As real as a cold shower

Canadians no better, but no worse

Published: Apr 19 2021, 01:01:am

Saturday, May 1, 1976.

BUT NOT IN CANADA! SMUG CANADIAN MYTHS SHATTERED BY HARSH REALITY. By Walter Stewart. Macmillan, 1976. 285 pp. $10.95.

I OWE MY BROTHER-IN-LAW an apology. Billy, my wife's hearty, glad-handing older brother, is every Canadian's image of the over-bearing American.
    He comes on loud and friendly. He mixes very stiff drinks.
    Eight years ago [1968], when I became engaged to his sister, he made it his business to welcome me into the family. He'd had his share of political science and economics courses in college — the University of Illinois — and he regaled me with how much we Canadians and Americans are alike.
    At that, my back stiffened and my smile became a little less warm. I pointed out to him, politely — Canadians are, after all, always polite and, besides, Billy is a big man — that that wasn't entirely true.
    I suppose I was a little smug.
    No, dammit, I was a lot smug. I believed that Canadians were, by definition, sober, decent, peaceable, tolerant and honest. All the things that Americans, by and large, were not.
    That's all myth, says Walter Stewart. Worse than that, it's smug myth. And smugness, he says in his new book, But Not in Canada! "has become a national religion, a national disease."
    "A major difference between us and the Americans . . . is our diffidence. Except for the Pacific Scandal (after all, that was a long time ago), Canadian outbursts of corruption, venality, brutality, racism and oppression have gone largely unrecorded. It’s not that we don't want to hear about such subjects — we do — but we don't want to hear about them when they happen in Canada.
    “During the spring of 1975, Canadians flocked to their theatres to see an American film about authoritarianism in the U.S., called Hearts and Minds. At the same time, they stayed away in droves from a Canadian film about authoritarianism in Canada, called Les Ordres. There are some things we would rather not know."
    Stewart, a newsman for more than 20 years, is currently Washington Bureau chief for Maclean's. Indeed, his tough, no-nonsense reporting is the major reason why I've been a regular Maclean's reader since its 1975 metamorphosis into "Canada's Newsmagazine."
    Stewart is an entertainer. His style is flip and sarcastic, the voice of a man who knows the difference between statesmanship and salesmanship. In recent weeks he's blasted Canada's record at the U.N., made the case for solar power as an energy alternative and confided to Canadians that Henry Kissinger's real problem is that he is the world's biggest liar.
    What he writes is outrageous and provocative. And well documented.
    "One of the problems we face as a nation, perhaps in greater measure than other nations, is that we are held captive by the myth of the reasonable citizen.” His new book has a subtitle: Smug Canadian Myths Shattered by Harsh Reality.
    His is a journalist's book, one that is full of incidents, anecdotes, specific research and personal reflections. It's organized to look at 14 of our most cherished national self-delusions — among them the famous Canadian tolerance, love of justice and the law, and our lack of political corruption — and challenge them with specific, irrefutable evidence.
    But Not in Canada! is a cold shower. In one sense, it is a shocker. Who can fail to be angered by tales of police  brutality, naked racism, unprincipled greed, political malfeasance and judicial stupidity?
    In another sense, it’s a tonic. Goody Two-Shoes was always a pretty gutless national image. And it's good to hear that, at least, "we are no worse than (other nations); a credibility gap opens only when we try to insist — as we do — that we are better."
    Indeed, there is even a sense of exhilaration here. This is the book for all those Canadian moviemakers still stuck for Canadian themes.
    They should consider the black comedy in the case of an ambitious Montreal hood named Andre Durocher, the epic sweep of the Bytown gang wars, or the nostalgic resonance in the story of prairie bootlegger Emilio Picariello.
    If moral conflict, human drama, sex, violence and colourful characters are worth anything at the boxoffice — is the Pope Catholic? — then Stewart's book contains one scenario after another. Harsh reality makes fascinating reading.
    Even in Canada.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1976. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Well, of course I was going to work movies into my review of a book by an investigative reporter. Reeling Back made its debut in cyberspace with my restored review of a 1976 movie based on a book by investigative reporters: All the President’s Men. Stewart gave me the opening when he mentioned the reception given Hearts and Minds and Les Ordres by Canadian audiences.
    Things have changed somewhat in the years since, though in ways that only emphasize the reality of Canada's “two solitudes.” On the whole, English-Canadian directors have tended to shy away from headline-inspired material. Among the few titles made between 1975 and 1995 currently in the Reeling Back archive are Murray Markowitz’s 1975 feature Recommendation for Mercy; Paul Donovan’s The Squamish Five (1988); and Sturla Gunnarsson’s Diplomatic Immunity (1991).
    Based on the relatively few titles to make it to Vancouver during that time, French Canada’s filmmakers were far more attentive to current events. Worth revisiting are Denys Arcand’s 1973 feature Rejeanne Padovani; Clement Perron’s Partis pour la gloire (1975);  George Mihalka’s Scandale (1982); Roger Cardinal’s Malarek (1989); and Jean-Claude Lord’s Mindfield (1989).
    In other news, I’m sorry to say not all changes were for the better. In the above review, I noted that Stewart “is currently Washington Bureau chief for Maclean’s,” going on to say that I’d “been a regular Maclean's reader since its 1975 metamorphosis into ‘Canada's Newsmagazine.’ ” Well, that all changed in in 2005, when former National Post founding editor Kenneth Whyte was named editor-in-chief. A faithful acolyte of the “unite-the-right” faith preached by press baron Conrad Black, he turned the 100-year-old magazine into a right-wing rag promoting the felonious Lord Crossharbour's corporatist agenda. Stewart, who would have had nothing but colourful contempt for such gross hypocrisy, died a year earlier, in 2004, at the age of 81.   

See also: My interview with Walter Stewart during his 1976 visit to Vancouver to promote But Not in Canada!