Canadian cultural nationalism lives

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Consider this a delayed obituary for McClelland & Stewart, "The Canadian Publishers," which effectively expired this month after a lengthy decline in the care of several owners and convoluted arrangements. They waited till the firm's 100th anniversary had passed -- a full week. Our question is: does this also mark the demise of Canadian cultural nationalism?

That movement was coterminous, codependent and symbiotic with other forms of Canadian nationalism. The economic nationalists of the 1960s called for more Canadian ownership -- and a majority of Canadians said they'd accept a lower standard of living in return -- a pretty stunning response. But the action was often cultural. When Ryerson Press was sold (out) to a U.S. firm, a group of writers marched to Egerton Ryerson's statue on the Ryerson campus and draped a U.S. flag over his bronze shoulders. This led, circuitously, to public support policies for Canadian authors which helped generate, eventually, the books that most of us, or our kids in school, have read. Ditto for music, art and film.

A turning point came in the 1980s when the Mulroney Conservatives negotiated a free-trade deal with the U.S. that seriously undermined economic and other nationalisms. But they weren't ready to take on cultural nationalism. The one area they vowed to "keep off the table" was culture. The result was a tortuous clause exempting "cultural industries" from the agreement but adding, if Canada did support its culture, that the U.S. had the right to punish us in any way it chose. It's so bizarre that it's never been invoked.

Eventually, since everything is connected to everything else, those cultural support policies, including protection of Canadian ownership in publishing, were whittled down so that two weeks ago Bertelsmann, a German firm that owns Random House, a U.S.-based publisher, took full control of McClelland & Stewart. The law against such takeovers still exists but the Harper government waived it. In the supermarket this week, I ran into businessman Avie Bennett, who bought M&S from Jack McClelland in 1986 and kept it going in decent health till the dawn of the new millennium. I asked, across our shopping carts, if he felt a sense of mourning. No, he said, Times have changed too much.

So is this the end of Canadian cultural nationalism too? Not so fast. That movement has a whack-a-mole quality. It spurts up somewhere else. Where do you find it today -- not just stuff made by Canadians but made with a spirit of defiance and national pride? I propose beer ads, no kidding. There's high art in many of them (along with its absence in lots of novels and operas).

There's even an evolution of the genre. The first "My name is Joe and I'm Canadian" ad appeared in 2000, when M&S began its descent. It opens tentatively but rises in confidence to "I believe in peacekeeping, not policing. In diversity, not assimilation" -- definitely combative and anti-American. It peaks at: "It's pronounced Zed, not Zee" and a piercing, "the best part of North America!" It's shot exuberantly and actor Jeff Douglas is perfect. It was succeeded several years later by an "Anthem" ad that lacked bite, defiance or self-definition via contrast with the U.S. By then Molson's was about to be bought by Coors.

The most recent set of Molson ads: There's an unwritten code in Canada -- are well crafted and nationalist in a self-deprecating way: You think hockey tape can fix anything... you've overcome bad directions to find your friend's cottage -- But where's the defiance? It's subtler, yet it's returned, if you search: You've guesstimated a phone number, you've cooked with a flashlight and [ENDING WITH JOE'S PASSION, SLAMMING DOWN A CARTON OF EMPTIES] -- You recycle!

That, I submit, is a deft, artful shot at the Americanizing, privatizing policies of Stephen Harper. I don't know if Harper recycles but I know intuitively, even if he does, that it isn't with a whole heart. He can't -- imagine him slinking to the curb of 24 Sussex with his blue box -- because if he did, it might be the first step on a slippery slope to cleaning up and closing down his beloved tar sands.

QED. Canadian cultural nationalism lives.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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