The contemporary Canadian sales epic of Mr. Bitumen

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I've been trying to watch Mr. Selfridge, a British TV series about the American who created a legendary department store in London during the Downton Abbey era. Mr. S is played by Jeremy Piven who, believe me, was more riveting as Ari the obnoxious agent in Entourage.

I persevere since I've got a stake in salesfolk. My dad and his two brothers sold dresses at the corner of Spadina and Adelaide for 46 years -- wholesale not retail, as the sign in the window said. They were agents for Montreal factories. My brother and I viewed them as the Marx brothers of the dress business. Now the Darling Building is a heritage site with new media startups and galleries. Darling Lunch downstairs, where the shmata guys conspired, is a Dollarama.

There was romance and tragedy to selling then. Two great U.S. plays, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, dwell on the pathos, or just pathetics, of salesmen. Those qualities existed here, too. I met a Montreal supersalesman, Jack Gold, with the moxie and sexual swagger of those characters. A dress line, Jacques Doré, was named after him. They had a core sense of dignity, based on their role in an "hourglass" shaped economy, as Terry Flew and Richard Smith say in their text, New Media. They functioned at the "bottleneck" between producers and consumers. Now that connection has been "distintermediated" or "remediated" by more direct, online relations. Today many young people work in "retail" (not wholesale), but it's just a stop, even if it lasts a lifetime, en route to something cooler. The same for servers: waiting was once a proud, lifelong profession.

Canada was basically set up as a sales operation by European powers who coveted its "staples," (cod, beaver pelts, timber, wheat) and in turn sold us their finished products. It was a stable arrangement since demand for Canadian goods was set by the buyers. They told us what they needed and we supplied it. We didn't have to convince them. Then, in the late 1800s, John A. Macdonald's National Policy used tariff barriers to build up manufacturing here. That led to regional (east-west) and labour tensions but they were healthy, nation-building tensions.

Free trade and globalization, however, led to dismantling the factories and we're back to resource dependence, but without the guaranteed markets of the past. So our governments have become largely a sales force, trooping to Washington to beg the U.S. to buy our oil and build pipelines for it. Resources Minister Joe Oliver is the Willy Loman of this drama, without Willy's panache. His attacks on climate scientist James Hansen or Al Gore are ludicrous; those two lack any personal, financial interest for undermining Canadian oil; their sole motive, wrong-headed or not, is saving the planet. Weak sales strategy, minister.

Could there be a Canadian version of Mr. Selfridge? Of course: Mr. Eaton. Eaton's ruled here for over a century. Mr. Eaton had godlike, Santa-like status; kids and moms wrote to him, as in The Hockey Sweater. Eaton's ads anchored the Toronto papers so that news about union drives there never appeared. When a 1985 strike hit the pages of the papers, you knew the magic was fading. Today kids are surprised to hear the Eaton Centre, where they hang out, was once a store. But you can still rub the toe of his statue for luck.

If there was a contemporary Canadian sales epic, it would be Mr. Bitumen. That's because the nightmare of any salesperson is a blatantly faulty, unneeded product, as it inexorably occupies centre stage. The U.S. doesn't need our messy, tarry oil; they're well-supplied. They'll just pipe it to Texas, refine it there (creating American jobs) and ship it into the Caribbean. Meanwhile it acts symbolically, making us the world's chief environmental pariah. This week, Joe Oliver attacked the EU for classifying our oil as "dirty." Simultaneously, his own government is rushing to finish a free trade deal with the EU before they begin talks with the U.S. That's not great bargaining strategy either: insult the guy on the other side you're desperate to make a deal with. It could be a good series.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: PremierofAlberta/Flickr

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