Addicted to novelty since 2001

Greatest Canadian Ever

While I lived in Ireland, I watched this entertaining series on the BBC called Great Britons. It was kind of a historical American Idol (or Pop Idol, as it was first known in Britain–the US imports all of its best reality TV from Europe). They ran ten one-hour documentaries about ten great British people through history. The documentaries were pretty informative, and each episode had a media figure who acted as an advocate for the person. Then, the public voted on who they favoured.

The show had some major statistical problems. How, for example, did they account for the increasing popularity of the show? The final episode received a far greater viewership than the first. Regardless, it’s reflective of the British’s love for the mundane that they almost gave the crown of greatest Briton to one Isambard Kingdom Brunel over such luminaries as Shakespeare and Darwin. Sure, designing railway bridges and trans-Atlantic steamships is impressive, but does it compare to discovering evolution and the most important literature of the last millenium?

Like 21 other countries have already done, the CBC is running the same sort of series to seek out the greatest Canadian. Who would be on the short list?

  • Pierre Elliot Trudeau
  • Sir John A. MacDonald
  • Wayne Gretzky
  • Farley Mowat
  • Neil Young
  • Terry Fox
  • Glenn Gould
  • Charles Best and Frederick Banting
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Maurice Richard

My money’s on Trudeau. Not because he necessarily deserves it, but he’d be the people’s choice.

31 Responses to “Greatest Canadian Ever”

  1. Chris

    Wouldnt Wayne Gretzky being the greatest ever Canadian be paramount to the UK voting for David Beckham?

    In honesty though I’ve never heard of any of the others in my naive English ways

  2. titi

    It that’s the 10 best in Canada, it is pretty sad.

  3. Rog

    Actually I think in the nature of Canadian achievements my vote would go for Trudeau by far. Though I have great respect for Neil Young, Farley Mowat, Atwood, etc. as well.

    Personally I’d axe Joni Mitchell off of the list, what’s next, Anne Murray?!? I’d much rather choose Leonard Cohen for musical representation.

    And if Gretzky & Richard belong there, what about Moses Znaimer, Rick Moranis, John Candy, Lorne Green (Mr. “Voice of Doom”, I’m sure my parents would vote for him), Lorne Michaels or even Michael J. Fox? Or do sports celebrities somehow count more than other celebrities?

  4. Rog

    Ooooh, I just thought of one. William Shatner. Heheheheh.

  5. Kim

    I suppose it would all depend on what criteria makes one a great Canadian! Depending in what way you look at things would depend who is the best. Personally, I think Terry Fox was a remarkable Canadian.

  6. becky

    Joni Mitchell is from Saskatoon.

    Hey, do you think they’d ever hold an American equivalent? Besides the cheesy Time magazine popularity contest?

  7. bree

    I’d vote for Terry Fox, but then I went to school in his hometown of Port Coquitlam, and we were inculcated with the belief that he was a great Canadian. There are a lot of candidates for a prize like that, and it’s hard to judge between an artist and a politician, or a sports star and a writer. I wonder if they’ll include any war heroes? What about the team that built the Avro Arrow?

  8. Darren

    Why aren’t there any good writers in that list? What about:

    Joy Kogawa
    Thomas King
    Timothy Findlay
    Douglas Coupland
    William Gibson (as Canadian as Michael Ondaatje, and a more entertaining writer to boot)

    Each and every one of these has been a leading Canadian author at one point or another (Kogawa was one of the first to write about the Japanese internment; King brings the vitality of oral native narrative to literate form; Findlay is canon; Coupland defined a generation; Gibson spawned a revolution).

  9. Kim

    Kim hangs her head in shame … she doesn’t know of those writers :(

  10. Darren

    Darren: In truth, I don’t really think an artist should win, or even place in the top ten. I’m sorry you don’t count Margaret Atwood or Farley Mowat as “good writers”, but the rest of the planet does. They’re among the most respected and influential Canadian writers of the last hundred years. Few writers have explored the experience of the Canadian wilderness like Mowat.

    That said, I’d give you Timothy Findlay. William Gibson was born in South Carolina, and lived there for the first 25 years of his life. Similarly, Thomas King was born in Sacramento and grew up in the States. They both may be Canadian citizens now, but, for my money, that disqualifies them.

