Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Greatest Big Whiners

The CRTC has contacted On the Fence to complain that -- with all this Future-of-the-Free-World Election business -- I've been neglecting to fulfil my CanCon obligations of late. In order to bring the original Canadian content up to the regulated levels and not have my blogging licence rescinded (there's only so much bandwidth, you see), I hereby reprint an opinion piece I had in the National Post last Thursday. A little piece I like to call... In Defence of the Greatest Canadian.
There's something genuinely ironic about the attacks being levelled against CBC's The Greatest Canadian series: The show's many outraged critics -- from every wavelength of the political spectrum -- are getting into the spirit of the series without even knowing it.

Andrew Coyne's column last week, for example, was exactly the kind of intelligent response that The Greatest Canadian is designed to stir up. Coyne highlighted those people in the top 100 that he admired -- Sir Arthur Currie, Gordie Howe, Sir William Logan -- and suggested names that weren't on the list such as Cornelius van Horne, Samuel de Champlain and Louis de Frontenac. Rather than being pleased to have a reason to discuss some of his historical heroes, however, he lambasted the show for "shallowness and triviality" -- even as it gave him an opportunity to engage with our country's rich past in a forum usually reserved for the new and now.

Considering that the very concept of "great Canadians" is part of a conservative view of history, it's bizarre that right-wing voices in particular have been so loud in their criticism of the series. After all, after years of bemoaning the displacement of the Great Men theory of history by a politically correct social history of seamstresses and street cleaners, they should welcome a prominent acknowledgement by the state-funded broadcaster that individuals -- not just peoples or classes -- shaped the world we live in today.

And this is exactly why the left is up in arms about The Greatest Canadian, too: There are no women or aboriginals and only one non-white person among the top 10 finalists. All those years of promoting multiculturalism and Canadians still have the gall to admire dead white guys like John A. Macdonald! In a typical response on, Gina Whitfield wrote that the series "works to reinforce the dominant myths of the white settler society of Canada." Then, getting into the spirit of the show even as she expressed disdain for it, she suggested Emily Murphy, our first female magistrate, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first black female newspaper editor in North America, as great Canadians who should have made the cut.

But while political pundits of the left and right have united to rage against The Greatest Canadian, viewers at home have been eating it up. One hundred and forty thousand people visited CBC's Web site to nominate contenders and 600,000 tuned in to the premiere of the series. (By way of comparison, the average viewership for Hockey Night in Canada is 584,000.)

Why aren't Canada's opinion-makers weighing in positively with their suggestions, rather than tearing apart a show that's trying to get kids interested in history? Because the nominees and the finalists were voted on by average Canadians and the results poke big holes in both the left and right's claims of representing them. Their Greatest Canadians -- Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Margaret Atwood -- didn't make the final list, but David Suzuki (tree-hugging hippie!) and Don Cherry (jingoistic bigot!) did.

Sure, The Greatest Canadian series is corny and would be more accurately titled The Most Popular Canadian Among English Canadians. But it has sparked a national conversation about our heroes in an age where the very idea of heroes is derided. And one of its episodes featured Deborah Grey riding a Zamboni. There are worse
offenders in the television wasteland.

Lester B. Pearson all the way, baby!
How bout them apples OshCosh, B'Gosh!

P.S. Speaking of Mr. Cosh, check out this recent post of his on the sheer weirdness of the big-event-that-did-not-take-place-in-Canada. Good question. Who can explain it?

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