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the diary thing. 02.21.02 .skate
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we stand on guard for thee...CANADIANS HAVE A REPUTATION for being whiners. Actually, that’s only partially true: Canadians think of themselves as whiners; the rest of the world doesn’t think about us much at all, except to say, vaguely, that we’re nice, a barbed compliment which any longtime single man will tell you is actually the worst kind of insult. We’re a self-flagellating wallflower of a nation, eager to accuse ourselves of any kind of weakness or failing out of some ongoing, self-abnegating quest to understand why we always feel so second-rate; it’s a part of our character that we cherish with a perverse pride, but for once it seems to have paid off.

Two Canadian figure skaters were quite obviously cheated of their gold medals in the kind of sleazy hand-in-glove fix that happens all the time in competitive skating. The big difference this time around was that the world was watching, and the skating establishment was forced to concede to the fix. It was humiliating all around, except for the Canadians, who got their gold medals. Excuse me, please, but, uh..IN YOUR FACE, WORLD! WE’RE NUMBER ONE (with an explanation)!!

We whined and the world was on our side. There were jokes on Letterman, and a Leno appearance. Rosie made it her cause of the week, and Stephen Stills of CSNY carried a sign onstage at their Air Canada Centre concert here in Toronto, saying that Salé and Pelletier "wuz robbed" and that Canada "rules". If it were possible for a nation to have an extended orgasm, then Canada was banging the headboards all last week.

MY DESK IS A FEW FEET AWAY from the sports editor’s desk. There’s a t.v. bolted to the wall a few feet away, and another one hanging from the ceiling almost directly in front of me. Both sets have been tuned to the Olympics all week. On my desktop, Reuters FotoStation sends me a constant stream of satellite-feed shots from Salt Lake City, spiced sparely with a scant few dashes of international turmoil and scandal. I don’t imagine too many people care much less about the Olympics than I do, but I couldn’t be more on top of the Games now than at any other time in my life. 

I hope someone, somewhere, found "skategate" as funny as I did. (I actually preferred "figuregate", but no one ever asks me to coin these things.) I was particularly amused when the Russian team inferred that Salé and Pelletier’s choice of the "Theme from Love Story" was a bit corny. Corny? I’d love to know just where, in figure skating, you’ll find the border between kitsch and good taste. Every day for a week I’ve had to look at photos of men and women dressed like something Liberace’s cat coughed up. 

If anything, the Canadian couple erred on the side of tastefulness, her in a gray twinset, him in a sweater vest; it was like they were trying to advertise our cherished national blandness. We didn’t need a Simpsons episode to spoof it, although the coincidence of a Simpsons episode set in Canada running this week has given us, at least for a moment, the feeling that we’re at the centre of the world. (Note proper spelling of "centre".)

ACTUALLY, CANADIANS AREN’T REALLY all that nice. At our best, we like to think that we’ve inherited British manners and America’s classlessness. The truth is that we’ve ended up with British smugness, French manners and precious little of what’s good about Americans. Like most small nations, we’re easily offended but prefer to nurse our sense of injury; we hold a grudge for decades, even centuries. Our sense of moral superiority is, even to us, insufferable. (link: here's an "anti-Canada" website. It's pretty lame. I suspect it was made by a Canadian.)

A random Google search pulls up gems like Canadian critic Robert Fulford, in an introduction to a book about Toronto, damning his hometown with faint praise:"Thirty or forty years ago, the most obvious quality of Toronto was reticence, which many mistook for a virtue." Another local, poet Anne Wilkinson, called the city "the home of righteous mediocrity." In 1948, she wrote in her diary:


"A true test of love for a Torontonian: If you can walk down Yonge St. with your beloved and still think man’s world is a thing of beauty, it’s love. I can’t."

Much of Canadian literary wit is devoted to elaborate put-downs of the homeland. My wife’s cousin, Margaret Atwood, writes: "If the mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia." (It’s a particularly choice quote since she gets a shot in at both Canada and our Southern neighbour, something of a hat trick as far as this sort of thing goes.) Marshall McLuhan turns our international anonymity into a defining characteristic, almost a virtue: "Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity." Perhaps only a Canadian could see the pride seething behind that statement. For years, we took McLuhan’s lead and allowed ourselves to be defined by an absence; we weren’t American, we weren’t British, and as loathe as some Quebec intellectuals were to admit it, we certainly weren’t French. 

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"I think it much better that...every man paddle his own canoe."

- Frederick Marryat
Settlers in Canada
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An examination of the national character: part 1,287. Perhaps a few Canadians will get mad after reading this; I can't imagine anyone else caring much at all, which I suppose proves my point.
 
THERE ISN’T A LOT OF FICTION set in Canada that wasn’t written by Canadians, and it’s considered a rite of passage for serious Canadian writers to begin setting their work outside the country, lest they become merely writers "of local interest". A book by a non-Canadian set in the country occupies a venerable position, however, and a prime spot in this rather minimal canon is occupied by a novel that few people, even in Canada, have ever read.