    Joy Kogawa has written all of two books–yes, one has been very influential, but I don’t think two qualifies you for greatness.

    I don’t know about Douglas Coupland–he’s quite a global figure (from birth onwards–he was born on a Canadian military base in West Germany) and doesn’t seem to fit the mold for me. That’s lousy reasoning, I know, but he just doesn’t scream greatness, to me.

  11. Darren

    Rog: I wouldn’t put any sports figures or artists in the top ten. I’d definitely put Gretzky, Lorne Michaels and maybe Moses Znaimer in the top 100, though. I like them because they’re influencers –Michaels wasn’t in SNL, but he’s largely responsible (I think) for its creation. The same with Gretzky–his influence on Canada and the world is far greater than his performance on the ice.

    I found the Wikipedia entry for the 100 greatest Britons:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100_Greatest_Britons

    The top 20 are mostly political figures or scientists, which is fair enough. Lennon is a legitimate #8 (and, arguably, a political figure), with Michael Crawford (?) at #17 and Paul McCartney at #19.

    David Beckham, the top sports figure as far as I can tell, is at #33. I’d put Gretzky higher than that in a Canadian list, but it’s not far off.

  12. Sue

    As long as James Cameron never makes the list, I’ll be happy.

    If we’re looking at authors, I think W.P. Kinsella deserves a mention.

  13. Sue

    Looking at the programs that have been aired across the world in this series: Hitler was declared ineligible for the competition in Germany, yet I ask you is there a more memorable individual who the rest of the world connects with Germany? Nothing comes to mind.

  14. Mel

    Another author would be Michael Ondaatje. Hell, pick almost anyone who went on the Governor General’s “tour” last year.

    What about any of the SNL alumni and other entertainment bigshots? Mike Myers, Dan Akroyd, Shania Twain…

    My vote’s on Gretzky though ;)

  15. Darren James Harkness

    There’s a very good argument that Ondaatje, Atwood, and Mowat started writing in a time when it was very good to be a Canadian writer (as far as grants, promotion, etc went) due to the CRTC and its Canadian preference. Granted, this is a somewhat cynical line of thought, but it does have some merit.

    Re Gibson and King: the Canadian experience is almost synonymous with the immigrant experience. In a country that is as pluralistic as ours, where cultures are imported and maintained even after years, it’s very hard to say that an author isn’t “Canadian” because they weren’t born here. Gibson moved to Canada at age 19, and has lived in Vancouver since 1972. He’s been a Canadian 2 years longer than *I* have. By the time he’d published Neuromancer, he’d spent 12 years in Canada.

    King, true, didn’t move to Canada until the late 80s, but has proven to be an influential voice since that point, writing outstanding novels that incorporate native history, and challenging academic study on postcolonialism. He’s regarded as an important part of Canadian literature, and was nominated for a Governer-General’s Aware in 1993 for Green Grass, Running Water (a good read, incidentally).

    It’s interesting that you bring up Mowat and his exploration of the Canadian wilderness. How much is the Wilderness a part of the Canadian experience now?

    Certainly, 20 years ago, it was an integral part of Canadian culture. However, with the Amerification of our culture and the greater increase in urbanization, I just don’t think it’s a player any more. A representative sample of Canadian lit in the last 10 years would seem to support that notion.

    The norm lately seems to be dealing with “postcolonial” issues, urban life, and early 20th century history. An interesting trend among many young Canadian writers is to avoid Canada entirely; I recently read the Journey Prize anthology of short stories, and over half of them were set in the US or an unnamed location.

    Finally, to your point of an artist not placing in the top ten. I’d greatly prefer an artist, writer, or author to place in the top ten instead of a sports personality, wouldn’t you?

  16. Darren

    (not to single out Atwood, Mowatt, and Ondaatje for CRTC preference… merely to say that they (and others) started writing when there was a very large political pressure to promote Canadian writers, performers, and artists)

  17. Darren

    Longevity is obviously key, here–both from a greatness and a vote-getting perspective. Nobody alive and under 50 is going to win this thing. I don’t know if King was writing about Canada before the late-eighties, but 15 years isn’t long enough, as far as I’m concerned. The same goes for Coupland. It’s also difficult to assess their greatness if they’re relatively new to being Canadian.

