The Definitive Guide to How Canada Stopped Being Totally Embarrassing
2015 was the year the conservatives were supposed to win The Great Canadian Culture war. But shit doesn't always go as planned.
Well hello my friends. We had a pretty big year. The Jays made a pennant run in October and Jose Bautista flipped his bat in the air and it was the coolest thing to happen in Toronto since the ex-mayor got busted for partying too hard. We also got a new Grimes album. It's actually been a pretty stellar year for CanCon.
But 2015 was a pretty banner year for another reason: this was the year of the Canadian cultural war.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Early 2015 is basically a lifetime ago for those of us in the Age of Clickbait. But back then, Canada was conservative as fuck. Alberta was still wrestling with the radical idea of letting gay and straight kids be friends with each other on school property. It was still possible to believe that the country's oil-powered economy wasn't in as hard shape as it seemed. The federal government was belligerently opposed to treating Indigenous women like human beings and kept warning us about reefer madness. They were even seriously entertaining the thought of erecting a giant statue of something called Mother Canada on the eastern shores of Cape Breton (because that's where Canada ends, I guess).
We were nearing the end game of a decade-long struggle over the soul of Canada. 2015 was going to Year Zero, the moment when the country's clock rolled over and The Big Shift would be a real thing and the new conservative century would finally take hold.
All in all, a bang-up year to be an Old-Stock Canadian.
In retrospect, there were a lot of signs that this entire enterprise was in the process of coming off the rails. The day before Valentine's Day, the Sun News Network—aka "Fox News North" among pearl-clutching Upper Canadians—abruptly vanished from the airwaves after a four-year struggle to be taken seriously. (A moment of silence for all our legitimate media comrades impacted by the closure.)
For the vast majority of you who never watched it (you monsters), Sun News was an attempt to correct for the obvious Marxist and/or liberal bias of Canadian media by being "unapologetically patriotic." Most of its hosts took this to mean "screaming about David Suzuki" and "calling Justin Trudeau's mom a slut" and "saying racist things about the Roma." The result was, according to one former host, "mind-bendingly bad television," and after begging the CRTC to make the channel a mandatory part of basic cable—which failed to elicit any sympathy from the regulatory body, or taxpayers in general for that matter—the owners pulled the plug. Fortunately for the rest of us, all its best contributors quickly regrouped over atThe Rebel, where they continue to bring you the realest news and hottest takes this side of the 49th parallel, freed from the tyranny of corporate oversight or basic audio/visual production technology.
There were a few bright spots for the country's Islamophobia industry early this year, which had a strong first quarter showing after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France and continued this upward trajectory when the government managed to pass its comprehensive anti-terror law (Bill C-51). But despite years of the federal government's best efforts to veto, Omar Khadr was finally released this spring after 13 years of incarceration. It ended up being a pretty triumphant moment for human rights activists in Canada, even if Elizabeth May put a damper on the whole occasion by getting way too excited (or too "overtired") about it and dropping an f-bomb at the Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner in Ottawa. (Everyone knows cursing in Canada is a mortal sin.)
Of course, everything really started coming apart at the seams after the NDP took Alberta, which we can probably say conclusively at this point was the wildest thing to happen in this country in 2015. A progressive insurgency in wild rose country was a sure sign that the conservative century was in jeopardy. Shit came so unglued that competing sets of Canadian culture warriors launched boycotts against Tim Hortons—one because Tims loved oil pipelines too much, and another because Tims didn't love oil pipelines enough. Tim Hortons is our country's most precious national symbol—more popular than the Queen, the last time anyone checked, so this was pretty fucking serious business. In retrospect though it's possible that most of these people were just very agitated that they weren't getting any action on Ashley Madison.
Pity also poor Mike Duffy. It's bad enough that thanks to this year's trial, his picture is going to be next to the word "corruption" in all future dictionaries of Canadian English. It's worse still that the time he wrote in his diary about his explosive cabbage roll farts is now a matter of public record. But the worst of all that most of the country was more emotionally involved with a dead raccoon on a Toronto sidewalk than in giving a shit about the mechanics of the Canadian Senate. Such is life in the North.
Then came that godawful election and Canada seemingly transformed overnight. Or three interminable months, whatever. We started giving a shit about Syrian refugees and a middle class no one could actually define and having a "cool" prime minister who loved selfies. Suddenly we were having a referendum on Canadianness before the Conservatives' nationalist renovation was finished and the whole blessed enterprise blew up in their faces. The Big Shift ended up as a big shit, and Thomas Mulcair will be forever haunted by the knowledge that if he'd appeared on TV dancing to "Hotline Bling" before October 19, the NDP would have taken every seat in the country.
