A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
The reason the modern world has festivals and anniversaries is that, long ago, primitive peoples had such short, brutal lives that, every once in a while, they had to stop working themselves to death and have some fun. In the days when people still toiled, these quick breaks were important to regenerate the emotional batteries. It was an excuse to take the day off, get together with the tribe, get drunk and eat all the food that was going to go rotten anyway. These events were usually local and also served to strengthen the common bonds of a town or village. Today, February 11th, we celebrate the one year anniversary of one of the best festivals Canada ever had. One year ago, Wayne Gretzky lit the Olympic Torch and we partied like it was 2010. Essentially, for 17 days, we forgot we were Canadians and became a primitive tribe marking out our territory in the world of winter sports — although it could just as easily have been a buffalo hunt or a successful raid for ponies. For one brief, shining moment, we were citizens of our country — and we liked it.
It’s difficult for Canadians to be Canadian, simply because we have no single imperative to hang our toques on. In case you haven’t been watching, Canada doesn’t work the same way as most countries. We really don’t have a defining moment that stamps us out as Canadians. There was no war of liberation nor a revolution that gave birth to our nation. We negotiated our country into existence as an extra-territorial Britain, and then bought the rest of it — including a very confused native population — from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Once a year, journalists try to shoehorn Vimy Ridge into our national consciousness, but somehow, it never rings as true with us as Bunker Hill does with Americans or the Storming of the Bastille does with the French. Nor do we have an historical persona that identifies us; we were never Vikings or Cossacks or philosopher kings. Our best effort was the Coureur de Bois (who was, in reality, a petty crook, trying to trade furs without a license.) Besides, the plaid shirt and red toque has always been an object of fun — on both sides of the Two Solitudes. Furthermore, we do not produce larger than life leaders, like Churchill or Gandhi — at least not since Sir John A. discovered single malt. Nor do we lionize our military. We have no collective cultural memory that leads us to exalt the art and architecture of our Golden Age. Nor do we depend on cheese or cuckoo clocks to distinguish us from our neighbours. Our cuisine consists of everybody else’s, and our national dress is probably a parka.
There is no single overwhelming ideal that guides us, no event that names us, no crisis that forged us. Yet we are the people called Canadians, and for a brief moment last February, we knew why.
So what the hell happened last year? The answer is easy. We had something to believe in. As our young people chased their young people up and down the ice and snow, we believed in them. We wanted to win. Yeah, yeah, yeah, fair play, good sportsmanship and camaraderie, but in the end we wanted the podium. We want to stand one head taller than everybody else and hear our music being played. We wanted to prevail. And when we did (and even when we didn’t) we gathered around our totem – the red maple leaf – and celebrated our accomplishments. We were no longer Canadians by accident of birth or immigration record, we were Canadians by the power of our deeds — a great northern tribe, jubilant in our triumph, dancing by our fires, far into the night.