This week we saw the first episode of the new CBC series The Greatest Canadian and, after sitting through the two-hour program, I was irritated that the closest a woman came to being the Greatest Canadian was giving birth to one. There are no women in the top 10, which is made up of Tommy Douglas, Wayne Gretzky, Don Cherry, John A. Macdonald, Terry Fox, Dr. Frederick Banting, Lester Pearson, Alexander Graham Bell, David Suzuki and Pierre Trudeau. In the top 50, there are a mere six women.
Apparently the CBC-watching and voting public has a clear definition of who makes a great Canadian: They must be white, a patriot and have a penis. It seems that our national narrative does not include the Lives of Girls and Women sadly not even internationally acclaimed author Alice Munro made the list; evidently, we appreciate our WWE wrestlers more, because the hit man Bret Hart made the top fifty. Comedian Rick Mercer squeaked in at number 50, though his much funnier (and longer-established) co-star Mary Walsh was frozen out.
It is obvious from this list that was admittedly heavy on contemporary pop culture icons that women need to fit a particular mold in order to be selected. For one, they have to have good, tight abs. The only contemporary women who made the list were singers, three in all. One is the teen rocker initially dubbed the anti-Britney, Avril Lavigne who recently posed for a centrefold in men's magazine Maxim, which probably got her some votes. Also included is songbird Celine Dion, who made the list for no conceivable reason that I can come up with, as it seems she's the diva everyone loves to hate.
And last, but not least, there's Shania Twain, whose groundbreaking lyrics like Whose bed have your boots been under? and Man! I feel like a woman are clearly feminist theme songs for our generation. Twain is the top ranking female on the list; likely because she's also the prettiest, as even host Wendy Mesley commented on Twain's famous waistline.
Only two historical females made the Greatest cut: Nellie McClung and Laura Secord. McClung, a suffragette, was one of the leaders of the Canadian women's movement who fought for the vote for women. She is a woman who worked for the enfranchisement of half the population, and is arguably one of our country's most influential activists for social change. Laura Secord, who has been commonly referred to as the heroine of the war of 1812, warned the British of a planned attack by the Americans. Oh yeah, and her chocolates are delicious too.
One historically important woman that I was hoping to see on the list is the star of our Canadian Heritage TV minutes, our first female magistrate, Emily Murphy. If I remember correctly, it goes like this, I, Emily Murphy, a magistrate in the British Empire, but not a person under the law... She, along with four other women, brought this injustice to the British Privy Council and won, so that women are now persons under the law, not just property for their husbands and fathers. Alas, maybe she ate too many of Laura Secord's chocolates, and so didnâe(TM)t make the list.
Overall I would argue that the list of 50 works to reinforce the dominant myths of the white settler society of Canada. Only a few people of colour made the cut, and, of those, half Louis Riel and Tecumseh were fighting the British/Canadians for their own sovereignty and would have scoffed at being labeled Canadian. The racism that exists in our nation is rarely spoken about and is often ignored, and this list reinforces that, with only Dr. David Suzuki making the top 10. Suzuki, whose family was forced into the Japanese internment camps of World War II, has himself experienced the brunt of this country's racism.
In terms of women of colour, there are clearly some gaps in our collective history. For instance, I would argue that there are some very important Black women missing, reinforcing the myth that Black women have made little contribution to the development of Canadian culture. Two Black women who I would argue must be remembered are Harriet Tubman and Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
Harriet Tubman worked as a conductor of the Underground Railway, bringing slaves from the U.S. to Canada, basing her operations in St. Catherines, Ontario. She is believed to have saved over 300 people from slavery while risking her own life and her freedom. Although Tubman lived only a fraction of her 93 years in this country, her contribution cannot be overstated. Her life has come to represent the struggle of African people for justice and freedom. However, her incredible bravery was not unique in the history of African-Canadian women.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary is another woman who is missing from the list. Shadd Cary was the first Black woman in Canada, in fact the first in North America, to run her own newspaper, the Provincial Freeman. She used this paper to promote the cause of Black refugees to Canada. In addition to being the first Black female newspaper editor in North America, she was an educator who created Canada's first racially integrated school. As well, at the age of 60 she became the first Black female lawyer in North America. These two women prove that there have been great female Canadians, too.
It seems, sadly, that Canadians are unwilling to acknowledge them in our national narrative.
Personally, my heart is on Tommy Douglas but, unfortunately, my money's on the ever self-promoting Grate One to take the top prize. As for women's representation, I'm sure he'll thank his wife Janet in his acceptance speech.
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