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kate taylor

Jian GhomeshiThe Canadian Press

Scrolling through my Twitter feed this week, I noted the Washington Post had picked up the Jian Ghomeshi story and, before I could stomp on it, I felt a tiny but familiar little thrill of Canadian satisfaction. "Look, they noticed us!"

This, I admonished myself as I clicked on the link, is the lowest form of national pride. Had I not been completely contemptuous of Rob Ford's appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live as evidence of nothing except the Toronto mayor's very contemporary inability to distinguish between fame and notoriety? Why does it seem as though only bad Canadians capture the American imagination? Attention gets paid to a drunken, drug-abusing mayor, a long string of dubious businessmen from Robert Campeau to Garth Drabinsky and Conrad Black, and now a radio host caught in a sex scandal.

Not surprisingly, the Washington Post had little to add: written by a Washington-based correspondent, the article relied mainly on stories in the Toronto Star, Toronto Life and this newspaper. What I had been looking for was a nice bit of "Cansplaining" – those revealing moments where the pundits have to explain Canada to an American audience.

The term seems to have surfaced online last spring, a riff on another neologism, mansplaining. That is a contemptuous phrase coined to describe the tendency of certain men to condescendingly explain technical topics to women on the assumption they couldn't possibly know more than a man does. Most women, when you introduce them to the term, laugh and name their favourite mansplainer.

But Cansplaining is a less aggressive communications gambit. It involves politely informing your audience about how things work in Canada, telling them about public health care, Parliamentary democracy and poutine. Cansplaining tries to avoid condescension, although it does sometimes indulge itself in light touches of irony.

Here, for example, is how Adam Sternbergh began a recent article on Vulture, New York magazine's cultural website: "Over the weekend, a major sex scandal broke in the high-stakes world of Canadian public radio …"

Sternbergh, an American writer who grew up in Canada and has worked here, adds that the combination of the words "Canadian, public radio, sex, and scandal might seem, at the least, incongruous" and goes on to explain that Canadians are upset about the allegations against Ghomeshi because the scandal will undermine a treasured but threatened institution, the CBC. Similarly, many U.S. articles on the topic have to explain there is such a thing in Canada as a radio star.

To test my notion that the American media are only interested in bad Canadians, I called the dean of Cansplainers: Ian Austen is a Canadian journalist who lives in Ottawa where he works as Canadian correspondent for the New York Times.

"I am always struck at the level I have to explain things," Austen said. "A very large chunk of every story I write verges on an encyclopedia entry, although I hope they don't read like that." He said he can't write any political story without explaining how a parliamentary system works – used to the separation of powers in the executive and legislative branches, his U.S. readers were shocked to learn in 2008 that a prime minister could simply suspend Parliament – and he must remember never to use the word riding. Last week's shooting on Parliament Hill was the biggest story Austen has ever covered in a decade with the Times but he feels his editors' appetite for Canadian criminals and disasters is just a standard journalistic instinct.

"If a train derailed in France and blew up a town, we would have covered it here," he says of the Times's interest in the Lac-Mégantic story.

Still, he acknowledges there is some sense in the United States that stories about crime and violence in Canada are a case of man bites dog.

"[There is interest in] Canada as a parallel universe: Things are different here," he said. "There is a notion in the U.S. that there aren't violent Canadians; there aren't Canadians with guns."

So, when Canadians put away their guns or stop smoking crack, they get a whole lot less exciting. There was a funny editorial cartoon by Gary Clement in the National Post this week that predicted the future state of American media interest in Toronto municipal politics. It shows John Tory on the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live explaining he will keep property tax increases to the rate of inflation. His host is falling asleep.

Says Austen: "Editors are interested in interesting stories."

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