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Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and Its People

by Roy MacGregor

New books by well-known journalists and authors Roy MacGregor and Andrew Cohen, as well as a revised anthology from the Dominion Institute, all attempt to examine the current Canadian zeitgeist. It may be an impossibly tough task; certainly, the books by Cohen and MacGregor fail to offer much of anything new on the subject. In fact, the two books are, in many ways, alarmingly similar: both rely heavily on the same collection of tired, unfunny quotes about Canada from the likes of Pierre Berton and Allan Fotheringham. Both acknowledge Canada’s new realities – as a more diverse, increasingly urban country – but seem more comfortable with the denizens of small towns and celebrating the accomplishments of white men.

In Canadians, MacGregor notes repeatedly that 80% of Canadians live in cities – cities with large non-white populations – but about the same percentage of his book is spent talking about rural Canada and its people. In recent years, MacGregor’s newspaper columns have been preoccupied with ruminations about the wilderness near his family cottage in Algonquin Park and with hockey, both of which get mentioned often here, too.

As a result, MacGregor’s portrait seems like one that would be instantly familiar to many of the old or dead writers he quotes throughout his book, but would represent an alien world to someone who has recently settled in Surrey, B.C., or Scarborough, Ontario. When MacGregor does speak to freshly landed immigrants, he finds them in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. To his credit, though, MacGregor’s writing in Canadians is clear, crisp, and easy to read – the qualities that have allowed him such a long and successful career in newspapers, magazines, and books.

Cohen’s book, The Unfinished Canadian, is a bit more elegantly written, but is a far more elitist text. Whereas MacGregor seems to fancy himself as something of a populist, Cohen has an almost creepy fascination with Canada’s ruling class. He wants the country to make national historic sites of the birthplaces and final resting places of Canada’s prime ministers. He would also like the National Capital Commission to install plaques on the places those people lived in Ottawa, presumably so history buffs can seek out the young Joe Clark’s first apartment in the Glebe. He is also appalled at the current state of 24 Sussex Drive and is miffed at the press and politicians for nixing efforts to spruce up the joint. “If we can make politicians live in genteel shabbiness,” Cohen writes, “like a déclassé socialite forced into a homeless shelter, why not?”

Perhaps the only thing more horrific to Cohen than old curtains and worn carpets is the average Canadian’s lack of historical knowledge. He trots out the Dominion Institute’s annual survey of Canadians, which shows, for example, that only 21% of the population could “identify Canada’s role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Cohen is also mortified that the required history class for Ontario high school students covers Canada only from 1914 until the present. “A student in Tweed or Timmins can leave high school never knowing that Canada formally began in the nineteenth century,” he writes, apparently oblivious to the fact that they would have already learned that in elementary school. Cohen could use a bit of a refresher himself: he notes that Canada’s exposure to terrorism is limited to the FLQ. Hopefully there won’t be a question about the Air India bombing on the next survey from the Dominion Institute.

Great Questions of Canada, a book edited by Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the aforementioned Dominion Institute, has been revised and reissued with two big new questions to chew on: immigration and native land claims. A debate here between Haroon Siddiqui and George Jonas on multiculturalism in the post-9/11 world goes some distance toward dealing with an important theme that gets short shrift in Cohen and MacGregor’s books. Maybe they too will get around to addressing them in future editions.