“Dr. Penfield, I smell burnt toast” or, In Praise of Canadian Heritage Minutes

Sam Steele gently but firmly disdains your way of life, you Shatner-stealing Mexico toucher.

Heritage Minutes were a childhood staple for anyone growing up in Canada in the nineties. They have become a genuine, if slightly kitschy, part of Canadian culture, sort of like that cartoon about driving logs down a river, or Don Cherry. First aired in the early nineties, these one-minute short films dramatizing various topics in Canadian history were shown during commercial breaks on CBC. And much like ads for sugary cereals shilled by psychotic talking animals, they stealthily took up residence in our subconscious.

As a kid, I remember Heritage Minutes being both oddly fascinating and ripe for mockery. The plight of Canadian history in this country is a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish, but as children we considered the history of our nation uniformly dull, lacking the gratuitous violence and brazen heroes of American history. Instead of George Washington and epic battles for sovereignty and the abolition of slavery, we had potlatches, les coureurs des bois and the Hudson’s Bay Company. For every Pierre Trudeau there were twenty Robert Borings — uh, Bordens — and for every 1812 beat-down there were a hundred quiet and amicable changes in economic policy and social reform.

And so, we sat through a smattering of Acadian expulsion and Confederation and William Lyon MacKenzie King in elementary school and junior high. And if you graduated before 2004, you weren’t even required to take a Canadian history class in high school. But the Heritage Minutes had a way of weaseling into your psyche important tidbits about your country’s history, and you might forget all about it until a Jeopardy question about standard time has you blurting out “Who is Sandford Flemming” without missing a beat.

Incidentally, Heritage Minutes also provided ammunition for confronting smug American acquaintances, to remind them that basketball and Superman were Canadian inventions, and that Sam Steele thought their right to bear arms was silly. But aside from cementing choice tales of Canadian history that washed over my unattentive head in school and offering me ways to one-up the Yanks, Heritage Minutes taught me about life, love and all the crappy flags we almost had.

So in honour of the lifetime of education they afforded me, I present twenty important life lessons I learned from Heritage Minutes.

1. The smell of burnt toast is an important indicator of epilepsy.
2. Questions about prison brutality are always rhetorical.
3. If you build an island for it, they will come.
4. According to John Cabot, “the end of time” is approximately 1992.
5. Dan Ackroyd built the Avro Arrow.
6. Moving furniture up steep flights of stairs is a sure-fire way to become a record-breaking athlete.
7. Governor Frontenac was the original comeback king.
8. DO NOT dig up the trees. Horrible things will come out.
9. Laura Secord wasn’t really that into ice cream.
10. The medium is the message but you’ll have to take a course in visual rhetoric to find out what that means.
11. “Ca-na-da” does indeed mean “the village,” thus rendering one poor guy’s expensive post-secondary Jesuit education worthless.
12. Lake Michigan ≠ the Pacific Ocean
13. Irish orphans don’t have Irish accents.
14. Judge Judy is right: just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you should laze around watching your husband build the sod house all by himself.
15. The only English-speaking native in the tribe is always Graham Greene. And he is disappointed in you.
16. You’re right, Lois. Superman is kind of lame.
17. The Underground Railroad was mostly people nailed into pieces of furniture.
18. Winnie the Pooh is just a black bear from Manitoba and Christopher Robin is just a kid with weird shoes.
19. Pie is the food of revolutionaries.

And most importantly:

20. No matter how much you think they should be sacrificed for the sake of sport, he needs those baskets back.

Watch them here on youtube!

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Wolverine is a hip Canadian lumberjack

This, of course, is not Hugh Jackman but Michael Palin of Monty Python's Flying Circus, performing their infamous "Lumberjack Song." For some reason it was one of Google's top hits when I typed in "wolverine x-men lumberjack."

So I thought we’d start things off here with a bit of pop culture. A couple of weeks ago, I was subjected semi-voluntarily to the film “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, due to a conspiracy of circumstances involving a hurricane, a power outage and my parents’ baffling Netflix lineup. While it was terribly cliché, even for a comic book movie, it offered an unexpected little treat: an unabashed Hollywood portrayal of the Canadian.

