I would love to interpret the response to CBC’s The Greatest Canadian competition as a populist revolt. Listen, for instance, to the National Post‘s Andrew Coyne heave and wheeze over the list of nominees, including enough hockey players to ice a team and a, gasp, “Winnipeg radio personality”: “It is a travesty of our past the CBC is offering us: a celebration of ignorance, a salute to mediocrity.” Seeing a big-time pundit lose it must make the bother of sending in those irritating names worthwhile.

Observe Mark Starowicz, the series’ co-executive producer, labour po-faced to explain why only six women appear in the top 50. Must mean that women have been “disenfranchised,” he says, managing to insult Canadians at the same moment he tries to explain and perhaps justify them.

This is the same Mark Starowicz who produced the CBC’s acclaimed Canada: A People’s History. He got the Order of Canada for making it, but I still think, as I’ve explained before, that it was tedious, conventional and without insight. People watched it, but often out of duty or to save the country. Many, I’m convinced, dozed off, so that, if a ratings company called, they could honestly say the set was on and tuned to CBC. Now it’s as if, having induced Canadians to sit through those grinding lectures (profs always assume their students are captivated rather than just captive), he is giving a pop quiz: Who remembers the greatest ones? At least some viewers had the wit to give him the gears in return.

There is often condescension in these CBC efforts to uplift the masses. Here, it lies in the resolve to make the search for Great Canadians “fun,” as the website says. There’s nothing less fun than people who try to make you have fun; it’s so stressful. Though CBC’s efforts at lighter programming can also be tortuous. They made Don Messer’s Jubilee their most watched show, then cancelled it. They turned Don Cherry into a national cult as a mouthy bigot, then tried to fire him for being just that. Hey, Don Cherry — isn’t that the name on the Greatest Top 10 list getting most of the indignation? How dare the viewers put him there?

I’d like to think this populism is directed at the very assumption that some people count way more than others. A friend calls the Canadian version of that assumption being Peter Newman’d to death, based on all the rich, famous or powerful people he writes endlessly about. In The Greatest Canadian, the elitism gets reinforced by the device of “celebrity advocates” for each nominee. Many, you suspect, wonder why they aren’t on the list, too. Why DJ Hal Anderson and not DJ George Stromboulopoulos (Tommy Douglas’s advocate)? Why Preston Manning and not Deb Grey (Wayne Gretzky’s)? You end up thinking the population of Canada (those worth counting, anyway) is 100, or double that if you include their celebrity shills.

But I choose to think of the response to The Greatest Canadian in more positive terms than a revolt. I prefer to see, in its breadth and inclusiveness, a Shakespearean retort to the narrow elitism of the show’s premise. Peter Brook wrote that, had Shakespeare not lived, we’d never have known that you can combine high tragedy and low comedy, introspective philosophizing with bawdy antics. (Never have known, that is, assuming you ignore the evidence of life all around you.) So think of Don Cherry as the Falstaff of the Final 10, to the Prince Hal of Pierre Trudeau or Frederick Banting. Norman Bethune leavened by Celine Dion, Louis Riel by Jim Carrey. The chaotic circus of it all.

The sublime moment of this project came and went in a promo last spring. It showed two uniformed cops slouched in their cruiser quarrelling over the greatness of Margaret Atwood versus Margaret Laurence. Margaret Atwood is prolific, incisive… It ended with them shouting Atwood… Laurence at each other. Its premise was that we would expect cops to argue about Orr versus Gretzky, or Richard versus (not C. D.) Howe. But what even the ad writers did not anticipate was the genius of the unwashed, having the cops scream Don Cherry!… No, Marshall McLuhan! back and forth over their coffee and doughnuts.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.