Canada’s New Nationalism: Part One of Two

The "Golden Goal" shrine at Rogers Arena

Back in late 2010, I proposed that with the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics, we were about to see a new “Canadian identity”. The issue of Canadian identity is one that has plagued journalists and writers for years. Some proposed that our identity was as a multicultural country; others proposed that our identity was simply not being American. Still others proposed that our identity was not having an identity. I figured to some extent that these things were true, and that with the Olympics we might have forged a Canadian identity.

I based this beginning on Molson’s “Joe Canadian” commercials, first released back in 2000.

The commercial begins with an “average” Canadian taking the stage. He politely says “hey” into the microphone and begins. He starts by explaining things he doesn’t do. He’s “not a lumberjack or a fur-trader” and he doesn’t “live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dogsled.” So far so good.

He then begins explaining the difference between himself and (presumably) Joe American: Joe Canadian has “a Prime Minister, not a President”. He speaks “English and French, not American”, and he pronounces it “about, not a boot” (this, admittedly, isn’t differentiation so much as it is dispelling myths as above), and he can “proudly sew [his] nation’s flag on [his] backpack”, unlike, presumably an American (this ties in with the presumably true myth that Americans sew flags onto their backpacks; see this for a great explanation and more Canadian “I’m not American” ranting). Joe believes in “peace-keeping, not policing, diversity, not assimilation” (unlike Americans), and that “the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal” (a joke), and that “it is pronounced ‘zed’, not ‘zee'” (though “zed-zed Top” would sound stupid). Joe goes on to claim that Canada is the world’s second largest landmass (true), the first nation in hockey (again, true, but an all-too obvious jab at America), and the best part of North America — another jab at the USA.

Growing up in Canada, this is largely what we were taught and in fact this what we were taught about America: that they’re a bunch of crude brutes who sew maple leaves  on their backpacks, say “huh” instead of “eh”, believe in a “cultural melting pot” instead of a “cultural mosaic” (which is a claim Canada and Canadians hold on to dearly), and that we keep the peace while the US fights wars. I would go as far as to say that Canadians are taught from an early age to hate America and hate Americans. We’re taught that we’re better because of our “free” healthcare, our welfare system, our governance, our oft-touted peacekeeping force (though that image has declined in a number of years, partially due to “President” Stephen Harper), and our liberal social laws, which includes a lack of police and jails. While the argument can easily be made that there isn’t much difference between Americans and Canadians, that’s a discussion for another time. The point is that the identity Canada perceived for itself was its unAmericanness. I think that part of what solidified this view, at least for my generation, was the film Bowling for Columbine. In case you don’t remember, it is a rant by Michael Moore that essentially fellates Canada. It’s hard not to think you’re the best thing on the planet and America is the worst when an Academy Award winning documentary is telling you so.

Tim Hortons, another oft-celebrated “Canadian” company, has too released a number of commercials claiming to define what it is to be Canadian. In late ’09, they released “In his own words”, a message from Sidney Crosby telling us what it is to be Canadian:

“Hockey is our game.  But really, it’s much more than just a game. It’s a passion that brings us closer together on frozen ponds, at the community rink, and in our living rooms. It’s the feeling you got the first time you stepped on the ice, the feeling you had when you scored your first goal. Hockey is in our driveways, it’s in our dreams, in every post-game celebration. It’s in the streets every time your friend yells ‘car’, in every rink across the country. It’s in our hearts. Hockey is that thought inside your head saying ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing, getting up everyday…’ ‘and playing, doing something that you love to do?’”

Hockey, for Sid the Kid, is the Canadian identity. And, to some extent, I think it is the identity I myself happen to accept as being “my” identity the most. Hockey, even though it is played world wide, is just that Canadian sport. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong, but this conflicts with a commercial released, again by Tim Hortons, in February of 2010.

Called “A Coffee All Our Own”, it begins with a black man speaking into a foreign (not in English or in French, of course). He tells whoever it is that he’ll see them tomorrow. He shows up to the airport, and orders a pair of Tim Hortons’s coffees. He greets his family with tears and hands his wife the coffee, saying “welcome to Canada”. She notices the bundles he has and asks him “what is all this?” His enigmatic response is “you’ll see”. They bundle up and head into the snow outside — “welcome home”, he says, ending the commercial. Two things are especially notable here:

1) the man is meant to defy our expectations of what a Canadian is.

Judging from his accent and the fact his family lives overseas, he is clearly a recent immigrant. But the implied notion is that he is just as Canadian as someone who is born here.

2) the coffee.

He hands his wife the coffee before handing her the clothes. He says “welcome to Canada” as he does so. We can take this to mean that having Tim Hortons coffee is tantamount to being Canadian (anecdote: the very first thing I bought after returning to Canada from two months overseas was a Tim Hortons coffee). In the “welcome to Canada” greeting ritual, having a Tim’s coffee is pretty much essential.

