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Aw, Canada

Overcoming my aversion to seasonally inappropriate acts—I hate leaves that turn in August or Christmas carols sung in September—some buddies and I made
our annual midsummer creep over the border to cheer on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.

Hamilton is a steel and port city of half a million on Lake Ontario. It has history and soul and a meet resentment of Toronto, which in its endlessly advertised multicult glory is like Henry James’s definition of a cosmopolite: a little bit of everything and not much of anything.

The Ti-Cats play at venerable Ivor Wynne, a circa 1930 stadium nestled into a Hamilton neighborhood that is as human as Toronto’s domed Rogers Centre is hideously sterile. Not that Ivor Wynne presents a traditional tableau: the cheerleaders seem to be recruited from Hamilton’s skankiest strip joints, and NFL-ish schlock-rock and TV timeouts offend the game itself.

The rules of Canadian football are familiar yet awry, like one’s spouse sporting a fetchingly strange new hairstyle. The field is longer and wider (I never tire of hearing that the ball is on the 53-yard line), and a single point—a rouge—is awarded to a team that kicks an unreturned ball into or out of the elongated end zone. My favorite CFL score is 1-1. Most significantly, an offense gets three downs to make ten yards. Unlike four-down American football, teams are reluctant to either waste a down with a long pass or patiently build a drive on running plays, so a premium is placed on safe short passes. Not my bottle of Upper Canada ale, but I am a foreigner so I do what all foreigners should do when visiting a country: I shut up and enjoy it and then go home.

The CFL limits imported players to 22 per team, but this is too lax. The league once proved a haven for quarterbacks whose race (Warren Moon) or size (Doug Flutie) ran afoul of NFL prejudices, but today the presence of American players is as irritating as seeing Europeans in the NBA and the NHL. Stay home, mercenaries.

Hamilton’s adopted son George Parkin Grant, the philosopher at McMaster University, made at least one published reference to the local gridders. In Time as History (1969), his book on Nietzsche, he attached the word “pathetic” to “the performance of the quarterback for the Hamilton Tiger Cats this season.” A hardy perennial, that remark.

Before going this year, I reread Grant’s Lament for a Nation (1965), that rare volume written in response to a specific political episode—the eclipse of Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker—which endures as a work of richness and imagination, a statement of Canadian nationalism that is far more than tiresome anti-Americanism.

Grant mourned Canada’s reduction to “a branch-plant society of American capitalism.” He honored prairie lawyer Diefenbaker and those “nationalist hayseeds” who defied JFK in trying to keep nuclear weapons off Canadian soil. The story misfits our lazy assumptions: Grant, an organic if statist conservative, was also a Christian pacifist. The Liberals who scorned Diefenbaker as a Saskatchewan hick were pro-nuke Cold Warriors who “paid allegiance to the homogenized culture of the American Empire.” Grant’s reactionary—and I mean that as praise—essay became a basic text of the Canadian New Left. It is as if Russell Kirk had written the most damning indictment of the Vietnam War and then become the éminence grise of SDS.

Grant saw as heroic Diefenbaker’s last-ditch attempt to keep Canada from being absorbed into the “universal and homogeneous state” whose HQ was DC. The prime minister, operating from a mixture of “prairie populism with the private-enterprise ideology of the small town,” had asserted that Canada was no mere satellite but an independent nation. For his audacity he was crushed by “the full weight of the North-American establishment.”

(An aside so depressing that I have to quarantine it in parentheses: Grant’s nephew, the deracinated war-craving intellectual Michael Ignatieff, is the new leader of the opposition Liberal Party. Ignatieff, who lived abroad for a quarter of a century, has said, “I do not believe in roots.” George Grant, alas, would have believed all too well in Ignatieff, and in the nightmarish prospect of a self-extirpating Canada electing a prime minister who would like nothing better than to ship the eh-saying clods of provincial Ontario off to die in Iraq or Afghanistan for his globalist abstractions. No, Canada!)

Scarlett O’Hara-like, I refuse to think of Michael Ignatieff. Instead I envision George Grant in the end-zone seats at Ivor Wynne, nursing a Molson, cursing the ads for foreign corporations, and joining in a lusty chorus of Hamilton’s fight song: Oskee-wee wee/Oskee wha-wha/Holy Mackinaw/Tigers/ Eat ’em raw!  


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