My Greatest Canadian? Sorry, Not Terry Fox

Hint: In the great Canuck tradition, my choice is running off to the U.S. to make it big.

By Steve Burgess 25 Nov 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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This Sunday CBC announces the winner of its Greatest Canadian survey.  As they have run through the list, surely I am not the only person who has been thinking of Harry Lime. The charming and sinister villain from the 1949 film The Third Man, memorably played by Orson Welles, is perhaps most famous for delivering this brief history lesson:

"In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock ..."

That peroration on the cultural drawbacks of peace comes readily to mind when reviewing the CBC’s modest little list. Canada is a swell place to live, but Renaissance Italy we ain’t.

Bell’s long distance bid

Much controversy attached to the inclusion of Don Cherry, and rightly so. But that can perhaps be justified as a concession to TV and its mandate to entertain, with the inclusion of David Suzuki arguably a left-wing version of the same deal. (I will stake out a more sacrilegious position with my opposition to the inclusion of Terry Fox in the top 10. Fox’s story was one of our great public tragedies, played out on a national stage. His cause was worthy, but Rick Hansen isn’t in the top 10 and I’ll bet nobody voted for Steve Fonyo. Terry Fox made it not because of his undeniable accomplishments, but because of his tragic end. He’s our Princess Di.)

According to the CBC website the current vote leader is CCF/NDP pioneer Tommy Douglas. A fine and noble choice, given the options. But I offer a belated alternative—a package deal. I nominate the Montreal Expos.

They are sports figures, which seems to be popular in this competition. Unfortunately, none of them are Canadian. A major hurdle, you’d think. But Alexander Graham Bell is on the list—Scottish by birth, educated in London, long-time Boston resident. Clearly we’re not above granting exemptions in our national hero search. When the pickings are slim, a country does what’s it gotta do.

The loveable loser package

The Expos are—were—quintessentially Canuck. Like Canada at a G-7 conference, they played in the big leagues with minor league resources. When Expo fans wanted to appear prideful they had a limited menu of accomplishments—one division title, some good teams with colourful characters, and a might-have-been season that was going real well before the strike wiped it out. As a greatest hits list, it’s somewhat reminiscent of CBC’s Greatest Canadians. Meanwhile the Yankees bitch every year they don’t win the Series.

At a Washington press conference this week, the team’s management unveiled their new identity as the red-white-and blue Washington Nationals. And thus the Expos clinched their status as Canada’s truest representatives. Like #14 Neil Young, and #18 Shania Twain, #20 Mike Myers, and #27 Celine Dion, the Expos have achieved the Canadian Dream—running off to the States to make it big.

Plato and Tolstoy and Nelson Mandela and Abe Lincoln all have one thing in common—they lack even the slender technicality that would place on the list them alongside Alexander Graham Bell. But where would you rather live? Enjoy the show on Sunday and remember—interesting countries are often best appreciated from a distance.

Steve Burgess reviews television, and sometimes other stuff, for The Tyee.

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