Why everyone laughs at Canada

With giant beavers and Alanis Morissette, the closing ceremony of the Winter Games was a feast of stereotypes.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Every two years it is customary to complain about the Olympics. Far from being perceived as embodying the noble spirit of ‘faster, higher, stronger’, the Games seem to get entangled in arguments about everything from politics and drug cheating to spiralling costs, terrorism, dubious fringe sports and clandestine transsexuality.

Two years ago the moaners concentrated on Beijing’s fake fireworks and harped on about how the Chinese were a bunch of fascist bastards. This year, the Winter Games in Vancouver were used as an opportunity for the risk-averse to question the safety of the Olympics, for French Canadians to make their habitual gripe about feeling excluded, and for the Russians to regard their underperformance as a metaphor for national decline.

Then there are the eternal laments. Just as the Paralympics are derided as patronising to the disabled (‘they are all winners’), so every four years we carp that the Winter Olympics are elitist, only really open to rich countries that have a lot of snow, and whose athletes can afford the equipment. Oh, and hardy-har, doesn’t curling look funny? They’re using brooms!

Then there are the opening and closing ceremonies. Host countries go to great lengths to ensure that theatrical representations of their nations are appropriate, with critics determined to conclude otherwise. Admittedly, two years ago in Beijing, in an effort to signal the transfer of the Summer Games to London in 2012, the organisers did make it rather easy for the knockers by featuring an exploding double-decker bus. Many in Britain were quick to point to a ghastly resemblance to one of the atrocities in London on 7 July 2005.

I expect some hoped that the closing ceremony in Vancouver would also be a shambles. After all, there are many people who don’t like Canadians, principally neocons in the US and UK who can’t stand the goody-goody image Canadians like to convey to the world – in contradistinction to gun-toting Americans, who don’t believe in public TV and don’t have free healthcare.

Broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday night, the closing ceremony will probably be remembered for its giant inflatable beavers, which, if not quite satisfying the critics, certainly pleased fans of double entendres. The allusion was not lost on BBC host Hazel Irvine, who seemed on the verge of corpsing every time she had to mention giant beavers. Maybe their inclusion was deliberate, demonstrating that Canadians do have a sense of humour. If they did not notice the innuendo, the Canadians are more straight-laced than I thought. Or maybe Brits like me are just infantile.

The giant inflatable beavers were accompanied by women strapped to the stems of giant maple leafs, cut-out moose on sticks, men and women dressed as Mounties, French Canadian folk singers and appearances by two of the country’s proudest pop stars, Neil Young and Alanis Morissette, and two of its best-known thespian exports, Michael J Fox and William Shatner. It was all very surreal. But then Olympic ceremonies always are absurd, so there’s no point trying to inject or extract metaphors in or from them. I just wish the organisers would recognise their essential silliness, and in this case they should have gone the whole hog and had Michael Palin sing Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song.

Instead, the organisers sought to infuse the affair with solemnity. Shatner, former Star Trek and a son of Montreal, saluted French Canadians, mentioned Canada’s free healthcare system (he should have added ‘and we beat the Americans at the ice hockey’), and went on at length about how Canadians are the most polite people in the world. It was a bit too partisan for my liking. In keeping with the way-out spirit of the ceremony, Shatner should have instead performed his famous cover version of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’.

I know Canadians feel the need to tell the world what a nice people they are. This probably stems from the fact that when they go abroad they hate being mistaken for Americans. But I don’t know if this earns them any more friends. By doing so, they resemble a kind of needy and neurotic buddy who’s always asking if you like him. America, by comparison, is the kind of mate who raises hell at a party, smashes the furniture, pulls the best-looking girl and then drunkenly whacks you on the back. He’s not a particularly good friend, or a nice person, but he’s fun company nonetheless.

I’m not even sure the nice stereotype of the Canadians is true. In a recent article in the Spectator, the Canadian Leah McLaren sought to puncture a lot of myths about her compatriots. She pointed out that the Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper has prorogued parliament in order to avoid investigation into the torture of detainees handed over to local authorities by Canadian troops in Afghanistan, and the government’s refusal to meet its targets for curbing climate emissions. Indeed, Canada has been ignoring Kyoto targets and in 2008 was named the Fossil of the Year, a wooden-spoon award given by the Climate Action Network International. Canadians can match the stereotype of the Fat American, too: since 1981, obesity rates in the country have risen by 26 per cent in women and 23 per cent in men. ‘Like our neighbours to the south, we’re selfish, lazy, fat, environmentally destructive and smug’, McLaren concluded.

To my mind, the image of the Nice Canadian is best debunked by another son of Montreal, the scientist Steven Pinker, who recalled in his 2002 book The Blank State: ‘At 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969 … the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broke, and three million dollars of property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.’

And I was led to believe this kind of thing only happens in ‘less refined’ countries such as Haiti and Chile.

Still, Canadians I have met have always been nice, and politics aside, the ice hockey final was rather exciting.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

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