galbraith, have had an influence on American administrations, and supposedly Kennedy & Pearson, Carter & Trudeau and Reagan & Mulroney all enjoyed more than casual relationships.

But it’s only when you see the gestation of a new cliché that you begin to notice the artifice of it.

A few years back I was watching the U.S. series, “Six Feet Under”, and in one episode a character acquires a Canadian maid…who is portrayed as naive and almost dippily up-beat and cheery. Fine. It was just her character. Except…then, a little later, I read a reference to an episode of the quirky US detective series, ”Life”, in which one character says something along the lines of “You know what Canadians are like…always happy for no reason at all.”

Now, to my memory, the cliché of Canadians had never before included being inexplicably, goofily cheery. Yet here seems to be a tentative effort in Hollywood to make this a new stereotype. It’s not a mean stereotype. But like with clichés of Canadians being dull and boring, the “cheery factor” seems intended to delegitimize Canadians, to make them seem like America’s slow-witted cousin who can be tolerated with benign affection but not taken seriously as an equal, and whose views can be dismissed as Pollyanna and unrealistic when it disagrees with American policies.

And one wonders how long it will be before Canadian journalists and editorialists start parroting the line about Canadians being relentlessly, and idiotically, cheerful? Parroting it because they saw it in an American TV show?

Actually, as a brief digression, I think I’ve realized what may be at the root of this trend in America, where both the left and the right seem eager to dismiss Canada and Canadians. I think it may be because many Americas see themselves as Children of the Revolution (to misappropriate a phrase) -- the American Revolution, that is. It is at the heart of their identity, the “shot heard ‘round the world”, from which all modern democracy is alleged to have sprung. Heck, Hollywood has even produced movies fabricating Nazi-style atrocities on the part of the British just to add greater weight to that long ago struggle, lest we think it was merely about taxes and land speculating. I can imagine many an American history class has challenged the students with the question of what would America be like if there had been no revolution. American science fiction novels have explored that horrific and nightmarish scenario.

Except…we know what would’ve happened. Canada is that “what if…?” scenario, the path untrod. And things didn’t turn out so badly. But to acknowledge that, by American liberals and conservatives both, is to call into question so many American struggles over the years, from the Revolution, to the Civil War, to the civil rights movement. And to suggest that maybe all that blood and suffering wasn’t necessary. So Canada is dismissed as boring, and Canadians as giddy village idiots.

Just a thought.

All this got me thinking about how in defining Canada, and its “sexy” quotient, we basically measure it against the American yard stick, without ever really asking ourselves what are we measuring, or realizing that, to some extent, such criteria is a tautology -- Americans assume they are a great nation and anything they do is great and exciting, therefore, they -- and by extension we -- define great and exciting as anything that matches up with that model.

In so many areas we see this notion, how Canada fails to live up to some established criteria of greatness, or coolness, without anyone stopping to question the criteria itself. Consider militarism. Canada had spent the last few decades devoting its army less to fighting and warring, and more to peace keeping, generally under the eye of the United Nations. Yet we are frequently told -- by Canadian pundits -- that this is a bad thing, that Canada has lost the respect of the global community for this “soft” militarism. Yet they rarely explain what they mean.

We are often told that Canada “came of age” on the battlefields of World War I, that we became a respected nation then because of our military prowess, and that we let weak willed politicians in recent decades fritter away that respect with this mad pursuit of peace (Canadian Lester Pearson received the Nobel Peace Prize -- but, humph!, who cares about Nobel Prizes, eh?) Yet ironically Canadians didn’t really seem to fully embrace a true, unique national identity (complete with snazzy flag) until the 1960s, well into the “peace keeping” era. And how was this earlier global “respect” manifested anyway? Whenever Canadian politicians of the pre-peacekeeping era have tried to claim some global influence (King, Diefenbaker, etc.) those same pundits are quick to ridicule their presumption, assuring us no one took Canada seriously back then. And now that Canada is back in full combat mode, with troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan, how has global perception of Canadians changed? Well…we’re the goofy people who are happy for “no reason” at all.

