After the first few days of it, those Canadians who are paid to know began to say the strangest things about Prime Minister Trudeau’s peace mission. Seizing microphone or typewriter, they would look figuratively over the shoulder and whisper, “I think he’s sincere.”
The pronouncement was delivered as scoop, as revelation, as hot tip, “I don’t think he’s doing it to win the next election.” It was delivered in hushed tones, as if the deliverer was aware it would be met by snorts of disbelief: “I think he really wants world peace.”
Now, you can sit down with a piece of paper and list reasons why many Canadians might be inclined to question the Prime Minister’s motives. But the fact is that many Canadians, too many Canadians, will question anybody's motives.
Canadians are like that. Despite the fact that foreign policy has always ranked right up there with prison reform as a hot political property, show Canadians a prime minister who sets off in search of world peace and they say: “What’s the catch? What’s in it for him?”
Canadians used to be great paddlers and great hockey players. Now they are great debunkers. It is a national trait. It is a sad fact that if Christ came back tomorrow, some Canadians would suspect Him of doing it for the endorsements.
Few Canadian heroes have survived long as such. It takes time to write history books. By the time they are written, heroes have suffered fallen reputations, helped along by generations of debunkers. By the time your kids read about a hero, he doesn’t amount to much. This is why Canadian heroes are hard to find—not because they weren’t there in the first place but because we won’t allow their reputations to survive.
Historical figures are not the only ones to suffer. This is a nation of knockers. A nation uncomfortable with celebrity. Those unlucky enough to become famous know the process doesn’t last long.
Within the past year the attempt has been made to fit a number of Canadian giants with feet of clay. Bobby Orr, once everybody’s favorite hockey player, was portrayed in a Canadian magazine as unhappy and—worse—reluctant to be interviewed. F.R. Scott, an adorn-
ment to this country’s political and literary life for the past 50 years, was, ex post facto, declared out of step with Quebec. Alex Colville had a major exhibition in Toronto, which became the occasion for local critics to say he wasn’t all that great after all.
The list goes on. The more successful you are in your chosen field, the more likely you are to be on it.
Ken Taylor? Well, didn’t he maybe enjoy being a celebrity a bit too much?
Pierre Berton? A popularizer.
The Toronto Blue Jays? Just lucky. Wait’ll next year.
The Gotliebs? How do they get all that publicity anyway?
The CBC can’t touch PBS. The Journal is just a cheap imitation of ABC’s Nightline.
Trudeau is manipulative, Mulroney is slick, Broadbent is strident. Crosbie’s a clown. Joe Clark? Say no more.
Oscar Peterson? Facile.
‘If Christ came back tomorrow, some Canadians would suspect Him of doing it for the endorsements'
Ed Schreyer? Stiff.
Also: Ottawa is boring, Toronto is pretentious, Calgary is Greed City, Winnipeg is Hicksville, and Quebec City isn’t what it used to be.
Margaret Atwood? Karen Kain? Well, we’re tired of Margaret Atwood and Karen Kain.
Insiders whisper these things in your ear. This being a small country, everybody’s an insider. Everybody knows somebody who knows how flawed some famous person really is. And, failing that, virtue can be its own punishment, as in: “Wayne Gretzky? He’s just . . . well, he’s just too perfect.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that some Canadians feel this way. They are made uncomfortable by a guy who not only leads the National Hockey League in everything, not only avoids fights and penalties, not only scores but sets up his teammates—not only does all that but is gracious in interviews and seems to be a nice person. Don’t you just hate a guy like that?
It’s possible that you do. But not for long. Even if being perfect counts in the minus column, Canadians allow people
to be perfect only briefly. Soon there is something else to knock them for: being overrated. Like Colville, like the Montreal Expos in their almost glory years. Like the Edmonton Eskimos. Canadians said the Eskimos were overrated years. At last, this year they proved it.
The way stars are made in this country contributes to the speed with which the state of being overrated is attained. An Anne Murray, an April Wine, a Dave Stieb hits all the magazine covers and all the television public affairs shows at the same time, not to mention the local newspaper’s weekly television tabloids. Pretty soon the knockers notice. “Boy,” they say, “Dave Stieb sure is getting a lot of publicity, eh?”
“Yeah,” comes the reply. “He’s overrated.”
Not all Canadians are overrated, yet. Those who aren’t are underrated. The process by which people become famous in this country is not widely understood, but it is not hard to see that there are many Canadians who are not as famous as they deserve to be. Almost any Canadian jazz musician fits this category. So do many novelists who are not named Margaret, actors who do not go to the United States, university athletes, scientists, some (but not all) academics and, out in the provinces, away from the media capitals, writers, artists, musicians, politicians—you name it.
Some of these people will remain minor figures for the rest of their lives, while their fellow countrymen celebrate lesser talents, many of them beamed across the border onto our screens. Others will escape and find higher ground, probably across that same border. Then, and only then, will they come to be appreciated in their native land—at least until they are, inevitably, pronounced overrated.
Nobody paid much attention to Margot Kidder when she was a Canadian actress working in Canada. Then she went south, eventually to star as Lois Lane in the Superman movies. When Canadians realized that the Americans thought she was a star, they decided that she might as well be one here too. Here’s how that one ends:
“Margot Kidder? All she can do is play Lois Lane.”
In such a way do Canadians immunize themselves against the disease of envy.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.