    As for Gibson, how Canadian is he, really? I’ve read several of his books, and can’t detect much that is strikingly Canadian in them.

    I don’t know about King, but the immigrant experience is hardly a major theme in Gibson’s work. If that interests you, then you’ve got to go with Ondaatje or Rohinton Mistry.

    Additionally, I’m not sure that present-day relevance is important. Check out the British top 40–most of them are dead. Admittedly, Canadians have had less time to live and die, but I don’t think that disqualifies Farley Mowat.

    After all, the Canadian wilderness has been of great concern to Canadians for a lot longer than urbanization or the Amerification of our culture. Even just considering post-Confederation, those issues have only cropped up in, what, the last fifth of our nation’s history.

    For that matter, why hasn’t anybody mentioned Susanna Moodie or Catharine Parr Traill?

    Re. sports figures and artists, see my comments to Rog above.

  18. Matthew

    You don’t think any artist should be in the top 10, Darren? I suggest it could well be dominated by them.
    The exercise hinges, it seems to me, on setting the terms of what it means to be a “great Canadian” – are we talking citizen who has had the greatest impact on the world, or rather citizen who has had the greatest effect on Canada? In terms of world-reach, our artists would almost certainly dominate the list, as cultural pursuits are international, while political ones tend not to be so. The rest of the world doesn’t have a clue who Trudeau was or why he might be important. Norman Jewison’s movies, however, have been appreciated by millions of people world-wide, likewise Celine Dion’s music.
    I would like to ban all politicans from the list, under the theory that not a single one of them has ever done anything that they didn’t already know would be popular with enough people to not put their job at risk, and only then with an escape route planned. If you want leadership, national or international, look to the artists.

  19. James Burns

    While the whole exercise of the “greatest Canadian” can be fun and potentially educational, I think there is a big flaw in the whole process. It is after all more than a little subjective.

    I mean unless you can claim some “Buffy”-like Canadian somewhere through his or her actions alone saved life, the universe, and everything; it would seem the importance of each “important” Canadian’s contribution would depend on what is personally important to you.

    Moreover, complicated issues like patriating the Canadian Constitution certainly can’t be ascribed to one Canadian alone. But it is a sensational idea.

    What I find most interesting about the whole thing is just how often North Americans (Americans in particular) copy ideas from the BBC for their entertainment programming. Shows like What to Wear, Cracker, Coupling, the Office, Garden Spaces, Trading Spaces, etc. etc…. Amazing that a public funded institution like the BBC can be such a fantastic resource of creativity. I mean where would American TV be without it? ;)

  20. Anonymous

    What about:
    Frederick Banting – invented insulin.
    James Naismith – invented Basketball.
    Alexander Graham Bell – invented the telephone.
    Joe Shuster & Jerome Siegel – created Superman.

  21. Rog

    The more I think about it, the more I feel that the top 10 (or say top 30) shouldn’t exclude artists per se, but it should include artists who who’ve made a difference.

    And the Canadian way of making a difference? Either to change the face of Canada (again, I would vote Trudeau) or take a piece of Canada and give it worldwide recognition, which is the reasoning behind including Gretzky.

    Others that could be mentioned, granted the list kinda degenerates into comic relief:

    Mordecai Richler – Here’s an obvious choice.

    Robert Sawyer – Hey, he’s won the Hugo and the Nebula.

    Phil Hartman – Everyone just thinks of him as a witty actor, but he also designed the logo for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and album covers for America (which only a true Canadian would do), Poco, etc. and hey he was the voice of Troy McClure.

    David Foley – Just ’cause he’s so damn cute and made the cheesiest Canadian Christmas special I’ve ever seen.

    Raymond Burr – C’mon, it’s Perry Mason.

    Matt Frewer – Max Headroom could kick Perry Mason’s ass.

    Michael Ironside – That Scanners guy could kick Max Headroom’s ass kicking Perry Mason’s ass.

    David Cronenberg – While we’re on the subject of Scanners…

    John Colicos – The original klingon AND the voice for Battlestar Galactica!