So from this video, we can ascertain at least two different things: anyone can be a Canadian, and Tim Hortons coffee, just like hockey, is part — maybe the very core — of being Canadian.

These commercials were all followed by the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Hockey has always been a very divisive issue in America and in Canada. I’m not precisely sure how it is in the US, but when the Stanley Cup comes down to an American team and a Canadian team, it instantly becomes a note of national pride. Most Vancouver Canucks fans, I think, would agree that Calgary is a shithole. But if it came down to a match between Calgary and some other American team, a lot of fans in Vancouver would back Calgary. When it came down to the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins last year (even before, actually), Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a photo-stop down in Richmond, British Columbia, to buy a Canucks jersey for his son. He proudly proclaimed that, with the Montreal Canadiens out of the way, “as a Canadian, I’m now all the way behind the Canucks” (this was on May 2, 2011, the same day his government won a majority in the federal election, don’t-ya-know).

Most of the time, the Canada vs. US match just seems to be a really bad case of envy: America is(/was?) seen as an economic and militaristic superpower. Canada is always the mouse sleeping beside the elephant; we’re America’s hat and America’s younger brother. Every chance that a Canadian has to one-up an American is one they take, really.

So of course, the absolute highlight of the 2010 Olympic Games was the gold medal match between Canada and the US.  Nearly half of the population of Canada watched the entire Gold Medal match, while more than 80% of the population watched at least some part of the match. It was huge.  It was the most watched broadcast in Canadian history and the most watched hockey broadcast in the US since 1980 (the match that year being the Miracle on Ice when America took out its Cold War frustrations by beating the Russians in hockey — in the same way that political, economic, and military envy is fought by Canadians on the ice, so to were they fought by the Americans in 1980; anyone who tells you that the Miracle on Ice or that the 2010 Gold Medal game was “just another hockey game” is a moron). And, significantly, Canada won.

If you weren’t there, this video should give you an indication of how insane Canada went. There were spontaneous celebrations across the country. I was in the downtown core at a restaurant watching the game when it happened. When it did, everyone in the room jumped up. The room itself was a cultural mosaic but everyone in the room jumped, cheered, hugged, high-fived. It was insane. The streets were packed. I went outside and spent an hour or two high-fiving folks and shaking hands. It was unbelievable. And these celebrations lasted very late into the night (I remember a story saying that police shut down a street hockey match at approximately 03:00 that night). For a Canadian, it was the perfect end to the Olympics. A 3-2, nailbiter win, scored by one of hockey’s youngest and most talented players, Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguin hating aside, he’s pretty good). It couldn’t have been written any better.

This outpouring of nationalism is something foreign to Canada. We very rarely get that amped up in our nationalism. Sure, we wear flags on our bags when we head across the pond, but that’s about it. I discussed this with several classmates the next day and many were shocked at the outpouring of pride. Many claimed it was disgusting and that it felt so “American” (American hating continues).

Stephen Brunt, a writer for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, claimed halfway through the Olympics that “something remarkable was taking place”:

“It was as though an entire country was given permission to feel something it needed to feel. And it was the country that set the tone for the games, and not the other way around… [and] it wasn’t quite the script we were expecting. The story was supposed to be all about winning… about putting a new swagger in our step. [It] turns out the swagger was already there, it was just waiting for the right stage. The number of medals didn’t really matter… we didn’t really need to own anything. What mattered was the occasion, what mattered was the event, what mattered was the excuse to wave the flag and sing the anthem and shout it out loud. Cynicism is easy, so is retreating into historic grudges… so is believing it doesn’t really matter what you call yourself, or where you live. It does matter, or at least it can. It is important to have a shared history. And admit it; it feels good… to let your heart show.”

While Brunt does get caught up in himself, he captures what the Olympics were: it was a chance for Canadians to brag about being Canadian and for people to actually listen because the camera was on us for those two weeks. It’s weird, I think, because I don’t think you need to tell the average American that it’s ok to be proud of being American; to wear flags and jerseys and patches and cheer the very fact that you were born or raised or that you lived in the US. Canada needed it, though.

This, I proposed, was the beginning of what I termed to be Canada’s “new nationalism”. It was a step forward — where, I wasn’t sure, but it was forward. It was a move decidedly away from the tired old “we’re not American” bullshit that had enveloped us. For awhile, I thought that it would stick. Canada’s Brian Williams and Stephen Harper both suggested that the “patriotism was always there” and that the games provided an opportunity for Canadians to show it. Williams hoped that that would be the legacy of the games. I was more optimistic: I hoped that we would maybe become a nation never afraid to be patriotic.

So far, I’m only partly right, and even then, wish I was entirely wrong.

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