In 1899, writer Robert Barr wrote in Canadian Magazine about the need for literature in Canada. He told how, as a young man, he went to see "the Niagara Falls" and came away disappointed by how unimpressive it was. That's because "No reality can ever equal the expectation of a boy's lurid fancy," and his had been fired by a poem of England's poet laureate Robert Southey, that appeared in all "readers" used then in Ontario schools. "The Falls of Ladore" began, Recoiling, turmoiling and toiling, and boiling . . . Years later, after he'd moved to the U.K.
We ought to consider R.A. Dickey, who's now No. 1 in the Blue Jays' starting rotation, not just a pitching asset but a cultural one. That isn't because he's a reader, though in one of many life crises he considered teaching high-school English. Nor that he's a writer, with a bestseller: Wherever I Wind Up.
It's because he's a reflector: he reflects on what he lives, and reflects the results back to us. That's what culture does. Creativity is less its essence, no one creates anything from scratch; that's one of the myths of art. What artists make is reflections on reality, including reflections on the reflections of others.
Stompin' Tom Connors, who died on Wednesday at 77, had a romance with Canada, not just its people and features -- even its place-names. You gotta start somewhere. In the 1960s, when he began, that had a certain defiance: to treat Canadian sites as seriously as other nations treated theirs, and so did we. Poet Dennis Lee wrote kids' verse flinging Casa Loma in the face of Banbury Cross. Stompin' Tom took Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere" and replaced U.S. names with Canadian ones. Snow was born in the Maritimes, like Connors, but he went south and glorified "their" map.
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Almost all of us miss NHL hockey some of the time. And some of us miss it all of the time: players, owners, sports journalists. But its absence may also be a covert present in this gifting season: a chance to rebalance and recalibrate the place of hockey in our culture.
You see that imbalance in references to missing "hockey" and yearning for "hockey" to return. Yet it's only NHL hockey that's lacking. This is the result of a stealth coup by the NHL: it's made itself equivalent to hockey altogether.
Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is now at the McMichael art gallery near Toronto, after what we're told was a successful European tour. Canadians are always impressed when their artists are hailed elsewhere. The phenomenon spans three centuries. I was at the McMichael in August, before this show, when it was also full of Thomsons and Group of Sevens -- from its own collection. I went with an observant 14-year-old and a cultured foreign friend. Both came away with a sense of depression evoked by those paintings of lakes and woods.
Quick, before this hockey crisis goes away, I'd like to act quickly to try and wrestle some ideas from it, instead of wasting it.
What's eternally awesome is the way individual souls meld with their team. The identification is local, not national, except for rare Olympian moments. And it's with the team, not just players and definitely not owners. It transcends generations and absences. I once left Toronto for 10 years, pre-Internet when it was harder to keep contact, and when I returned I picked up exactly the same feelings of frustration with the Leafs and Argos as before, although entire rosters had been replaced, like the cells of a human body every seven years. The ongoing agony was seamless.
In late January, a small team gleaned from the ranks of Vancouver-based citizens' organizations OpenMedia.ca and Leadnow.ca took the wraps off an exciting new project called Reimagine CBC. The goal was simple, but ambitious: to spark a massive brainstorm on the future of public media in Canada by asking Canadians how the CBC, as a public broadcaster, could be reimagined as a leader in participatory, innovative and engaging media production.