The truly great white north


In the late 1970s a cou­ple of toque wear­ing os­ten­si­bly Cana­dian beer-drink­ing buf­foons named the McKen­zie Broth­ers ap­peared on Sec­ond City TV. The bla­tant par­ody of Cana­dian blue-col­lar types as Miller-Time bo­zos fea­tured a back­drop of a map of Canada. On it was writ­ten “The Great White North.”

It was a ter­rif­i­cally suc­cess­ful send-up of work­ing class takes on the world that in­jected such phrases (briefly) into the lan­guage as “hose­heads” and “take-off.” Many Cana­di­ans en­joyed it as much as Amer­i­cans. Many did not. How­ever...

Af­ter be­ing as­signed to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia by my head of­fice 16 years ago there has al­ways been a lin­ger­ing sus­pi­cion in my mind that too many Amer­i­cans find it hard to get be­yond such knee-jerk stereotypes when it comes to their sprawl­ing and vaguely mys­te­ri­ous neigh­bor to the North.

In Oc­to­ber 2008, Kevin My­ers, writ­ing in the Lon­don Sun­day Tele­graph asked: “So who to­day in the United States knows about the stoic and self­less friend­ship its north­ern neigh­bor has given it in Afghanistan?”

Cer­tainly not the care­less im­pre­sar­ios of Fox-TV, it seems. On March 17 at 3 a.m. satir­i­cal Fox TV show called Red Eye touched off a mi­nor diplo­matic row with deroga­tory com­ments re­gard­ing the Cana­dian mil­i­tary’s per­for­mance in Afghanistan, the Moun­ties, and the Cana­dian na­tion it­self.

Host Greg Gut­field took off on com­ments from Cana­dian Lt. Gen. An­drew Les­lie’s (“Les­lie—what a name for a gen­eral”) re­marks that the mil­i­tary may need a year to re­build af­ter Canada’s tour ex­pires in 2011. That led to a poorly-timed panel dis­cus­sion in which co­me­dian Doug Ben­son chimed in with: “I didn’t even know they were in the war...I thought that’s where you go if you don’t want to fight. Go chill in Canada.”

Added to com­ments about “this ridicu­lous na­tion” and “we should in­vade,” the firestorm was not long in com­ing. It in­cluded thou­sands of YouTube and Face­book re­ac­tions, a re­buke from Cana­dian-born con­ser­va­tive colum­nist David Frum (New­Ma­jor­ and an of­fi­cial com­plaint by Canada’s De­fense Min­is­ter Peter MacKay. An apol­ogy of sorts was forth­com­ing from both Fox and Gut­field. But did I say poorly timed? Yes. That very week four Cana­dian sol­diers would be killed and eight more wounded in op­er­a­tions, which in­volved the largest jointU.S.-Cana­dian of­fen­sive since the Korean War. To get a com­par­i­son you have to think in terms of 10 per cent. Canada is very roughly 10 per­cent the pop­u­la­tion, econ­omy and out­put of the United States. To imag­ine 40 Amer­i­can sol­diers killed in Afghanistan in one week would give some sense of the tragedy in­volved. And there’s the rub. As U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Gates well knows, Canada has been do­ing stead­fast ser­vice in Afghanistan since the first units ar­rived in 2002. In 2005 nearly 2,300 Canucks be­gan re­as­sign­ment to the most danger­ous re­gion of the coun­try - the Tal­iban-in­fested area around Kandahar. In their 2007 ac­count ti­tled The Un­ex­pected War, Jan­ice Stein and An­drew Lang showed that this de­ploy­ment, steadily los­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in Canada, came about es­sen­tially be­cause of treaty obli­ga­tions be­tween the two coun­tries dat­ing back to 1949. The nar­ra­tive shows that the now den­i­grated De­fense Sec­re­tary Don­ald Rums­feld did not want Canada in Iraq. (For Canada’s leaders such a de­ploy­ment was not in the cards in any case). Rums­feld wanted the Cana­dian force in Kabul as a sta­bi­lizer to NATO forces still fight­ing there.

Al­most un­known to Miller-time ex­perts on world af­fairs is why Cana­di­ans in­stinc­tively bri­dle when their coun­try’s mil­i­tary record is dis­missed by some of their trag­i­cally un­in­formed neigh­bors.

In 1914, as part of the Bri­tish Em­pire at the time, Canada en­tered World War 1 al­most a full three years be­fore the United States. It fa­mously took part in some of the heav­i­est fight­ing and suf­fered not only 60,000 ca­su­al­ties, but risked the break-up of the na­tion over a bit­ter Con­scrip­tion Cri­sis. It was much the same in World War 2, with in­ter­na­tion­ally-at­tuned Canucks not hes­i­tat­ing to fol­low Bri­tain and France to war against Hitler in Septem­ber, 1939, well over two years be­fore Pearl Har­bor.

In the Korean War (1950-1953) an elite Cana­dian bri­gade, the Princess Pa­tri­cia’s Cana­dian Light In­fantry, won a then un­prece­dented Pres­i­den­tial Ci­ta­tion by U.S. Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man for cov­er­ing a U.S. and United Na­tions with­drawal at Kapy­ong in April 1951. Look it up.

Af­ter 1945, Canada was an ab­so­lutely vi­tal mem­ber of NATO. Euro­peans felt if the Cana­di­ans were “in” it could not be a U.S. Tro­jan horse. Since 1945 Cana­di­ans have suf­fered more ca­su­al­ties than any other na­tion in the cause of United Na­tions’ peace­keep­ing.

It is true that Canada has al­most scan­dalously ig­nored its mil­i­tary in re­cent decades and Cana­dian voices have been the most stri­dent in call­ing to re­verse this trend since 9/11. Yet the record stands at 116 Cana­dian boys and girls, one diplo­mat and two fe­male aid work­ers who have paid the ul­ti­mate price in Afghanistan even when folks back home, just like their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, have se­ri­ous doubts about the mis­sion.

This is Greek tragedy not a fit sub­ject for tele­vi­sion satire. This is why Cana­di­ans re­act so vis­cer­ally when their sac­ri­fices are mocked so scorn­fully and gra­tu­itously by peo­ple who have never heard a shot fired in anger. Or are not likely to. But Cana­di­ans as a peo­ple have shown they can also be wise and pa­tient. They know that hose­heads are not lim­ited to just the north­ern side of the bor­der.

A na­tive of Carbonear, Neil Earle is a res­i­dent alien, a pas­tor and jour­nal­ist liv­ing in Los An­ge­les who has taught Amer­i­can His­tory at Cit­rus Col­lege in Glen­dora, Cal­i­for­nia. His ar­ti­cle on Canada in Afghanistan is sched­uled to ap­pear in the Amer­i­can Re­view of Cana­dian Stud­ies this sum­mer.

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