To recap the inaugural post of this series I have been creating a list of essential music, TV, books, foods and experiences that a non-national should seek out to really get a feel for true Canadian culture.
Caveat: this list is written by an anglophone Canadian born in the 1980s. There is an obvious bias towards this era and culture. It is not intentional but difficult to avoid. I would love for this to be a more rounded list and am definitely open to suggestions.
This is the last edition of the “Quintessential Canadian” list. This list is for someone to dig further into the Canadian psyche and get to know some of our beloved or at least well-known. Some people could have easily been on this list but were included in other categories. There are also many Canadians who have done extraordinary things but this isn’t that list.
PS. Look for connections between members of the list (and other lists I’ve posted). The six-degrees of Canadian celebrities really only needs 3 or 4 degrees. What an incestuous little celebrity culture we have.
Bondar, Dr. Roberta – my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (affectionately known as “the Soo”) tries hard. If you’re driving across Canada east-to-west you’ll drive into this city of 70 000 and come across a sign touting everything The Soo can think to brag about. This list is short but it does point out factually that Dr. Bondar finds her origins there. We named a giant white perma-tent pavilion after her and it sets the Soo “skyline” apart.
Point of Fame: first female Canadian astronaut AND the very first Canadian neurologist in space. That’s right, it wasn’t enough to be an expert on brains she decided she needed to GO TO SPACE, too. This lady is bad ass. She’s made contributions to space medicine. SPACE. MEDICINE. Talk about a specialty. I wonder what the residency is like for that. Oh, and she’s really nice.
Do your research: She has a website that has an obnoxious number of achievements. Attend a lecture. Check out one (or all four) of her photography books from the library – I’ve got Touching the Earth myself. Signed. No big deal.
Cherry, Don – this one is a debatable entry. Liked or not it would be tough to have grown up in Canada and not have any idea who this was. If only to be able to identify his outrageously coloured and patterned trademark suits. But he got his name in hockey; hockey is Canada’s sport and Don Cherry knows hockey. He played for the minor leagues for 20 years, coached professional hockey for years but he is best known for talking (loudly) about hockey on TV and radio. Mr. Cherry has been co-hosting Coach’s Corner in the intermission of Hockey Night in Canada since the 1980s. He is loud, brash, and not afraid of controversy – he likes his hockey “tough” and Canadian.
Do your research: Tune in to Hockey Night in Canada on a Saturday night. Try it at a sports bar. Remember to do your research on acceptable jerseys and colours for the location 😉 Google image the man for an overview of attire – and a good chuckle. Read Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff by the man himself.
That was a relatively tame ensemble.
Clarkson, Adrienne – it took until 1999 for Canada to choose a non-white Governor General and she was the one. Originally from Hong Kong she grew up in Ottawa and went on to have a career with CBC as a journalist and book reviewer. But her role as GG was one of the more controversial. Some feel that she rejuvenated and modernized a very stuffy institution – others felt that she was too extravagant, blowing previous GG Office budgets out of the water for high profile stunts like touring other northern nations and meeting with their leaders. Now that she’s all done causing controversy at Rideau Hall she has founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship with her husband John Ralston Saul (see Quintessentially Canadian (Authors)).
Do your research: or don’t. Just wikipedia her. Then wikipedia what a Governor General is and why Canada even has one.
Dallaire, Romeo – Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire is an advocate for mental health and against the use of child soldiers. He developed these two particular passions by nearly losing his life to both of them. Dallaire is most well-known for his work in Rwanda with the United Nations as a peacekeeper during the 1994 genocide. The notoriety, unfortunately, came mostly in hindsight after he stayed on to attempt to save Tutsis using limited resources and limited staff with limited training. His book, Shake Hands with the Devil, is painful to read not only for the recount of the senseless killing but for his repeated requests for help from the international community and the general refusal for anyone to become involved. That brings us to his other passion: mental health. He suffers from PTSD from his experience and attempted suicide in 2000. He is listed as author, humanitarian, retired general and Canadian senator.
Do your research: don’t be illiterate – read Shake Hands with the Devil and They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children. Then you can watch the 2007 film that shares a title with the first book.
Douglas, Shirley – Ms. Douglas is a good example of the tightly-woven network of Canadian elite. She is the daughter of Tommy Douglas* and mother of actor Kiefer Sutherland. She is a feisty lady out-spoken about publicly funded healthcare but initially revealed her prowess in acting for roles like Nellie McClung and as part of the science fiction series Flash Gordon.
Do your research: Watch her in films like Lolita (1962) and television series The Wind at my Back. Google her and read
*Saskatchewan politician credited with the creation of universal health care in Canada. He probably belongs on this list, too.
Gomeshi, Jian – If you follow CBC radio recently this gentleman is somewhat ubiquitous. He is a bit of an up-and-comer on this list. Since 2007 the 45-year-old has hosted Q defined as a “cultural affairs talk program”. His interview show gets critical acclaim, one of the largest audiences of the time slot and airs throughout the US as well. Plus many other media organizations turn to him for input on cultural matters (including Conan O’Brien, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, etc.). Plus his voice is so soothing.
Do your research: His radio show Q is video-recorded and offered free on youtube. Watch it. Then read 1982 his recently-released memoir about that year. It has now spent 5 weeks on the best-sellers list. Don’t forget his band Moxy Fruvous. Youtube it just for his long hair.
Don’t miss that painful interview with an immature Billy Bob Thornton.
Gretzky, Wayne – another hockey-related entry to the list. Mr. Gretzky embodies hockey in Canada and internationally – number 99 or “The Great One”. Quite the accolade to carry. 14 years after retiring from 20 years of playing professional hockey with the NHL he still holds a number of records for point-scoring. But it is not just that he played our sport better than pretty much anyone else it is that he did it humbly. Canadians love a humble hero. He wasn’t a brute on the ice but triumphed by reading the game and being a member of the team.