But we are told it is “cool” to be soldiers and “uncool” to be peacekeepers. And if we question that, if we ask “why”, we are told -- well, just ‘cause, dammit! One wonders if the nations that have benefited from the presence of Canadian (and other U.N.) peacekeepers would regard the troops as uncool, or whether the families of Canadian soldiers who have lost their lives while performing peacekeeping duties would regard it as trivially. In fact conservatives are quick to say anyone who criticizes Canadian military actions is spitting on the memories of the soldiers who died in combat…but they have no trouble spitting on the memories of the soldiers who were killed while peacekeeping.

But we have the yard stick by which we measure these things, and if we don’t measure up, then we are a failure. But…what if we substitute for the yard stick a good ol’ Canadian metre stick? Just as an intellectual experiment, what if we reversed the assumptions, much as debating teams will take a certain position as a given and argue for it?

For example, often a cliché (whether true or not is debateable, but it’s a cliché) of Canadians is that they are a law abiding bunch. This, apparently, is seen as a bad thing -- certainly a colourless attribute, when America defines itself -- and, therefore, cool -- as a nation of rebels and outlaws.

So let’s argue from the opposite assumption. Let’s say being law abiding is actually cool and sexy.

Maybe the fact that Canadians are law abiding is why Canada has legalized same sex marriages with very little fuss -- while America is headed there kicking and screaming, wailing about “activist” judges and drafting Constitutional amendments to stop such unions. Or, going back centuries, why slavery was abolished in Canada without the need of a civil war. Sometimes being law abiding means recognizing that if there’s a law…maybe there’s a reason for it. You could argue that the Canadian character is less one of blind obedience to the law…and more one of measured reflection, and not running off half cocked.

I read an article talking about how some Canadian “conspiracy theory” radio show was being cancelled, and the question was raised as to why Canadians don’t seem as into conspiracy theories as Americans are. The answer offered was familiarly pejorative: Canadians are law abiding sheep, unable to think outside of the message spoon fed them by the authorities. But one could flip it around and say, maybe it’s because Canadians are already more cynical than Americans. Canadians don’t need to embrace wild conspiracy theories as a rebellion against authority…because they never quite had a blind faith in authority to begin with (often those who are the strongest converts to some conspiracy theory, are people who started out fully committed to the established story). For that matter, when talking about radical conspiracy theories, it’s all about which side you’re on that decides which is the unthinking sheep (if you don’t believe in UFOs…the person who does is the gullible adherent to a party line). I once saw some graffiti where one person had painted the words: “Question everything!” to which someone else had added the cheeky response: “Why?”


I think it was Pierre Trudeau who used the phrase: “Reason over passion.” Viewed that way, it almost sounds kind of…cool. Reason over passion…Canada, the nation of rationalists, of thinkers, the Vulcans of North America.

Heck, we often refer to the Canadian Senate as the chamber of “sober second thought”, as if there’s something worthy about thinking things through (the Senate, y’know, that place the Conservative Party and many editorialists are all so hot and bothered to abolish).

Of course I speak of clichés and stereotypes. One could argue Canadians are not in a day-to-day way necessarily exceptionally law abiding. And after eight years of George W. Bush, Patriot Acts, and the Department of Homeland Security, Americans don’t actually seem particularly rebellious.

I’ve often thought one could see a curious separation between the U.S. and Canada in the figures of John F. Kennedy and Pierre Trudeau. Both were products of a 1960s renaissance, a desire to see in leaders something more than just an elected bureaucrat. The Americans even dubbed Kennedy’s reign as Camelot, and in Kennedy they had elected King Arthur. But if the Americans elected safe and dependable Arthur, in contrast Canadians went and elected Merlin (with a touch of Lancelot). The American leader ideal is the All-American war hero…the Canadian leader ideal is the enigmatic Philosopher King.

So what sort of Canadian stereotype, or heroic archetype, could replace the boring, happy for no reason vision given to us by Hollywood?

