Winnie Their Pooh

A Brit wrote the book, not us. So why do we keep flogging a dead bear?

By Steve Burgess 13 Dec 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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The Manitoba government is holding a contest to come up with a new slogan to replace “Friendly Manitoba” on provincial license plates. My suggestion: “Hello from Vancouver.”

It’s a fine province, really. But many of us ex-Manitobans prefer to indulge in our fond reminisces from elsewhere. Thus “Friendly Manitoba” often grabs its reflected glory from the likes of Neil Young, people who did the formative years thing in Manitoba before moving on. While no one is likely to nominate “Home of Neil” for a spot on the license, I’ll bet more than a few people will suggest a reference to Winnie the Pooh. It’s embarrassing, and it’s a bad habit that is by no means limited to my former province. Last night’s CBC telefilm on the origins of the original bear named Winnie underscored our national and yet oh-so-provincial tendency to attach ourselves to glory by tenuous threads.

Oh bother

CBC’s A Bear Named Winnie proved to be solid family fare. Based on the most skeletal of historical records,  it was frothed up into a two-hour (!) telefilm about First World War Canadian army vets—as in veterinarians—burdened with a loopy general and a mischievous bear cub. A Bear Named Winnie managed to provide some background on the Canadian Great War experience while proving once more the enduring appeal of boy-and-his-dog stories. It wasn’t the show itself that set me off.

What irks me is our tedious Canadian habit of scrounging for credit in the historical dumpsters of other nations. It is the same tendency that allowed Alexander Graham Bell to be included in the top 10 of the CBC’s recent Greatest Canadians series despite his highly debatable Canadian provenance. Insecure about our status on the world stage, we grasp at these sad straws and weave them into Sunday night TV specials.

Over the years Winnie the Pooh has become an increasingly pathetic vessel for our national inferiority complex. Canadian glory-hounds love to trumpet our connection to A.A. Milne’s classic children’s tales—namely, that Milne’s son Christopher Robin saw a bear at the London zoo, a bear who may or may not have been named Winnie after the town of Winnipeg, and that this encounter subsequently inspired Milne to create the Bear of Very Little Brain and his pals in the Hundred Acre Wood. And then Kenny Loggins wrote a song about it, so I guess he’s Canadian too if anybody still wants to claim him. Maybe JACK-FM will be allowed to count “Danger Zone” as Canadian content.

Bad angles

This unseemly grubbing for Canadian connections infests our media. The tiresome search for a Canadian hook frequently dooms our national journalism to mediocrity. Particularly egregious examples have surfaced in CanWest Global newspapers over the past year, boasting of B.C. connections for popular reality TV shows. The boardroom chairs on ‘The Apprentice’ were made in Vancouver! A guy from Parksville helps design the ‘Survivor’ challenges! Bachelor Byron boinked in local hotels! Let your chest swell with parochial pride!

One of the small pleasures of overseas travel is picking up the International Herald Tribune newspaper to keep up on current events. It’s published by the New York Times and thus displays an American emphasis, but as it is aimed at overseas readers this emphasis is greatly diminished from that of most American papers. And for a Canadian it is a refreshing escape from the tyranny of homeland editors who vet so much content by asking, “Is there a Canadian angle? Can we find one?”

We are used to reflected glory, as any small nation positioned next to a world power must be. Talented Canadians are justly celebrated for their success, but Canadians know that this success generally depends on outside forces.


I don’t really have a problem with efforts like the CTV’s recent Shania Twain homecoming special, wherein we watched the former Timmins girl wander about her hometown tribute museum and then take a car ride with Ben Mulroney. If that’s your idea of entertainment, knock yourself out. At least Twain was willing to acknowledge and celebrate her roots. The fact that CTV was forced to spin a lengthy Shania photo op with the toothsome Ben into an hour-long special tells you something about the table scraps Canadian television must sometimes dine on, but never mind. Shania played along, and we must take what we can get. But there’s a limit, or ought to be.

There are Canadian stories to be told and Canadian history to be taught. A show like CBC’s epic series ‘Canada: A People’s History,’ or the various documentary reminders of our efforts in global conflicts, are valuable tools to remind us of our own past. But let’s skip the stuff about bears that inspired Brits. Winnie the Pooh did not spring from Canadian soil anymore than did the Buffalo Springfield. Canadians have a country that most of the world would give their eyeteeth, and more, to live in. So let’s knock off the straw-grasping.

Steve Burgess reviews TV and other stuff regularly for The Tyee.

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