Do your research: Read his autobiography (aptly named Gretzky). Take a trip to Edmonton (call me when you get here!) and stand beside his statue outside of Rexall Place to commemorate his time playing for the Edmonton Oilers from 1979-1988. Take a trip to Toronto to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame into which he was inducted after his retirement in 1999 and then walk a few blocks down the road to eat as his restaurant by Rogers Centre.
Layton, Jack – Adding this man to the list will be a controversial choice especially in Alberta but, well, I’m biased and I don’t care. Jack Layton passed away from cancer in 2011 at the top of his career as the charismatic yet down-to-earth leader of the federal New Democratic Party and the official opposition. He was a force leading towards a shift in Canadian politics – had he not died we may have seen the NDP go further in Canadian politics. My one face-to-face encounter with Layton made an impression on me – I was running near his neighbourhood on the Danforth in Toronto when I encountered him with a guitar, standing on the sidewalk singing and playing as a busker to raise money for the relief effort in Africa. Plus he married fellow politician Olivia Chow and accidentally thanked her mother “for the good sex” at their first meeting (those Cantonese tones!). Like him or not his funeral was truly a display of affection and mourning across the country.
Do your research: Watch the TV movie Smilin’ Jack: The Jack Layton Story (his wife, Olivia, portrayed by Sook-Yin Lee – the next on this list). Read a collection of stories about him Love, Hope, Optimism: An Intimate Portrait of Jack Layton by Those Who Knew Him. He also wrote books about social issues he felt passionately about like homelessness. Homelessness: How to End a National Crisis. Watch his funeral to see what he meant to Canadians.
Lee, Sook-Yin – another young* notable making her mark on Canadian culture. This entry might be a bit pre-emptive but I don’t see her going away. She first became known outside of the Vancouver indie music scene (leading Bob’s Your Uncle) as a VJ on MuchMusic in 1995 at a time when the channel held significant sway with the youth of Canada. She left in 2001 and in 2002 she began to host the CBC’s radio show Definitely Not the Opera (DNTO) and continues to do so today. She has acted in a few films including a controversial, sexually explicit Shortbus in 2003.
Do your research: Tune in to DNTO on a Saturday afternoon (or stream any time on the website). Listen to some of her solo attempts in the two albums Lavinia’s Tongue (1994) and Wigs n’ guns (1996). Watch Shortbus (I haven’t seen it, you cannot blame me if it scars you) and see her portray Olivia Chow in the upcoming love story film about Jack Layton.
*Even wikipedia doesn’t know her actual age
Mansbridge, Peter – Like a young girl scooped to be a model while shopping with friends at the mall, Mr. Mansbridge’s newscasterly voice was discovered by a CBC radio host when he made an announcement at work at the Churchill (Manitoba) Airport as a baggage handler. And he hasn’t looked back offering his voice to the news since the late 1960s. Canadians associate him with reporting on major national and international events for over from 1995-present as the host of CBC news The National.
Canada has a great line of national news reporters – this could have been Lloyd Robertson or Peter Jennings as well but for some reason I picked Peter and he can represent them all.
Do your research: Tune in to The National 6 days a week.
Stroumboulopoulos, George – of course I had to google how to spell his last name. Another person on this list to get his start as a VJ on MuchMusic (2000-2004). He now hosts The Hour – a talk show about current world issues, politics and pop culture with the pitch to reach younger audiences. Apparently his name is so big they changed the show to George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. A few SLPeeps and I attended a live taping of his show at CBC in Toronto and, in person, he is just as laid-back but quick and intelligent as the show would suggest.
Do your research: Catch GST (The Hour – really, why change a good thing?) for free on youtube. Better yet – get your rear end to Toronto and pick up some free tickets to see a live-taping Mon-Thurs. Don’t forget to book in advance.
Suzuki, David – Imagine walking in to your genetics class at the University of British Columbia and seeing that the professor was the beloved host of the TV show The Nature of Things. That was a reality until 2001 when he retired. Although he has given us his advocacy about climate change, sustainability and the David Suzuki Foundation he spent part of his early childhood in the Canadian internment camps for people of Japanese heritage. The shame. After all that he kindly brought us the science CBC radio show Quirks and Quarks that still airs today although with a different host. With the way the Harper government is acting lately we need Dr. Suzuki more than ever.
Do your research: Watch his show The Nature of Things. Read David Suzuki: An Autobiography. If you have the time, read one of his other 51 books about nature, sustainability, ethics and climate change. Sign up for the newsletter of his foundation.
Trudeau, Pierre – the 15th Prime Minister of Canada (Liberal Party of Canada) and probably one of the most internationally recognized Canadian politicians. He is a divisive figure that gathered praise for bringing in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms during his time in office and dodging a close call with the separatist movement but who can still be vehemently disliked by Western Canadians for what they saw as meddling with oil wealth and poorly managing funds. He was a staunch nationalist who promoted the Canadian Identity.
Do your research: Memoirs by Trudeau is one of the best-selling Canadian books of all time. Maybe get your hands on a copy. If you can find it try watching the 1999 documentary Just Watch Me: Trudeau and the 70s Generation.
Discuss: how far off the mark was I?
I debated some of the entries: Stephen Lewis was going to make the list but I changed my last minute because he may not be as much of a household name as I initially thought. Shirley Douglas was added at the last minute, honestly, to beef up the ladies’s representation on the list. Sook-Yin Lee is debatable (as I mentioned) but I took the time to write that so, dammit, I’m leaving it up!