If you wave around a loaded weapon, eventually you're going to shoot yourself in the foot.
Sun News, the attack-dog cable channel that launched last April, has built a nascent brand out of claiming Canada for itself. Almost a year before it hit the airwaves with an orchestral rendition of O Canada, it put out a promo spot featuring scenes of pond hockey, snowshoeing and Banff National Park with a voiceover that declared: "This is Canada. … We're the True North strong and free, and the greatest place on Earth." The ad concluded by promising viewers Sun News would be "a channel as strong and proud as the country we love."
It turns out that owning Canada is a lot more complicated than wrapping yourself in the flag and mouthing a few stock phrases that even the ad agency for Tim Hortons wouldn't go near.
On Thursday, Sun News 'fessed up that a citizenship affirmation ceremony it staged in its downtown Toronto studio last October was fraudulent. While viewers were told the 10 people who pronounced the oath were new Canadians, six were actually federal bureaucrats faking it for the cameras. Despite weeks of effort, producers had been unable to scare up 10 real Canadians for the ceremony.
While it had the option of attending an actual citizenship ceremony – four were taking place in Toronto alone – that would probably have made for boring television. Far better to have a quick hit and get on to the next item. So the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration had helped them out, with a nudge and a wink.
When the story broke, other journalists lit up their Twitter accounts with glee, while many of those at the Sun Media parent chain stayed uncharacteristically silent. On Thursday morning, one of the channel's newsmen who had anchored the faux ceremony accepted an apology from a spokeswoman for the ministry. "It would seem that both of us have a little egg on our face," Pat Bolland acknowledged.
The incident may just be a rookie error, the result of a new channel scrambling to do interesting programming on a shoestring budget. But it unintentionally points to a broader shift on the Canadian television and political landscape.
Canadians are notorious for quiet patriotism. We turn up our noses at the flag-waving impulses of our cousins to the south. But as the cultural flood from the rest of the world swamps our homes through the Internet, Canadian broadcasters have launched a patriotic arms race as a way of standing out against the foreign onslaught. And with Stephen Harper's government reaffirming ties to traditional icons such as the Royal Family, it doesn't hurt those broadcasters – who increasingly depend for their survival on strong government protection – to play the Canada card.
By the end of this weekend, viewers tuning in to CTV and TSN may already be tired of seeing Canadian flags, as the networks kick off a six-month orgy of promotion to get viewers excited about the Olympics. "Canadians are walking a little taller, a little prouder," the actress Ellen Page declares in a voiceover as we glimpse waving flags and red-and-white-clad rowers. The spot concludes by promising a very Lester B. Pearson sort of Games: "Be there as the nations of the world gather to raise their flags in victory, while celebrating in peace."
CBC, too, plays up its Canadian identity. It has a prime-time English TV schedule that is almost exclusively domestic, and deep connections in communities across the country. It provided live coverage of a real Ottawa citizenship ceremony right around the time Sun News was showing its made-for-TV production.
On Thursday afternoon, Sun News announced that the producer who had set up the fake ceremony had in fact left the channel last November. She now works for the CBC.