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Canada: The "What" in "What's New"

By Michael Murray | PaEHba Day | February 18, 2010 |

By Michael Murray | PaEHba Day | February 18, 2010 |

I’ve heard that in one form or another, 90 percent of Canadians tuned in to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver last Friday. Canada — the country that never gives you any real cause to think about it — was about to have the eyes of the world, or at least those who care about the eccentric niche sports of Nordic countries, trained upon it.

It was a big deal for our country.

Everyone was excited, and not just to see our hockey heroes prevail in a “glamour” sport, but to be center stage for once, and have the rest of the world looking at us, and not those attention-hogging Americans. The Opening Ceremonies would propel us gloriously into the world, making us cool. We would become world-class, and everybody watching would want to come visit, and world leaders and tastemakers would always want to know our opinion.

We would wow the world with our Opening Ceremonies!

Our time had come.

And so I, like everybody else in the country, watched to see us this magical transformation take place.

I watched as fiddlers and tap dancers, all dressed like it was 1988 and they worked in a Celtic themed punk bar, tap-synched and fiddle-synched, as if in a particularly Canadian production of Stomp.

We saw John Furlong, the Games organizer, nervously make a long and boring speech in which he spoke of “the magic of television, ” making it sound like it was 1956, and that TV was still a cutting-edge marvel and not a technology that was quickly being replaced by all sorts of other delivery systems.

A Slam Poet from the Northwest Territories, who without a trace of irony wore a beret and vest, appeared on stage to declare that Canada is the “what” in “what’s new.” He looked quite a bit like how that Stars Wars kid from the YouTube video would have looked had he grown up Amish.

Bryan Adams came out (not of the closet) and sang a song, aboriginals danced, mangled French was spoken, an acrobat floated about the stadium to the strains of Joni Mitchell and a multitude of athletes were shown taking photos of themselves with their iPhones.

Watching all this, I found myself becoming increasingly preoccupied with the winter gear that everybody was wearing and the fake snow that lined the floor of BC Place, the climate-controlled domed stadium in which the ceremonies were taking place. For whatever reasons, people were pretending to be outdoors on a beautiful winter night when they were, in fact, inside. With fake snowflakes being blown about, and music that sounded like it was lifted from a Steven Spielberg movie blasting away, the evening lurched toward its emotional crescendo, the moment when the Olympic flame was to conclude its long journey.

But as this was a Canadian production, and our reach always seems to exceed our grasp, the four hydraulic things (looked a bit like Stonehenge — think Spinal Tap) that were to house the flame, would not ascend on cue. The participants stood nervously by, pretending that everything was going according to plan. Time passed. People exchanged nervous looks. More time passed.

Eventually, somebody told them to just light whatever was available to light. And then Wayne Gretzky was dispatched, via the back of a white pick-up truck — after having to wait in an air lock so that the roof of the domed stadium wouldn’t collapse when they opened the front door — through the mild and rainy streets of Vancouver, to ignite the external cauldron. As he was doing this, nervously looking at the torch as if he fully expected the rain to extinguish it, boozy dudes emerged from the sparse crowd of bystanders and began to run along beside him shouting stuff like “Yeah, Fucken A! Canada, Wooo!”

It might not have been world-class, but it was sweet, if embarrassing.

This is Canada.

What you have to know in order to understand and expect a spectacle such as this is that Canada doesn’t really have any sort of national identity. We tend to define ourselves in opposition to the States, the big brother we watch from afar with jealousy and contempt.

We love you, by the way.

We really do.

We want to be you.

But we’re utterly overwhelmed by your confidence, certainty, and inventiveness, and so, we seek to create virtue out of necessity. If Americans are confident, then to be confident is bad, and we must be modest. If America is a melting pot where everybody becomes united, than we’re a mosaic, a place where everybody is governmentally directed to maintain whatever tribal customs they’ve happened to import. If America is about making money, then Canada is about distributing it. If you have “American Idol,” then we have “Canadian Idol.”

It goes on like this.

Our identity is framed in opposition.

Canada is a default position.

Of course, at the root of this is a powerful insecurity. We lack confidence, having always felt overshadowed by, well, everybody. This stigma is so deep rooted, that we didn’t even produce on our own Opening Ceremonies show, but got a couple of Australians to tour around the country for two years, and then produce something based on what they saw.

Think about that for a moment.

We’re really not that self-reliant of a people.

In Canada, ambition is seen as a bad thing, something obnoxious. It’s not an individual wanting to realize his or her full potential, but a vain attempt to make other people feel badly about not realizing their own. We may be polite, but we’re also unfriendly and inhibited, only too eager to project a moral superiority that’s entirely unearned.

It’s pretty fucked-up.

Watching the Winter Olympics, in which we hope to excel in sports that mightier nations pay scant attention (Short Track Speed Skating!), you can see this. Needy and self-important, we overlook all of our own faults, and pompously simulating a winter wonderland in a domed stadium, we become little more than a big-budget Christopher Guest movie, all the while thinking we’re the “new” in “what’s new?”


Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.

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