Andrew Cohen is Canada’s peri- patetic prophet of doom. A networker par excellence, his Rolodex is chock-full of the best names in journalism and academe in Toronto and Ottawa ”” and he has the dinner party anecdotes to prove it. A freelance columnist, university prof, frequent public speaker and media pundit, he’s also author of three books, the last two of which ”” 2003’s While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World and his latest, The Unfinished Canadian ”” share much the same the- sis: Canada’s greatest glories lie more in our past than in our future.
In While Canada Slept, Cohen argued that Canada, by scrimping on spending on our military and foreign aid, is becoming irrelevant on the world stage. The main reason we have any con- tinuing impact, he posited, is our once- golden reputation of the 1940s and ”˜50s, thanks to the likes of people like Lester Pearson and Norman Robertson.
Now comes The Unfinished Canadian, a kind of bookend to his previous effort. His examination of the national id again features provocative writing, controversial theses and ”” commendably ”” pro- posed solutions to some of the many ills he lists. Too bad, then, that its strengths are too often obscured by sheer grumpiness, more than a faint whiff of elitism and ”” most regret- tably ”” the total absence of real Canadian people in a book that purports to define them.
Cohen’s fluid writing style and slick turns of phrase invariably make him a lively read ”” even on a topic as potentially mind-deadening as what-it- means-to-be-Canadian. That’s true here, and his best chapter is also the most timely: ”œThe Casual Canadian” argues that for too many recent arrivals, being Canadian means nothing special, other than a safe harbour as needed or a new battleground on which to fight old wars. The evacuation of between 40,000 and 50,000 Canadians from Lebanon when the Israelis began bomb- ing the country last summer is a case in point: many are ”œCanadians of conven- ience” ”” full-time Lebanese residents who dropped into this country just long enough to acquire a passport before returning home. Then there’s what Cohen calls the ”œcompartmental- ization of Canada,” by which recent arrivals pack their age-old rivalries and hatreds in with the other emotional and physical baggage they bring here. We aim to be a country where civic nationalism trumps ethnic strife ”” but in an irrevocably multicultural Canada, Cohen asks what happens if the reverse comes true.
He explores that issue in intelli- gent, clear-eyed fashion ”” so much so that you wish he’d devoted more space to it. Instead, his analysis of Canadians is reminiscent of a great old line in hockey about lousy players: ”œHe may be small, but he’s slow.” Canada, by Cohen’s reckoning, may be small pota- toes internationally, but it’s also a slow-to-adapt, smug, unproductive nation filled with people who delight chiefly in tearing down their betters.
Each chapter is named after differ- ent categories of people ”” Ottawans are ”œcapital” Canadians while other cate- gories include ”œchameleon,” ”œobserved,” ”œhybrid” and ”œAmerican.” They share a quality in common: no matter what our countrypeople do, Cohen will criticize them. ”œCasual” Canadians don’t care enough for his lik- ing, but he seems no more impressed by those who care too much. He makes this eye-popping observation: ”œOn Canada Day, 2005, a visiting Dutchman winced at the orgy of tub-thumping and chest-beating on Parliament Hill on July 1; it reminded him of torch-lit nationalist rallies in Europe.” Really!
Canadians who criticize the United States are ”œtall poppies” or simply jeal- ous; Canadians who love Canada as it is are content with mediocrity. There’s always something wrong.
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Oh, and he really despises Ottawa ”” where, sadly for him, he lives. Its architecture is ”œmediocre,” its restau- rants mostly ”œunflavoured and unfavoured,” its people apparently even more dull: ”œNo one,” he writes, ”œcould accuse Ottawa of being a town of big spenders, big hearts or deep pockets.” Although by Cohen’s own evidence, Ottawans do have big hearts ”” too big, as it happens. ”œThe audi- ences of the National Arts Centre,” he notes, have never seen ”œa play, concert or ballet they did not reward with a standing ovation” even if ”œthe violin- ist broke a string, the soprano fainted, the prima ballerina tripped, or Hamlet forgot to be.” To be a rube or not to be? That is never in question here.
The laments keep coming, with such volume and enthusiasm that he seems at times to write them just for the sheer bilious pleasure. Inevitably, the overkill at times undermines the argument. Yes, 24 Sussex Drive badly needs renovating, but it’s not even remotely accurate to say that during Paul Martin’s tenure, ”œthe prime minis- ter’s residence looked like a tarpaper shack in Appalachia.” And Cohen, a friend of former governor general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul (which he should have but didn’t acknowledge), fairly trembles with outrage at the treatment accorded them by ”œLittle Canadians,” the ”œharpies and handwringers” who criticized Clarkson, a person he says some people (uncited) call ”œthe great- est” governor general in Canada’s histo- ry. Speaking as a fan of the former GG and her husband myself, I’d say he does them no favour with his near-worship- ful praise of them and assaults on all those who dared to criticize. It brings to mind nothing more or less than the scene in the 1990s stoner movie Wayne’s World, in which an adoring Garth and Wayne, brought face to face with their idol Alice Cooper, prostrate themselves and chant: ”œWe’re not wor- thy!” again and again.
There’s also some creative misrep- resentation with the aim of denigrating Canadian taste when comparing the results of a 2004 CBC show asking Canadians to choose the Greatest Canadian with a similar exercise on the BBC in 2001. The Canadian Top 100 list put Tommy Douglas on top; other nominees made the list a ”œfarce,” writes Cohen, citing wrestler Bret Hart, Maple Leafs goalie Eddie Belfour, actress Pamela Anderson and Rush lead singer Geddy Lee. By contrast, he writes, the British list ”” despite ”œdubious picks” such as Julie Andrews and Boy George ”” proved that ”œBritons know their past and cherish it.” The Greatest Briton was ”œa wonderful, educational exercise”; ”œGreatest Canadian was entertainment, frothy and frivolous.”
Speaking of which, the British list also included, among others, rock singers Freddie Mercury, Bono, David Bowie, Robbie Williams, Johnny Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols), Phantom of the Opera‘s Michael Crawford, footballer David Beckham, and the late politician Enoch Powell, best known for his divisive views on race. They’re all apparently supporting actors for his claim that the British list ”œbeyond the top ten … reflects men and women of stature.”
Those plaints aside, the fundamental problem is this: if you want to define a people, it helps to talk to real ones. The Unfinished Canadian has no end of quotes from politicians, academ- ics, pollsters, journalists and the Globe and Mail. But none of those ”” and I say this as someone who has spent most of my working life proudly and happily in journalism ”” are representative Canadians: to use Cohen’s lingo, they’re ”œobservers” rather than the ”œobserved.” As for the people they like to dissect ”” the 30 million or so Canadians who don’t read the Globe or National Post or watch the CBC every day ”” from them we hear nothing, rien, nada, niente, nichevo.
An underlying theme of Cohen’s book is that Canadians lack the drive, determination and curiosity to venture beyond their immediate environment to learn about how others do things. Hypothesis noted, for whatever it’s worth. What’s more certain is this: if Cohen had taken his own advice and ventured beyond the always-chattering classes of Ottawa and Toronto in his reporting, The Unfinished Canadian would have been a far more finished product ”” and perhaps quite different in its conclusions.