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Canada's incredible golden glow: How long will it last?

A Canadian fan celebrates Canada's gold-medal hockey victory in Vancouver on Feb. 28.

Kevin Frayer/The Associated Press

So life goes on, steadily, and somewhat less exuberantly, bringing post-prorogued politicians and grim budgets, soggy pre-spring snow and little hope of scoring a pair of those cozy red Olympic mittens.

Suddenly, there's nothing on TV, certainly nothing to compare with the Hollywood ending produced by Sidney Crosby's overtime goal, or the image of skeleton gold medalist Jon Montgomery hoisting his pitcher of beer, or the schmaltz of Michael Bublé in a Mountie uniform. The mascots - Quatchi and the gang - now dangle sadly from their key chains on a discount rack at Zellers. It's as though Canadians, struck by a two-week epidemic of flag-waving, awoke to discover, regretfully, that they were normal again.

But are we really the same as before? Prime Minister Stephen Harper says no: "Mark my words," he declared on letdown Monday. "I believe that some day historians will look back at Canada's growing strength in the 21st century and they will say it all began right here, on the West Coast, with the best Winter Olympics the world has ever seen."

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Yes, it is his job to say so, and it's human nature to want all that money and energy, the collective tears (when Joannie Rochette skated flawlessly after her mom died) and groans (when the Americans scored with 25 seconds left in regulation), to mean something more than just an excuse for a party, even a really good one. So, was this a national game-changer?

Historians aren't so sure. "I am not here to dull the moment," says Andrew Cohen, president of the Historica-Dominion Institute, which promotes Canada's past. "As much as we in the present think that everything we do is better and bigger than any other time, it isn't always true. We have had these displays of patriotism before."

Canada can be very exasperating. ... We sort of grumble away. We don't like this, we don't like that. But it is actually a wonderful country, and occasionally it's nice to be reminded of it. Margaret MacMillan, historian

The hard part is how to capitalize on this energy in a nation that, he argues, often drifts too easily between insecurity and self-congratulation. "Celebrate the moment, but make it last, make it meaningful." Use the enthusiasm in sport to fight child obesity or to inspire young Canadians to vote. Nation-building, he points out, requires more than watching a race on television, however loudly one cheers.

"Beware," he warns. "Wearing a pair of mittens, waving the flag, buying a Tim Hortons coffee and singing the national anthem are not huge acts of patriotism. They're easy."

Others see things differently. If you're under 40, after all, Paul Henderson's winning goal in the 1972 Russia-Canada series is just a story your parents tell. And Expo 67, another moment of national cohesion, may be something your grandparents talk about. Perhaps younger Canadians, having braved 9/11 and the recession, will embrace Vancouver 2010 as their own feel-good "where were you when?"

"I can't think of a previous event where you really felt all Canadians were pulling for one thing," says Sana Halwani, a 31-year-old Toronto lawyer. "There aren't so many touchstones for us - we have so many different interests and views, and that's a good thing, but it's also nice to have a binding thread. We can at least agree on that one thing."

Ms. Halwani's "when Crosby scored" story: She was waiting to clear customs at Pearson International Airport when cries came from the other side of the checkpoint - the first goal. She caught the second period in the airport lounge and was in the air when the pilot announced that Sid the Kid had saved the day (and a nation from heartbreak).

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About 80 per cent of Canadians watched at least some of the game, which, as Mr. Cohen points out, is slightly less than the viewership in 1972. But the country is different now, with few people who grew up playing shinny on icy ponds, and a younger generation who, swamped in technology, no longer sits around the family TV after supper.

Part of that new country, Ms. Halwani was born in Lebanon and arrived here with her parents when she was 7 (her mom in Montreal, no sports fan typically, was glued to the set for the Games). She thinks the event touched every age, region and ethnic group, and asks: "How many moments like that are there?"

For her, this moment runs deeper, even as the fervour subsides. The Olympics, she suggests, was a confidence-building moment for the country - the way that success makes an individual stronger. "There's a feeling there. We've gone from being these polite underdogs to now, I think, we are proudly the nation to beat. And although that's in sport, we've gone from, 'Why us' to 'Why not us?' "

Peter MacLeod, also 31, agrees. "We were really excited to discover this sense of ourselves," says the co-founder of Mass LBP, a Toronto-based consulting firm, and a fellow at Queen's University's Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Sure, he says, figure skating and snowboard cross don't rank with casting a vote, or going off to war, or helping Haiti recover from its earthquake (per capita, he observes, Canada's contribution has outpaced that of the United States). "Of course, these are public occasions that require very little from us - and thank goodness - because it's nice just to have fun sometimes."

For him, something actor Michael J. Fox said during the closing ceremonies stood out: "If you are talented, we will claim you." It was a joke, but Mr. MacLeod says it evoked the elastic and unique way Canadians define citizenship. "I doubt you'll hear the British saying that in two years."

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The Olympic energy, he adds, "is convertible into a sense of belonging, a shared sense of pride. That's enough."

Kris Frederickson, 30, a senior program officer for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, saw people get teary-eyed in an Italian restaurant where he caught the opening ceremonies. He watched the hockey series at home in Winnipeg, while visiting Lake Louise and at a pizza joint in Medicine Hat, Alta., where he stopped to catch the final en route to Manitoba.

"It was exactly the same everywhere," he says. When the Americans tied the score, "I think there were probably 20 million people yelling 'No!' at the same time."

A slim majority of respondents to a poll conducted for Historica-Dominion declared Vancouver 2010 to be "a more defining national moment" than the 1972 hockey summit. But the question was posed midway through the Games, so it's safe to assume all that gold and Sidney Crosby's storybook goal would boost the result.

The hockey victory didn't have the geopolitical significance of winning the Cold War, but Mr. Frederickson says that shouldn't diminish its impact.

Canadians, he argues, often get the message that they can't compete, that they are a country with no heft. But the Games "demonstrated that we are capable of competing. It reinforced my belief that Canada can accomplish anything."

And maybe that's the point. Some national moments, historian and author Margaret MacMillan says, serve to confirm truths, rather than create new ones. "Canada can be very exasperating," she says. "We sort of grumble away. We don't like this, we don't like that. But it is actually a wonderful country, and occasionally it's nice to be reminded of it."

Now warden of St. Antony's College at Oxford, Dr. MacMillan caught the hockey heroics on the BBC, whose announcer, she suspects, didn't understand what was going on.

Time will tell if Vancouver 2010 translates into the watershed event the PM expects, but "historians are very sensible," Dr. MacMillan says. "We never predict the future."Or maybe just this once: "I suppose," she says, "there will be some corny movie made about it one of these days."

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More


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