It’s Sunday night, November 28. The CBC is playing the last episode of its Greatest Canadian series. There are 10 candidates, all in the process by popular nomination and previous rounds of voting. The concept was taken from a BBC series, and like the BBC series, it is an entertainment with a populist subtext.
My sentiments – I don’t think this program pretends to have any clear criteria for judging greatness – are with Tommy Douglas, Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson.
Each engaged in the political process at some personal cost, and brought strong moral values to the public discourse. My choices favour political action over cultural symbolism, although it is hard to dissociate my choices from cultural symbols associated with them.
The idea of identifying a greatest Canadian in modern TV show, with audience participation by polling is awkward, even ridiculous. The process favours celebrity within the context of modern pop culture. The process is vulnerable to manipulation by fan clubs. The female nominees in the top 50 included Shania Twain and Avril Lavigne.
The show is holding a series of contrived debates between advocates of the celebrities, on issues of the impact of each contestant on the world, and their essential Canadian qualities. This part of the show might be educational except that many of the debaters – mainly actors and TV personalities – are acting like wrestlers. It’s funny. I learned a few facts about some of the contestants, although nothing fundamental or surprizing.
Douglas was a Baptist minister. He joined in the Regina Manifesto and the formation of the CCF and the NDP, and he has been widely regarded as a socialist. In my view he carried the social gospel into action in politics. In 1970 when Trudeau invoked the War Measure Act against a tiny cadre of Quebec revolutionaries, he stood as a spokesman for civil liberties and civility. I like Trudeau in spite of 1970. Trudeau was a rationalist, a pluralist, an intellectual. He acted as an icon for Canadian values, with his canoe trips and his devotion to the land. He empowered aboriginals and disenfranchised groups in the political process. Pearson spoke for civility and principle in international affairs. As a Canadian who came of age in the 1960’s I recall the flag debate, and national social programs.
The candidacy of Sir John A is interesting, but his greatness may have been accidental. He was the first Prime Minister and his government commissioned the transcontinental rail line. Like the scientific candidates, he was a man in the right place,
Wayne Gretsky, Don Cherrey and Terry Fox are in the last 10. While they have moved Canadians, and while they exemplify skill and perserverence, and in Fox’s case, a huge will to complete a great venture in the face of diability and adversity, I can’t be persuaded that their participation in public life and public discourse makes them great citizens. Banting and Bell were great scientists. They were engaged in a scientific and commercial ventures, and their role in Canadian life is largely as scientific celebrities.
I see David Suzuki as the celebrity candidate of the alternative and the counterculture. At time he has seemed to bring knowledge to public discourse, and at times he has sounded like an advocate of hippie values. The difference between a man ahead of his time, and a flake, is usually in the judgment of later generations.