This summer, John Semley asks the tough questions of our nation: Are we Canadians really a funny people? And, if so, how did we get that way? Each week, for 10 weeks, he will explore a new facet of our history in humour. For previous instalments, click here.
Confession: I kind of like Will Ferguson. I mean, I don’t hate Will Ferguson. I can’t properly get away, as I had originally hoped, with titling this column about the author of Why I Hate Canadians, “Why I Hate Will Ferguson.” Because I don’t. And anyway I’m sure he’s already seen plenty of that.
There’s a good bit in R.M. Vaughn’s recently published collection, Compared To Hitler, where the author nicely sums up his bafflement with Canadian literary-arts super-brand Douglas Coupland. Vaughn writes that “his individual works are no longer perceived as singular creations within an artist’s history, but as indistinguishable and interchangeable products in a branded line.” I felt pretty much the same about Will Ferguson. In my mind, his entire library of humour, novels and histories (ick, what an utterly Canadian trifecta) were little more than impulse purchases stacked near the cash at a Chapters: covers wrapped in the cliche upholstery of Canadiana (Mounties, canoes, doughnuts) all put across with a requisite smirk that let’s you know that these things have passed into the realm of kitsch, that they’re safely embraced between “scare quotes,” that Ferguson doesn’t actually mean them.
To be Canadian, I figured, is either to be hopelessly earnest about your status as a Canadian or stand outside of the whole operation altogether. You don’t have to retain some nostalgia for the opening strains of the Hockey Night In Canada theme (the old one, the real one), but have to solemnly respect those who might. Ferguson was a fence-sitter.
This is a dumb attitude. And reading through Ferguson, I’ve been shaken of it. It’s pat to say of his work that it views Canada as an outsider (despite his hearty Albertan stock). What’s true of him is that he seems almost genetically resistant to the basic structuring tropes of the Canadian identity: that we are better than America, that we are somehow inherently noble and, most of all, that we were nice. In 1997’s Why I Hate Canadians, Ferguson issues an opening salvo against this reactionary deferral to our own niceness. Nice, he writes, is “the blandest adjective in English language, and we have claimed it proudly as our own.”
Why I Hate Canadians, from its cutesy come-on of a title on down, has little use for nice. In one passage, Ferguson’s smirking persona curdles into outright meanness, when he actually cheers the death of Kurt Cobain as a fortunate event that allowed him to duck the grunge era entirely while ambling abroad in Asia. It smacks of a self-satisfied snarkster who will say anything, man. But for the most part, Why I Hate Canadians is a vital, well researched and often very funny look at the structuring ambivalence of the Canadian identity. The book’s deeply contemptuous of Canada’s ludicrous monarchical ties. “The Commonwealth is just another name for detritus,” he writes. “It is made up primarily of ex-possessions, like a group of emancipated slaves still hangin’ around the plantation owner’s dilapidated mansion.” (Again, the equation between antebellum America and Canada is plainly galling and un-P.C., but better for it. No more Mr. Nice Guy, etc.)
Ferguson takes keen interest in America, too – that other great psychic empire. In the chapter “America Is Sexy,” he describes the experience of flipping through American TV in a Canadian bordertown. This primordial Canadian experience – a kind of Freudian primal scene that orders a lot of young hosers’ Us vs Them ideas of national identity – was previously denied to him, growing up in the hinterland of northern Alberta.
He gets that this confrontation with “Jenny Jones and Judge Judy and Babe Watch and Geraldo” and et cetera isn’t, as fretful nationalists may claim, corrupting to some innate, inborn sense of Canadianness. “Up close and in your face, breathing its heady halitosis and invading your personal space, America is hardly awe-inspiring. It is more like a traffic accident on a grand scale, and Canadians slow down to gawk.”
Beyond this sort of writing being funny – “heady halitosis”! – it feels very true to me. As someone who grew up half an hour outside of Buffalo, inundated by aggressive ambulance chase ads and helium-voiced morning show hosts with the volatile energy of an anthropomorphized cocaine booger, to me, America was a thing not so much evil and bad as just sort of weird and stupid: a nation-state-sized Arby’s parking lot. It was precisely my exposure to lumbering giant next door that helped cultivate what Ferguson calls “our secret smugness.”
After Why I Hate Canadians, Ferguson’s work feels a bit less interesting, the result of his being enshrined as the toast of a literary party he originally arrived at as a scruffy gatecrasher. How To Be A Canadian (2001) is crammed with the most humdrum kind of self-flattering Canuck humour; the kind of book that thinks it’s funny to offer a definition of “skidoo” to people who already know what it is.
Though, to be fair, 2004’s Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw includes a great bit where Ferguson, road-tripping across the prairies with his son, feels personally at fault for the uncannily flat and boring landscape. (“This is Regina,” I say. “I’m sorry.”)
In places like these, Ferguson’s writing feels sharp and subversive. And as far as cutting to the core of What It Means To Be Canadian, we can all take a lesson from Why I Hate Canadians.
I’d take defiant pride in smugness, even secret smugness, over boring ol’ niceness any day.
Next week: We shed our smugness for coiled neuroses, with a look at Jonathan Goldstein’s I’ll Seize The Day Tomorrow, a book that includes my favourite sub sandwich metaphor ever.