There is good news and bad news about Canadian nationalism. The good news is that it exists. The bad news is that the proof of its existence lies largely in beer commercials.
You’ve seen them. And seen them and seen them, particularly if you are a sports fan. Beer commercial after beer commercial, celebrating various aspects of our national life, mostly having to do with hockey. You’ve seen the guy with the smelly hockey bag, the impromptu hockey game in the middle of a busy street, interrupted by a streetcar, the road hockey game interrupted by the street sweeper, the hockey game on the frozen lake in the Far North, watched over by wolves. The commercials climax—surely, nothing will top this—in the guy called Joe, who walks out onto a large stage, looking a bit like Jim Carrey, claiming not to be a lumberjack, although he is dressed a bit like one. He says he is a Canadian. He has a prime minister, not a president. He speaks English and French, not American.
Joe delivers a short lecture on the proper pronunciation of the word “about.” He can proudly sew his country’s flag on his backpack. He believes in diversity, not assimilation. He salutes the beaver, and as the music swells in the background and his voice rises, he says it is pronounced “zed,” not “zee.” He claims this country is the first nation of hockey and says that he lives in the best part of North America. “I am Canadian!” he cries at last and then, embarrassed by his uncharacteristic burst of emotion, mumbles “Thanks” into the microphone and wanders off the stage.
Whoever thought we’d be taking solace in beer commercials? Until recently, they seemed to promote the kind of bars you wouldn’t be caught dead in, or celebrate the kind of behaviour that, if it happened at the next cottage, would have you thinking seriously about selling the place. Now, all of a sudden they are patriotic.
True, it is not necessarily a good thought that this wave of patriotism will cause more of our Canadian young people to become enthusiastic consumers of the sponsor’s product. But the damage may already have been done in that respect. Meanwhile, it is fun to ponder the cosmic significance of beer and nationalism.
Somebody has decided that Canadian nationalism sells. If that’s true, it’s good. It means that a unique culture, in art and music and theatre and writing, can survive in this country, survive in the face of a powerful culture pouring over our border every day.
Canadian artists have always hoped this, of course, have always gone about their creative business on the assumption
that it was so. But there have always been doubters, and Canadian authors have not had access to the powerful research tools available to the creators of beer commercials. Margaret Laurence set The Stone Angel in a town resembling Neepawa, Man., although market research might have told her that Los Angeles would sell better. Tom Thomson painted The Jack Pine because he felt like painting a jack pine. There might have been an equally paintable spruce right next to it, but Thomson went for the jack pine. As luck would have it, that was the right decision, but he had no scientific way of knowing.
Whereas the makers of beer commercials would have studied the matter carefully—hired a polling firm to find out the views of thousands of Canadians on the jack pine vis-a-vis the spruce, then followed it up with focus groups, small gatherings of Canadians giving forth their most intimate feelings on the subject. “Spruce feels sort of, I don’t know, itchy somehow,” someone might say, and that would be it.
The same kind of testing would have been done on Canadian patriotism, on Joe’s speech. And it must have passed. For beer-drinking hockey fans, at least, it is now acceptable to be proud of Canada. Since there is at least a bit of the beerdrinking hockey fan in most of us, we can assume that the lesson extends to the country as a whole—or at least the English-speaking part of it where the commercial plays.
Proof of this emerged in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs when Joe, as played by actor Jeff Douglas, did his act live for 20,000 fans at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre in a break during a game between the Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators. He got a standing ovation, proof that the message’s nationalistic appeal goes beyond the youthful demographic at which it is aimed.
Strange to take comfort from beer commercials, but we take comfort where we can. Comfort should also be taken— perhaps “courage” would be a better word—by Canadian broadcasters, publishers, artistic directors and others who make the decisions that govern our culture, high and pop. From the evidence, we are not wanna-be Americans or wanna-be Brits. We have shown ourselves ready to buy the patriotic caps and T-shirts. We appreciate our own identity, enjoy it, even laugh at it a bit. We could stand a lot more of it than we are now getting on stages, television screens and, especially, movie screens.
Maybe the people with the big culture dollars have only been waiting for positive reinforcement, a strong sign that Canada sells. Well, it does. The signs are all around. Take it from Joe.
Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.
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