Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and a group of Conservative parliamentarians, along with representatives of the Ukrainian-Canadian community, went to Kiev. To be helpful. That's great. Ukraine is in crisis and is, another things, struggling mightily to define itself.
Here in Canada we don't struggle to define the country, the culture, our values or our sense of ourselves as a nation. Heavens no. We let Molson and Tim Hortons do it for us.
The Sochi Winter Games are now a fading memory but some Olympic TV commercials are still going strong. The Tim Hortons "Jump The Boards with Sydney Crosby" ad has had more viewers online than many prime-time Canadian TV series. It's way-cute, in a hockey-equals patriotism kind of way. It promotes the idea that every kid in Canada is ready to take to the ice for Canada. It doesn't touch on the reality of the Sochi circumstance – that our NHL all-stars are better than their NHL all-stars.
And then there's the other ubiquitous Tims TV commercial, which seems to be called, "Welcome to Canada" – the one that mocks the idea that Canadians are nice and polite. The one that features such statements as, "Canada rules. We grind it out." Plus, "We don't care who agrees or disagrees." And "We don't let anyone push us around."
It's a defiant commercial, promoting toughness. The key component is the declaration, "You throw the first punch, we will drop the gloves. Oh yeah." We're warriors, you see. We grind it out. In it, a bunch of stern-looking older Canadians – they could be the veteran cops on any police procedural – look with truculence at the camera, defying anyone to mess with their choice of Tims coffee.
I put it to you that there's something pathetic about all of this. And lazy. We let a corporation that peddles coffee and doughnuts define the culture. It's phony-baloney but we lap it up, like simpletons.
It's rather obvious, of course, that the "Welcome to Canada" spot is selling Conservative values. The "We don't let anyone push us around" message is not, as you might hope, anti-bullying. It endorses fighting in hockey, and it presents the nation as swaggering – itching for a fight. Yep, that's us. And Tims customers will kick your pacifist posterior, you know.
The current Conservative government has often used Tim Hortons as a prop to define itself as representing authentic Canadian values. In 2009, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty even went to a Tims to announce his government's spending plans. In 2010 he did a whole series of TV interviews, peddling his budget, from a Tim Hortons.
No fools, the Tims people have played along. Sure, they promote the playing of tough hockey, but the other game they appear to play is footsie with the Conservatives, in TV commercial after TV commercial.
Before Tims, it was Molson's job to do this defining-the-nation task. Fourteen yeas ago, we first heard "The Rant" in the Molson Beer TV commercial. Joe, an "average Canadian," told us, in his speech, "I can proudly sew my country's flag on my backpack. I believe in peacekeeping, not policing, diversity, not assimilation, and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal."
Watching the flinty, pugnacious Canada-defining ads for Tims, some people might long for the days of defining ourselves by "peacekeeping, not policing," but both are just TV commercials. One sells beer, the other sells coffee and doughnuts. To a horrible degree we rely on these corporate marketing gimmicks to establish our confidence and identity. Lazily, we have allowed having our national identity commandeered by beer and fast food corporations.
You might say it doesn't matter, that the weird homogeneity of the Canada presented by Tim Hortons is clearly bogus and everybody knows that. But the unsettling truth is we find it difficult to find unifying symbols, apart from hockey, and when hockey is used to sell both doughnuts and what looks very much like a political agenda, we should be wary.
We are a tolerant people, pugnacious only by proxy in hockey, and proxy is just proxy – it's not authentically us.
Perhaps we should think of the Tims commercials as Putinesque.
They arrived during the Sochi games, an event that was used as theatre by Vladimir Putin to define Russia as macho, modern and uncompromising. Like himself.
Mind you, things went awry with the chaotic, bloody uprising in Ukraine, where many have essentially rejected being defined by the Putinesque politics of Russia now. Nice that John Baird and his team went to Kiev to help out, but worrying that Canada's own self worth and identity are blithely defined by Tim Hortons commercials.