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 (NewMajority.com) 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.