“With few extraordinary Canadians doing anything to shift our national consciousness, and fewer Canadians paying attention to those who are, our identity is in danger of atrophy.”
Donald Sutherland name-dropped Tommy Douglas in an interview in (the American magazine) Esquire this month. There’s also a new biography out on him in Penguin Canada’s stellar series on Extraordinary Canadians. And he popped up in the news a few weeks ago when it was revealed that the RCMP had spied on him at one point.
All of this is to say that Tommy Douglas is still a noteworthy and newsworthy Canadian twenty-five years after his death.
But he’s more than that. Douglas is a significant Canadian not just because there are still news items on him or interesting things to say about him. There are plenty of Canadians in the news each day that may be interesting. Douglas is uniquely significant because he changed Canada and he changed Canadians. He influenced mainstream Canadian society. He changed the Canadian government, he changed Canadian domestic policy, he changed Canadian culture, and – most significantly – he changed Canadian identity. To be sure, he fomented what is likely the number two item on the list of inextricable Canadian identifiers (after hockey, of course).
Douglas looked at the Canada that surrounded him – an impoverished, desperate milieu – identified the problems, came up with a solution, and enacted broad-sweeping changes. He’s what Seth Godin would call an initiator. He kicked Canada in the ass and we now wear the bruise with pride.
All of this is not to say that Tommy Douglas was a saint. To be sure, the Canadian healthcare system has its flaws and is in dire need of updating. Moreover, this is not my meager attempt to say profound things about Douglas that have already been said by people more eloquent and learned than I. While I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I don’t think I have anything to add to the Canadian canon at this point.
So this is all to say – or rather, ask – something else:
Where are all the Extraordinary Canadians? Where are the initiators? Where are the identity makers?
There are certainly many Canadians out there doing newsworthy, cool, and interesting things (although if you Google “Interesting Canadians,” the results come up pretty slim). But newsworthy, cool, and interesting is not equaling extraordinary these days. Newsworthy, cool, and interesting is not cultivating identity.
“Whither Canadian Identity?” is that quintessential existential question that we Canadians ask to hold a mirror up to our national self when our national inferiority complex flares up. But I’m not lamenting a lack of Canadian identity. I’ll leave that to George Grant. Besides, there’s a Wikipedia article on Canadian Identity, so I think we’re safe in that department.
I’m lamenting the lack of Canadians of late who have risen up and done something that has galvanized our country in the identity department. I’m lamenting the dearth of Canadians who have on a national scale shifted the way we think. I’m lamenting the absence of Canadians who can be added to the Wikipedia article on our national identity.
To be sure, just take a look at the Canadians who have been deemed extraordinary and fit for publishing by Penguin, or the finalists from the CBC’s 2004 series, The Greatest Canadian. On both lists, with a few exceptions (or perhaps just one – Terry Fox), the identity-building Canadians did the body of their work most recently thirty to forty years ago. For most, it’s been over half a century.
Yes, Sidney Crosby did do that thing in Vancouver last year, and The Great One and Don Cherry were indeed finalists on The Greatest Canadian. But hockey already occupies the number one spot on our identity list. Unlike Mr. Douglas, the trail was already blazed for Sid the Kid (insert some clever remark about the zamboni clearing the ice for him). Unlike Fox, Gretsky and Cherry had and have institutions, managers, and paychecks supporting them.
It’s been quite some time since Trudeau, Montgomery, The Group of Seven, McLuhan, Pearson, and the lot.
It’s been quite some time since a Canadian has risen up and done or said or created something that has inspired Canadians in a unifying way; in a way that has become as much a part of Canadian Identity as Hockey, Universal Health Care, Tim Hortons, the GST, a National Inferiority Complex, and not being American.
To be sure, there’s a certain temporal perspective gained from looking back on ourself, which contributes to the lists’ foci on historical figures. But it’s 2011, and we’ve been hyper-connected and hyper-self-aware for awhile now. Isn’t it time we started catching up to ourself? If that Rebecca Black girl can reach millions of people with a ridiculous YouTube video (I won’t do it the justice of linking to it), and we identify en masse with new memes every week, certainly the market is primed and ripe for someone to do something worthy of capturing us.
I’m not denying that Canadian identity exists. Certainly it does. But it isn’t being flexed by anyone. With few extraordinary Canadians doing anything to shift our national consciousness, and fewer paying attention to those who are, our identity is in danger of atrophy.
In that painfully Canadian way, I’m aware that all this has the potential to come across as complaining and whining about a problem without presenting a solution. After all, Tommy Douglas didn’t sit around and blog, he got off his own ass and kicked Canada in our collective tuchus. But I don’t (yet) have the bully pulpit of our Parliament or the platform of a national newspaper, so maybe this is just to vent or call attention in a limited way to something that I – as a Canadian – am invested in.
I’m looking for Canadians who can make us shift the way we look at ourselves for the better. I’m looking for Canadians who have the drive and power to give our country a much needed kick in the ass.
I’m looking for Canadians worth name dropping.