    Robert Ito – Sam, the guy on Quincy!

    I didn’t include the silly entries just for comedy though, I’d like to make the point a little that some authors/artists/whatever seem to be distinquished for work that is, I don’t know, more elitist. Farley Mowat for instance, does not turn my crank, yet I can’t shake that he’s an important Canadian because that was drilled into my head in school.

    I also feel like saying that one of my favourite authors whom is not well known in North America (but well acclaimed in the UK of all places) is Canadian: Steven Erikson.

    Can we agree though that Alan Thicke should be banished from the list?

  22. Darren

    Everybody makes salient points. I think we’re getting bogged down in the criteria, though. If I get a chance, I’ll see if I can figure out what the Brits used.

  23. Darren James Harkness

    Actually, Bell was originally Scottish. He invented and tested the first phone in Ontario, but didn’t make it commercially available until he moved to the US.

  24. Darren James Harkness

    And from a political perspective (to give the writers thread a break), here are my picks for Great Canadian politicians:

    William Lyon Mackenzie King – brought Canada social assistance, employment insurance, CPP (precursor), and the CBC. If you’re looking for influence on the country, look no farther. Also, he was as looney as bat.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Lyon_Mackenzie_King#Depression_and_War

    Lester B. Pearson – extended what WLMK started; created the official CPP, unemployment insurance, universal health care (actually, this was borrowed from Tommy Douglas’s CCF party, who had established universal health care in Saskatchewan) and student loans programs. Also created the UN Peacekeeping force.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lester_Bowles_Pearson

  25. Y.

    What? No votes for Pamela Anderson?!
    Seriously though…David Suzuki.

  26. claude bourgeois

    I truly believe one of the greatest Canadians (if not the greatest) is our own national treasure, Anne Murray. Close to 50 million albums sold, internationally recognized as a symbol of Canada, has always lived in Canada, raised her children here, and was the first Canadian female to have a gold record in the US, paving the way for future stars like kd Lang, Sarah McLachlan, Celine Dion and Shania Twain to name but a few. A 35 year career, Elvis’ favourite female singer, 11 #1 US Billboard Country songs, 1 #1 US Billboard pop song, 1 #1 Contemporary Christian US Billboard album, countless US Top 40 albums, four Grammies, three Country Music association Awards (US) 3 American Music awards, the most Junos won by anyone (24). She was a favourite of George Bush senior, had Bruce Springsteen and Jerry Seinfeld as opening acts and her music crosses pop, country, easy listening, adult contemporary, contemporary christian , children’s music, inspirational, etc. She has recorded The Maple Leaf Forever, has a devoted following, her music was played on the moon and she is part of the Canada’s Walk of Fame and has a star in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and Nashville’s Row of Stars. She is unpretentious, funny and down-to-earth. She has collaborated with Bryan Adams, Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell, Celine Dion, David Foster, Aaron Neville, Doug Mallory, Dave Loggins, Shirley Eikhard, Jann Arden, Dawn Langstroth, Barenaked Ladies, Patty Labelle, Julio Iglesias, Roch Voisine, The Rankins, Rita MacNeil, Perry Como, and Vince Gill to name but a few. She truly is a class act and someone that Canada can be proud of all over the world. She has specials almost yearly on the CBC, and her 4 one hour specials on CBS each attracted an estimated 40 million viewers. She has supported countless charities and participates in the development of her humble hometown, Springhill NS. She is so famous yet she will stop and talk to you if you meet her. She’s truly a Canadian Icon of great proportion !

  27. lauren storey

    i haven’t gone over the history books to dig up some politician ….or focused on the sporting life and media awarness some might afford “the greatest canadain” should be engulfed in.
    DR.DAVID ZUZUKI may be not only the greatest canadian but a living one as well.
    his continued search to live as a canadian with environmental limits……educating others quietly patiently…
    he represents what every canadian would like in themselves and in their country : educated concern and care, with humility and willingness to actually act without much fanfare.
    DR.DAVID ZUZUKI

  28. Lauren Storey

    laughing at myself …excuse the spelling of DR.DAVID SUZUKI.
    LIKE I SAID he is something we canadian aspire to be, at least educated.

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