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opinion

John Semley is a book columnist for The Globe and Mail

Canadian expat Mike Myers, the 53-year-old Scarborough native known for playing dopey longhair Wayne Campbell and toothy swingin' '60s spy Austin Powers and the repugnant children's bog ogre Shrek, is back in Canada this week, promoting his new book.

Called, simply, Canada, the book is Mr. Myers' opportunity to cash in on his Canadian citizenship, despite decades spent living abroad. In an interview with Wendy Mesley on CBC's The National this week, Mr. Myers (who appears on the book's cover flanked by two Mounties) waxed with canned thoughtfulness about the ever-elusive Canadian identity: talking about our politeness, our civility, our love of hockey violence, and our tendency to say "eh" and "oh, yeah."

"I do enjoy being Canadian!" he beams. "What's not to enjoy?"

At the risk of answering what's clearly intended as a rhetorical question: plenty.

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As Canada approaches its sesquicentennial birthday – that's 150 years – in 2017, Canadians may wish to reflect on the realities of our nation. It's a time of pushing past trite notions of Canadiana (beer, snowshoes, Kraft Dinner, etc.) and doing the honest, self-critical work of historical reckoning. It's a time to face the unpleasant reality that maybe instead of dumb, flag-waving, Molson Canadian-guzzling pride, we should in fact feel pangs of humiliation and discomfort. We should feel ashamed.

Mr. Myers' smilingly nationalistic publicity blitz comes as many Canadians are struggling with issues of national identity, and the inherited, hand-me-down sense that being Canadian is somehow an inherently good and noble thing to be. As Mr. Myers zips around the country on a book tour hawking clichés about Canadian kindness, another national icon, Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie, is busy promoting his multimedia project Secret Path, which deals with the dark history of Canada's residential school system and the not-so-sunny ways with which Canada has treated First Nation communities.

Mr. Downie's Secret Path project – comprising an album, a concert tour, a graphic novel, and a TV movie – tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibway boy who was found dead on the railway tracks in 1966, after running away from a residential school in Kenora, Ont. Nearly half-a-century later Canada's First Nations communities still have trouble accessing clean water, a basic service most Canadians take for granted.

Just this week The Globe reported on the harrowing story of 23 year-old native Canadian Adam Capay, "the living symbol of everything that is wrong with Canada's prisons, its justice system and its treatment of indigenous people." Mr. Capay has spent four years in torturous conditions, subjected to sleep deprivation in solitary confinement as he awaits trial on a murder charge; deprived of his basic human rights while remaining legally innocent.

The brutal truth of our miserable treatment of First Nation peoples must be confronted if we're to make any headway towards peace, reconciliation, and anything like meaningful national pride. There are also the inconvenient realities of our economic dependency on fossil fuel, and our Liberal government finagling multibillion-dollar military trade deals with Middle Eastern nations with appalling human rights records.

Until Canadians bother to acknowledge a gloomier, unfriendlier Canada that teems beneath the clichéd surfaces of Mounties and maple dip doughnuts and compulsively muttering, "oh pardon, eh?," we simply can't afford the kind of flattering, feel-good banality that already seems to be defining our nation's 150th anniversary.

To borrow one of Mike Myers many hackneyed catchphrases, I'd encourage him and any other expat hoping to cash in on warm, fuzzy, and totally compromised notions of Canadian identity to, well, zip it.

Eds Note: An earlier version of this column said Chanie Wenjack died in 1968. He died in 1966.