British writer Wyndham Lewis spent World War Two self-exiled in Canada, and later wrote a novel, Self-Condemned, about the experience. It’s not a happy read, and the title pretty much sums up Lewis’ feeling about his time spent here. His verdict on Toronto – "a sanctimonious ice-box…this bush metropolis of Orange Lodges" – is still fondly quoted, even years later, after the Orange Day parade has dwindled to a pathetic and ignored remnant and Sikh temples are easier to find than Orange Lodges. 

Lewis is brutal about Canada, but focuses his wrath on Toronto in particular, renamed "Momaco" in his book. There are complaints about the weather, sly jabs at the provincialism of even its most learned academics, and especially brutal descriptions of its hotel "beverage rooms" and its petty and punitive liquor laws, most of which were enforced until just recently. 

Bruce McCall’s Thin Ice is a more recent memoir of life in Canada, but no less bleak. Growing up in 1950s Ontario, McCall – an illustrator and humorist whose work appears in the New Yorker – understands that Canada exists as a place to leave, in his case for the brighter lights of the United States. If an Englishman wrote a book like Thin Ice, he’d be denounced in Parliament -- probably by no less than the anglophile Canadian expatriate Lord Black. If a Frenchman had written it, he’d be denounced by everyone from LePen to Chirac to Jospin; it would be a national scandal, debated in every newspaper and on every ponderous talk show. In Canada, we made it a modest bestseller, and then spent government money making a documentary about the author, showing McCall surveying the scenes of his childhood with a pained, suffering look. 

The fact that Toronto – and Canada – no longer resembles the dreary Presbyterian place described by Fulford, Wilkinson, McCall and Lewis is irrelevant; deep down, we suspect that nothing’s changed. It’s an insecurity we’re loathe to leave behind, especially as it long ago became a pillar of our national sociopathy, the fuel for the "paranoid schizophrenia" that Atwood described.

AS I WAS FINISHING THIS ENTRY, another Olympic scandal hit the papers with gail force, while Sale and Pelletier’s newly-minted gold medals were still warm. Our Olympic hockey team was sent to Salt Lake City with a mandate to come home with a gold medal. There are, no doubt, quite a few Canadians who’d like to abandon them to Mormon exile if they fail. In the last moments of a tied game with the Czechs, a Canadian player named Theoren Fleury – a notorious loose cannon –  loitered a bit too long in front of the enemy net, and was viciously hacked and cross-checked by two different Czech players. No penalty was called against the Czechs.

Team Canada’s executive director, Wayne Gretzky, is virtually our living national saint, so when he went in front of the t.v. cameras after the game, it’s safe to say he was channelling the nation’s very psyche

"I know the whole world wants us to lose other than Canada, Canada fans and our players," he said, his voice as serious as murder, his grammar merely wounded.

"(The Americans) are loving us not doing well," Gretzky stated. "I don’t think we dislike those countries as much as they hate us. That’s a fact. They don’t like us. They want to see us fail. They love beating us. They may tell you guys something different, but believe me, when you’re on the ice with them, that’s what they say. They don’t like us. We’ve got to get that same feeling toward them."

"It makes me ill to hear some of the things that are being said about us…"

IN 1904, PRIME MINISTER Wilfred Laurier predicted that the 20th century would be "the Canadian century". The century just passed was a lot of things – bloody, pitiless, hurtling, cataclysmic, disillusioning – but I doubt that any of the adjectives that come to mind seem particularly Canadian. 

I’m sitting at my desk waiting for photos of the Canada/Finland game to come down the wire. At this point, it’s not apparent whether we’ve discovered a little-seen seam of belligerence. We’re two games from some kind of medal, but if we don’t make it, I think we’ve already earned a consolation prize more valuable to the nation than a dozen or so plated medallions on a ribbon. 

Our sense of national persecution has been revived, and it’ll probably do more than our dollar reaching par with the U.S. greenback to revive a national spirit that seems to constantly wilt. A humiliating, suspicious defeat with overtones of conspiracy will be remembered more fondly than first place on the podium. For every 1972 Canada/Russia series there’s an Avro Arrow; for every humble and unfashionable peacekeeping triumph there’s a Dieppe

In the end, the IOC and the ISU, Roman Hamrlik and Dominik Hasek and Bill McCreary did us a big favour. We’ll leave the 2002 Winter Olympics with our bitter, downtrodden underdog virtue intact, and Gretzky’s press conference will become our J’Accuse

IT’S AFTER MIDNIGHT and Canada has beaten Finland. Almost 400 people died in a train fire today in Egypt. The photos were indescribable, and most of them unprintable, at least in our paper. I’ve just sent two photos of the game into the front page bin. And I’m certain that every other paper in the city will put the hockey game on the cover tomorrow. 


FOLLOW-UP: All four papers ran with hockey on the front page the next day. None of them had the Cairo train fire on the front. The Sun and the Star ran it on page three, while the Globe put it all the way back at page 17. I don't know where the Post put it. Our paper -- a free daily distributed on public transit, mostly, but with the second-largest circulation in the city -- was the only one that put it on the front page, above the splash photo.
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William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years 1930-1940 buy it

Tadd Dameron, Anthology1947-49  buy it
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©1998-2002 Rick McGinnis
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