Canada is back, baby, because it's 2015. JT brought sexy back and also established the country's first literal dynasty. Accustomed to Stephen Harper's dumpy rectangular frame for ten years, both national and international media spent a solid month ogling Trudeau like a gaggle of teenage girls who'd just picked up a copy of Tiger Beat and an aggressively large can of Red Bull. The Trudeaus appeared in Vogue and people all across the country started melting down. Jihadis are shooting up Parisian theatres and our prime minister has the audacity to be a publicly recognizable and affable man? This outrage will not stand. God forbid Canada is ever cool about anything for more than 15 fucking minutes.
The only remotely real scandal to emerge so far in the new Trudeau era was #nannygate, in which people got really upset that the prime minister's children had a taxpayer-funded caretaker. Naturally, instead of focusing on the real issues—why are Trudeau's nannies paid so abysmally? Why isn't publicly funded childcare available for those of us who actually need it?—most people were hung up on "look at this rich piece of shit." Not that I'm opposed to soaking the rich, but this is the laziest class war ever.
Depending on who you ask, Canada is either too far gone or not far gone enough. The Liberals are too radically PC because they committed to gender parity in cabinet but also not PC enough because the prime minister justified his decision by smugly stating the current year instead of rattling off the collected works of bell hooks. If Harper's key public relations strategy was to blithely ignore all criticism, Trudeau's might lie in disarming it with charm (and smarm). I'll let you decide which is worse.
THE GAME IS CHANGING
Not that it's misguided to worry whether Trudeau's rhetorical nod to social justice is more talk than walk. Many Canadians are still unprepared to have adult conversations about complicated topics like race or gender. The prime minister himself has played into clumsy anti-black stereotypes about gangster rap and absentee fatherhood. For every person calling out police carding in Toronto as part of white supremacy, there are more prepared to justify practical racism. A yoga class in Ottawa got canceled and half the country started openly wondering whether openness to the concerns of disenfranchised peoples had gone too far.
Canadian settler society remains mired in a neurotic tizzy. La plus ca change, etc.
But there are positive signs. Despite flareups of xenophobia (sometimes encouraged by the government), most Canadians have managed to hold it together when it counted. Kim Thuy's Ru—a novel about Vietnamese refugees struggling to fit into Canada—won Canada Reads 2015, foreshadowing that maybe our collective hearts weren't totally made of stone. In a moment of beautiful irony, Zunera Ishaq became the face of Canadian multiculturalism when she wore the niqab at her citizenship ceremony in October and the nation didn't disintegrate. And concerns about cynical photo-ops aside, the way Syrian refugees were welcomed to Canada this year was genuinely heartwarming.
Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples—the real beating heart of any Canadian cultural revolution—have finally started seeing some of the institutional recognition they deserve. Indigenous consciousness and activism has been on the uptick in Canada since Idle No More first erupted at the end of 2012, and this year saw a lot of the movement's gains consolidated. Indigenous music has cleaned up in Canada this year with Tanya Tagaq taking a Juno, Buffy Sainte-Marie taking a Polaris, and two 11-year-old Inuit throat singers dominated Trudeau's cabinet swearing-in ceremony in November.
More importantly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrapped up its work this year. They issued 94 calls to action in June and a final report in December after spending 7 years collecting testimony and evidence from survivors of Canada's residential school program all around the country. The Liberals have promised to enact all 94 of the commission's recommendations, which includes launching the long-demandednational inquiry into the more than 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada since 1980. This is a stark contrast to Conservative minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt sitting down through a standing ovation when the TRC called for that inquiry in June.
Maybe the best visual metaphor for what happened in Canada this year.
That the Trudeau Liberals are committed to following through on the TRC is a beautiful thing. But whether they actually stick to the hard work of establishing a real "nation-to-nation" relationship in 2016 and beyond is another thing entirely. The federal government has never even figured out how to properly deal with Quebec on a nation-to-nation basis, so god only knows how they're actually going to make this work.
But we have some reasons to be hopeful. 2015 started with a government celebrating John A MacDonald's 200th birthday and ended with a new government endorsing a 3,700-page report detailing the cultural genocide he established.
America would never flip off their deadbeat dad(s) like that. Say what you will about Canada these days, but that's pretty fucking cool.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.