Canada Essay

The Canadian Way

A native of Hamilton, Ken Dryden, 53, had a spectacular career as the Montreal Canadiens goaltender in the 1970s.

Ken Dryden November 13 2000
Canada Essay

The Canadian Way

A native of Hamilton, Ken Dryden, 53, had a spectacular career as the Montreal Canadiens goaltender in the 1970s.

Ken Dryden November 13 2000
A native of Hamilton, Ken Dryden, 53, had a spectacular career as the Montreal Canadians goaltender in the 1970s. Now president of the Toronto Maple Leaf, he is also a lawyer and author. This essay is adapted from “Finding a Way, ” the Charles R. Bronfman Lecture in Canadian Studies, which Dryden delivered last week at the University of Ottawa.

When I was one year old, we moved to the new Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. These were exciting times. The war was over; the economy was booming. Lives that had been put on hold for many years were now ready to be lived. The old world of Europe was broken. Canada was where the future would be made, and it was in places like Etobicoke that we would make it. We felt immensely privileged. I was proud of Canada. We were proud of Canada.


For me, the United States was a place of fascination. So exciting, so at the center of things. The baseball teams, the college football teams with their wonderfully odd nicknames. The people who filled our conversations—Kennedy, Eisenhower, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley. When I graduated from high school, as my friends went off to Western, McMaster or the University of Toronto, I wanted someplace different. I went to Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y.

I loved those four years. I even thought about staying in the United States. I also became more Canadian than I had ever been, forever reminding my unimpressed classmates of any and all things Canadian. I was accepted at law school in Boston, and made plans to attend, but decided to come home. I wanted to continue playing hockey, I said to myself. But there was something else as well.

I spent the next year in Winnipeg, beginning law school, and playing for the Canadian national team. A year later, I was in Montreal and married. We lived in Montreal for most of the next 10 years. As a hockey player, there was no better team to play for, no better arena to play in, no more knowledgeable and demanding fans.

On Nov. 15, 1976, there was a Quebec provincial election. There was also a hockey game at the Montreal Forum. The game was different that night, as if the 17,000 people there were really somewhere else. The early returns flashed on the message board: the Liberals ahead by a little, the PQ by a little—nothing was clear. Then the gap widened. A new buzz entered the arena, of disquiet for some; of hope for others. Then suddenly on the message board were the words—“Un nouveau gouvernement. "And 17,000 people who for years had been sitting side by side, Canadians fans together, now knew something about one another they hadn’t known before—and nothing would ever be the same again.

I played three more seasons, then retired from hockey. We moved to Ottawa where I took my bar exams, then to Cambridge, England, where I began writing my first book. Again, I loved it there; I thought about staying. Again, I spent the year as that annoying Canadian voice—“Oh, speaking of the Booker Prize,” I’d say, “Alice Munro, one of the nominees, she’s a Canadian, you know.” “Oh,” they’d say. Margaret Atwood, Dan Aykroyd, Oscar Peterson, Donald Sutherland, Margot Kidder—it went on and on. And suddenly I knew it would go on and on. I couldn’t stop being Canadian.

So we went home. And in the 19 years since, we have never left. I’d like to live other places for awhile. But Canada is home. It’s where I want to be. Like Joe, I am a Canadian.

--------------------------------------------------

It can seem a mixed legacy. On one hand, Canada's enviable peace, prosperity and stability, our opportunity to make and remake ourselves; on the other, our existence as the nearly invisible and often irrelevant sibling of a superstar. It is so much easier for Canadians to see ourselves as what we are not.

Our storytellers focus on our “not” traits—cleanliness, politeness, niceness. On our “not” personality—a little dull and inoffensive, without much ambition, the person who meets every compliment with a shy smile and a “yes, but,” knowing in his bones that somewhere else in the world there must be something better. Whose way isn’t to leap solo into the excitement of the unknown, but to move ahead with others; to find accommodation. To compromise.

Typically Canadian, our storytellers say. And we nod. But it isn’t. Ask an Australian, or an Argentine; ask a Moroccan, Dane or Dutchman. Ask someone from Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis or Denver. Ask anyone who in his own world can’t control, dictate or pretend to be the biggest and best. What our writers and artists sneer at as “typically Canadian” is reality for most of the world. It’s not a unique flaw in our character. It doesn’t resign us to a second-rate destiny. In our now more global world, in fact, smallness is becoming everybody’s reality. And knowing how to live with smallness is becoming an ever more important skill.

We also live with the legacy of division. It is division not primarily based on language and culture, but on our sheer size, and a climate that is inhospitable to a large U.S.-scale population. It is division that neither railroad, nor telecommunication, nor government policy has been able to bridge, nor will. Canada may be the most decentralized country in the world but, the most naturally divided, it must be. We have succeeded in the past because we have understood that about ourselves, because were practical people; because we have to be. We often disappoint ourselves because we can’t live up to the flag-waving, unified ideal of nationhood that the United States and Britain have put in our heads. But unity is often an illusion of circumstance. Change the circumstance, and the illusion is gone. Everywhere in the world since 1989, circumstances have been changing. Globally, we’ve been looking for new structures, new understandings to see us into the future, new stories, but we're not doing very well. Yet in Canada, we have been living this divided/connected reality for most of our existence. We have been able to manage division, encourage commonality, accept difference and achieve prosperity all without bloodshed.

We are good at dealing with people who aren’t like us. Our size and climate—our divisions—have made us so. By contrast, life is not going to be easy for the United States in the increasingly globalized future, where nobody has the power, and everybody is small.

--------------------------------------------------

Hockey may seem an odd game for Canadians to embrace. It is not dull, inoffensive or reticent. It is certainly not a refuge for “peace, order and good government.” Yet, it is a deeply Canadian game. It is a game beyond control. Those who play hockey best, the teams that win, don’t agonize at the loss of perfection when the chaos begins. They accept what they’ve got, and gather up the pieces and put them together as fast and as well as they can. They find a way. Hockey is a “find a way” game.

America's game used to be baseball. Now it is football. It appeals to an America that is looking for certainty. For control. In football, the biggest and the strongest should win. Hockey makes one humble. It will never be America's game.

Canada, I think, is a “find a way” country. We don't have the luxury of charting a path and getting to the end we expect. Things happen along our way that we aren’t big enough or strong enough to control. It has always been so. Our climate, our landscape, our proximity to the United States: we have had to accept what is beyond us and make the best of it. So we find a new path. It takes a little longer. It doesn’t get us quite where we wanted to go. But it’s a good path. And the next time it gets blocked, we know what to do. We know we will find a way.

“Find-a-way-ism,” I believe, is Canada's one true ideology. Not liberalism, conservatism, socialism or any other. In this country, we don’t have the luxury of binding ourselves to rigid ideology. We need to use whatever tool we can find. The federal Liberals governed this country for most of the past century because they understood that about us. As the other parties clung righteously to ideology, the Liberals used conservative or socialist tools—whatever a situation called for. The federal Liberals are a “find a way” party.

The 21st century, I believe, will be a “find a way” century. Ideologies will matter less. Naked power will have less impact. “Compromise” may be a pejorative word now, but what it represents—the need, ability and willingness to find common ground of some sort no matter how imperfect—is essential. The 21st century will belong to the conciliators. To the listeners. To the learners. To people who know that whatever they are sure of today will not be right tomorrow.

In 1904, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier declared that the 20th century would belong to Canada. He was wrong. Canada wasn’t big enough or strong enough for an age of power. But Laurier may have spoken 100 years too soon. This century will not belong to Canada, but it will belong to the attitudes, values and understandings that are our legacy.