The Canadaland Guide to Canada (Published in America)
By Jesse Brown, with Vicky Mochama and Nick Zarzycki Touchstone, 236 pages, $32
Is Canada Even Real? How a Nation Built on Hobos, Beavers, Weirdos and Hip Hop Convinced the World to Beliebe By J. C. Villamere Dundurn, 304 pages, $15.99
How are we enjoying the sesquicentennial so far?
Spurred by that constantly quoted headline from The Economist about our "decency, tolerance and good sense," are our hearts fluttering with national pride? Are the first whiffs of Expo 67-type euphoria drifting across the land, sea to shining sea? Is this big birthday turning out to be a wonderful occasion for national reflection on Canadians' imagined community?
Well, not really. Here in my hometown of Ottawa, there are competing logos (for the city, a multicoloured maple leaf composed of triangles; for the federal government, well, a slightly different multicoloured maple leaf composed of triangles). There is chatter about Canada Day; stay tuned for the usual feverishly multicultural brawl on Parliament Hill. There are various conferences branded with both logos that would probably have happened anyway. But excitement? Not so much … except in discussions of how CBC Television's Canada: The Story of Us forgot about quite a lot of Us as it hurtled through the centuries.
At my local independent bookstore, there is a table at the front laden with titles capturing the 150 moment. Books about beer labels, tourist destinations, immigrants, inventors, landscapes. Are they being snapped up? "No," the bookseller sighed. Then he brightened. "I tell you what is doing really well this year – George Orwell's 1984 and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism." We've been trumped by the Trump moment.
Personally, I blame Justin Trudeau – not just for being so relentlessly Instagram-ready, but also for telling The New York Times Magazine that Canada is "the first postnational state" with "no core identity, no mainstream." Then his government removed "Canadian history" as a theme for which proposals for sesquicentennial grants might be considered.
So we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the British North America Act without reference to successes and failures during those 150 years that all contributed to the unique society we live in.
Instead, the celebrations will focus on themes – and I'm quoting the Canadian Heritage website – of diversity and inclusion, reconciliation, youth and the environment. These are all important ideas that I'm pleased to endorse, but most of them are the kind of feel-good aspirations that could fit equally happily on government websites of several other countries (hello, Scandinavia).
Are we really so bland, so indistinguishable?
But wait! One gaping gulf between 1967 and 2017 is that Canadians discovered irony – which is just as well because "Ca-na-da" sung by Bobby Gimby on endless replay is an earworm of the worst kind. And irony permeates two new books that purport to explain this country. Both advertise their mocking tone on their covers: The Canadaland Guide to Canada proudly proclaims that it is "Published in America" while Is Canada Even Real? boasts the subtitle, How a Nation Built on Hobos, Beaver, Weirdos and Hip Hop Convinced the World to Beliebe.
Is Canada Even Real? is a cheerful little handbook drenched in late 20th-century pop culture. The author, J.C. Villamere ("rhymes with 'spill-a-beer,' " the hipster blogger explains), wants to replace our traditional icons – maple leaves, hockey, canoes, totem poles, polar bears – with new ones – hobos, weirdos, hip hop and mascots. (She includes beavers as a new cultural touchpoint, but maybe she's not thinking rodents.) "Canada is at its realest in the minutia of our shared memories and culture," she argues, before plunging into an exploration of her chosen touchpoints, presented in the guise of a quiz.
Sometimes the irreverence is over-the-top smartypants. But sometimes, it's pretty funny, in such sections as (in "Round Four: Weirdos") on Sir John A. Macdonald's "dad jokes" that prove he is the national dad. This is a quirky nostalgia trip for Canadians who value contributions to our national identity from the likes of Stompin' Tom Connors, of TVO's live-action 1970s children's show Cucumber, and of Bonhomme – mascot for Quebec's annual Winter Carnival. You have to be born here, though, to really get it, which cuts out a fifth of today's Canadians.
Given Drake's Degrassi: The Next Generation origins, it's no surprise to find the megasuccessful rapper in Is Canada Even Real? Villamere describes him as "unbelievably authentic … fearless in the face of his own dorkdom," adding the delicious trivia note that, in 2015, Historica Canada created a mash-up of their Heritage Minutes to honour him.
Drake is also a star of The Canadaland Guide to Canada, the cover of which portrays him swooning over a moose. Jesse Brown's book is a lot less adorable than Villamere's, as you would expect from the crowdfunded media critic and self-described "public irritant." But the message is the same; it's time to shake up the national icons. We relish the benign stereotype of our country as a "shapeless, beige haze," he argues, because we're the ones who created it. "But it's time we grew up and told the truth." Our first prime minister was a racist drunk; our head of state is an "estranged and infirm … old British lady" who exists mainly to comfort Canadians who miss colonialism; since Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Canada has "only sort of dabbled in peacekeeping … while being more and more self-congratulating."
The guide is divided into sections including "The People Who Run Canada," "How to Behave," "How We Think," "How We Make a Living." Brown and his team – in addition to his two co-authors, the book lists 17 contributors, from the humourist and journalist Kathryn Borel to the poet David McGimpsey – flip through our history, picking out its absurdities. There is some pretty funny stuff here, such as a whole block of acronyms for the 69 international organizations to which Canada-the-joiner belongs, starting with ADB and ending with WTO. (None of them is explained, but those are the Asian Development Bank and World Trade Organization.) There are neat throwaways:
"The major political parties represent a vast and diverse range of sameness." Marshall McLuhan is blamed for begetting a line of airport-book-writing Canadian idea hustlers who market think nuggets as "game-changing" epiphanies: Douglas Coupland, Malcolm Gladwell, Naomi Klein. CBC is described as "an easy-listening radio station for the elderly." A double-page spread entitled Canadasutra outlines five lewd acts that explain, "How to f*** like a Canadian."
There is also a constant, nausea-producing ricochet between the laugh out loud, the politically incorrect and the just plain shocking. After a tongue-in-cheek line about Canada's shortage of "truly good homegrown terrorist talent," there is a page about the 1985 Air India bombing in which 329 people died. And sometimes the irony is just plain overdone, as in the section, "Why global warming is awesome for Canada." ("We'll have more of the things everyone else will have less of.")
Unlike Villamere, Brown is too busy ripping away our delusions to suggest some 21st-century national symbols. But he sure majors in mockery. Perhaps that is why the sesquicentennial is getting off to such a slow start. We no longer know who we are or where we came from, so we're just going to mock any attempts to capture Canada's uniqueness.
Charlotte Gray's most recent book is The Promise of Canada; 150 Years – People and Ideas That Shaped Our Country, which is a bestseller despite (or because of) the national uncertainty about what we are celebrating.