The Peter Mansbridge syndrome

Charles Gordon November 30 1987

The Peter Mansbridge syndrome

Charles Gordon November 30 1987

The Peter Mansbridge syndrome


Charles Gordon

The front pages of the nation all looked the same. One after another told the identical story. In spaces usually occupied by cabinet shuffles, bus plunges and rumors of royal divorce, there was Peter Mansbridge of the CBC. What spectacularly newsworthy page-1 kind of thing had Peter Mansbridge of the CBC done? He had decided to stay in Canada.

Only in Canada could that have been a headline—a prominent person staying in his home country, instead of going to work somewhere else. It is a headline that Mansbridge himself did not seek and undoubtedly found embarrassing. But he has the misfortune to have been born in—and to have decided to remain in—a country that regards it as unusual when its citizens remain at home.

In most parts of the world, there is one surefire headline. Here, there is a second. Thousands of aspiring journalists are taught both of them in Canadian journalism schools:

1. Man bites dog; and 2. Canadian stays in Canada.

This must be, when you think about it, the only country in the world that honors people for not leaving it. The reason is that we expect them to depart and are surprised when they stay. The only nation that could possibly rival us in that kind of pessimism is East Germany. It is a Canadian trait: we expect anyone with the slightest talent to get up and go somewhere else at the earliest opportunity.

The condition is as old as Canada. For years it was expected that any Canadian university graduate would, upon receiving his diploma, get the hell out of the country and go to London. This may have had something to do with old colonial ties. After wearing the old colonial tie for a couple of years, the graduate would then return and work as little as possible in Canada before paying tribute to our new colonial ties by going to the United States for the opportunities that Canada was thought to be unable to provide.

Granted, the pattern does not hold true in all walks of life: farming and politics are two exceptions. But it is true in journalism, in entertainment, even in literature, where the writer often travels south, figuratively if not literally, in search of subject matter that, unlike purely “Canadian” topics, will bring an international reputation and larger sales.

It is also true of academics, scientists and athletes, for differing reasons, some of them having to do with research money, some with perceived notions of prestige. For generations young Canadians from all walks of life have had it drilled into their heads that they would be playing in the minor leagues unless they got out. Many of them did, including quite a few of Peter Mansbridge’s contemporaries in television journalism. We see them now, broadcasting from points around the globe, an American network logo occupying the bottom part of the screen, and we hope they are happy.

The CBS offer that Mansbridge turned down was attractive. It would have made him wealthy and famous— perhaps forever and at least long enough to be good fun. The CBC countered with its best offer—Knowlton

There are two surefire headlines, both taught in our journalism schools: man bites dog; and Canadian stays in Canada

Nash’s job anchoring The National, a fine position, but one offering less wealth and less fame. Mansbridge took the CBC’S offer, and the headlines began. Canadian stays in Canada.

In staying, Mansbridge misses the chance to join the ranks of those Canadians who are famous in Canada because they are famous in the United States. He misses the opportunity to go to their parties and hear their puzzled conversations about how nobody heard of them up here until they were well-known down there.

In staying, however, Mansbridge also has the opportunity of joining another group, perhaps the most select in all of Canada—those Canadians who could have gone to the States, but stayed anyway. With a minute’s thought you can identify football players, artists, professors, actors and musicians who belong in that group. They are regarded with puzzlement and awe when they enter the room. People whisper: “She could have gone to New York but she stayed here!”

Of course, there are good reasons not to leave, which are often forgotten. Some of them are professional: a journalist, for example, might find the Canadian story more challenging than the American one; a painter might sooner paint the Canadian landscape than any other. Then there are the intangibles, the things we used to lump together as “the quality of life,” before the phrase became associated with advertisements for air-conditioners and styling gel. There are things in life other than fame and money, and a case can be made for saying that Canada possesses more of them than the United States does. These provide all the more reason why people shouldn’t be completely shocked when a Canadian decides to live in Canada. It is not a total sacrifice to remain.

What undoubtedly does make it hard to remain is the unpleasant suspicion that more respect is to be gained from one’s countrymen by leaving one’s country. When people say, “She could have gone to New York but she stayed here,” they imply an unspoken question—namely, “What is wrong with her anyway?”

To get talented people to stay in Canada, we have to create a condition in which that question is never asked. We have to achieve a situation in which it is not a surprise when someone stays. There are a lot of ways of doing that, many of them—perhaps too many—having to do with money, and some having to do with increased awareness. Too many of the people who ask the question lack worldliness: they don’t know how our stuff ranks with the rest of the world because they haven’t seen the rest of the world. They make an assumption and the assumption drives people away.

In the Canada of the future, people should be surprised when Canadians leave. The quickest way to arrive at that point is for Canadians to treat other Canadians as if they matter and to stop assuming that they are playing slow-pitch just because they are playing in Canada.

Someone should have said, publicly, a long time ago, “Hey, Peter Mansbridge is a fine television journalist, and we are lucky to have him in this country.” If enough people said that, no one would be surprised that he stayed. And if enough people say that about other talented Canadians in the future, no one will be surprised if they stay either.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.