Not-so-Heroic Canadian Politicians

I’m starting to revise the chapter of Public Representations on Canadian political narratives. This will take several weeks, and I’m planning to post on sections of the chapter as I revise them. I’ll begin with the introduction.

In 2004, the CBC held a competition to select “the greatest Canadian.” The winner, championed by TV personality George Strombolopoulos, was Tommy Douglas, who was described as the father of Medicare. Two years later, the CBC aired a biopic about Douglas, entitled Prairie Giant. One would have thought the results of the competition would have ensured the success of the biopic. But that isn’t what happened.

Tommy Douglas’s ambitious reform agenda in Saskatchewan faced considerable opposition. The showrunners, following the adage that every story needs a devil, selected Saskatchewan Liberal politician Jimmy Gardiner for that role. The trouble was they got some of their facts wrong, even details like showing the teetotaling Gardiner often drinking a whisky. Gardiner’s descendants attacked the show for historical inaccuracy. The Saskatchewan NDP Government, which contributed funding, was criticized by the Opposition Saskatchewan Party for trying to influence the 2007 provincial election. Douglas’s daughter Shirley panned the biopic because it ignored what she thought was his greatest act of political courage, opposing Pierre Trudeau’s imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970. Finally, Allan Blakeney, Douglas’s political heir, opined that “he was not Saint Tommy nor was Jimmy Gardiner the epitome of evil.” Buffeted on all sides, the CBC took the biopic down from its website.

I start with this story because it illustrates a key point of the chapter, which is that English Canadians are suspicious of narrative texts depicting political heroes. Hence our not-so-heroic Canadian politicians. This is somewhat counter-intuitive because comparative surveys of trust in politicians and government show that Canadians are like Nordics, who have high levels of trust, rather than the Americans and British, who don’t. One would expect that heroic depictions of politicians would appeal to a national audience that trusts their politicians. English Canadians prefer to see their politicians presented with their flaws and weaknesses, rather than venerated. The chapter will show how many Canadian politicians – King, Trudeau, Levesque, Tommy Douglas, Jack Layton – have been depicted in moving-image narratives as less than completely heroic, and nevertheless commentators have often criticized those depictions as being too heroic.

My second point in the introduction is that, given the cost of producing moving image narratives, conditions of production have a significant influence of what is produced. The conditions for English-language Canadian political narratives are not promising. Our stories must compete with those from the US and UK, which are readily available in the cinema and on mainstream network television as well as online streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Crave (HBO). If we want political idealism, we have Lincoln or The West Wing or Parks and Recreation. If we want satire, we have Yes Minister, The Thick of It, or Veep. If we want political dystopia we have House of Cards or The Wire.

The main funding sources for moving-image political narratives are the CBC, for docudrama and fiction, and the National Film Board, for documentary. Both have faced constrained and declining budgets. This factor has been exacerbated when Conservatives have been in power, as they have viewed the CBC and NFB as leftist hotbeds.

All this has meant that English-language moving image political narratives have had difficulty finding funding and audiences. As a consequence, we have looked for those produced from the 1960s to the present, in contrast to the US and UK chapters, which have focused only on the last decade. Most Canadian productions have been broadcast on television, rather than shown in the cinema. Given the paucity of moving-image texts (movies, television programs), we have also included some novels and a play.

Finally, I will mention that we decided to focus on English-language texts and excluded French-language texts. We are aware that there are some important French-language texts such as the long-running television series Monsieur le Ministre and the docudrama Duplessis. These have not been translated or subtitled nor is French-language commentary about them readily accessible to us. Given limits of time and funding, we do not feel competent to undertake a comprehensive study of French-language Canadian political narrative texts. Hopefully at some point a francophone colleague will.

In my next post I will discuss two important precursor political narrative texts from the sixties, Arthur Hailey’s novel In High Places and the CBC television series Quentin Durgens MP. Unfortunately, as I will show, these were precursors without successors.

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