I mentioned that pundits will point with chest beating pride at Canada’s military accomplishments, how the country “came of age” during World War I. Often the battle that is seen as most seminal is the taking of Vimy Ridge, a particularly bloody, gruelling ordeal. If we were to draw (or construe) a national identity from it, one could see in it an interesting national character. Because Vimy Ridge was militarily of very little importance. It was significant only because Canadians accomplished what the other allies hadn’t. And they didn’t take the ridge because they were better armed than the Germans (or the Allies who had tried before), nor more skilled, nor were they smarter or more cunning. They took it, in essence, because…they…just…kept…coming. Like The Terminator. If one were to extrapolate a national cliché from that battle, it’s not that Canadian are, were, or should be, great warriors, it’s that when the need arises, Canadians just get down to work with a single minded tenacity. Which, when you think of it, is very much at the core of how we would define a hero in our pop culture -- the character who steadfastly pursues a goal, despite obstacles, despite personal suffering, despite a lack of personal aggrandizement, because it needs doing. Is that really a reflection of all Canadians? Well, no. But if Americans can cherry pick through their history a few rebel lone wolfs and claim that as the template for their identity, and their heroes, perhaps Canadians can look to their own history and do the same.

In fact, long before Vimy Ridge, the stereotype of the Mountie was very much of that mould, built on real life stories of stalwart guys in red serge trekking alone through blizzard and storm for months in their pursuit of justice. Not quick with a gun in a glamorous high noon shoot out, ala Hollywood heroes. But tenacious. Unstoppable. (A cliché resurrected, albeit with tongue-in-cheek, for TV’s “Due South“).

One could argue Canada’s first real TV hero was pressed from that mould: TV coroner Steve Wojeck who was a bull doggedly determined force of nature.

There are other aspects to the Canadian cliché that can be adopted as heroic archetypes, such as the compassionate hero. TV’s “Flashpoint” might well be an example (as I delve into in greater detail here).

Let’s move on to the most often cited contrast between Canada and the U.S., the phraseology that many Canadian cultural commentators will cite as a demonstration of Canada’s cultural tepidness compared to American vitality. The U.S. Constitution, dedicated to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” and the Canadian equivalent “Peace, Order and Good Government”. The former is seen as a stirring declaration of profound principals, the latter…well, a kind of colourless legalese.

So, again, let’s get behind our debating team podiums and re-consider that.

One could argue “Peace, Order and Good Government” is a profound declaration, while “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is a politician’s phrase that sounds nice but says nothing. Break it down for a minute.

“Life”? As opposed to what? Death? Can’t imagine too many cultures that would argue with Life as a guiding principal. “Liberty” -- well, sounds nice but means what? Even tyrannical and oppressive regimes would tell you they offer liberty…for those who obey the rules. But that’s true of even democratic societies. Liberty always carries a certain limitation (heck, the U.S. apparently imprisons more of its population, per capita, than any other nation on earth). And this vow of Liberty was made at a time when slavery still flourished and women were not the legal equal to men. So that leaves “Pursuit of Happiness”. Again…which means what? It’s not promising happiness or even offering it. It’s merely saying, “hey, if you want to pursue happiness, good luck with that…send me a post card if ya find it, boyo.”

While what about Peace, Order and Good Government? What’s the opposite of “Peace“? War? Strife? Conflict? Can’t have much Life, Liberty and Happiness if you’re caught up in a lot of strife and conflict. “Order”? The opposite of that is, what, chaos? Anarchy? Mad Max running around the wasteland? Again, not exactly conducive to the old L, L &H. And “Good Government”? Now there’s an interesting one. While the American phrase offers vague platitudes, the Canadian one offers a method, or at least principals, by which those platitudes can be achieved. And while the American phrase is airy and devoid of any onus, you could argue the writers of the Canadian one offered a certain accountability, saying the politicians and law makers themselves had a certain standard to which they must hold themselves (something that the current crop of politicians in Ottawa seem to have forgotten), a responsibility. Good Government.

Of course, I’m debating semantics. I know that, you know that. But I’m just making a point.

One phrase Canadians have latched onto and embraced, again courtesy of Trudeau, is the “Just Society”. What’s interesting is that Trudeau was probably ripping off American President Lyndon Johnson who spoke of the “Great Society”. And though the two phrases, no doubt, were meant to signify similar ideals and principals, there is a beauty, a poetry, to the “Just Society” that Lyndon’s phrase lacks. There’s just a hint of fascism to the “Great Society”, a sense of something that, if unchecked, can threaten to crush individuals, not nurture them; in it we can hear the clang of arms and the rumble of bulldozers. It leaves a slightly bitter after taste.

But the “Just Society” -- man, that plays off the tongue like honey.

And that’s Canada, baby.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

October 2, 2009

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