The Nation’s Business

Let's not play Pluto to Mickey Mouse

Peter C. Newman April 8 1996
The Nation’s Business

Let's not play Pluto to Mickey Mouse

Peter C. Newman April 8 1996

Let's not play Pluto to Mickey Mouse

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

It’s time we stopped being the dumb hound who is always being bested by the hyperactive rat with an attitude

I keep thinking that if Canada ever fails as a nation and we become some kind of sub-Arctic backwater to the American Empire, our Day of Infamy will be remembered as June 28, 1995. That was the date the Royal Canadian Mounted Police became Walt Disney’s Canadian branch plant by handing over the management and marketing of its image.

For most Americans, Mickey Mouse—Disney’s most fabled creation—is not just a hyperactive rat with an attitude, but a national symbol. Just last summer, Billie Jean Matay, a 52-year-old grandmother, was taking her daughter and three grandchildren through California’s Disneyland, when she was held up and robbed. During the ensuing investigation, she and her family were taken for questioning to the theme park’s security department, which happened to be next door to the Disney characters’ dressing rooms— including Mickey’s. Mrs. Matay promptly launched a lawsuit against the Disney organization for emotional stress, charging her family had been exposed “to the reality that the Disney characters were make-believe.”

The incident was a good example of how deeply its popular culture pervades the American belief system. U.S. culture has become that country’s most successful export. To the Yankee traders, national borders have become meaningless. Canada to them is no more than an extension of their northern sales districts.

That’s the American way.

But it’s not the Canadian way.

We mustn’t allow ourselves to become Pluto to the Americans’ Mickey Mouse. It’s time we stopped playing the dumb hound who is always being bested by the smartalecky rodent.

Canadian culture is at least as valuable as the American variety, but it’s significantly different. Unlike the U.S. version, our homegrown product—which has no fancy theme parks and has little export potential—is the sum of what we are, or hope to be. Our culture is, above all, a way of looking at the world, the determination to treat calamity and even depravity with a touch of civility. The best recent example was the difference in the trials of O. J. Simpson and Paul Bernardo. The Canadian crime was far more heinous than the Los Angeles murders, but the Canadian trial was not allowed to become a circus. The difference was partly due to constraints on the media imposed by Canadian law and a wise judge.

But more than that, it ran against the Canadian grain to allow the horrific Bernardo-Homolka sexual transgressions to become anything more than evidence in a criminal trial. The difference in the verdicts in the two trials said it all about how profoundly dissimilar are the two societies that share the northern part of North America. As individuals, we may look the same and even sound the same, but we do not live by the same ethic. (Another example: the 1993 confrontation at Waco, Tex., took more than 80 lives when federal

agents stormed the sect’s complex, while the equally explosive confrontation at Oka, Que., in the summer of 1990 resulted in only one casualty. The different operational codes reflected the reactions of the two societies under stress.)

That’s a roundabout way of commenting on what was happening in Ottawa and Washington last week. When Lloyd Axworthy flew in to try to persuade U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher that it was not just stupid but legally untenable for the Americans to apply their anti-Castro hysteria to Canada’s legitimate trade with Cuba, our foreign minister was pleading a case for us all. It’s not just the commercial interests who are doing business with Fidel who are affected. At stake is the core notion that an independent country writes its laws—that we must live by our own, not imported, values.

Were we to give in on an issue like trading with Cuba, the Americans would assume that we’d give in on anything, even a grab of our territory, which of course is what the U.S. claim to the inside passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland is all about. It’s a stretch of water that laps entirely on Canadian shores. There’s about as much justification for the U.S. case that we should hand over this choice piece of soggy real estate as there would be if we suddenly decided to claim Chesapeake Bay. The Americans insist that they have legal access to the inside passage because it’s what is known as a “territorial sea.” (What they want is to be allowed to steam freely through that passage, making it easier to head north into U.S. waters off Alaska where they can snag most of the Pacific salmon harvest before it drifts south where Canadian fishermen cast their nets.)

The silliest instance of how the Americans try to grind down our culture is their crusade to publish a so-called Canadian edition of Sports Illustrated. ‘We want to say to the world, THIS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED!” thunders U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor—who, not accidentally, boasts the same first name as Disney’s mighty mouse. It’s a joke. Because the Canadian government dared obey its own laws (which protect domestic publications against periodicals masquerading as Canadian editions by adding a dollop of local content to snag a diminishing pool of print advertising), the U.S. trade envoy has declared a trade war.

Time Warner Inc., the American publisher of Sports Illustrated, is well aware of the Canadian position and tried to circumvent our laws by beaming its U.S. content to an Ontario printer by satellite. The problem isn’t the magazine itself, which will of course continue to be allowed into Canada, but the prospect of the 50 other foreign magazines that enjoy significant Canadian circulations, establishing similar “Canadian editions.” That would gut the ad market for homegrown magazines like Maclean’s, and most of our periodical industry would cease to exist.

Mickey would love it. But Pluto ain’t taking it any more.