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The Disbeliever’s Dictionary: A Gleefully Disrespectful Lexicon of Canada Today

by Brian Fawcett

The Canadian 100: The 100 Most Influential Canadians of the 20th Century

by H. Graham Rawlinson & J.L. Granatstein

Memo
To: Commander Adanac, aboard the Cheem Ekal 2
From: Cpt. Iszusz Rentrag, Canada, Earth

First off, you’d be amused. There are myriad streets and travel agencies here named after you. Well, not named after you exactly, but having the same name. This is an attempt at wit, as it is, of course, their country’s name in reverse. I didn’t make this observation personally in my short time here, but found it in a snappy (and snippy) little volume called The Disbeliever’s Dictionary. The fact that the name of the country is their would-be invader’s name spelled backwards would be placed in the category of a popular Earth term: ironic. But I digress.

Intelligence gathering proved difficult, as the bars here close early, but aided by a number of recent books I have been able to piece together the state of the national psyche: National Dreams, Reflections of a Siamese Twin, The Canadian 100, the aforementioned Dictionary and a few slightly older volumes, including Why I Hate Canadians, Mondo Canuck, Lost in North America. There are many more – these kinds of books make up a huge portion of the gross domestic product and their publication shows no sign of abating – but that’s all I had time to get through for this covert operation.

What these all have in common (save The Canadian 100, but that, too, has its subversive element) is that they buck conventional wisdom – the assorted myths (and outright lies) that have misled citizens, making them and their country seem more boring, passive and/or innocent than they actually are – while acknowledging the necessity of some national myths. “We cannot live without myth,” John Ralston Saul writes. “Our difficulty is how to avoid myth being deformed into a negative force which breeds – among other things – a victim psychosis.”

This “fouled mythology” of victimization, Saul argues, is pervasive in Canadian public life today. The result is a network of blame and a refusal to assume responsibility. Everyone blames someone else, every region blames another region for its problems. (“The West blames the East. Francophones blame anglophones . . . . Those with money, who want to keep it, blame those without, in need of help.”)

It seems that in Canada the enemy is within – or perceived to be within. There are growing social problems in the areas of education, health care, poverty, and youth crime. There is a province whose leaders want independence based on historical wrongs. There are the country’s native people whose leaders demand redress for historical wrongs. But Canadians, the majority of these books contend, have a sort of historical amnesia. In Why I Hate Canadians (D&M, 1997), Will Ferguson quotes Canadian Forum columnist Morris Wolfe, “Canadians, it seems, have the shortest memories of any people on earth when it comes to remembering the awful things we’ve done to each other.”

Pity Daniel Francis, who also tackles historical amnesia and shopworn national myths, is what I thought when I started in on National Dreams. His book is a softcover from a small press based in the alienated West and was published the same month as Saul’s, which is a hardcover doorstopper by a Central Canadian “name” who even rates a mention in Brian Fawcett’s The Disbeliever’s Dictionary (“He’s the only genuine intellectual he-man this country has”). But first impressions can be deceiving. While Saul eloquently focuses on abstract concepts such as victimization and a “toadying mythology” (based on the “illusion of the essential mother-country role” a.k.a. Britain), Francis impressively dissects a number of specific national icons.

Like Saul, Francis thinks a country needs myths, just not misleading ones. “History,” he writes, “is contested terrain. Core myths are usually the property of the elites, who use them to reinforce the status quo and to further their claims to privilege.” He goes on to tackle the myths of the Canadian Pacific Railway (a corporate myth created by the CPR itself), and the RCMP , who spent a good part of the century covertly “smashing” radical organizations and spying on their own citizens until the advent of CSIS. He also looks at the myth of the wilderness as represented by the fetishization of the canoe, and the “Myth of the Master Race,” which complements Saul’s idea of the “toadying mythology.” Most intriguing is a section on the myth of unity. Referring to a number of postmodern thinkers and writers, Francis comments, “In a post-national world it is apparently acceptable, even advisable, not to have a unified sense of identity.” It’s not an argument the author necessarily buys, but he raises it to thoughtful effect.

National Dreams works well in tandem with Reflections of a Siamese Twin. Francis is the engaged and honest schoolteacher and Saul the passionate philosopher. Francis the Westfalia van, Saul the Saab Turbo, but they both get you where you’re going.

And what then is Fawcett? A Hummer co-opted for civilian purposes. He rumbles over the dunes, indiscriminately spraying sand in the faces of 90-pound weaklings and bullies alike. He’s both lush with praise and downright nasty toward the people and things he disdains, which include certain prima ballerinas, people who eat too many doughnuts, liars (many), and “Aggrieved White Guys.” Some of his pronouncements on native issues make the author himself sound a bit like an Aggrieved White Guy, but these internal contradictions are moderately refreshing – and honest. The enemy here, as in Saul and Francis, is a corporate mentality and blind globalization. These books are all complicated, but as Fawcett points out, this is one complicated country. Perhaps even an impossible country, I think.

The authors of The Canadian 100, both historians, concede that they have written an “admittedly impossible book,” which seems fitting. They have attempted to list – in order – the 100 most influential Canadians of the 20th century. It is unexpectedly saucy for the kind of book it is – Granatstein and Rawlinson include a horse (Northern Dancer) and a former American called Ernie Coombs, a man better known as Mr. Dressup and famous for entertaining children. In the number one spot is Charles Saunders, a man who developed a fast-maturing, hardy strain of hard spring wheat called Marquis, which may tell you more about Canadians than you want to know.

At first glance, The Canadian 100 appears to be merely a list, a stab at a canon of influence. But it quickly becomes evident that the authors had another motive. The most affectionate tone is reserved for those who fostered Canadian nationalism – first in the face of British imperialism and much later in the face of American corporate and cultural expansionism. Their tone changes when writing of those, anglophones and francophones alike, who bred the current unrest in Quebec and those who help maintain it. This book, like most of the others, is a plea for unity. The 100th spot is reserved for Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard: “A dangerous demagogue, Bouchard will destroy Canada or paralyze it.”

Much of this reading made me wonder how these people manage to procreate. If it wasn’t for The Disbeliever’s Dictionary, Mondo Canuck, and Will Ferguson’s memories of his youthful gropings, you would think these people never think about sex. But it seems they just don’t write about it, at least as it relates to their philosophical and political positions. Which is odd, considering that one of their greatest sex symbols ever – if I understand this correctly – was a former prime minister named Pierre Elliott Trudeau (nicknamed P.E.T.) The other is a Buddhist Jew who manipulates Christian imagery masterfully in his songs and poetry. “There are about seven women in Canada under fifty who wouldn’t sleep with [Leonard Cohen],” writes Fawcett. Cohen does not show up in The Canadian 100. Trudeau does.

And what of love? In Lost in North America (Talonbooks, 1994), John Gray writes of a Danish acrobat, the toast of Tivoli Gardens, and a Swedish baron driven to double suicide after society pillories them for their adulterous indiscretion. “In all of popular Canadian mythology, among all our war heroes, explorers, timber barons and constitutional visionaries,” Gray asks, “is there a single person who died for love?”

Finally, my recommendations. A.) We put off the invasion for another millennium – these people have enough problems already. B.) We invite (the Earth term is “abduct”) authors Francis, Fawcett, and Saul to visit and help us investigate our own collective amnesia and obfuscations. They’re a crack team.