As you may or may not know, Marvel’s Wolverine is Canadian. I’ve never read the comic books, but in the film, Wolverine is shown growing up in the late nineteenth century in some sort of rural Canadian colonialist outpost. He later returns to the “Canadian Rockies” (which appears to be near Vancouver, but purports to be somewhere decidedly more rural and rugged), where he makes his living as a — wait for it — lumberjack. He lives in a log cabin against a breathtaking mountain view, with a young and beautiful schoolteacher who, surprise surprise, happens to be part Native. It is she who tells him what may or may not be an actual First Nations myth about the wolverine, thus providing him with an adequately meaningful superhero moniker.

It was all highly entertaining, and the tension created by the truth hidden in the laughable stereotypes piqued my interest. Much of Canada is indeed rural, though not all quite so dramatic, and I know several lumberjacks and a few people who live or have lived in log cabins. And yes, plenty of us are of Native heritage, and we Canadian kids do love to wear plaid and head-to-toe denim (the “Canadian tuxedo”) and those big wool sweaters with moose patterns knitted into them. And though all these iconic Canadianisms were crammed together in the film to a degree of hilarity, it was more charming than anything else. (A side note: maybe it’s just the way current fashion trends are going, but the way Wolverine the Canadian and Schoolteacher Girlfriend were styled was spot on, and is exactly how I see myself dressing in the colder months.)

To see the Hollywood impression of Canada was like finding out that strangers actually think you’re kind of hip. Once when I was in high school, one of the prettiest girls in my grade went for Halloween as me. It was not a mocking gesture, but more like an homage to my wacked-out, adolescent sense of style. She pulled of my shabby punk look with such aplomb and polish (more than I ever had) that I couldn’t help but feel flattered. This was the way I felt about Canada after watching the film: it’s not a fully accurate portrayal of Canada or Canadians, but it’s nice to know that people think of us that way.

In many ways, Canada remains what’s shown in the film, and it’s what sticks in the imaginations of Europeans and Americans. Most of my lifelong impressions of Canada were about how backwater and depressing and uninspiring and unengaging and lame it was. It’s a thrill to look at Canada from an outsider’s perspective, and to see it as something positive — the world’s last undiscovered wilderness frontier, a place of Thoreau-like escapism, even if we all have wi-fi and sometimes get our coffee from Starbucks.

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It’s like eating oatmeal for breakfast or working at the post office.

It’s okay not being American. Though I wasn’t so sure when I was seventeen, I know now that it’s okay not being European. I’m still a bit miffed at not being Scandinavian. And being from somewhere cache like Istanbul or Estonia or a former Soviet Bloc country has only ever been a wild fantasy, so I’m not particularly crestfallen.

But being Canadian feels sometimes like being a walking conversation stopper. I had a South African pen pal as a kid, and nearly burst with questions about her gated community in Johannesburg and her holiday safari in Swaziland. I think she was probably curious about me, as a kid from another country, but not particularly about Canada. Canadian stereotypes are unromantic and unmysterious, and the only real secret we have is that those stereotypes are unusually true. We have long winters, vast stretches of wooded countryside, bears, beavers, maple trees, we enjoy quality brews — and I’d be hard pressed to find a fellow Canadian who didn’t own at least one toque and something plaid.

But beyond stereotypes, what does it mean to be Canadian, in the living, breathing, national, historical and cultural sense? How can we explore being Canadian by looking at Canadian art, politics and daily life, without relying on international comparisons? And what keeps so many Canadians from being curious about their country and culture, from asking questions and embracing an identity that includes Canadian nationality?

Some would say it’s because there is nothing uniquely Canadian, that Canada is merely a mishmash of other identities and cultures, or a watery scion of Americanism. Some would blame Canada’s polycentric, un-nationalistic brand of politics, or the government’s failure to protect and foster a common identity. But the purpose of this blog is not to discover why being from Canada is like being from nowhere, and why being Canadian ranks somewhere between toast preference and vacuum filters on the scale of interesting topics of conversation. Here at Whither Canada, we believe in the existence of the Canadian identity, and are hereby committed to uncovering, exploring and discussing every detail of it.

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