Author celebrates our sense of unbridgeable divides
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In “Hockey, the National Id,” he looks at the national game as not only a spectator sport but also as a bellwether of our society, from the unifying effect of Paul Henderson’s winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series to his tracing the roots of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution to the 1955 Richard Riots in Montreal, which followed the Rocket’s justified but punitive suspension from the 1955 playoffs.
MacGregor, who currently writes a column called This Country for the Globe and Mail, has long been considered one of Canada’s finest journalists, and this volume serves as something of a sampler and encapsulation of his talents. His reputation as an expert on things Canadian also landed him on CBC’s much-vaunted Seven Wonders of Canada panel.
From his on-the-ground insights ranging from the Oka stand-off to the 2006 Olympics in Torino to the previously mentioned Spicer Commission tour, Canadians stands as a superior example of reportage, and a reckoning of a journalistic career of more than three decades.
MacGregor was there, wherever the headlines of a given week positioned “there,” and his observations provide additional depth to incidents which are now history-book fodder.
There is more to MacGregor’s work than reportage, however. When he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005, his special citation referred to him as one of Canada’s “most gifted storytellers,” and it is this talent that is chiefly on display in Canadians.
MacGregor has a unique ability to balance objective reportage with a keen, emotional core; he has a good eye for the human interest angle, which intensifies his editorial thrust, rather than distracting from it.
Thus, “Hockey the National Id” is framed with an account of Georges Boudreault and his son, who raced from their Saguenay home to Montreal to pay their respects to Maurice “Rocket” Richard, whose body was lying in state in Montreal following his death in May 2005.
MacGregor’s account of these men driving through the night and their attempts to get access to the Molson Centre when they arrive too late, says more about the iconic stature of Richard, and the importance of the national game, than any amount of accounting and attendance data.
Georges’ centre-ice reckoning with his hero, and what follows, is genuinely stirring, and underscores and reinforces MacGregor’s insights. Similar in effect is MacGregor’s account of the hours prior to the decisive vote in the Manitoba legislature that would scuttle the Meech Lake Accord. MacGregor spent those hours in Elijah Harper’s hotel suite, the only journalist present, and his insights into Harper render a dozen history books moot.
The native leader, who sat with his eagle feather in one hand and a Bible in the other, “was interested in talking about anything but the pressures and the accord, and so we talked about residential schools and hockey and his own fascinating life.” The Harper that emerges is fundamentally and deeply human, antithetical to those histories which remember him by the single word (“No”) that helped destroy the Meech Lake Accord.
The key story to Canadians, the story that seems to have given the book its impetus and broadly defines its terms, is MacGregor’s account of riding Via Rail No. 638 in October of 2000. The train, transporting Pierre Trudeau’s body from Ottawa to Montreal, was greeted along its route by hundreds of Canadians, ordinary citizens driven to mark the passing of one of our great men. People felt a need, it seems, to be in his presence one final time, to wave the man on to his final rest, to be there with their children if only to say “we were there,” and, in one heartbreaking passage, to touch the train as it passed.
The unity, the outpouring of grief, is stunning, until MacGregor becomes “startlingly aware that if Via Rail No. 638 happened this same soft October day to be passing through, say, Salmon Arm, British Columbia, rather than Alexandria, Ont., the people of Canada would also be reaching out. But not to touch the train. Rather, to give back the finger.”
That sense of unbridgeable divides, of distinct and unique peoples, is the nature of both our culture and of MacGregor’s book. Rather than bemoaning our lack of uniformity, however, MacGregor does the only thing possible for a true Canadian: he celebrates our differences.
Canadians is, in the final reckoning, a series of snapshots of our varied and diverse cultures, an insight into worlds and events that may be utterly foreign to some of us, but are, at their heart, fundamentally our own. Author Robert J. Wiersema lives in Victoria.