Next week, when the Winter Olympics come to Vancouver, the eyes of the world will be on Canada, the sprawling, frigid nation of my birth. It doesn’t happen often, so when the international spotlight swivels our way, we Canadians do our best to hog it. We don’t go in for patriotism and self-belief like our American cousins, but like the shy wallflower who ends up closing the karaoke bar with a lampshade on her head, Canadians are compelled to make fools of ourselves if we are flattered into thinking anyone might notice.
So brace yourself in the coming weeks, Britain, for a gushing torrent of maple-flavoured praise for all things Canuck. You are going to hear about our glowing social democracy, our courageous war record, our unparalleled health and welfare system, and our ability to maintain trim waists and white teeth despite an insatiable appetite for honey lager and harp seal (which is exceptionally nutritious and a boon to the Nordic economy, no matter what Stella McCartney might say). In exchange for the privilege of viewing the women’s curling finals, you will be forced to sit through countless televised parades and ceremonies featuring Iroquois tribal throat singing, snow-capped Rocky Mountain vistas and cartoon beavers wearing scarves and toques (pronounced ‘tewks’).
Do not be fooled. Despite its cuddly, stuffed-moose-in-an-alpine-sweater image, Canada is not the upstanding egalitarian democracy it might seem at first glance. While volunteers are busy serving up complimentary poutine and ice wine to members of the International Olympic Committee, the Canadian government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a man with the heart of a lynx and the pale eyes of a husky) has prorogued parliament in order to avoid a public grilling on two major matters of public interest: the torture of detainees handed over to local authorities by Canadian troops in Afghanistan and the government’s obstinate refusal to meet its targets for curbing climate emissions.
I wish I could say I am proud of my birth country in what ought to be one of its finest hours, but the truth is I have never been more ashamed. After a decade of holding our heads high as other so-called superpowers bungled domestic economic policy and made a bad situation worse in Iraq, Canada has fallen prey to the trap of smugness we once considered the fault of bigger, sterner G8 nations. Herewith, a few myths busted about the happy, shiny promised land north of 49th parallel.
Myth 1: Canada is a functioning democracy. Stephen Harper’s decision to suspend the operations of Canada’s legislative democracy for two months is both lazy and politically self-serving. It’s mind-boggling that such a move is even legal. What kind of leader simply cancels all his meetings and opts to lounge around the house with a latte watching Jerry Springer just when the going gets tough? Harper’s new style of government is driven by shameless self-interest. Canadians voted for democracy and what do we get? Taxation without representation. Like Britain, Canada is a nation at war and recovering from economic crisis, and yet our government wants all the benefits of leading the country without having to do any of the dirty work. And by ‘dirty work’ I mean facing parliamentary scrutiny and debate in the manner any democracy is honour-bound to do.
When I was back in Toronto last week, most people I spoke to expressed outrage at the fact their country is effectively a ship on high seas without a rudder. And what were they doing to express their outrage? Why, social networking of course. ‘Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament’ is a Facebook club which, at press time, boasted nearly 222,000 members. And while an online social club might seem like a quaintly ineffectual form of protest it may also have serious ramifications for Harper who, despite an obsequious TV interview in which he insisted prorogation was simply a chance to ‘recalibrate’, has not managed to convince Canadians he deserves a holiday. In recent weeks, he has seen his once-solid approval rating drop significantly. Opposition leader (and former British exile) Michael Ignatieff is doing everything he can to capitalise on the backlash. A recent TV attack ad wonders what the PM is trying to hide. The answer is obvious, stupid: himself.
Myth 2: Canada is eco-friendly. Don’t believe the nature-loving hype. Canada’s recent environmental record is anything but impressive. In 2008, Canada was named the Fossil of the Year — an award given by the Climate Action Network International to the most environmentally obstructionist country. And more recently, our participation at Copenhagen was equally abysmal. After half a decade of ignoring Kyoto targets and spiking emissions thanks to the environmental quagmire of the Alberta tar sands, documents were leaked in Copenhagen that suggested the Tories had no plans to stand by their 2007 environmental pledge and raised further questions as to whether the government’s promise at Copenhagen to reduce emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 was worth the paper it was written on. No matter where you stand on the climate change debate, this kind of double-dealing is a bad way to do business and damaging for international relations. For a country that once considered itself an environmental leader, it’s an astonishing decline — one that prompted George Monbiot recently to remark that, ‘Canada is to climate as Japan is to whaling.’
Myth 3: Canadians are fit. All those trim, apple-cheeked fleece-clad young volunteers you see dashing about at the Olympics? They do not bear any resemblance to your average Canadian. Your average Canadian is named Chad, drives a pick-up and believes ketchup is a vegetable. I know because I grew up in a small town full of Chads and the thing that strikes me most about them when I return home once a year is how astonishingly fat they’ve all become. In small-town Canada, fat people whizz along the sidewalks in electric scooters, imperilling the safety of the walking minority. In the grocery stores, giant families lumber through the aisles loading their shopping carts with Wonderbread and Sprite. Growing up in the 1980s, we had a neighbour so fat he simply sat in his parked car all day, watching the world go by. The rumour was that he lived in there and used pop bottles as his toilet. Americans have a reputation for being world champion chubbers, but Canadians are closing the gap. A recent study released by the government found obesity rates in Canadian adults had risen an astonishing 26 per cent in women and 23 per cent in men since 1981, with an average increase in waist circumference of ten centimetres. Gross, in every sense of the word.
Myth 4: Canadians are nice. Is Conrad Black warm and fuzzy? Are Jim Carrey and Mike Myers easy to work with? Do Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette strike you as emotionally stable? The answer is no, and that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. As Canada sheds its good guy image, we’re being forced to face the truth: we’re not as sweet as the world thinks. Like our neighbours to the south, we’re selfish, lazy, fat, environmentally destructive and smug. Unlike them, we lack a functioning democracy or accountable leadership. For too long, Canada has been hiding behind its hardworking, wholesome image, but these days, nothing could be further from the truth. We are angry and we are arrogant and we are going kick Europe’s ass in the hockey finals. I should probably think of a nicer way to say that but why bother? I’m sick of pretending to be a polite Canadian.